With a song of gratitude in his native tongue, Elder Rick Lightning welcomed us to Treaty Six Cree territory. We were gathered in Wahkohtowin Lodge at Augustana University in Camrose, Alberta. This Cree word refers to creating kinship with the natural world. So it is fitting that Elder Rick deplored the accelerating destruction of Mother Earth and the consequent violation of Aboriginal rights. The Cree who signed Treaty Six in the late 1800s understood that the treaty would allow the settlers to use the top six inches of soil, in other words plow and farm the land, whereas mineral exploitation nowadays pollutes to a much deeper depth. Pointing to the children in our midst and referring to his own grandchildren, Elder Rick stressed that it was they who would bear the brunt of environmental destruction.
When the treaties were signed, cultural misunderstandings were rife, and there was a gulf between the expectations of the two parties to these legal documents. The new arrivals understood the Indians to have many gods as they appeared to be worshiping rocks, trees and the like, whereas they were actually giving thanks to one deity, the Creator.
Briefly, and without bitterness, Elder Rick reminded us of past injustices inflicted on the Cree and on Aboriginal peoples in general. Both his parents went through residential school. Under the Indian Act, native languages and ceremonies were suppressed, depriving the Indian peoples of their own culture. But what touched me most in his welcoming address was that he did not dwell on this painful past. “Let it go,” he said. “Don’t hang on to it.” In other words, his message was that relationship building in the here and now is what counts.
This theme of moving forward by relationship building was continued on Monday at a Special Interest Group showing of the movie Elder in the Making: Treaty Seven. This road trip documentary of reconciliation, set in stunningly beautiful Alberta landscapes, traces the history of the area from an Aboriginal perspective and centres on a Blackfoot whose ancestors lived there for thousands of years and who feels disconnected from the place he calls home. It is a profoundly moving film.