“I feel like a refugee in my own country”

Tyler
Tyler Clarke
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The Spruce River Folk Festival is edging the Young Chippewayan people closer to getting the land taken from them in 1897.

When the elder who was supposed to hold a pipe ceremony for the Spruce River Folk Festival didn’t show up, George Kingfisher couldn’t fill in for him.

“I lost that when I was in the residential school,” he lamented when asked to take over the ceremony.  

“I lost my culture, but the one thing I never gave up was my language. They couldn’t knock that out of me.

“Every time I spoke my language I was punished. My hands got very, very thick on account of getting the strap all of the time.”

The Young Chippewayan people, to whom Kingfisher is hereditary chief, not only lost their culture, but also the land they were promised as members of Treaty Six Territory.

When Kingfisher’s great-great grandfather Chief Chippewayan was granted 30 square miles for his band of Nehiyawak (or Plains Cree) people in 1876, the assumption was that they’d always have it.

In 1897, their land -- Stoney Knoll Reserve No. 107 near the Village of Laird -- was taken away from them without their consent, and given to Mennonite homesteaders and German Lutheran settlers, who were unaware of the land’s history.

On Saturday, Kingfisher was asked to share his story as a guest of honour at the Spruce River Folk Festival -- an invitation he accepts every year.

Organized by Ray Funk, the fifth annual event raises awareness about landless First Nation bands, as well as money to help the Young Chippewayan people finally get some land.

The May, 1897, dissolution of the Stoney Knoll Reserve was a premeditated act of the federal government, Kingfisher said, relaying a story passed down from his grandfather.

Prior to the reserve’s dissolution, the meat that the Indian agents were bringing to Chief Young Chippewayan (son of Chief Chippewayan, who died in 1877) and his people was rotten to the point of turning green.

As such, the people were forced to hunt, despite a dwindling stock of wildlife.  

“Back in them, days, the First Nations had to ask permission to leave the reserve,” Kingfisher described. “Just like in school when you have to ask permission to use the bathroom at school.”

When the treaties were signed, the First Nations people shared this country with (settlers). What does the government do after the treaties are signed? They put them in little boxes. We’re called box people. Our own country, and then we’re just given a little chunk of land. George Kingfisher

Ultimately, Kingfisher said the people were starved out of their homeland.

While various First Nations people around the province still have a reserve to call home, the Young Chippewayan people have been without their treaty right.

“I’ve been paying taxes all my life, living off reserve, and I’m not supposed to,” he said.

“When the treaties were signed, the First Nations people shared this country with (settlers). What does the government do after the treaties are signed? They put them in little boxes. We’re called box people. Our own country, and then we’re just given a little chunk of land.”

The Young Chippewayan people don’t even have this “little chunk of land” to call their own, he said.

“We’d like to have a place to call home, too,” Kingfisher concluded. “I feel like a refugee in my own country.”

On Saturday, it was announced that the Spruce River Folk Festival has managed to raise the $25,000 required to complete genealogy work for the Young Chippewayan people.

Funk said that he hopes to fulfill his father’s dream of finding land for the Young Chippewayan people. The Funk family unknowingly joined others in homesteading on the Young Chippewayan’s rightful land.

By next year’s Sixth Annual Spruce River Folk Festival, it’s hoped that some kind of a land trust fund, or another such means of raising funds to purchase land, will be in place.

At this point in time, the solution will come as a result of peaceful partnerships, Kingfisher said.

“My dad was the one who said to try and not take the land back away from them,” he relayed. “Colonialization was painful, but de-colonialization would be even more painful, because we need to work together.”

Organizations: First Nations, Stoney Knoll Reserve

Geographic location: Spruce River, Village of Laird

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