One hot summer day my grandfather was working in the yard on his farm. Although the specific year and date has long since been forgotten, aspects of what happened help frame the events within a broad time period. Life on the farm was slow. It wasn’t uncommon for a whole week to go by without a single vehicle passing the property other than the school bus. With this in mind, it makes sense that the black silhouette on the road in the distance caught his attention. He squinted his eyes against glare of the sun, trying to make out who the figure might be. Grandpa’s sense that something unusual was happening grew as the person got close enough to make it clear he was a stranger.
The stranger stopped at the spot where the farm driveway met the road. He seemed unsure whether it was safe to speak, perhaps thrown-off by my grandfather’s break with prairie etiquette. After all, my grandfather had not waved or shouted a greeting. He was actually standing completely still, staring at the stranger who he was certain did not belong on this road. A reasonable question would be why my grandfather was so sure this man did not belong on the public road that ran in front of his property. The answer was that the man was Indigenous, standing on land where Indigenous people had been reduced to memories—an arrowhead discovered by grandchildren exploring the valley or a place named for an Indigenous word.
“Could I trouble you for a glass of water?” The man asked, breaking the silence. By this point, my grandmother had come out onto the step. “I reckon I can give you one,” Grandpa said, nudging his chin at my grandmother as a signal to go inside to fetch him some water. Grandpa quietly stood watching the man until my grandmother came back out. As soon as the man was done drinking and my grandmother had returned to the house, Grandpa told the stranger it was time he moved on. He could tell the man was considering asking for a ride somewhere and he wanted to head-off the request. He watched the stranger walk away until he was a spot in the distance. Once he was sure he was not likely to double-back, my grandfather went into the house and called the police. The first time I heard this story, I asked my grandfather why he had called the police for a man walking down a road. “They weren’t supposed to be off the reserve, you know. They were supposed to have a pass to go off the reserve, and there was no reason that man should have been walking on a road around here.”
This was the first time I realized my grandparents were living on and benefitting from land taken away from Indigenous people through treaties. The Supreme Court has called treaties a solemn exchange of promises. I cannot help thinking that from the perspective of white settler authority, treaties are like promises parents make to children—contingent upon good behaviour and reliant on the belief that the memories of the other party are short. Aimėe Craft writes:
“While courts have set out to find a ‘common understanding’ between the parties, one cannot assume that the parties shared their understandings of the treaty or that they came to a ‘common understanding’ of it. Even if a ‘common understanding’ of a treaty existed, it might have been limited to an agreement to share the land—and it might have been that each party dad a different understanding of what sharing the land actually entailed.” (Craft, 2014, p. 7)
It seems impossible for Indigenous people to have been viewed as equal parties in the treaty negotiation process if they were not even seen as equal enough to walk down the same roads. I wondered how the treaty process could have been conducted in good faith when one party saw the other as possessing fewer human rights.
I have often wondered why that Indigenous man was walking down the rural road in front of my grandparent’s farm that day. Was he looking for a connection to the land that he lost because of colonization? It is upsetting to think about what my grandfather’s actions that day might have cost the man. Was the man arrested thanks to my grandfather’s phone call? If he was arrested, what happened to him behind bars? Based on everything I know about police interactions with Indigenous people, I fear my grandfather’s phone call might have caused this Indigenous man to lose his freedom for weeks, months, or even years.
When the Bering Strait Theory was first proposed it was suggested that Indigenous peoples crossed a land bridge created around twelve-thousand years ago by water being sucked up into massive glaciers, allowing animals and people to migrate from the Asian continent to North America. The Native Circle website says:
“It seems that science history writers just move the number back whenever something Native is discovered that pre-dates the Bering Strait migration figure! We can tell you this, the American scientific approach to history as it pertains to the Indigenous people of this Turtle continent (North America) has unfortunately fallen prey to political propaganda. The result is a theory that has long been rebutted by the oral history of Native peoples.” (Native Circle, 2020)
Why would animals leave the Asian continent in order to venture onto a piece of land that presumably lacked the flora they were accustomed to eating? Why would people leave their home territories to follow animals onto land that had recently been underwater? If we assumed there were animals and people who did take this risk, it would not explain mass migration.
Hunting and gathering societies more than likely spent most of their year living in small groups consisting of their direct family members. Are we to surmise that a small group of people crossed the Bering Strait Land Bridge, then returned to their home territories at some point in order to spread the news of their journey? At least humans had the ability to spread knowledge orally, unlike animals, who you would have to assume stumbled across the land bridge, then kept on discovering it over a long enough period of time to produce genetic diversity and sustainable populations within the animal species of North America.
Questions such as these are the logical result of using critical thinking to consider the veracity of the Bering Strait Theory, something students are rarely invited to challenge. Even if you chalk-up your opinion that this theory is inadequate to your own shallow understanding of the science, you would still have to begin with the presumption that the stories Indigenous people tell about how they came to be on this continent are nothing more than myths and legends—a very disrespectful starting point for dialogue. You would also have to set aside how the theory has been used by white supremacists to propagate the idea that white settlers are entitled to the land. They cling to the Bering Strait Theory because it allows them to believe there is no such thing as a truly native North American. Other white settlers, who would not identify themselves as white supremacists and who experience a lot of white settler guilt, also like the theory because it allows them to believe they have not taken something away from people that was always theirs. They can tell themselves that they had as much right to claim the land as Indigenous people, since everyone was a migrant at some point.
Blair Stonechild writes in the Indigenous Saskatchewan Encyclopedia:
“The original tribal distributions were significantly different from the pattern of Indigenous occupation of the region today….much of present-day southern Saskatchewan area was occupied by the Atsina, (also called Gros Ventres), as well as the Nakota and Hidatsa to the southeast and the Shoshone (also called Snake) in the southwest. To the north, the area between the forks of the North and South Saskatchewan Rivers and to the west was occupied by the Blackfoot. The Chipewyan, a branch of the Dene, occupied areas of the northern boreal forest.” (Stonechild, 2020)
It did not take long for the European fur-trade to cause intense conflict over territories among the First Nations of Saskatchewan, prompting permanent changes to the patterns of land habitation for the Indigenous peoples of Saskatchewan. Stonechild says of the current Indigenous groups in Saskatchewan, “The proper self-ascribed names of the First Nations of Saskatchewan are as follows: Nêhiyawak (Plains Cree), Nahkawininiwak (Saulteaux), Nakota(Assiniboine), Dakota and Lakota (Sioux), and Denesuline (Dene/Chipewyan).” (Stonechild, 2020) This list demonstrates the extreme changes to the distribution of Indigenous peoples on the land caused by the fur-trade.
The above list also leaves out the Metis, a group of people that grew due to sustained relationships between fur-traders and Indigenous people. Stonechild describes the toll taken on the land and people by the fur-trade. There were obvious changes to the distribution of habitation, but there was additionally a dramatic change in the numbers due to epidemics such as smallpox which had devastating impacts on the Indigenous peoples. Stonechild says, “…the major epidemics, recorded in 1780, 1819, 1838 and 1869, carried away over half of the population each time, the Métis being affected to a lesser degree.” (Stonechild, 2020) The systematic culling of the buffalo was an obstacle to Indigenous survival on the land that the traumatized people were no longer able to surmount without help from the white settlers. This was the intended result. Great Britain sanctioned settlement under the condition that treaties were negotiated with the First Nations, as decreed by the Royal Proclamation of 1763.
My father was never close to his family. His older siblings, who were born before the war, were more like an aunt and uncle to him. He had a brother who was also born after the war, but he was supposed to be the only one. My grandmother openly blamed this brother for the existence of my father, having poked holes in her contraceptive devices. My father had one other sister who was born before the war. She passed away around five months after my dad was born. Her death was so traumatic, my grandparents gave my father to his godmother to take care of for a year. This might have played a large role in why my grandparents never seemed bonded to my father. Their lack of emotional closeness caused me to not feel close to their stories and experiences. As such, I will not spend as much time positioning myself in relation to my father’s family.
War had a lot to do with the land stories of my family. My paternal grandfather received a veteran’s grant due to his service in World War II. It wasn’t enough to buy a house in Edmonton, even then. My dad’s oldest two siblings threw a block party that raised enough to pay for the house outright. Imagine being able to buy a house with cash!
Edmonton, Alberta is built on Treaty 6 territory which was signed in August of 1876 at Fort Carlton and Duck Lake, and in September at Fort Pitt. The Indigenous people who occupied and utilized the land around Edmonton were: Niitsítpiis-stahkoii (Blackfoot / Niitsítapi), Plains Cree, Tsuu T’ina, Métis, and Cree. Stonechild says:
“The treaty contained, with some variations, the standard written clauses of the earlier numbered treaties signed with First Nations: surrender of Indian land rights; provision of assistance in the transition to an agricultural economy; provision of reserves (in Treaty 6 the equivalent of one square mile per family of five); establishing schools on reserves; and annuities of $5 per person (more to chiefs and headmen).” (Stonechild, 2020)
Asserting their cultural norms onto the treaty-making process, the Crown insisted on having males, primarily chiefs, act as main negotiating voices. In the case of Treaty 6, the chiefs who took the lead were Poundmaker, Mistawasis, and Ahtahkakoop. Representing the Crown was Lieutenant-Governor Alexander Morris. Treaty 6 had some unique aspects, thanks to the savvy negotiation skills of Chief Poundmaker, Chief Mistawasis, and Chief Ahtahkakoop. Stonechild cites these unique aspects as including more agricultural assistance, a medicine chest for each band, and a famine clause.
Not all Treaty 6 signatories agreed to the terms early in the process. Chief Big Bear was one of the leaders of holdouts who hoped to get better terms. The methodical erasure of the buffalo meant the holdouts were forced by unprecedented starvation into signing. Signing the treaty did not provide the relief they hoped for. For example, the provisions they were given often were rotten and full of bugs. The widespread dissatisfaction with the implementation of Treaty 6 provisions generally is believed to have contributed to the Northwest Rebellion.
The land my mother’s family occupied was on Treaty 4 territory. The legacy of the first three numbered treaties included unfulfilled promises and problems with the written document not matching the intent of the Indigenous negotiators. This helped set the stage for more cynical negotiations during the treaty 4 proceedings. Treaty 4 territory is a one-hundred ninety-five thousand square kilometre swath of land that extends from the south-east corner of Alberta, through most of Southern Saskatchewan, and into west-central Manitoba. Within this massive tract of land are the towns of Girvin and Davidson, the Arm River valley, the caragana bushes, and the canola fields that colour my childhood memories.
The list of the primary Indigenous negotiators for Treaty 4 included names I am less familiar with than those involved in Treaty 6: Loud Voice (Kakiishiway), Chief Pasqua, a Saulteaux man referred to as “The Gambler”, Chief Cote, Kamooses, and Chief Piapot. The negotiations were markedly different from those involved in Treaty 6 in the fact that many people who should have been present for the proceedings were missing from the table. Right away the Indigenous leaders began to question the sincerity of the good faith being offered by the Crown’s representatives, Hon. Alexander Morris, Lieutenant-Governor of the North-West Territory and David Laird, Minister of the Interior. They wanted to know why these men had elected to camp with the representative of the Hudson’s Bay Company, William Christie. The negotiators also pointed out that not all the necessary parties were present to allow them to have proper dialogue amongst each other. One thing all those present seemed to agree on was their desire for the activities and profits of the Hudson’s Bay Company to be restricted. That was something the Crown representatives claimed not to have the power to grant. Stonechild lists the major elements of Treaty 4 as follows:
“The written terms of Treaty 4 included: reserves of one square mile for every five persons; annuities of $25 for a chief, plus coat and medal, a $15 annuity per headman, and a $5 annuity for each individual; a suit of clothing every three years per chief; blankets, calicoes and British flag (given once); $750 worth of powder, shot and twine annually; two hoes, a spade, scythe, axe and seed per family; a plough and two harrows per ten families; oxen, a bull, four cows, carpenter’s tools, five hand saws, five augers, a crosscut saw, a pit saw and a grindstone per chief; there was to be a school on the reserve; no liquor was to be allowed; and hunting, fishing and trapping rights would be respected.” (Stonechild, 2020)
In light of how I am more influenced by my mother’s family than my father’s, it was interesting to discover that the same was true for my maternal grandfather. My grandfather’s last name was Fells. I always thought he inherited the farm from his Fells family. When I began to do research for this paper I discovered Robert Howie was the name on the land title. He was my grandfather’s maternal grandfather. The story behind this, as my mother described it, was that her paternal grandfather came from the United States on his own to settle on a small piece of land near where the Robert Howie farm was located. He had initially migrated with the rest of his family from the Sherwood Forest area of England to the United States. I have to assume that being on his own made him inclined to get to know his neighbours, which lead to him marrying Robert Howie’s daughter. Since there were two other Howie children, one of whom was a male, Samuel Victor Fells should not have ended up running the Howie farm. It turned out that Edwin Howie had little interest in taking over the farm by Girvin, Saskatchewan. He had bought more productive land around Macklin, Saskatchewan, which has some of the blackest soil in the province. His land was so profitable, he was able to buy and bequeath large portions of the land to the University of Saskatchewan. The other Howie daughter married someone who was not a farmer, leaving Ruth Howie and her husband Samuel Victor Fells in the position of inheriting Robert Howie’s farm.
Going backwards a bit, the Howie’s also had initially migrated to the United States from Scotland. Once there, they came upon an opportunity to buy South African Scrip, which were the land grants given to Canadians who served in the Boer War. Digging into this part of the history of the land my family eventually occupied turned out to be interesting. The land title says that Section 3, Township 26, Range 28, West of the 2 Meridian was sold by Matthew Welsh Yemen. This name seemed distinct enough to try researching. I cannot know for certain the information I found is for the same Matthew Welsh Yemen listed on the land title transfer, but I feel fairly confident it is the same man.
Matthew Welsh Yemen was born in Huron Township, Bruce County, Ontario in 1879. This would have made him twenty-years-old when the Boer War began in 1899. Digging deeper, I discovered a Matthew Welsh Yemen signed an oath of allegiance for the North-West Mounted Police on June 13, 1899. He was discharged on April 2, 1901. The Boer War ended on May 31, 1902. If this indeed is the same man, which seems certain to me due to the personal information on the documentation, he must have left the North-West Mounted Police in order to enroll as part of the British force going to fight in the South African Boer War. I found it interesting to discover that Matthew Welsh Yemen died In Pretoria, South Africa on October 22, 1949. His ashes were buried with his parents in Ripley Huron Cemetery, Bruce County, Ontario. My guess is that he went back to South Africa later in his life. I guess what I find interesting about this is that he was drawn back to the place of his greatest adventure, as well as his deepest trauma. The same was true for my grandfather, the man who eventually occupied the land Yemen received to honour his service. At the invitation of the government of Holland, my grandfather returned to the country he helped liberate to help them celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of D-Day.
War played a role in almost every part of my family’s land story. My grandfather, Robert Fells, served in World War II. He was part of the Royal Canadian Engineering Corps. His duties included going out in front of the main group of forces in order to build bridges to allow them to cross rivers, and staying behind to dismantle the bridges once they had passed over them. They could not risk the bridges falling into German hands. Sometimes I watch Saving Private Ryan and wonder if his experiences were anything like this. He never talked about them until he had a stroke. After that, all those memories seemed much closer to the surface and caused him a great deal of discomfort. My grandfather met my grandmother Jean in England. She was on holiday at Blackpool with her sister when a Canadian soldier asked her for directions. My grandmother was supposed to be helping her sister by watching her baby so she could have a bit of a break, but that did not end up happening once she met my grandfather. They married in Leeds when the war ended. Grandma insisted they wait. She was not willing to end up a war widow with a baby, like so many of her friends. Grandpa received a land grant due to his service, which he used to expand the farm.
This seems to be the appropriate moment to give a land acknowledgement that also reflects my social location. I am a white settler female who has benefited from wars, removal, bad faith negotiations, genocide, starvation, racism, and white privilege to get where I am today. I have not always been rich. I was the oldest of eight children. My parents both worked full-time and still needed to be supplemented by social assistance in order to make ends meet. On the other hand, I never had to worry about having the police called to pick me up for the crime of walking down a public road. I had parents who had the privilege of having positive relationships with the formal educational system. This placed me further ahead before even starting school than most Indigenous children, who had to cope with intergenerational trauma directly related to school. My education experiences were relatively simple as a result, regardless of the bullying issues that plagued me throughout. The bullying was something that hurt in the moment, but I knew that it was based on socio-economic status, which was something I always thought would improve over time. It was not like being bullied for something like race, which is something that will never change.
My family have occupied Treaty 4 and Treaty 6 territory. These locations included a farm near Girvin, Saskatchewan as well as houses in Edmonton and Lloydminster, Alberta and Lone Rock, Saskatchewan. I currently occupy a house in Dillon, Saskatchewan, at the invitation of Buffalo River First Nation. My duties as a guest on their land include throwing a stick into the water when I first visit, reciprocity with the land by giving a gift for what I take, only taking what I need, and treating the land and water with respect. This is part of the reason my daughters and I make sure to pick litter in the water or on the land when we see it.
I am the divorced mother of two Indigenous daughters. I cannot call my relationship with my ex-husband a mistake, because it resulted in the creation of my daughters, but I should acknowledge that my inability to make that relationship work caused my daughters to lose their connection to their Indigenous heritage. It is an issue I have tried to address in a few different ways. I cannot force their father be part of their life, but I also do not have to shut-out his family members who still want a connection to my daughters. I also selected the Buffalo River Dene Nation as the location for my teaching, hoping that living in this community would help them feel more connected to the land and culture.
I recognize my duty as the mother of bi-racial children includes teaching them that the white privilege they see me unconsciously benefitting from will not always extend to themselves. I have had to speak to them about how they might have experiences in the workplace similar to those faced by Dr. Delia Douglas. These experiences might include white people attributing any amount of success they have to the employers wanting to fill hiring quotas, coworkers speaking over them, possibly hostile relations with clients, the lack of opportunity to advance or have job security, and the general presumption that they are incompetent. I also told them to expect to be gaslighted about these experiences due to Canada’s national identity being formed around racial virtue.
My daughters identify within the QUILTBAG spectrum. I have talked with them about who has the right to claim particular identities. I suggested to them that they avoid calling themselves “two-spirited.” Their father is Dene, but they do not have the kind of connections to the culture I would deem necessary to claim the two-spirit identity. It would not be much different than any basic white girl claiming to be a two-spirit person or talking about how her spirit animal was Pumpkin Spiced Latte. I told them to be mindful of how privileged they are to have a mother who embraces who they are. They should be prepared to support and fight for young people like themselves who are committing suicide because they do not feel safe in school or at home as a person who identifies as QUILTBAG. They need to be aware that traditional Indigenous culture was accepting of diversity, but colonization has destroyed a lot of those traditional values.
Wilson and Laing write:
“The term epistemicide is an accurate descriptor of the sustained effort to sever Indigenous peoples from traditional education and traditional knowledges. For Indigenous people in the Americas, epistemicide began with the colonization of our lands and water and continues today….as part of the process of colonization, Indigenous people’s bodies have been regulated, controlled, subjected to violence, and killed.” (Wilson & Laing, 2019, p. 133)
Wilson and Laing go on to explain how Indigenous people’s sovereignty over their bodies cannot be separated from sovereignty over their land. Understanding how Indigenous languages do not gender the land, spirits, animals or even people is an important gateway to understanding how colonization has altered traditional ways of knowing in profound ways. My hope is that my daughters will understand these things as I tried to explain them, rather than thinking I told them they were not “Indigenous enough” to claim the two-spirit identity.
This will sound strange, but it is frustrating as a mother, who just wants her children to be safe and happy, to know that I cannot extend my white privilege to them. Not only can I not provide them with the relative safety of white privilege, but I also cannot provide them with the comfort of truly understanding both halves of who they are. The only thing I can really do for them is to be part of the fight for social justice and equality in Canada. Setting aside my obligation to my children, I have obligations of my own to fulfill. These are the result of my social position as a white settler who has benefited from an array of violence against Indigenous peoples. I have an obligation as a white settler to engage in applying anti-racist pedagogy on a daily basis in all parts of my life. I cannot expect BIPOC people to carry that burden alone.
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Wilson, A. and Laing, M. (2018). Queering Indigenous Education In Smith, L. T. et al. (Eds.),
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