One of the great things about IASC conferences is the opportunity to explore local issues, and the recent global commons conference in Alberta has been no exception. Due to the close working relationships developed between the IASC Conference Organising Committee and the First Nations we were given the opportunity to visit the Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation at their reserve, around 72 Km north-west of Edmonton, Alberta, on the shore of the sacred Lake Wakamne (also known as Lake St Anne).
The nation signed Treaty 6 with the Crown in 1877, in which they agreed to ‘share’ their land and its resources with the new settlers. The Nation is regulated by the Government of Canada’s Indian Act and can now be found on four separate areas, two for living on and developing, and two primarily used for hunting and gathering. We visited the main reserve area consisting of slightly over 1,000 people living on 6 square miles of land (a similar number live off the reserve).
On arrival we were met by Lloyd Verreault (a teacher), Reggie Cardinal, and Lyndon Cardinal. They took us first to the monument erected in memory of chiefs and Tribal Councillors, where we discussed organisation and management of the reserve and the Nation. Lyndon talked about the difficulties of being a chief (which is currently an elected position), of the weight of responsibility, and trying to please different interests. He told us that it was his Grandfather’s grandfather who signed the Treaty, which he did in the best interests of the Nation. We were joined by Grandma Isabelle, a fluent speaker of the Stoney language. Tradition and cultural values continue to be important and the resurgence of the Stoney language among the young (which was started in 1993) has been successful in improving well-being, happiness and creating a sense of pride in belonging to the nation.
We walked down to the shore of Lake Wakamne where Grandma Isabelle told us some of the history of life on the reservation. For a large part of the 20th century (following the Indian Act of 1876 and subsequent amendments) the nation was prevented from using its own language, and children were forced to live in residential schools and learn English from the age of 5 to 16 yrs of age (from 1920 onwards). This effectively left the reservations childless under a policy of ‘taking the Indian out of the child’, which was viewed at the time as a means of assimilating the First Nations into Canadian society. She herself was taken away at the age of five, coming close to tears as she recalled the memories (the last residential school did not close until 1988). Children who wanted to be educated beyond the age of 16 had to give up their Treaty Rights. At one time First Nation people were forbidden to leave the reservation, hunt or grow crops creating a culture of dependency on government handouts and food rations, and did not finally become Canadian citizens until 1961.
We were then treated to a lunch of beef stew and ‘bannock’ in the school, had a skype presentation from the Chief, Tony Alexis (who was away on business but took the time to talk to us), and entertained by children demonstrating some of the traditional dances, to the sound of a group drumming. It is difficult to describe the power of the drumming, which drives the rhythm for the wailing of the drummers and the movements of the dancers – and even though this event took place in a school gym it was a powerful performance which you have to experience to appreciate – words and photos fail to capture the significance of the moment.
After multiple group photos had been taken we got back onto our yellow school bus and left, but with a better understanding and a more optimistic perspective on the lives of the Alexis Nakota Nation people. The children were eager to learn the Stoney language, and there was a thirst for maintaining the traditions and the culture, now seen as essential to underpin the future well-being of the Nation. While there is significant unemployment and social problems on the reservation, problems that should not be underestimated, and significant barriers to gaining better educational opportunities, the future looks more promising than the immediate past.
It only remains to say ‘Isniyes’ (pronounced ‘Ishneesh’ – I thank you) to our hosts for sharing their food, their culture, and a small part of their lives with us during that day.