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The Pipe Ceremony and the Importance of Cultural Context

“We are of the same blood, the same God made us and the same Queen rules over us.”
- Alexander Morris, Treaty Commissioner

The pipe ceremony performed prior to the Treaty 6 signings was more than a necessary prelude; it bore great significance to the First Nations who practiced it. In performing the pipe ceremony, the First Nations presented the work they were about to undertake at the feet of the Creator or Great Spirit. The commissioners also received the pipe with them. It is unclear to what extent the commissioners understood the meaning of the ceremony. In his report, Alexander Morris wrote only that the First Nations were "satisfied that in accordance with their custom we had accepted the friendship of the Cree Nation.”

Situating the treaty-making within his own cultural and spiritual framework, Commissioner Morris invoked the names of Queen Victoria and of God. "I am a Queen's Councillor," he told those assembled, "I am her Governor of all these territories, and I am here to speak from her to you." His statement placed the negotiations within a context which appealed to the deity and emphasized the honour of those acting in the name of the monarch:

“My Indian brothers, Indians of the plains, I have shaken hands with a few of you, I shake hands with all of you in my heart. God has given us a good day, I trust his eye is upon us, and that what we do will be for the benefit of his children. What I say and what you say, and what we do, is done openly before the whole people. You are, like me and my friends who are with me, children of the Queen.”

The First Nations did not think of themselves so much as becoming Canadians through the process of treaty-making, but as creating a special alliance with the Queen, all the while retaining their own nationhood. Historian John Foster suggests that the First Nations actually regarded the monarch “as a special protector against officialdom.” He relates the First Nations’ traditional understanding of trading relationships to their understanding of treaty-making, and points out the significance of ceremony in that connection:

“…ceremony was the vehicle through which participating bands recognized each other as classificatory ‘we’ rather than ‘they.’… This in turn demanded appropriate behaviour on the part of the trader. He had to demonstrate in his words and deeds that he accepted the responsibilities and obligations inherent in the alliance.... A demand that placed a strain on the alliance was a political faux pas of the most serious consequences.”

After the treaty had been signed, the chiefs were given uniforms to show that they, like Morris, were also the Queen’s men. Silver medals and flags were also presented as a sign of status.

Both the First Nations leaders and the treaty commissioners, positioned the Treaty 6 proceedings within a specific religious, symbolic, and cultural context. Their dignity and pride, as well as the mutual respect present at the ceremonies, meant that the signing was of profound importance to both parties. The contextual framework of Treaty 6 is of paramount importance in the examination of its historic signing.

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