Catholic priest gives blessing at Behchoko's Dene handgames tournament

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Catholic priest gives blessing at Behchoko's Dene handgames tournament

A group of priests attended and blessed a hand games tournament in Behchoko, N.W.T., over the weekend. The games included Dene drumming, a sacred act that was once resisted by the Catholic Church.

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Father Ken Forster, with Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate in Ottawa, gave the blessing. He was in the territory for a North American leadership meeting of oblate missionaries. The group visited Behchoko to experience a slice of life in the North.

"In every place we go, we always take one day to try to get an experience of the work of the oblates or the mission," Forster said.

"I, myself, never knew I was going to... be asked to do a blessing, but I was very pleased to do so."

Forster blessed the cultural centre with holy water, and said a prayer of thanks and unity.

Forster spoke to the crowd, "Let's thank God, in our own hearts, for all our traditions, not just this tradition [hand games], but all of the gifts you have received from your ancestors."

Forster thought giving the blessing was nothing "particularly special."

"I see myself as doing the same thing a Dene elder would do in my place," he said. "I hope I didn't push anybody out that might have been expected to give the blessing."

Mark Hagemoen, bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Mackenzie–Fort Smith, said the blessing wasn't a first for a hand games tournament, but is a recent development.

"There has been a history since early missionary contact of some hesitation around some of the Aboriginal, in this case Dene cultural traditions, to acceptance of it," Hagemoen said.

"When the missionaries came over, mainly from Europe, there was a sense that things were sacred and some things may not be sacred. And where they weren't sure there was some discomfort with them.

"Over decades, as the missionaries became more and more familiar with Dene culture… there was over time an increasing comfort and acceptance of drumming as part of what is sacred — to the point now when you see drumming as part of church events involving Dene celebrations."

Hagemoen said many priests in Canada are familiar with spiritual drumming, as drumming is common within First Nations across the country.

Hagemoen also said drumming is not the only Dene tradition now included in church activities.

He said feeding the fire ceremonies are included in funeral services, and in some communities, Mass is read in the Tlicho language.