Rosella Kinsohameg with Fr. Doug McCarthy at her grandson Tanner’s First Communion. Photo courtesy of Rosella Kinoshameg

The feather and the crucifix

  • October 18, 2020

Rosella Kinoshameg’s Catholic faith and her Indigenous traditions go hand-in-hand as a spiritual leader to the First Nations communities on Manitoulin Island.

It wasn’t always that way. As a youngster, Kinoshameg says her people were taught by the Catholic Church that their Indigenous traditions were wrong, so it was practised in secrecy. Today being able to practise the two openly, as harmonious teachings, has been an important part of the healthy development of the Indigenous Catholic community on Manitoulin Island.

In 2000 Kinoshemeg was commissioned by then-Sault Ste. Marie Bishop Jean-Louis Plouffe as a member of the Diocesan Order of Service. For 20 years she has been recognized as a leader in her Indigenous Catholic community, presiding over communion services, leading prayers at funerals and wakes, and ministering to the sick.

While it may still be unusual to some in the Church to see an Indigenous woman preside over a wake and other church services, Kinoshameg says gender has never been a thought to her. She was raised in a family of people who prayed and helped the community, so for her it has always been second nature.

“I told the priest that I would like to do (wake services) and I suppose he opened the door for me and encouraged me to go ahead and do that,” she said. “I’ve never felt out of place.”

With priests and deacons stretched thin given COVID-19, Kinoshameg has been there to assist in leading services of all kinds wherever needed. She wears a shawl over her shoulders tied in the front with a small ring with a cross. Commissioned along with a handful of other women from the community, Kinoshameg says it was important to them early on to agree upon a uniform that distinguished them from priests and deacons so as not to stir reaction from the Catholic community.

Kinoshameg regularly opens services with the traditional First Nation smudging — or purification — ceremony. She also leads courses on Indigenous medicines, culture, way of life and how to incorporate sacred items such as the eagle feather into church services.

“The eagle is the bird who flies the highest and sees the farthest,” said Kinoshameg, who uses the feather in the smudging ceremony. “So when we pray, we ask that eagle, by the symbol of the feather, to take our prayers up to the Creator and then ask the Creator for cleansing.”

As a community health nurse for 52 years, Kinoshameg — who at a vibrant 75 years of age only retired from that work this past February — has built relationships with many families throughout the region. Her deep understanding of her Catholic faith and Odawa culture growing up in the Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory have been key to her effectiveness as a nurse and in the Diocesan Order of Service, she said.

“My father raised us with the seven sacred teachings, or some people call them the seven grandfather teachings,” said Kinoshameg. “That’s the way we lived all the time, so it is not foreign for me to bring my culture into whatever I’m doing.”

Kinoshameg is an elder in her community and attends the Anishinabe Spiritual Centre, which has a vision to “provide the opportunities to find the Creator within self, others and in all creation as guided and inspired by our ancestors, elders and Jesuit tradition.” There she leads services in her native Odawa language and reads prayers and sings hymns from a book of Psalms and prayers translated into Ojibwe. She was selected by the elders in the community to be the president of the parish council, a role she has faithfully served for decades.

Fr. Bert Foliot, a Jesuit priest who spent years working with Kinoshameg and living with the Indigenous community on Manitoulin Island, describes her as a champion for reconciliation between the Church and the Indigenous peoples of Canada.

“She brings out the riches of both traditions,” said Foliot. “In the Catholic faith, we’ve come to know a lot about God, creation, ourselves and how to live in this world. The Indigenous people have a similar wisdom and (Kinoshameg) can put the two together. She can hold the feather in one hand and the crucifix and the rosary in the other and she does it very well.”

Kinoshameg has been a member of the Canadian Catholic Aboriginal Council, under the leadership of Canada’s Catholic bishops, since 2000. In 2015 she received the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice “for Church and Pope” medal, also known as “Cross of Honour Medal,” an award conferred by the Pope to the laity for distinguished service to the Church.

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