Dissonant Worlds: Roger Vandersteene Among the Cree


360 pages
Contains Photos, Maps, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-88920-259-1
DDC 266'.271231




Illustrations by Roger Vandersteene
Reviewed by Michael Payne

Michael Payne is head of the research and publications program, Historic
Sites and Archives Service, Alberta Community Development, and the
co-author of A Narrative History of Fort Dunvegan.


Born in 1918 in Belgium, Roger Vandersteene joined the Oblates of Mary
Immaculate in 1937 and trained as a missionary. In 1946, he was sent to
northern Alberta to work as a priest among the Cree. His first
independent assignment in 1950 was at Little Red River. Later, he ran
missions at Wabasca-Desmarais, Trout Lake, Jean d’Or, Garden River,
and Fox Lake. He died in 1976 after 30 years in the North. Behind this
deceptively simple chronology lies a complex, and sometimes
controversial, figure.

Vandersteene had a rare gift for the Cree language and a deep interest
in and respect for the culture of the people he lived among. He was also
an author, poet, painter, and lecturer, who left behind a large and
varied body of material revealing his intellectual and spiritual
journey. This book offers an academic analysis of his evolution from a
man who exhibited fairly conventional Catholic piety, and belief in the
value of Oblate missions, to one who engaged in a quest for a church
that genuinely united Cree and Catholic spiritual traditions.

Vandersteene envisioned something far beyond the facile syncretism of
equating God with the Creator and turning loaves and fishes into bannock
and fishes. Waugh calls Vandersteene’s vision an “interstitial”
religion—a faith “constructed on continuing Catholic principles but
incorporating new interpretive dimensions from Cree.” For example, in
his church at Trout Lake, Vandersteene wanted a crucifix with a bear in
place of the usual depiction of Christ. Waugh suggests this is an
example of Vandersteene going beyond “adapting Christian images for
the Cree” to choosing Cree images as a way “to explore the meaning
of Christianity.”

Such ideas brought Vandersteene a certain fame and notoriety. One of
the best features of the book is an appendix that gives readers a sense
of how Vandersteene was viewed by his family, church colleagues, and
representatives of the communities he served. Certainly not everyone
agreed with his views. In the Cree community, some considered his ideas
hopelessly outdated. But that same community also respected him as an
Elder and healer, and as a friend.


Waugh, Earle H., “Dissonant Worlds: Roger Vandersteene Among the Cree,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 17, 2024, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/4560.