LIKE MANY NATIVE PEOPLE of her generation, Margaret Waterchief attended a church-run residential school, an institution the soft-spoken, silver-haired 72-year-old now recalls as “more or less a prison for kids.” Although her parents lived a couple of kilometres away, the Anglican school authorities allowed Waterchief to visit her family for just a few hours each Saturday. Discipline was harsh, the use of her Blackfoot language discouraged and Native spirituality shunned as the devil’s handiwork. “That was replaced,” she says, “by a so-called Christian religion which taught us that, if we didn’t behave, God would send us to this everlasting fire. We were scared into believing.”
Many Aboriginals faced with similar experiences or worse-witness the thousands of sexual and physical abuse lawsuits by former residential school students—turned away from Christianity. Not Waterchief who, at age 62, became an ordained Anglican priest. But her spiritual journey was not an easy one. Along the way, she struggled with poverty and personal demons such as alcoholism. Her first brush with what she came to see as God’s grace occurred during a tuberculosis epidemic that swept through Native communities in the early 1950s. Waterchief was coughing up blood and feared she might die. As she fell asleep one night, she had a vision of Christ standing at the foot of her bed, his hair golden and his face radiant. He assured her she would live, but added, “You will have to go through this place called Golgotha.”
At the time, Waterchief didn’t understand what those words meant. She soon found out. After 13 months of convalescence, Waterchief returned home determined to live a Christian life. But she had to cope with a rapidly growing family and an alcoholic husband, who died of the disease in 1976 at the age of 42. After his death, Waterchief began to drink heavily as well and, at times, dealt with her 10 children in ways she now deeply regrets. “I taught them God was angry and vengeful,” she says. “I even whipped them because that’s what had happened to us when we misbehaved.”
By the early 1980s, Waterchief was at the end of her rope. She appealed to God for help. “If your life is to change, you have to come to repentance,” she says quietly, but firmly. “For me, that meant seeing where your life is heading, which is towards destruction. So I turned to God and asked for forgiveness.”
Waterchief quit drinking and took up work as an alcohol counsellor and lay An-
cc Waterchief combines the spiritual teachings of her Native ancestors with her deep Christian faith glican pastor. She kept her family together and is now the proud grandmother of 29 and great-grandmother of five. In 1994, she became the first Aboriginal woman to be ordained by the Anglican Diocese of Calgary. Along the way, her religious views evolved. “My God is a God of love,” says Waterchief. “It’s not for me to judge or condemn anyone.” She also began to explore the spiritual teachings of her Blackfoot ancestors. “They practised what Jesus commanded, that we love and care for one another. I can take what is good from that and combine it with my Christian faith.” All of this was good preparation for Waterchief’s next undertaking-serving as a spiritual elder at the Calgary Urban Projects Society, an inner-city agency that deals with the needs of the poor, many of them Aboriginals. Until she left CUPS this past Christmas, Waterchief was known as an angel of mercy who was always there with a cup of coffee, a sandwich and, most important, an open ear.
These days, Waterchief tends to her expansive family while continuing to conduct funerals, weddings, baptisms and communion at the small Anglican church on the Siksika reserve, 100 km east of Calgary. This coming weekend, she will be there again, administering the sacraments and reflecting on the meaning of it all. For Waterchief, the great themes of Easterforgiveness of sins, redemption and the promise of a new life-are more than a creed. They are a biography. And she feels constantly blessed by the opportunity to live out her faith in service to others.
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