(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 third column. The fourth will follow next week.)
If you have been following our story by now you know us as the Kaministikominahiko-skak Cree Nation -- the original Swampy Cree peoples of the Delta now called Cumberland House and the Ratty country along the North Saskatchewan River.
In our previous two articles we shared how we have lived a balanced and healthy life upon our traditional lands for thousands of years before contact with Europeans. We also let you know that once upon a time, 400 years ago, we had good relations with the first Europeans who came to our territories.
In this article we pick up our story in the mid 1700s when the missionaries found their way into our territories. The Kaministikominahiko-skak family clans numbered in the hundreds. This made the European missionaries and government officials very nervous. This was a sad time in our history as our new found relationship with the first Europeans was about to change in a most destructive manner.
As the missionaries and churches grew in numbers, more and more European traders and settlers were coming to our territories. Our way of life, family clans, cultural customs and spiritual practices came under attack.
As we tell this part of our story, the way the European churches and the others who followed attempted to erase our culture and our spirituality, we wish to remind those who follow the Christian teachings that we do not disagree with your way of worship. In our spiritual teachings what Christianity calls God we call the Creator.
Our cultural teachings tell us that the Creator gave all nations on Mother Earth gifts of spiritual teachings to guide humanity to live in balance and harmony with all that exists. And in doing so, the Creator gave the many nations different ways to express their spirituality that reflects their diversity and uniqueness. No one spiritual way was better or more superior to other spiritual ways.
Our traditional Cree ways of expressing spirituality through our customs and our ceremonies were terribly frightening to the first missionaries and government officials. To them honouring the Creator and the natural world and the idea that all living things, including humans, were created spiritually equal was wrong. In the European way of thinking humans were superior to the animals, the plants, the trees and all that lived upon the lands. To them these were free things to take and use for their own consumption. For example, tobacco to us is a sacred medicine used to honour our Creator. To governments across North and South America tobacco is an expensive commodity of profit.
The churches did not like the fact that we were a communal people -- to us all life was sacred. At the same time they were in conflict with themselves because our land was pristine. Everything was so beautiful here. There was an abundance of everything -- a sharp contrast to their lands across the great waters to the east. They could not give credit to our cultural ways and ceremonies for the beauty and abundance they were seeing all around them.
Our traditional celebrations and ceremonial gatherings were tracked and monitored. They saw our many family clans travelling five, six, seven days to sacred gatherings. They watched us cleaning and preparing sacred gathering sites and considered this an immense waste of time. They became very angry with us because we wouldn’t clear the areas they wanted to use to build houses and ramps for their steam boats.
When we did our ceremonies they were four, seven and 12 days long. According to the churches ceremonies of worship were supposed to be only one day, Sunday, and only for half a day. They saw our ceremonies as excessive and a waste of time ... going on and on and on. They described our sacred drumming and dancing as nothing more than whipping ourselves into dangerous states of “frenzy.”
The church did not understand the importance of our ceremonies. They did not understand what we were doing when we gave our food offerings through the fire. This was seen as wasting food. They did not believe us when we told them we were thanking our Creator and talking to our ancestors in our ceremonies. Yet according to the Christian teachings they were reading in their books, these were the words of wisdom from their ancestors.
Our ways of honoring the Creator and all of creation was seen by the church as the way of the “devil” and pagans. When we were honouring the abundance of the lands and pristine waters they saw us as worshiping animals, plants, rivers, rocks and trees. They could not understand that for us everything had a spirit and a Cree name. To them these things were inanimate objects.
In the church’s way of thinking it was wrong to ask the plants for permission to use them as a healing medicine. It was wrong to honor animals when they gave their life so our families could survive. They saw this as worshiping other Gods. This upset the church and government officials in the same way it does today. The lands and all that lives upon them are resources to be used for consumption -- end of story. This spiritual nonsense is just a waste of time and money.
Our spiritual practices also upset the first missionaries because this was similar to what ancient peoples used to do in their homelands and other lands across the great waters to the east. The Christian churches had spent much time and energy, over many generations, eradicating all that was not of their belief system. They had extinguished all of these ways of living in balance with all of creation from the realm of spirituality in their own ancestry. In their view Christianity was the only way to worship - the only way to live a blessed and spiritual life. They weren’t about to let this “evil worship of the devil” get in their way in the “new lands.”
Church and government officials were sent to out to disperse our ceremonial gatherings particularly those held in sacred sites around the Hudson Bay Company (Cumberland House) trading post. Those caught at such gatherings were punished and not allowed to trade with the government run trading posts. Our pipe carriers, healers and knowledge keepers were persecuted and forced to give up their practices or watch their families suffer. Our people were told they had to go the way of the Christian churches or face eternal damnation.
They began entering our camps seizing and burning as many of our sacred items they could find. Some of our sacred items were kept as souvenirs and relics. Some were sent to the “mother lands” across the great waters to the east. On their steam boats they brought in small pox-infested blankets and distributed them through the Hudson Bay Company. These disease-infested blankets wiped out many of our family clans. By this time our ancestors could see that the missionaries and government officials would not stop their mission to erase our culture.
Our ancestors knew the times ahead would bring great suffering for their people. They knew it would be generations who would have to endure oppression and domination. Our ancestors knew they had to protect their children and the generations to come. They had to guard their traditional knowledge. They chose to put away their sacred items, their ceremonies, and their matriarchal customs.
It was a time of great sacrifice for our ancestors when they made these hard choices in the face of the colonizers. They made a spiritual choice to preserve our culture. But they also knew there would come a time when future generations could take their sacred items, ceremonies and customs out again and re-awaken the people.
This is a sad time in history when the missionaries, the governments and the elite powers of the day came to design their plans of “settling the west.” It is sad for our people and also sad for the descendants of the first Europeans -- the ones who came with good intentions to live in peace and harmony. It is a shame so many others, who did not come to our lands with good intentions, must live with this legacy of destruction. They must live with the spiritual consequences of how things went so wrong so many generations ago.
Nancy and Armand Dorion are members of the Kaministikominahiko-skak Cree Nation.