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Dissonant Worlds

Roger Vandersteene among the Cree

By Earle H. Waugh
Subjects Religion, Indigenous Studies, History, Canadian History
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Paperback : 9780889202788, 376 pages, November 1996
Ebook (EPUB) : 9781554588176, 376 pages, October 2010

Table of contents

Table of Contents for
Dissonant Worlds: Roger Vandersteene Among the Cree by Earle H. Waugh

Preface and Acknowledgments

Roger (Rogier) Vandersteene, 1918–1976




One. Flemish Matrix: Blood, Art, and Piety

Two: “Steentje’s” Beginnings: Between Family and Flanders

Three: Grouard before Vandersteene: Cree, Catholic, Canadian

Four: “My Little Sisters, My Little Brothers”: From Encounter to Wasabasca

Five: Intransigent Reality: Manitou’s Land, Manitou’s Children

Six: The Great Mystery: Visible and Touchable Art

Seven: Sojourn Charts: Poetry in Serenity and Flux

Eight: Wrestling the Spirits: Powagan, Beethoven, Cancer

Nine: Beyond the Dissonance: Legacy of a Quest

Ten: Theoretical Epilogue: Vandersteene and the Understanding of Religion

Appendix 1: Chronology of Roger (Rogier) Vandersteene’s Life

Appendix 2: Evaluations of Vandersteene Collected during Research

Appendix 3: Ode to Vandersteene by Willem Vermandere

Appendix 4: Names of Informants




How did a Belgian Oblate missionary who came to Canada to convert the aboriginals come to be buried as a Cree chief? In Dissonant Worlds Earle Waugh traces the remarkable career of Roger Vandersteene: his life as an Oblate missionary among the Cree, his intensive study of the Cree language and folkways, his status as a Cree medicine man, and the evolution of his views on the relationship between aboriginal traditions and the Roman Catholicism of the missionaries who worked among them. Above all, Dissonant Worlds traces Vandersteene’s quest to build a new religious reality: a strong, spiritually powerful Cree church, a magnificent Cree formulation of Christian life.

In the wilderness of northern Canada Vandersteene found an aboriginal spirituality that inspired his own poetic and artistic nature and encouraged him to pursue a religious vision that united Cree tradition and Catholicism, one that constituted a dramatic revision of contemporary Catholic ritual. Through his paintings, poetry and liturgical modifications, Vandersteene attempted to recreate Cree reality and provide images grounded in Cree spirituality.

Dissonant Worlds, in telling the story of Vandersteene’s struggle to integrate European Catholicism and aboriginal spirituality, raises the larger issue: Is there a place for missionary work in the modern church? It will be of interest to students of Native studies, the religious history of the Oblates, Canadian studies and Catholicism in the mid-twentieth century.


``This is a first rate scholarly study and the reader will be rewarded with an appreciation of a powerful spiritual encounter between an Oblate missionary and the people he was sent to evangelize. This encounter is also a unique facet of the Canadian religious experience. ''

- Raymond Huel, The Canadian Catholic Review

``Waugh's study of the mission of Roger Vandersteene is a ground breaking examination of the contribution of a `failed visionary' whose seminal ideas are yet to be realized. ''

- Wayne Holst, Western Canadian Publishers Bulletin

``More than a biography of a remarkable Canadian and a history and analysis of an important aspect of Canadian Native-Church relations, Dissonant Worlds is a labour of love. ...Whether or not we are sympathetic with Vandersteene's mission, we cannot but be moved by Waugh's sensitive portrayal of one individual's encounter and its outcome. ''

- Jordan Paper, Studies in Religion

``This study is a biography of one of the most innovative Catholic missionaries who ever worked among the aboriginal peoples of Canada. It is a challenging case study of just how difficult it is to achieve the goal of inculturating the gospel. ...This work will be of special interest to church personnel working with or responsible for ministry to aboriginal peoples. It will also appeal, I think, to many Canadian readers -- religious and secular -- because of its insight into Canadian identity. Europeans, who continue to have a romantic fascination with all things aboriginal, will no doubt relish this epic story of a native son. ''

- Michael Stogre, Missiology

``Dissonant Worlds is the fruit of many years of historical and anthropological work, marking the advent of a new maturity in the scholarship on the cultural life of Western Canada. It combines what is best in historical research and field research work, drawing on the memory of Cree and Métis and of the priests and sisters who worked with Vandersteene. ... This is a superb and fascinating book that speaks to the next century of our culture's life. ''

- The Edmonton Journal

``Dissonant Worlds is more than simply a biography of Vandersteene and his work. Waugh takes the reader through an in-depth analysis of `Steentje's' roots and influences, his appreciation of Cree spirituality, and his cultural conversion to a Cree world view. ...Dissonant Worlds is solid biographical writing, strongly felt and carefully reasoned. ... [T]he analytical and thematic tone of Dissonant Worlds provides a fully realized and integrated portrait of a complex individual who played a significant role at a time of momentous change in Aboriginal life in Canada. ''

- Robert Coutts, The Canadian Historical Review

``Most of Waugh's book is in narrative form and includes well-researched chapters on Vandersteene's Flemish background and family, his departure from his homeland, and his life among the Cree. ...Dissonant Worlds is a thorough and readable study of one man's noble attempt to relate two cultures for the sake of Christian mission. ''

- Paul F. Blankenship, Nova Religio

``Dissonant Worlds is not a hagiography. ...Vandersteene's dream did not come true, but he did leave behind him `one of the most important legacies of interreligious encounter in Canada in this century. '''

- Filip Matthus (translated by Tanis Guest)

``Vandersteene's ideas about the relationship of aboriginal traditions to Catholicism, well documented here, are seen as one of the most important legacies of interreligious encounter in Canada in this century. ''

- National Catholic Reporter

``This biography is as respectful and sensitive to Vandersteene's religious vision as he was to that of his Cree companions. ... As much a work of spirituality and theology as of history and biography, this text is highly recommended for students in religious studies, Catholicism, native and Canadian history, philosophy and cultural studies. ''

- Choice

``An important source for scholarly reassessments of Christianity's role among Native peoples, this book will appeal to missiology and North American church history students. ''

- Jamie S. Scott, Religious Studies Review

``Waugh carries the reader along with him in his fascination with the complexities of the sorcerer cum priest/prophet that was Vandersteene. His biography is particularly effective when dealing with Steentje's Flemish background and exploring the ways in which it prepared him for his northern mission. Waugh's own knowledge of Cree -- he is compiling a Cree dictionary -- adds an essential dimension. If, like Vandersteene, he has not found all the answers, he still presents a thoughtful and very interesting analysis of some fundamental problems that have plagued the missions. ''

- The Catholic Register