The banausic cry of the red-winged blackbird serenaded us as we stood on the shores of Lake Wakamne, 72 kilometres north-west of Edmonton, and learnt how the Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation had settled here. It was the day of the field trips organised as part of the International Association for the Study of the Commons (IASC) conference and I had opted to visit the First Nation reserve.
We drove out of Edmonton and across some fairly flat countryside for about an hour.
When we reached the reserve we stopped at the school and gathered outside. Here we were introduced to Lloyd Verreault, who teaches there, Reggie Cardinal whose grandfather’s grandfather was the first chief, Reggie’s son Lydon and Grandma Isabelle, a respected elder.
Lloyd explained that the native tongue is Stoney and we learnt to say hello (abawashted) and thank you (isniyes).
We visited the monument and were told of the prayers which are performed there: to the east for the sun, the south for thunder and water, the west the wind and oxygen and the north the animals. We need all these elements to survive.
The nation signed Treaty 6 with the Crown in 1877 but, as I explained previously, whereas the nation believed it had agreed to share its resources, the settlers stole the land from the people. The nation is now confined to four separate areas. We were on the largest, the Lac St Anne reserve; the others are Whitecourt, Elk River and Cardinal River, the last two being primarily for hunting and gathering. Now half the First Nation population lives on the Lac St Anne reserve.
Lyndon Cardinal explained how, when they put the nation in reservations, there was a pass system which did not allow ingress or egress. The settlers wanted to keep the First Nations people in one place. They prevented the people from using their own language and incarcerated the children in residential schools. Things have changed considerably since then, but even so they only became Canadian citizens in 1961 and able to vote in provincial elections in 1964. The children are learning Stoney again.
The school is for children from kindergarten to age 12 and is federally funded with teachers coming from outside the reserve.
There are social problems: 84 per cent are unemployed and 75 per cent of the workers are women. The school and the casino are the principal employers.
They took delight in telling us that, because the land is federal, provincial laws such as restrictions on smoking do not apply.
Grandma Isabelle, who speaks Stoney and remembers the time when the nation was dependent on the land, told us of the importance of the lake, ‘the Lake of Miracles’. Now you can’t drink from the creeks, the land is polluted from pesticides.
We stood in the powwow, which means a place where people come together (rather than a means of solving a knotty problem, as it is now used). Here people gathered in the spring, the flowering time on the medicine wheel.
Isabelle recalled the joy of springtime, the teepees by the lake, the smell of tea, the children playing. This year the powwow is on 10 July, when dances will be led by the chief. It is open to everyone; no drugs or alcohol are allowed.
We moved to the community hall where posters and photographs were displayed, including the creed by which they live
and some of the social history.
Then it was back to the school for a delicious lunch of beef stew and bannock (was this shades of Scottish ancestry?). It was good to see the recent Alberta election results prominently displayed on the notice-board.
In the gym we were treated to dancing by some of the children: the jingle dress, chicken dance, grass dance and fancy shawl dance. All this was accompanied by powerful drumming and cries from the drummers. It was easy to forget we were in a school gym as we experienced this evocative celebration of First Nation tradition.
The chief, Tony Alexis, joined us from Vancouver on skype. He said:
In the spirit of honouring our elders and people, it is important to know and share our history. We must educate ourselves in the struggle for the environment. We have a responsibility to look after what we call home.
At the end of the dances we all joined in the farewell dance, moving slowly in a clockwise circle, then shaking the hands of each participant and saying isniyes. As we left we were presented with generous gifts of beads and leatherware.
And so we climbed onto our school bus and returned to Edmonton, having had a fascinating glimpse of the life of the First Nations people and a warm welcome.
Read John Powell’s account of the visit here.