Got Land? Improve your treaty literacy

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This past October 2013, I was walking with many of my family, friends who were mostly children on a historic walk to create awareness about an oil spill by Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. (CNRL). The spill started in May 2013 near Cold Lake, Alberta within Treaties 6 and 8 territories. To this day, CNRL still has no idea how to stop it. 

On the first day of this 106km walk, a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) approached me to let me know I wasn’t welcome on CNRL’s property. I was going to sleep the first of three days in a tipi on the lawn of the CNRL office in Bonnyville, Alberta. When the officer passed on this message, I responded, "Well that’s unfortunate, because I never asked their permission, this is Treaty 6 territory." The officer proceeded to ask me "Where is that?"  I responded, "It’s right here, you’re standing within it and it’s older than Alberta." 

This is a perfect example of the treaty illiteracy of Canadians. It’s especially appalling that the RCMP are forgetting the treaties, because during the treaty-making process the original peoples of these lands were assured that RCMP were mandated to protect the Indian from molestation of the settlers.

"Treaty" keeps coming up across these great lands. People are waking up more everyday and asking questions. They are no longer just going about their days unaware. They want to know their history, their origins. For some, their origins begin here on these lands we call Kanata (Canada). Others immigrated.

So why are the words, "Got Land? Thank an Indian" causing such a controversy? If these treaties are part of our history, then why are people offended, insulted? Some Canadians were so offended, they kicked a First Nations teen off a bus within Treaty 1 (Winnipeg) in late 2013. This year, another First Nations teenager in Balcarres, Saskatchewan was asked by school officials not to wear her hoodie in her high school. Her school is just down the road from the original location of the signing of Treaty 4 in Fort Qu’Appelle. 

The slogan "Got Land? Thank an Indian" was coined by Jeff Menard of Pine Creek First Nation within Treaty 4 territory. It’s caused such a stir that using it as a search term in Google produces a list of 15 pages on the subject. It’s still a hot topic in the media, and the demand for clothes featuring the phrase has increased so much that a website was created to accommodate the orders.  So I ask again, why are the words, "Got Land?, Thank an Indian" causing such a controversy?

I can’t answer all these questions -- only those offended and insulted can. However, from these brief examples and thousands of more historical facts due to Indian Act policies like "assimilate the Indian," "kill the Indian in the child," through other initiatives like the creation of reservations, laws on the pass system where an Indian couldn’t leave the reserve, law against the white man from entering a reserve, forced patriarchal system on matriarchal societies and Indian Residential Schools, we can start to see how people would be offended or insulted. They may have fallen into the stereotypes and/or don’t know their own genocidal history of how the Indian Act was created to abolish and undermine the historical agreements from day one.

That initiative has created so much alienation between the original peoples and the settlers that they have even forgotten how much the Indigenous peoples of these lands supported them in surviving on the lands from the east coast to the west and especially the north which is known as the harshest, unforgiving, but most bountiful lands of the polar bear, caribou and more. People have forgotten so much, they are not questioning their source of information, and are behaving in a way that tells us they are ill advised, blindly following and not taking the responsibility to exercise their right to be truthfully informed. History has been so misrepresented that in more Canadian schools that any courses related to Indigenous Studies and Treaties are "optional" not mandatory. This also relates to immigration: immigrants are not being informed about the treaties as they apply to become Canadians. There is a definite breakdown in communication, truth, honesty and honour here in Canada. So where do we go from here?

Thirteen year old Tenelle Starr is a young woman whose mother is ensuring she knows about her history, her connections to the land through our inheritance and responsibility to honour the lands from the signing of the agreements through the treaty making process. They have also participated in a few Idle No More events as a family. So as people were offended or feeling insulted, a young woman wore her hoodie with humbled "pride," not because she wanted attention but because she was taught to "honour the treaties," as was demonstrated by Neil Young’s concert tour across these great lands of the treaties. Chief Allan Adam was also seen sporting a bright pink (which also happens to be the color for anti-bullying) "Got Land? Thank an Indian" hoodie at Winnipeg’s concert last week.

I believe all things happen for a reason and when Tenelle wore that hoodie proudly down the hallway of her school, without knowing she was enticing minds, getting the conversation going and getting people to ask questions. Most of all she stirred something inside people -- she had them talking! You see, when treaties were signed, they were all signed with the Creator (God) present and that is why the treaties have the phrase, "…as long as the sun shines, the grass grows, and the waters flow…"  This, my fellow treaty people, is the "true spirit and intent" of treaty making -- honouring our agreements for ourselves, for our nations and the lands we depend on for our survival as a people. Honouring our agreements also means our integrity is on the line, so where do you stand in this agreement?

If you see "Got Land? Thank an Indian" t-shirt, hoodie, cap etc…take it as a learning opportunity and calm that emotion of being insulted or proud. Take it upon yourself to learn where it’s coming from. Don’t only learn the written version of treaties, also learn the oral version because the Indigenous way of honouring and remembering treaties adds to the beauty of it all. Treaties may just be the answer to environmental concerns and resolution for all the conflict and misunderstanding happening across these bountiful lands.  Who knows?

As a result of this incident, Idle No More is also challenging you to wear the slogan up to January 28 (#J28) to create more awareness, encourage questions and understanding and hopefully encourage all people to attend a teach-In near you on Treaties and also discuss Harper’s current agenda of the Termination Plan.

"Got Land? Thank an Indian" compelled me to take this further. I will not only wear those words and learn more but I will add the phrase "Honour the Treaties." As I sport the phrases on my homemade version, made on my little corner of the world, on my Cree reservation within Treaty 6 Territory, I will be letting you all know that I know how to honour the treaties and invite you too, to participate, with me, in standing for integrity.

"Got Land? Thank an Indian"

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Shannon M Houle is a proud Cree and Dene Woman of Treaty 6 Territory on Turtle Island. Mother, grandmother, educator, advocator of 4 LAWS -- Land, Air, Water and Sun. She is also the creator of the first version of and a recently elected leader within her nation of Onihcikiskwapowinihk (Saddle Lake Cree Nation) and she will be #IdleNoMore for the protection of all future generations.

"Indian" is a word Christopher Columbus called us in 1492 when he got lost and thought he landed in India. Also when referring to the treaties, in legal terms, the word "Indian" is used to keep in line with the original nation-to-nation agreements. All nations are distinct and have their own names they call themselves within their own languages.

Photo: Atom Charly

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