(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 fourth column.)
In our last article on the Kaministikominahiko-skak (White Spruce Island) Cree Nation we shared a bit about our Cree cultural beliefs, spiritual ceremonies and how we see all living things as sacred. We spoke about a time in history when our cultural customs and spiritual practices came under attack by the missionaries, government officials and elite powers of the day.
It may seem to some following our story that our ancestors were forced into submission by the churches and government to give up our spiritual ways. The majority of history is written through the eyes of others who prefer to tell our story as one of conquering and surrendering of our people. We do not consider ourselves a conquered people. We think of this time in history as an invasion.
When the missionaries seized and burnt some of our ancestors sacred items, threatened their families and no longer saw them gathering in sacred sites, they thought our people had given up our traditional ways. The truth is ... our ancestors never gave up their spiritual practices and ceremonies. When our ancestors decided to “put away” their sacred items it did not mean they gave into the colonizers. For our ancestors, “putting away” simply meant taking their sacred items and ceremonies to a place where the missionaries could not see them.
Our traditional territories cover a vast area in the northern Delta and along the Saskatchewan River. Within the Delta there are many interconnected waterways and islands where our ancestors had family camps. There were plenty of places to gather for ceremonies where the missionaries and others could not find them. Without help from our ancestors the missionaries and others could not find their way around our vast territories.
Long before the missionaries came to our territories many generations of our people travelled along the transcontinental river highways of Turtle Island (North America). For generations they travelled beyond our traditional territories in the Delta and along waterways of the Saskatchewan River into the lands of other Indigenous nations. There was no such thing as international borders. To us this is a meaningless invisible line drawn by foreigners.
By the time the missionaries and others invaded our territories we had well established alliances, treaties and kinship relationships with many First Nations on Turtle Island. Not only did our ancestors have many allies, they also had a vast communications network (the moccasin telegraph!) to tell others about the attacks on our people in northern Turtle Island. This made the missionaries and government officials very afraid and very angry.
The missionaries and government officials tried to track and monitor our ancestors as they travelled these great distances but they failed. Without the Indigenous people to guide them they got lost trying to travel along the vast transcontinental river highways on Turtle Island.
Our ancestors travelled in boats 24 feet long known as York boats. They made their boats from the wood and sap of the majestic white spruce trees that grew in abundance on our traditional lands. The wood of the white spruce trees gave their large boats lightness and stability in fast moving waterways and large rapids that far surpassed other types of boats. They could carry their boats and supplies many miles across land with less effort than a boat made from trees of heavier wood.
The light yet stable features of the wood and water proof sap from white spruce trees in the forests of our traditional lands was of great interest to the government. They could not get enough of the white spruce trees for repairing their steam boats and building their European ships. Government-funded lumber companies began clear cutting the lands sending ship loads of white spruce wood and sap back to their ship builders across the great waters to the east. Today if you travel through our traditional territories you will see very few of these majestic white spruce trees that at one time grew to be more than 100 feet tall.
In spite of the missionaries and government official efforts to stop our ancestors they continued to travel the vast transcontinental river highways stretching many, many miles around and through Turtle Island into Mexico. Travelling for weeks and months at time, their white spruce boats carried many people visiting many family clan camps of different nations along the way.
There were many gatherings for celebrations and ceremonies. The many nations shared with one another their spiritual teachings and healing medicines. They engaged in trading and sharing of the resources of Turtle Island. The original peoples of Turtle Island understood the importance of living under the order of the teachings of balance and harmony with other nations and all living things. These are the teachings for sustainability used by our ancestors many generations ago that must guide our economic development today.
Our ancestors kept our bloodlines healthy and strong through unions with the many different nations. As a result, today the Kaministikominahiko-skak Cree Nation people have family ties to many First Nations on Turtle Island. When we say “all our relations” we are referring to many things. We are referring to our spiritual relationship with all living things in our natural world. We are also talking about our family ties and relationships with many different nations.
The missionaries, government officials and elite powers of the day soon came to realize they could not conquer our people. We had too many connections far and wide with too many tribes. They were afraid of our numbers and our alliances across Turtle Island. The government officials and elite powers of the day told the missionaries they could not protect them if they didn’t do something about us and our ways.
The missionaries and church officials knew the spiritual part of our people was important -- the foundation of our culture. If you destroy the foundation of something then you can destroy all that is built upon it ... right? In their way of thinking if they go after our spirituality which we held near and dear to our hearts we would fall apart.
So, in the minds of the missionaries, if they could gain control of the spiritual part of us they could control the rest of what we did. Attacking our cultural customs and spiritual practices was where they thought they could do the most damage ... the same methods they used to attack the Middle East peoples when they colonized them. If it worked over there it would work over here ... right? But it did not work.
You see, we never lost our culture or our spiritual ways. Our ancestors put away certain spiritual practices ...bout of sight. It could be said that it was a bit like pretending to be asleep ... but really all this time our spiritual knowledge was quietly passed through the generations.
Our spiritual and cultural ways have been preserved within our oral history and teachings. Our ancestors kept our sacred knowledge and traditional teachings hidden from the prying eyes and ears of others who only want to use what we know for their selfish purposes. Our knowledge keepers have worked hard carefully guarding our sacred knowledge and customs for future generations.
The time has come for more people to know the truth about the Kaministikominahiko-skak Cree Nation -- a courageous and strong people who refused to be conquered. Because of our strength, courage and refusal to give up our inherent rights as a sovereign Cree nation many attacks have been launched against our people.
In our next article we shall begin to tell you about some of the relentless attempts by others to strip away our identity as Cree Nation people.
Nancy and Armand Dorion are members of the Kaministikominahiko-skak Cree Nation