I was privileged this week-end to travel to Lac La Biche, Alberta, and Beaver Lake Cree Nation territory to participate, as president of RAVEN, in a celebratory round dance ceremony. I was accompanied by RAVEN executive director, Susan Smitten, and lawyer Leigh Anne Baker of Woodward and Company. Our task was to inform this courageous community of people, nobly standing in the way of toxic tar sands expansion, of our role in the fight to enforce their constitutionally entrenched rights.

Should the legal struggle to enforce those rights fail, then we will be witness to one more example of neo-colonial expansionism triumphing over development of a right and just relationship between the settler society and the indigenous people of the land that we now call Canada. Should we succeed, then a giant step toward the creation of an honest relationship and a truly honourable Canada will have been taken. We view this as the most important work we can do and I feel privileged to be a small part of it.

Susan and I were able to tell the assembly of approximately four hundred welcoming Cree Nation members that RAVEN had raised over $850,000.00 since the inception of the court case and that we anticipated raising that figure to over a million dollars in the months to come. Regretfully, justice is an expensive commodity in our times and this is only a fraction of what will be  required; yet the wins gained by Jack Woodward’s team  have been unprecedented. Who would have guessed that the Beaver Lake Cree would  be heading to the Supreme Court of Alberta in 2015 to argue their constitutional rights despite every dirty trick and roadblock in the legal books put in their way by Alberta and Canada? One must ask  “when will our governments begin to act with honour and according to their fiduciary responsibilities?”

It is the Beaver Lake Cree, and our teams, that  stand in the way of tar sands expansion! We have vowed, before the assembled members of the Cree First Nations at BLCN reserve, to stand with them in this fight to the bitter end. This is a fight for the planet and all humanity; the future of all of us is at stake and it is these brave warriors who are on the front lines. I salute them!

I will write more of the round dance ceremony itself.

Part ll

On a cold and wet Saturday morning I pick up Sue and we drive out to Victoria International to catch a 7:00 a.m. flight that will link to the flight to Edmonton from Vancouver. In Vancouver we meet up with Leigh Anne and board Air Canada for Edmonton where it is said to be snowing and somewhat socked in. However, nothing is to be seen from above the clouds and the sun hanging up here is cheering. At Edmonton I suggest we move up to an all wheel drive for the approximately 250 km. drive north to Lac La Biche. The roomy Mitsubishi SUV is a good choice with lots of power and a good suspension. I constantly find myself driving far above the speed limit on these straight hard surfaced roads with little traffic. The landscape is flat and the weather quite clear with only a few flurries now and then. We pass through Ukrainian settlement country and I enjoy the onion domed churches, community halls, and farms and ranches along the way. We stop at a small town and enjoy a modest lunch of borscht and perogies – heaven! This is like country restaurants of the past and very homey. I approve.

Outside it is cold and dusty with snow patching the countryside. The forests we pass by are boreal birch and spruce. At Elk Island Park I am delighted by the great shaggy herds of bison, for this is a sight that always causes a catch in my throat. It calls to that in me which longs for the cleaner air (both literal and figurative) of the past.

In Lac La Biche we settle into the almost new Ramada Inn. My room is huge with four massive, fluffy pillows on each bed. Sue phones the phenomenal Crystal Lameman. Crystal is niece of ex-chief Al Lameman and tireless worker with Sierra Club Canada, Central Canada Division, and the person who has arranged our presence at this event. The ceremony is to commence at 17:00 so we have a brief couple of hours to rest and time for Sue and Leigh Anne to change into long skirts. It was suggested I might like to wear a Metis sash, to which I am entitled, but as I don’t have one I simply wear my Xeni Gwet’in vest. It is likely to be warm in a hall with hundreds of people dancing despite sub-freezing temperatures outside.

We arrive at the large, modern hall on the reserve after a twenty minute drive and ,we somewhat hesitantly, enter and approach a row of elders sitting along one wall. We walk along and introduce ourselves, “hai hai”, and sit down with them. A Polish couple are there, he an employee with Conoco Phillips, and she a professor of anthropology from a Polish University. We have an interesting discussion and I commit to introducing her to anthropologists from UVic who are known for their knowledge of Canadian law as it pertains to aboriginal rights.

We also meet Crystal in person for the first time and a clutch of Sierra Club workers. I am also delighted to meet Al Lameman, the chief who was so instrumental in starting the legal case to enforce the 1876 treaty that ensures the Beaver lake Cree right to utilize their lands to hunt, trap and gather without hindrance – a series of rights that will be unavailable to them should the lands continue to be impacted by tar sands development. They know this development already poisons the waters, destroys the forests and soils, and causes massive climate change. We are told that already the moose are disappearing and that those that remain are sick. People are ailing, too. The air is becoming bad. It is time for the larger Canadian public to wake up and for the Harper Conservatives to re-calibrate their blind adherence to this form of development!

The evening proper begins with a sacred pipe ceremony. A number of men arrange themselves in a circle around a central point which includes a dead tree upon which sacred cloths are to be hung during the ceremony. I confess to not being knowledgeable around this whole ceremony or indeed about the significance of the specifics of the evening but I am content to simply observe and participate. This round dance, as I understand it, is a typical winter ceremony designed, in this case,  to gather support and positive energy for the court case and solidarity among the Cree. Word of this event has been spread through word of mouth and social media. Singers and drummers provide the focal point around which events take place. While the pipe ceremony is deeply sacred, there is much good humour attending the general series of events assisted by two masters of ceremony who are both knowledgeable and humorous.

I am invited to join the pipe ceremony and seat myself beside “Brian” who, it turns out, knows my friends from the Nemiah Valley, including Gilbert Solomon, Chief Roger William, and Councillor Marilyn Baptiste. We have a good natter. I promise to say hello to those in Nemiah  where I will soon be travelling.

A chief lights two pipes and prays for some time and then the pipes begin the rounds of the men in the circle. When my turn comes I suck in the smoke, exhale, and then push it over myself. The  pipes make the rounds twice. A powerful sense of the sacred is embodied in this place and these acts, the prayers summoning a spirit of the ancestors inhabiting these lands since time before memory. I am almost overwhelmed by the knowledge that events like this come out of a sense of place so profound that we who are visitors or relative new comers to this land can only imagine it. Here, the land is sacred, the mother, and must not be defiled. I reflect that we have so much to learn from the original cultures with whom we now share this land. How sad that so few who have power in our contemporary world are aware of this. As the pipes make their rounds food is distributed around the circle – moose nose soup, moose heart, whitefish, bread, bannock, white grease, potatoes, pie, venison ribs, saskatoon berries. Upon completion of the pipe ceremony we are enjoined to eat this rather immense pile of food that has accumulated in front of us. I feel obliged to finish it and it is excellent. Unfortunately, despite my best intentions the sheer volume exceeds my gustatory abilities. The remainder is ultimately packaged for me because waste is not permitted. Meanwhile the assembly of many hundreds of people are are also being fed. I am amazed at the efficiency of this whole operation, but not surprised. First nations communities are experienced and professional at all manner of community events, one of the many benefits of communal cultures. Of course, it is mostly the women who are the mainstays of this work. They were preparing dinner while we men were indulging in the important work of the pipe ceremony.

At the completion of the meal the round dance begins. There are many singers and drummers here. Each group will sing as many as four songs, standing in a circle at the centre of the hall. The drumming of eight to twelve drummers and the high toned singing are mesmeric and compelling. People are exhorted by the MCs to rise and hold hands and dance. I am hesitant at first, but soon join the others and we link hands within the moving line of dancers who move in a clockwise direction around the drummers, shuffling and gently swaying and facing inward. It is impossible not to move in unison with the beat of the drums and Isoon forgets that I am  not a dancer in any ordinary sense of the word (unlike the accomplished athleticism of my colleagues). The songs of the different singers vary and some clearly incite a greater response than others . In some instances there seem to be over a hundred dancers. In between dances I rest on my chair, but sooner or later rise to do another dance. This continues until well after midnight. Some of the dancers seem to flow, moving with practised grace, and it is they who draw the eye time and again.

Eventually it is announced that another feast has been prepared. I know that eating again so soon will be well beyond my capacity, though I am reluctant to forego my favourite, bannock.  Fortunately, it is also announced that there are guests here from RAVEN and Woodward & Co. who will be speaking to provide an up-date on the court case and our work on behalf of BLC. This is our cue. It is by now about 02:00 on Sunday morning. As we have been told that round dances can go all night we are mentally prepared for this. The sensory overload provided by a deluge of new sights, sounds and events simply serve to concentrate the mind sometimes.

Following a series of speeches supposedly limited to no more than five minutes each, and the conclusion of the midnight feast, the dancing continues. The impressive chief who led the pipe ceremony has spoken in Cree, a woman councillor has spoken as have two women who made powerful  speeches about the need to protect the land and the power of Idle No More, in which they have played significant roles. Susan and I have spoken of RAVEN’s work and Leigh Ann of the court case. Sue impresses upon the crowd that RAVEN has raised close to a million dollars in support of the legal team. We believe this is important to do, for few here seem to know of our role and of RAVEN’s achievements to date. Perhaps now they do, for they appear to listen closely to what we have to say. Al Lameman concluded the speechifying with a long discourse on the importance of protecting their land and rights as enshrined in the 1876 treaty.

Soon enough is it is time for the gift giving.  A large tarpaulin is laid out in the centre of the hall upon which heaps of goods are piled, including blankets, BLCN t-shirts, tupperware containers, and a host of other household goods. We are given beautiful Pendleton mugs chosen for us by Crystal and t-shirts. We, too, have brought gifts, Susan has tobacco and RAVEN t-shirts and pins for chief and councillors.

I have brought  tobacco and sage as a gift and wonder who to give it to. I ask Crystal if it would be appropriate to give it to the same chief who led the pipe ceremony and she indicates this is an excellent choice. I approach  and hand the box to him.  He smells the tobacco and appears very pleased and thanks me sincerely. A while later he comes over with a woven raffia item that he has made and gives it to me. I feel that an important connection and transaction has taken place.

As we approach the end of the evening the MC announces a blanket ceremony for a young couple whose house recently burned down. A blanket is supported and carried around the hall by a number of people upon which we are exhorted to throw money for them. We do so and in the end over five hundred dollars is raised. The MC repeats that “we are a sharing, mutually supporting people and this is what we do, this is what we are”. I visualize this being done as part of a ceremony long ago in the cold and snow of a northern winter night, the northern lights flashing above and the sound of wolves howling in the distance as fur robes, perhaps of bison hide, are wrapped around sleeping infants beside fires. In such times and among such peoples  sharing  was  not an option . It feels good to be part of this in these new and rapidly changing times.

At last a new set of drummers and singers gather at the centre of the hall for the final act. This is the apple dance. A round dance commences once again and we all join in. Large cartons of apples have arrived and as we dance they are handed out as we pass. It is now almost 4:00 a.m. The end of the “evening” has arrived. We gather our gifts, don warm clothes, and secrete our apples about us. We say good byes and receive hugs in return from Crystal. She has shown such energy and commitment with grace and charm that we are quite captivated.

Outside we warm up the car and Leigh Anne scrapes the ice from the windshield. The three Sierra club workers pile in with us and we drive them to their motel in town. It would have been a long, cold walk for them otherwise. At our hotel we depart to our rooms with a commitment to wake in time for breakfast and then the long trip back to Edmonton and our flight back to Victoria. I feel refreshed after three and a half hours sleep and enjoy the drive back. We get to the airport in time to catch an earlier flight direct to Victoria.

While  taking part in an overwhelming sensory experience, I am  refreshed and encouraged by meeting with such a brave and stalwart community of people: people willing, even compelled, to stand on the front lines of a global struggle because of their birthplace.. I feel immeasurably enriched by the experience. It has been good to finally make a personal connection with those with whom we at RAVEN have been allied for the last four years.

David Williams

Posted by David Williams, RAVEN President Tuesday Apr 16, 2013 15:10
Categories: Beaver Lake Cree, RAVEN General | Tags:

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