hide You are viewing an archived web page collected at the request of University of Alberta using Archive-It. This page was captured on 16:35:12 Dec 08, 2010, and is part of the HCF Alberta Online Encyclopedia collection. The information on this web page may be out of date. See All versions of this archived page. Loading media information
Heritage Community Foundation Presents
Alberta Online Encyclopedia

Perspectives: Elders' Voices

“We were taught to care for our old people, we were taught to respect them, we were taught to listen to their stories because their stories spoke of life.”
— Saulteaux Elder Dolly Neapetung of YellowQuill First Nation (Treaty 4)1

“When [the Treaty 6 First Nations] finally agreed to the treaty, the Commissioner took the promises in his hand and raised them to the skies, placing the treaties in the hands of the Great Spirit.”
— Cree Elder Norman Sunchild of Thunderchild First Nation (Treaty 6)2

“It was the will of the Creator that the White man would come here to live with us, among us, to share our lives together with him, and also both of us collectively to benefit from the bounty of Mother Earth for all time to come.”
— Cree Elder Jacob Bill of Pelican Lake First Nation (Treaty 6)3

Elders 1 According to the oral traditions of Aboriginal Elders — traditions that Elders are passing on today — the arrival of newcomers from a far and distant place, by way of the great waters, had been long foretold. It had been decided that the newcomers would be treated with respect and that they would be accommodated on the land so that they too, could live in harmony and peace. The First Nations of the prairies understood that the arrival of Europeans on their traditional lands signified the fulfillment of the Creator’s will, just as their oral traditions had predicted. Thus, when treaty negotiations began in the 1870s, most First Nations supported the treaty process with the hopes that it would help attain and solidify lasting peace and friendship between the two groups. For many, these expectations guided them during the signing of Treaty 6 in 1876.

The peace that the treaty signified was bound up in the sacred pipe ceremony that took place at the signing. Treaty Commissioner Alexander Morris recalled in his writings that at numerous times he, and the rest of the commission, had been asked to stroke the sacred pipe. This action meant that he was entering into a promise of peace, goodwill, friendship, and respect with the First Nations. Elder George Cannepotato, of Onion Lake First Nation, explains that “the Treaty Commissioner had come over to shake their hands, and the Commissioner offered to be related to them, and he wanted the rest of the White people to have a relationship with them… in our way, we made those commitments through and in the name of and in the force of the pipe stem. And it was the pipe stem that the chiefs had Alexander Morris hold, who came as the representative. That is our solemn way of doing promises.” 4 The pipe ceremony was sacred because the Creator was part of the union as well, as affirmed by Elder Danny Masqua (of Treaty 4), who says that the treaty made with the Crown “is not just a relationship between people, it’s a relationship between three parties, you [the Crown] and me [First Nations] and the Creator.” 5 It was a union that indicated the sharing of land, resources, and knowledge for the survival of all.

Elder Betsy and Granddaughter Because they believed that all people came from the same Creator, the First Nations referred to the Europeans as their brothers or cousins, and according to what they were told, the Queen regarded them as her own children. When the treaty was signed, the First Nations saw no reason not to believe the confident words and assurances offered to them by the commissioners, especially after the pipe ceremony had taken place. They believed in the concept of Tâpwêwin, a Cree word meaning “speaking the truth” or “speaking with precision and accuracy.” 6 It was vital that tâpwêwin be upheld when promises were solidified through sacred ceremonies, as the treaty promises had been.

Unfortunately, despite the many spoken promises made by the commission during the treaty negotiations and signings, in the eyes of the government, only the written text of the treaty would carry any weight. There was a big discrepancy between the written text of the treaty, and the words that were spoken during the signing. The text had few of the assurances that were promised verbally, highlighting instead the First Nations’ agreement to surrender their traditional lands to the Crown. This discrepancy has been one of the treaty’s most debated and contentious legacies. A shared and mutually recognized understanding of how to approach the treaty has yet to be agreed. Elders agree that the treaty signings were solemn, spiritual occasions, solidified by the sacred pipe ceremony, and that the agreements can never be reversed or changed. They also know that there is a strong spiritual significance behind the treaty that can never be removed, and that the treaty must be viewed in the context in which it was signed. This must occur in order for both sides to fully appreciate, respect, and honour the promises made to one another during the signing.

Elders 2 The First Nations chiefs and leaders who agreed to sign Treaty 6 over a century ago are no longer with us today. However, their words and intentions have been carefully preserved, and they continue to be passed down to younger generations by their Elders. Elders offer insight that goes above and beyond the written text of the treaty document. They are the living documents, possessing knowledge that is essential to finding a harmonious outcome for the treaties and their legacies; a peace and harmony first imagined when the sacred pipe was lit and the treaty document signed.

1 Harold Cardinal and Walter Hildebrandt: Treaty Elders of Saskatchewan. (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2000), 6.
2 Ibid.
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid., 42.
5 Ibid., 32.
6 Ibid., 48.

Cardinal, Harold and Walter Hildebrandt. Treaty Elders of Saskatchewan. Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2000.

Albertasource.ca | Contact Us | Partnerships
            For more on the making of treaty 6, visit Peel’s Prairie Provinces.
Copyright © Heritage Community Foundation All Rights Reserved