My talk at the Assembly of First Nations in Edmonton, May 2019. I was speaking as part of a panel titled “International Treaties and the Inherent Right to Self-Government”.
I want to thank the people whose land I’m standing on for giving me the opportunity to speak to you all. Now I’m not the expert on Treaty. My Auntie Victoria or Regina, she’s the specialist on that. So whatever she says, I’m going to say, “Yeah.”
But I will talk about how we personalize Treaty, because we don’t know how to do that. We know how to read papers and now we say text, but we don’t know how to personalize that in our lives. I think about our ancestors and what they did for us. We’re the continuation of that. That’s when the important thing was kinship. Although I had a Mohawk girlfriend who’s still kind of mad at me when I talk about those unfortunate times. But the idea of kinship: who is your family? And as demonstrated yesterday, not a whole lot of people know who their families are. And that’s what’s missing in Treaty, because we replace it with Education. We replace it with Policy. We replace it with Politics.
I’m not necessarily a politician, and I never dreamed to be. But I am in the role of Chief, so I’ve got to act accordingly. In the end, I have to be me, not someone I’m supposed to be. Because when we step away from that reality, then we become something that we’re not really. And we can blend with belief. Belief in ceremony, belief in prayer, smudging, church, nuns, priests; we can believe in anything we want. But in that belief, we’re not thinking.
We’re at a critical path where we have to think. We have to think about what legacy we’re leaving ten years from now. What legacy are we leaving for that generation? We know that climate change is here. Global warming. What are we doing at the individual level? That’s Treaty. That’s our symbiotic relationship with the land.
So what are we doing for it? Next time you go to Starbucks or Tim Horton’s, think about that. How are you contributing to this idea of global warming? And we can laugh, push it off, say, “Whatever…” No, it’s not. This is our responsibility as Treaty People: to bring back our connection to the land and to actually apologize for not knowing any better. It doesn’t matter whether we’re chiefs, or policy writers, or technicians. In ten years, twenty years from now, it doesn’t matter. We’re going to fight for our existence.
I have yet to hear the frogs on my nation. The old people say, “You’ve got to listen for those frogs.” When we hear them we know that the environment in that ecosystem is okay, because frogs, scientifically, are your first indicators. They’re the most sensitive to the environment. So I’m waiting to hear them. I haven’t heard them yet.
I work with bees. Believe it or not, I’m a beekeeper. Why beekeeper? It’s not just to make honey here, or wax. That’s not the point. The point is I’m teaching my nation members who have nothing that this is one way to get back to a symbiotic relationship with the land. We use these bees to teach you something. If you can make a few dollars off of that, great. If we make economically a multimillion dollar project, even better. But that’s not the point. The point is the little actions you need to do to get to where we’re meant to be. Because we all wear these masks. Hey, I’ve got years of university behind me. Did that get me anywhere? Well, not really. I worked as a surveillance operator in a casino for $16.25 an hour before I got this job. I was okay with that. I was an educator. I wore a lot of hats.
I wear this hat because it symbolizes being Chief. People ask me, “Why do you wear a cowboy hat all the time?” Because I can’t wear a feather hat, but I can certainly wear a cowboy hat. Because it’s the respect that you give to leadership. To Xakiji. To Xakuja (council members). They’re not called council. They’re known as the ones that stand with the headman. I’m a ceremonialist. But I don’t use that to guide, I don’t use those words to justify my position here. I use that because it’s really personal to me. And I help young boys become men.
I asked a question outside yesterday: Where are all the men here? Because all I see is what you’ve created. You’ve created “youth”. Who the hell created that word, youth? We had to create that word “youth” so we could get more funding. So in reality you can be a youth until you’re 29 years old. And then they reduce the size of being an old person. It used to be 65, now it’s 55 or something. So you become a ward, or become helpless at both ends. You’ve only got about 25 years of time to actually be productive. All in accordance with what Canadian discourse says. Stop using the word youth. Don’t look at them as such. Maybe that was created because men pushed too hard, they loved too much or they didn’t love at all. So they left the mothers, and the mothers became the caregivers. And in that love, they created these helpless young men. As men we need to get back to that because that’s Treaty. That’s what our obligations are.
We put on these roles of being Chiefs, of being leaders or being technicians. But it doesn’t exclude our ideas or our roles of helping those young men and women to come to the next level of leadership. If you want to blind them, you say you’ve got to go to university because that’s the new buffalo, we’re lying to ourselves. It’s only a form.
It always boils down to the individual person. That’s what Treaty is about. I’ve heard talk about working together, being one. And quite frankly, I don’t think I believe that. Or else we would have done that a long time ago, and we wouldn’t have to be sitting there fighting for the same thing. But I believe that we have to create alliances. Tsuut’ina are on our own path. Our own ideas with laws, with governance. And we’re just stumbling along. We make lots of mistakes, but we learn from that, because I have twelve individuals who stand beside me. And I support their words and their thoughts.
I’m always given ten minutes to speak here, and I always maintain that if I talk more than three minutes I’m bullshitting you. (laughter) I was reminded by one of my council members who said, Remember what your dad said? (Because my dad was Chief.) He said a lot of things, which one was this one? Well one time we were having a real serious conversation around the nation there. So he said, “I’ve listened to all these people talk about everything and you know what? It’s like stuffing hay up a dead horse’s ass. It’s useless.” (laughter)
So let’s not be useless. From this day forward, you have to take a conviction. I don’t know what it looks like. I’m not here to guide you. But I’m here and I support each and every one of you in what you think is right. Because that is how we create our kinship lines. Within those kinship lines we gain strength. And we can talk with conviction. Because those people that aren’t here yet are watching what we’re doing. And they’re going to ask, “What did you do for me?”
I want to thank you for at least listening to me. These other fine men that are sitting with me are way more knowledgeable than I am. So listen to them carefully. Listen to their words and put it to use in your life. Siyisgaas
Play the audio of the full talk, includes short intro remarks.
The formal description of the topic was: This panel will provide participants with an overview of First Nations’ experiences on exercising inherent rights and their Treaties, challenges in its enforcement and implementation, and how to move forward. Panel members were Chief Tony Alexis, Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation; Chief Lee Crowchild, Tsuutina Nation; Eric Tootoosis, Poundmaker First Nation; and Former Grand Chief Mike Mitchell, Akwesasne.