Kihci-asotamâtowin – Sacred Promises to One Another

To this date when I hear the word covenant the first thing that comes to my mind are biblical covenants due to the fact that I was baptized as a baby and raised in a catholic household. For example, in the old testament, God made agreements with Adam, Noah, Abraham, and Moses that were all communicated through a sign and a promise such as the Passover which symbolized the promise of land and prosperity in exchange for obedience. My experiences in the catholic school system and at home have led me to believe that covenants are sacred and everlasting promises, often represented by a symbol and characterized by two or more parties agreeing to terms for eternity. This understanding allows me to believe that covenants do not have to be religious in nature but that it is essential for covenants to be taken seriously and acted on with respect and dignity. As I continue to open myself up to ideas of miyo-wîcêhtowin and developing good relations with indigenous peoples, my understandings of treaties have evolved and I believe that treaties align with the characteristics of covenants. Treaties are sacred promises that were agreed upon by Indigenous peoples and Europeans in the presence of the creator and thus, they are for eternity or as treaty commissioner Alexander Morris puts it, they are to be acted upon “as long as the grass grows, the sun shines, [and] the river flows.” With this understanding of treaties, it is easy to recognize that treaties are covenants between three parties which are the Crown, the Indigenous Peoples, and the creator and thus, they are permanent and unchangeable.

Treaty MedalsIn the chapter, Kihci-asotamâtowin – Sacred Promises to One Another, The Treaty Sovereigns’ Sacred Undertakings, of the book, Treaty Elders of Saskatchewan, the symbolism of treaties is discussed. During the signing of a Treaty, a sacred pipe was present and smoked. For Indigenous peoples, the smoking of the pipe signified two important conditions for the participants. The first one being that they were in agreement and pledging a solemn covenant and the second being a promise to speak the ultimate truth. As Elder Kay Thompson explains, “we [Indigenous peoples] are all part of the creator. This relationship is sacred and is respected through the pipe”, which demonstrates that by smoking the pipe, the treaties were signed in the presence of the creator. The chapter also explains how the signing of treaties signified a commitment between the parties to keep a relationship of peace which for the First Nations people meant that the treaty relations would be nurtured in good, healthy, happy and respectful relationships. They believed that by forming the treaty covenants, the Queen would become their mother and thus, Indigenous Peoples and white settlers would be brothers and sisters who would live in harmony together. With this in mind, it is important to consider my responsibilities to these covenants as a treaty person.

As a white settler, I am a treaty person and as I continue to strive for miskâsowin and an understanding of my identity, I am reminded that I am responsible for living out the promises of treaties. Unfortunately, the sacred promises that were made many years ago have not been appropriately respected as our history shows that Indigenous peoples were historically deterred from living their way of life. Despite these unlawful actions, I still believe that treaties are covenants and thus, the agreements that were made are forever. Because of this belief, it is important that I continue to embrace miyo-wîcêhtowin and strive to build harmonious and respected relationships with Indigenous peoples. Being a treaty person is part of my identity, and in order to be true to myself, I must commit myself to act with respect towards the treaty agreements and appropriately honour my treaty partners.

Learning about treaties as sacred promises also challenges me to consider how I can help convey these ideas in my future classrooms. Beyond communicating when and why treaties were formed, it is vital that students explore the promises that were made and critically think about what they must do in order to live out those promises. I believe that students may find value in participating in a pipe ceremony because Elders provide a significant explanation of the symbolism of the pipe and the experience may help students develop a deeper understanding as to why treaties are sacred covenants. Many of my future students will be treaty people and thus, it is critical that I act as the lead learner in the classroom and facilitate opportunities for students to learn about what it truly means to be a treaty person and what they are responsible for in order to respectfully live out the promises that were made by our ancestors.

Examining Myself as a Treaty Partner

I grew up in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan which resides on Treaty 6 territory. Treaty 6 was negotiated in 1876 and spans parts of the current day provinces Alberta, and Saskatchewan. In Saskatchewan alone, there are 29 First Nations Communities on Treaty 6 territory, including Beardys and Okemasis First Nation, James Smith First Nation, Lac LaRonge First Nation, Montreal Lake Cree Nation, and Muskoday First Nation to name a few that I frequently visited or travelled through during my time in Prince Albert. Throughout my grade school education, it was rarely admitted that we were fortunate to be living on Treaty 6 territory which is problematic as I do believe that as treaty partners we are responsible for acknowledging and honouring the land we live on. Hopefully, this begins to change as we continue to take steps towards truth and reconciliation as a community and recognize that we are all treaty people.

Growing up in Prince Albert, I was exposed to several significant ideas and negotiations that lead to the signing of Treaty 6. Treaty 6 was signed by Crown representatives, and Plains Cree, Assiniboine, and Ojibwa leaders. Prior to beginning negotiations, they all participated in a sacred pipe ceremony led by the Cree leaders as a way of inviting the creator to provide guidance to the negotiators and to witness the treaty signing. By doing this, all participants were agreeing to be honest and to stick to their word. A significant clause to the treaty agreement that had been signed in the previous numbered treaties was the addition of the medicine chest that would be stored at the house of the Indian agent on the reserves. The idea of the medicine chest has lead to various interpretations and highlighted the miscommunication that occurred during the signing of the treaties. Many peoples of Treaty 6 assert that the treaty needs to be translated in a modern-day context meaning that the medicine chest would be equivalent to free health care today.

Understanding the background of Treaty 6 is a start to recognizing my relation to treaty but I need to work on growing my knowledge of the Indigenous Peoples who I am in a partnership with. Due to my privileges of being a white settler, I know that Indigenous Peoples have had to learn and speak my language, understand European worldviews and participate in ceremonies that are respected by my ancestors without me having to engage in or recognize their cultures. This has allowed me to believe the misconception that as a white treaty partner, I am superior and do not have to respect or learn about the identity of the Indigenous Peoples who I am living in partnership with. Listening to the lyrics of Sheena Koop’s song highlights that for many years, settlers have lived with their eyes closed and been oblivious to the idea that other cultures and ways of living exist. It is time that I open my eyes to the languages, worldviews, and traditional ceremonies that help define the identities of Indigenous Peoples as a way of honouring and respecting the promises agreed upon during the signing of Treaty 6. Treaties are for eternity and as a treaty person, I am responsible for acting in accordance with the agreements that were negotiated during the signing of the treaties.

Examining the treaty relations of my home town only becomes meaningful when I ask myself, where do I fit into this? As a white settler, I acknowledge that I am a treaty person who views treaties through my own unique lens due to my privileged experiences. With the aim of being proud of my people, misconceptions about my role as a treaty person have been magnified causing me to have false views about what it means to be a treaty person. I am continuing to disrupt these norms and learn the truth that is leading me to open my eyes and see a clearer image of what it means to be a treaty person. As I continue to grow as an individual, I hope to learn more about the traditional and ceremonial practices and beliefs of the Indigenous Peoples around me so that as an educator I can promote the truth and commit myself to honour the Indigenous Peoples of the land that I am fortunate enough to call home. When treaties were made there “was the mutual agreement to initiate and to create a perpetual familial relationship based on familial concepts defined by the First Nations principles of wâhkôhtowin (good relationships)” (Cardinal & Hildebrandt, 2000, p. 33). It is time for me to start acting like a member of this family. 

Visual Diagram of my growth in understanding of myself as a Treaty Partner

Miskâsowin: Discovering my Identity

The term Miskâsowin refers to finding one’s sense of origin or belonging which initially struck confusion in my brain. In the past, when I have been asked to describe or name myself, I usually start by saying my name is Kendall Schneider and then I begin sharing aspects of myself such as my age, interests and hobbies.  Despite all of these things being characteristics that do describe me, I realize that these are all fairly surface-level ideas of myself, and attributes I want others to know about me. But what else makes me who I am? After reading the first two chapters of Indigenous Writes written by Chelsea Vowel, I feel motivated to begin disrupting the shallow ideas I have about who I am and strive towards defining myself in terms of being a treaty person. It is important for me to begin challenging myself to consider who I am, as an individual living in Canada, and what has made me the person that I am today.

Thinking of myself as a Treaty person is something I have avoided in the past because of the negative history between white settlers and Indigenous Peoples. It is not okay for me to live in denial and although it may be uncomfortable it is important that I identify myself appropriately in order to move away from the past in a positive direction. I am a Settler because I belong to “the non-Indigenous peoples living in Canada who form the European-descended sociopolitical majority.” I recognize that because of this label, I am automatically privileged. I know that the land that I grew up on and call Canada did not belong to my family who settled here and that many customs that are a part of my everyday life originated from settler colonials who are my ancestors.  I am a treaty person because my European Ancestors signed the treaty agreements and I am currently living on treaty 4 land and benefitting from treaty rights.

Beyond being a settler and treaty person, I am a Canadian, White, able-bodied, middle class, cis-gender, straight, Christian women and I am fortunate due to many of these identity features. But what do these labels really mean for me? I know that many of these titles place me in majority groups and thus, I am benefited by the societal norms and social constructs simply for fitting into the categories. For the purpose of finding my sense of origin, I will explore the term Canadian in relation to my personal story comprehensively.

Canadian is a term that I have used for as long as I can remember and I always thought of it as simply a person who lives in Canada. As a white settler in Canada, I am able to hide behind basic elements of my country such as the colours red and white or the temperature being cold because that is where the focus is placed in the media but it is important for me to acknowledge the serious attributes that represent my nation. The Canadian Grand Narrative is problematic because it demonstrates the idea that Canadian history begins with the arrival of Europeans and entirely disregards the people who were on the land prior to this settlement. It is important that when I call myself Canadian, I take ownership of Canada’s true history rather than showing ignorance by believing the stereotypical definitions of Canadians. After consulting my parents, I believe that I am a third-generation Canadian meaning that my great grandparents were not born in Canada but settled on Canadian soil during their lifetimes. All of my great grandparents’ heritage traces back to be German but other than a few phrases, which I struggle to remember, there are no German traditions that are practiced within my family today. Thus, Germany is part of my origin story but not something I relate to.  I challenge myself to continue to explore what being Canadian means to me and my sense of belonging on this land.

Throughout this semester, I look forward to committing myself to explore uncomfortable ideas of my identity and to become content with accepting that the history of my peoples is not all positive. I hope to open myself up to unlearning about what I have previously thought it means to be Canadian in order to welcome and learn new ideas that help to define my identity. I pledge to be honest, open, and resistant to jumping to conclusions with the purpose of avoiding difficult thoughts, in order to strengthen my understanding of myself as a treaty person and how that influences my identity.