(Editor’s Note: Representatives of the Kaministikominahiko-skak Swampy Cree nation recently approached the Daily Herald about doing a weekly column that will last for a couple of months. By revisiting and explaining their history, it will outline who they are as a people. The column won’t be about politics as they search for recognition by the Canadian government; instead it will focus on their history. This is the second column.)
By Nancy and Armand Dorion
In our first article on the Kaministikominahiko-skak Cree Nation people of the Delta and Ratty country in north eastern Saskatchewan, we shared some our oral history about who we are and how we lived in balance on our traditional territories for thousands of years before contact with the Europeans.
In this article we continue to share our story and take you to a place in time just over 400 years ago. For some who read our writings you may wonder how history and stories of times so long ago could be relevant today. This part of our history, over 400 years ago, is important to tell because it was a time where we, the Kaministikominahiko-skak Cree people, first had relatively peaceful relationships with Europeans.
From the mid 1600s to mid 1700s the Kaministikominahiko-skak Cree peoples and the first Europeans lived in balance together. This was a time of relationship building. What is called cultural awareness and sensitivity today started long ago.
Our ancestors, like many First Nations across Turtle Island (North America), were foretold of the coming of the nations from across the great waters to the east. Our cultural teachings told us that we were to receive these newcomers in the spirit of humanity. We were to live side by side in mutual respect, equality and unity. We were the guardians of these lands and we were to share with others who came here.
They knew that some of the newcomers fleeing persecution in their homelands were coming to Turtle Island to start a new life of freedom. It was a time of peace and harmony in our territories ... even thought there were many changes happening to the lands and the original Indigenous peoples in the east. In our part of the lands of northern Turtle Island life remained relatively unchanged.
As the first Europeans slowly made their way westward following the waterways of the great Saskatchewan River highway they came upon our many family camps in the Ratty country and the great Delta, the largest fresh water-filtering system in North America. Many of the first Europeans who came to our traditional territories were single men from different European nations. They were travelling west to escape the suffering and starvation that had set upon the peoples to the east.
First contact was relatively peaceful because many of these men understood the ideas of living within family clan systems. The Scottish and Irish peoples in particular had a similar clan system in their home countries. When they first arrived our ancestors helped them to survive in the harsh climate and to live off the lands. They began to share with one another their similarities in cultural beliefs and learned to communicate with one another in their languages.
The men from the nations across the great waters to the east joined in union with the Kaministikominahiko-skak women and became part of the Kaministikominahiko-skak family clans. They learned the ways of the Kaministikominahiko-skak peoples and lived this way for a few generations until the missionaries and the government trading posts began to “settle” our traditional territories.
Learning from one another meant sharing knowledge. The European men brought a different way to hunt with snares. These were the precursors to metal traps and guns that gradually replaced the traditional ways of hunting. Our ancestors welcomed these first Europeans into their family clans. They shared with them the celebrations and ceremonies of the seasons and giving thanks for all that had been provided by the Creator.
This was a time for our people when relationships with the European newcomers were good. The sharing of cultural ways and understandings was a peaceful process. Relationship building was done in the spirit of trust and mutual respect for one another. But this was about to change. The church missionaries were pushing their way into our territories and they did not like what they were seeing.
When the first church missionaries came to our territories in the mid 1700s they could not accept the fact that European “white” men had joined the family clans of our peoples. In our traditional ways, when a man and woman are joined in union, the man assumes the woman’s family clan name. To the missionaries of the day the fact that European men had married Cree women and had children and grandchildren with them was an outrage. Add to that white men speaking Cree, going by a Cree name and dressing in Cree clothing ... incomprehensible! For certain their souls would be headed for eternal damnation if something wasn’t done immediately to save them from their own demise!
Around the same time in history, when the missionaries came, the “explorers” came and not far after the government run Cumberland House Hudson Bay Company. They too found it unacceptable -- the union of “white men” and Cree women. But by this time our people had a well-established trading system and, the Hudson Bay Company officials saw that trade was lucrative for export back to the “mother lands” of England. They were more interested in using the European men’s union with the Cree people to trade as many furs and hides as possible for profit.
The Hudson Bay Company and the church missionary societies began keeping records on our people. It was much easier and more palatable for them to record and track our people who traded with them in their languages -- mainly French and English. They also came from a patriarchal system and all families carried the names of men not women. Add to that, they could not read or write in the Cree language. Hudson Bay Company records do have some semblance of traditional Cree names however; these have been spelled most often as the officials thought they heard the names which is quite a distortion on the true traditional family names of our people.
So today many of our family clan names are reflective of a time where the church and the government decided to give us European names. Although our traditional family names following the matriarch clan system of our ancestors were replaced, our people were not. We may carry European names but we are the Kaministikominahiko-skak Cree people of the Delta and Ratty territories.
And so it began ... a time of respectful and mutually beneficial relations between the Kaministikominahiko-skak Cree people and the first Europeans. It was good time in our history that was harshly and with much cruelty dismantled by the coming of the missionaries and government’s agenda for “settling the west.”
Nancy and Armand Dorion are members of the Kaministikominahiko-skak Cree Nation. They can be contacted by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org