Shari Russell, PhD (cand.), “would have never thought in a million years” she’d become director of NAIITS: An Indigenous Learning Community in 2023.
It seemed so outside the realm of possibility to her.
But, she said, “God has shown evidence through NAIITS that he works in the realm of impossibilities, and what we think is impossible, he makes possible as we follow him faithfully.”
Shari, who is treaty status Saulteaux (Anishinaabe) from Yellow Quill First Nation in Saskatchewan, was removed from her home on the reserve as a young child during the Sixties Scoop, when an estimated 20,000 Indigenous children in Canada were taken from their families, communities and cultures and placed in foster care or adopted. She has been on a journey of reclaiming her culture and traditions since she reunited with her family and joined the NAIITS community as a board member in 2002.
“NAIITS, for me, isn't just an education. It's community. It's family. It's embraced my entire life and has been transformational, even in my calling as a minister,” she said.
Shari is an ordained officer in The Salvation Army, which seconded her to NAIITS as part of its denominational commitment to reconciliation. She previously served as chair of the Board of Indigenous Pathways, the parent organization of both NAIITS and iEmergence.
She is married to Robert, and they have three adult sons: Charles, Gavin and Brannon.
How did you get connected with NAIITS?
Shari: My first connection with NAIITS was through Cornelius Buller. He was working for the Salvation Army, and he heard about an Indigenous officer who had her master's degree. He emailed me and said, “Hey, there's a symposium, and it's at your alma mater. Would you be interested in coming?” Because we were living in Newfoundland, and Winnipeg was very much home, as we lived there for many years, I said, “Sure, I'll go home.” I had no clue what I was going to, I had never really heard about NAIITS, I hadn't really engaged with my culture much up to that point and didn't really engage in it because of all the fear that I had.
At that same time, I reconnected with my biological family. It was kind of a perfect storm. As I was reconnecting with my biological family, who are all very traditional and have no connection with the church, I was wanting to be respectful to them. NAIITS came at the perfect time as I was asking, "How can I be a follower of Jesus and walk with integrity with my community and family?"
I say I came to the community through Cornelius’s invitation, the only non-Indigenous person on the board — but it was the warmth of the women (like Edith Woodley, Bev LeBlanc and Katherine Twiss) that just struck me on an emotional level. I felt like I came home because there were people that looked like me, thought like me and had similar experiences. I'd never been in a room with that much kindred experience. I've been in the churches, which are predominantly white. I've been in the Native community, which is Native but not Christian. Being able to find a community that actually brought those two together was like, whoa, where have they been?
NAIITS’ mission is to provide an Indigenous designed, developed, delivered and governed theological education. Why is this so unique and important?
Shari: The history of our nation and the history of Indigenous peoples, not just here in North America, but globally, has been a suppression and eradication of who we are. Even if we try to assimilate, we're always different. You always are aware of not quite fitting in anywhere.
For me, there was also the thought — because I grew up in the church — the very core of who I was, was “evil,” for lack of a better word. I remember as a young person just wondering why would God even make me Indigenous? And so I struggled through that and felt very much on my own. I had some mentors who were really supportive, but they weren't Indigenous, and they could only bring me so far.
I have often heard people say, “You just need to know your identity in Christ, and you'll be healed,” which is surface at best. I think, because we are made to be in community, that's a very individualistic, isolated perspective. You can journey up to a point, but until you experience communal healing and celebration, there's still that marred identity issue, and I think we limit our salvation or our healing. Salvation and healing are actually the same Greek word. You can't talk about salvation without healing the whole person. Working towards health and well-being is actually salvation.
We live in a very individualized expression of faith in most of Western culture, and we miss the richness throughout the biblical narrative of communal healing. NAIITS, in its theological work, not only helps individuals, but also it helps the whole community of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people experience God’s salvation.
Can you talk about your journey toward living more fully and freely as an Indigenous follower of Jesus?
Shari: Well, it's been the last 22 years for me so it’s been quite a journey. For me, it's been not just my faith, but an integration of all of me.
The first part of the identity journey for me was the question, “Do I see myself in any regard as an Indigenous person?” Yes. It was moving from rejecting that to actually saying, “Yes, I do see myself as an Indigenous person, and it is good.” God created humanity good. And so resetting that framework was really important, and it takes a personal and community journey to get to that point.
The second part of that is, “Is it important to explore my Indigenous heritage or identity?” and, yes, it was. So what did that look like? It meant going back and figuring out and learning about my traditions and where I came from. For me it mean discovering my Indigenous heritage, and so I did that.
Next is the question about esteem: “Do I like or respect any part of my Indigenous identity?” The more that I got to know and see good role models, I was like, yes, I'm actually restoring that pride, which was pretty significant for me.
The next question is about maintenance: “Do I want to develop and enhance my connectedness to my Indigenous heritage, culture, family, community?” That was kind of the pivotal point. Do I want to engage with NAIITS in this trajectory? Do I want to engage in my family and learn my traditions and cultures? To me, they were linked together. I couldn't do one without the other. I got invited to the symposium, and then Cornelius said, “Do you want to be on the board?” Maintenance, for me, was building those connections; building those relationships; being in the places where I could learn, engage and participate.
And then the last question is, “Do I express my Indigenous identity in my daily behaviour?” This meant asking myself, how do I pray in the morning? Is it just the typical way that I always was taught in church or do I integrate smudging? Do I have artwork that's Indigenous? Do I have traditions that are Indigenous that also embrace my faith connection?
How has your reading of the Bible and even how you think of yourself as a scholar of the Bible changed as you have been finding yourself anew in your Indigenous identity?
Shari: I'm not sure it's as much changed it as it's been affirmed.
I would often say, “Oh, I prefer the Old Testament.” because I could connect to the narratives. I love the stories: the Gospel stories — well, any of the stories, really — they spoke in a different way to me. So did the imagery as seen in the book of Daniel. I saw things differently than others did. Things would strike me in a different way, but I never shared them until I came to NAIITS and realized my Indigenous worldview was influencing not only how I responded to Scripture, but also how I read it.
For example: The story of Elijah in the desert. I see connections to my Indigenous traditions — like him going on a vision quest. Before, I would have never said that, but now, when I read Scripture, there is a freedom to share those thoughts and expand other people's perspectives and worldviews. This has also expanded my understanding of Scripture as it is much more freeing than how I understood it before as dogmatic and restricting.