Robert Innes: Elder Brother and the Law of the People: Maintaining Sovereignty Through Identity and Culture

American Indian Studies Program

Robert Innes, a citizen of the Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan, discusses how traditional Cowessess kinship systems and practices continue to structure and inform the individual and collective identities of Cowessess people today, and how those traditional systems and practices are serving as a strong source of practical sovereignty for the Cowessess First Nation. 

Native Nations
Resource Type

Innes, Robert. "Elder Brother and the Law of the People: Maintaining Sovereignty Through Identity and Culture." Vine Deloria, Jr. Distinguished Indigenous Scholars Series, American Indian Studies Program, The University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. February 19, 2014. Presentation.

Manley Begay:

"Years ago as a young man, I read just about every book that Vine Deloria Jr. wrote and was just fascinated by this gentleman. And the more I read, the more I gained some insight into his thoughts and ideas and concepts about Indian life and Native ways. And some were controversial, some were absolutely interesting, made me laugh, made me cry, it made me happy, made me sad. And I always thought to myself, ‘I sure want to meet this guy one of these days.’ Lo and behold, I did. I not only met him, I ended up spending time with him. He became a good friend of mine. We served on the Board of Trustees for the National Museum of the American Indian for many years and then after that we became plaintiffs along with five other folks against the Pro Football, Inc. [NFL] and we were engaged in a 17-year long legal case basically fighting stereotypical imaging of Native people in the world of sports entertainment.

And during this time I saw him as a younger person to becoming sort of this elder scholar. And he carried himself in a very modest way and it was demonstrated by his love of wearing denim jeans. You would, I don’t think I ever saw him wearing khakis or dress pants. He always wore denim jeans. And he spoke with great conviction about his ideas and thoughts and everybody listened. And he would become one of the most important authors and scholars of our time in American Indian Studies. And the Vine Deloria, Jr. Distinguished Scholar Series was created in 2008 by the American Indian Studies Program and this series assembles a series of lectures featuring writers, activists, Indigenous leaders and scholars to discuss the issues that Vine felt were so important to Indigenous Country. As such, this series is an event that speaks to the core mission of the American Indian Studies Program by spreading the voices and visions of Indigenous scholars to the greater public. We were hoping that his wife Barbara Deloria would be here. Unfortunately, Barbara will not be with us. Hopefully she’ll be here in April I think, when our third speaker is here.

So this brings me to our guest this evening. Our guest is Professor Robert Alexander Innes. He’s Assistant Professor and Graduate Chair at the University of Saskatchewan. He’s a Plains Cree member of the Cowessess First Nation and actually he’s, his second home is Tucson. He spent a lot of years here working on his doctorate and he finished his dissertation in 2007. His dissertation was titled The Importance of Kinship Ties to Members of the Cowessess First Nation and in January 2007 he was appointed as Assistant Professor in the College of Arts and Science, specifically the Department of Native Studies at the University of Saskatchewan. Before that time, he was a pre-doctoral fellow in the American Indian Studies Program at Michigan State University. He completed his M.A. [degree] at the University of Saskatchewan in 2000 and his thesis was titled The Socio Political Influence of the Second World War Saskatchewan Aboriginal Veterans 1945-1960. He earned his BA at the University of Toronto with a major in History and a double minor in Aboriginal Studies and English and a transitional year program at the University of Toronto in 1996. His research interest is around factors that lead to successful Aboriginal institutions, contemporary kinship roles and responsibilities and Indigenous masculinities. He has numerous articles published in a variety of journals and he recently published his book titled Elder Brother and the Law of the People: Contemporary Kinship and Cowessess First Nation and it’s being published by the University of Manitoba Press. And he’s also currently co-editing a book titled Indigenous Men and Masculinities, Legacies, Identities, Regeneration. Tonight Professor Innes’s talk is titled "Elder Brother and the Law of the People: Maintaining Sovereignty Through Identity and Culture." So with that, it gives me great pleasure to present to you Professor Robert Alexander Innes.


Robert Innes:

Hello. Hello. Thank you for the prayer. That was a great way to start open prayer with that. I’d like to thank Manley Begay and John and Gavin and the American Indian Studies Program for inviting me to this very prestigious talk, this series of talks. When I was here going in the program, I was fortunate enough to be around when Vine Deloria was teaching some classes. I was unfortunate, though, because I didn’t actually get to take any classes from him. But I was lucky enough to be able to sit in on a couple of classes that one year that he taught when I was here. It was interesting because it was a course on, I don’t even know what the course was called, but I imagine it had to do with treaties, sovereignty, but it was through the Indigenous Law Program and there were three AIS [American Indian Studies] students: Ferlin Clark and Kevin Wall and...who were Ph.D. students at the time, and Ray Cardinal, who was an M.A. student. They were taking the class. So they had those three AIS students and the Indigenous Law students and I remember sitting there and first of all being kind of in awe because it’s Vine Deloria, right? But what was interesting I guess for me was to see how cutting he was to people who didn’t respond the way he thought they should respond and how funny he was in the way he cut them up. And I remember the law students, I don’t know if there’s any law students here from that program, hopefully this is all friendly here -- AIS students and faculty and stuff -- but what I found was interesting was that the AIS students, those three AIS students were the ones who were really carrying the load and later after the class one of the law students says, he was, I guess he had taken kind of a beating in that class from Vine Deloria and he says, ‘Boy, that guy is sure into context.’ And so the three AIS students turned to him, ‘Of course he’s into context.’ But I guess for the law students they weren’t used to that.

It’s an honor and a privilege to be part of this series. I like most people were heavily influenced by Vine Deloria when I first started reading and going to university and also the fact that the footprint that he left for this program in help starting this program and the legacy he’s left not only for American Indians and Indigenous people worldwide and Native studies worldwide, but for this particular program is pretty significant and to be included in the series with the illustrious speakers that have come before and that are coming this year, it’s quite an honor and also because well, this is my program. I went through here. I was down here for two years and I feel really humbled to be asked to be part of this program or this series.

This talk I’m going to be, what I’m going to be talking about is the research that I conducted while I was a Ph.D. student here in the American Indian Studies program and what I was looking at was the importance of kinship to kin-type Cowessess members. And the reason why I was, that was an idea that I had for research was it had to do with my personal history with the reserve. I, like a lot of people with Cowessess, was an urban member and I’ll talk a little bit about that in the paper and also was up to the 19, late ‘80s, not a band member at all, not even federally recognized or as we call a 'status Indian.' And after I received my status and became a band member, I was a little bit nervous about interacting with the band. I grew up in Winnipeg, Manitoba. I grew up in Winnipeg and with a lot of Native people we were living in Winnipeg. Winnipeg has probably one of the largest Aboriginal populations in definitely in Canada maybe as well as the United States and so I wasn’t afraid about Native people. It was just when the law was changed to allow people to get reinstated and get their status back, there was a lot of tension, and what I found with Cowessess, that wasn’t the case. When I was doing my research on Aboriginal veterans, I went to Cowessess and interviewed some veterans and one of the veterans I interviewed was my grandfather’s cousin and while I was there I talked to, I was talking with his daughter who is my mom’s second cousin. And at that point my aunt had moved back to the area, didn’t move on to the reserve, but she lived in the town next to the reserve. And she had had a difficult time in the residential schools and had a difficult adulthood and as a result she was not mentally...good. She was a little bit delusional. She was known affectionately in town as 'the bag lady' because she always had the bundled buggy and the ...and heavy jacket no matter what the temperature was. But everyone liked her, she was friendly. And so I told her that that was my aunt and that we were, that we were from part of Cowessess and she knew, she didn’t know who she was by name, but I said, ‘The bag lady.’ And she’s, ‘Oh, the bag lady,’ and then she realized that that was her second cousin. So then she turned to her son and said, ‘Next time you meet her, you shake her hand because she’s your relative.’ And this was the first time I met her. It was the first time I met her. And then I realized there was something to this, about why is that she reacted that way and why was it that all the Cowessess people that I had met up to that point and since had talked about and talked to me as an urban member and talked about other urban members in a way in which defied or didn’t go fit the norm and way in which people were supposed to have interacted with new, newly regained status people. So this is why I decided I wanted to do this research.

So with that I’ll begin. I just want to say that the talk is 'sovereignty,' and although that’s not really a term we use much in Canada, that’s really associated more with Quebec and independence of Quebec so we don’t really use this. I mean, it’s used, but it’s not a lot, not a lot for Aboriginal people. People talk about self-government or self-determination, but I’m not there, I’m here, so I’m using that term here. But just so you know, that’s not really our term that we use, although some people do use it. The main argument I wanted to make here is that the way in which Cowessess people exercise their contemporary kinship is, has been a way for them to assert their sovereignty, to assert their self-governance.

Raymond DeMallie has argued that kinship studies are a significant, but often ignored area of research within American Indian studies, suggesting that AIS scholars’ aversion to kinship research has been due to the latter’s close association with anthropology. According to DeMallie, kinship studies, with their evolutionary and cultural relativist theories, abstract taxonomy, and endless charts, seem far removed from and irrelevant to AIS and to Native communities. Yet, in pointing to examples of the negative impact of kinship breakdown on the Grassy Narrow Ojibwe and the possibility for positive change with the revitalization of the Pine Ridge Lakota kinship unit, or tiyospaye, DeMallie states that kinship is ‘fundamental to every aspect of Native American Studies.’ Accordingly, he challenged AIS scholars to ‘explore the richness of the Native American social heritage and find creative ways to build on it for the future.’ For my Ph.D. research, I took up DeMallie’s challenge by examining the importance of kinship relations in the maintenance and affirmation of individual and collective identity for members of Cowessess First Nation located in southeastern Saskatchewan. How many people know where Saskatchewan is? Come on. Okay, how many people know where Montana is? Okay, look up, right up!

Specifically in my study, I examined how Cowessess band members’ continued adherence to principles of traditional law regulating kinship has undermined the imposition of Indian defined in Canada by the Indian Act. By acknowledging kinship relations to band members who either had not been federally recognized as Indians prior to 1985 -- when the Indian Act membership ‘changed’ -- or were urban members disconnected from the reserve, this acknowledgment defies the general perception that First Nations people have internalized the legal definition of 'Indian' and in the process rendered traditional kinship meaningless. It also questions the accepted idea that conflict is the only possible outcome of any relationship between old members and newly recognized Indians. The importance of kinship to Cowessess band members blurs the boundaries (as defined by the Indian Act) among status Indians, Bill C-31s -- that was the bill that changed the membership quotes -- Métis, and non-status Indians, thus highlighting the artificiality of those boundaries.

I argue in my book or in my research, well, in my book too, which was recently published -- did I tell you? No? -- I argued that the attitude of older Cowessess band members toward new members stems from kinship practices that are historically rooted in the traditional law of the people that predates the reserve era and that have persisted since at least the nineteenth century. In the pre-reserve era, Aboriginal bands in the northern plains were relatively small, kin-based communities that relied on the unity of their members for survival. Band membership was fluid flexible, and inclusive. There were a variety of ways that individuals or groups of people could become members of a band, but what was important, what was of particular importance was that these new members assumed some sort of kinship role with its associated responsibilities.

For Cowessess people, these roles were behaviors that were carefully encoded in the traditional stories of the Cree cultural hero [Cree Language], or Elder Brother. Our Elder Brother stories were the law of the people that outlined, among other things, peoples’ social interaction including the incorporation of individuals into a band. Incorporating new band members served to strengthen social, economic, and military alliances with other bands of the same cultural group. However, many bands in the northern plains were multicultural in nature, so the creation and maintenance of alliances cut across cultural and linguistic lines. Cowessess First Nation is an example of a multicultural band because its pre-reserve composition comprised of five major cultural groups: the Plains Cree, Saulteaux, Métis, Assiniboine, and English half-breeds. The total band membership of the contemporary band is just over 4,000 people, with over 80 percent living off reserve. So 80 percent of the 4,000 live off reserve. This represents the third largest of the 75 First Nations in Saskatchewan and the largest in southern Saskatchewan. Band members live throughout the province and in every province and territory in the country, and in particular in many of the urban centers -- Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Ottawa, Toronto. However, over 1,000 band members reside in the provincial capital of Regina, which is about an hour-and-a-half drive west of the reserve. Band members also have relocated to several foreign countries. Many of these off-reserve members are men and women and their descendants who first left the reserve in the 1950s in search of employment and education. A significant number are also what is called 'C-31s.' These are, that is women who left the reserve to find employment and/or married non-status Indians and therefore lost their status, but then regained their status with the passing of Bill C-31. So once they regained their status, their children also gained status, which is what happened to me. My mom lost her status and when she was able, when the Bill C-31 was passed, she regained her status and I gained status, although it wasn’t that easy, you had to apply for it and there was red tape.

So for Cowessess then, people started to leave Cowessess by the 1950s. Men, so there were, there have been many, multiple generations of people through Cowessess who have never lost their status, but who had never lived on the reserve. These are, so there were people who lost their status, there was also multiple generations who had become disconnected from the reserve who were also impacted by the way their interaction with the reserve. My study describes how kinship for contemporary Cowessess band members -- in spite of the historical, scholarly, and legal classifications of Aboriginal people created and imposed by outsiders -- persists to define community identity and interaction based on principles outlined in the Elder Brother stories. Classifying Aboriginal people has had a profound impact on the ways that non-Aboriginal people view Aboriginal people and on how some Aboriginal people view themselves. Cowessess members’ interpretations become of great significance in order to understand how contemporary First Nations put into practice their beliefs about kinship roles and responsibilities and demonstrate that these practices and beliefs are rooted in historical cultural values.

The legal systems of pre-contact Aboriginal people, as James Zion points out, were based upon the idea of maintaining harmony in the family, the camp and the community. The failure to follow prescribed regulations could --according to what happens to Elder Brother in the stories -- result in severe negative consequences. Conversely, adhering to the positive behaviors that Elder Brother displays was seen as the ideal that all should strive to attain. An understanding of the stories facilitates an understanding of the incorporation of members into Cowessess band in the pre- and post-reserve period. The stories are also helpful in gaining insight into contemporary peoples’ ability to maintain certain aspects of their kinship roles and responsibilities. Now I’m not going to talk about the way in which Cowessess people incorporated people into their band in the pre- and post-reserve period. However, I will just note that incorporating people into bands was important for maintaining, as I said, creating and maintaining alliances with people, economic and military alliances, and this didn’t matter what culture group a person was from or even what racial group. In the early 1900s, there is evidence that at least seven white children were adopted into the,  people went from Cowessess to Winnipeg, which is about a three-hour drive or so, four-hour drive, east, and adopted seven white children. This would have been the early 1900s. So this is after post-reserve period. So not only were they incorporating people into their reserve pre-reserve, but also post-reserve.

Traditionally, stories acted to impart the philosophical ideals upon which Aboriginal societies should function. As Robert Williams notes, ‘The stories socialize children and reminded adults of their roles and place within the universe, Indians have long practiced the belief that stories have the power to sustain the many important connections of tribal life.’ The telling of stories, such as those of Elder Brother, was a means by which to convey Aboriginal philosophical meanings to the people. Elder Brother was a paradox. He could be very generous and kind, yet he also could be selfish and cruel. In the stories when he is kind, he is usually met with success; when he is cruel, he often meets a disastrous and sometimes funny, sometimes humorous end. His adventures and misadventures acted to guide the peoples’ social interaction, and because of this he is highly regarded. As Basil Johnston states about the esteem the Ojibwe have of Nanabush, ‘For his attributes, strong and weak, the Anishinaabeg came to love and understand Nanabush. They saw in him themselves. In his conduct were reflected the characters of men and women, young and old. From Nanabush, although he was a paradox, physical and spiritual being, doing good and unable to attain it, the Anishinaabeg learned.’ Niigaan James Sinclair further states, ‘Now as before, stories reflect the experiences, thoughts and knowledge important to the Anishinaabeg and collectively map the creative and critical relationships and maintain relations with each other and the world around us and when shared, cause us to reflect, to learn, to grow as families, communities and a people. Stories also indicate where we are in the universe, how we got there is not a simple one-dimensional act, but a complex historical, social and political process embedded in the containments of our collective presence, knowledge and peoplehood.’ Elder Brother stories conveyed Cowessess traditional law to the people and thus functioned as a legal institution. While this institution was unlike those in other parts of the world, it functioned in the same way. As Zion and Robert Yazzie explain, ‘When a legal institution articulates a norm or validates a custom, that is ‘law.’’ The Elder Brother stories explained the rules and expectations for normative behavior. These ideals were enshrined in the peoples’ notion of themselves, with each retelling of Elder Brother stories and with each act that could be attributed to those stories.

A number of legal scholars have linked the traditional narratives of Aboriginal peoples, whether stories, songs or prayers, to their traditional legal systems. For example, Williams points out that ‘stories are told in tribal life to educate and direct the young, to maintain the cohesiveness of the group, and to pass on traditional knowledge about the Creator, the seasons, the earth, plants, life, death, and every other subject that is important to the perpetuation of the tribe.’ John Borrows states that the traditional tribal customary principles are ‘enunciated in the rich stories, ceremonies, and traditions within First Nations. Stories express the law in Aboriginal communities, since they represent the accumulated wisdom and experience of First Nations conflict resolution.’ Donald Auger asserts that ‘the knowledge gained by individuals from storytelling was that of relationships and the importance of maintaining balance and harmony.’ Elder Brother stories reflect the moral normative behaviors that Cowessess band members were expected to follow. Through these stories, as Johnston notes, their sense of justice and fairness was promoted. While I was doing my research, in looking at Elder Brother stories, I was fortunate to stumble across a collection of stories by Alanson Skinner. Alanson Skinner was an anthropologist and in the early 1900s he travelled to Southern Manitoba and Southern Saskatchewan and he made a stop at Cowessess and collected a number of Elder Brother stories. What becomes evident in the stories that I saw from those stories that he collected was that there were these, this is where I found that the embedded codes or laws within for the people.

There was one story for example that he recorded had to do with Elder Brother being adopted into a family of wolves and although with the stories that were collected from Cowessess it’s unclear whether the wolves were already related to him or not, but what does become interesting, what does become apparent was that Elder Brother was adopted into this family and when it got time for him to leave, the father wolf said, ‘Okay, why don’t you take my son with you. You can adopt my son.’ So he took his son as his nephew and they went on the journey which is what the Elder Brother does, he journeys around a lot. And he told his nephew, ‘Make sure you don’t go by the water.’ But he did. He ended up being captured and killed by the Great Lynx, water lynx. And what we see is Elder Brother in the story rescuing his nephew and the way in which he rescues his nephew combines ingenuity, responsibility to family and these are kind of the way in which these values were passed on were through these stories and how Elder Brother would act. This is one of those stories where Elder Brother did what was good. He doesn’t always do what’s good. There’s a lot of stories he doesn’t do what’s good, but in this story he did good. He was able to rescue his nephew, bring him back to life and then move on their way, which leads to another story about a big flood. But what was important is that story outlines a number of the prescribed behaviors required in the maintenance of respectful kinship relations with Cowessess people. It shows Elder Brother demonstrating positive qualities to which people should aspire. The story highlights the value of inclusion by certain facts. Although Elder Brother was not related to wolves, although that might be disputed, he was adopted into the pack and considered a relative. The younger wolves were expected to address and treat him as an older relative and he assumed the roles and responsibility expected of a relative. In the same way he was adopted by the wolves, Elder Brother is permitted to adopt a younger wolf that Elder Brother calls nephew. However, it is when Elder Brother and the young wolf were on their travels that the kinship roles and responsibilities become more explicit. Elder Brother is responsible for the well being of the young wolf. When the young wolf goes to the water, against the instruction of Elder Brother, the listener learns that there are negative consequences for not heeding the words of elders. In searching for and rescuing his nephew, Elder Brother fulfills his responsibility not only to the young wolf but also to his other relatives, the old wolf. By entering the White Lynx village, Elder Brother exhibits characteristics like bravery, daring and ingenuity, which are all important for young males to internalize. These qualities were central tenets towards societies whose primary duty was to protect and provide for the people. In this story, Elder Brother exhibits positive characteristics with a positive outcome.

Now when I was reading these stories and I was at the same time I was conducting a literature review and I was thinking, ‘Wait a second, there’s something not right here. There’s something not right in the literature.’ The literature, the history and ethnography of Aboriginal people in Saskatchewan were all tribally based. There’s always a Plains Cree histories, Saulteaux histories, there were Assiniboine ethnographies and histories, but that didn’t reflect the experiences that I had and didn’t to me reflect the realities of Cowessess. The experiences of Cowessess First Nation members do not reflect scholars’ interpretation of Saskatchewan Aboriginal people. Scholars have emphasized tribal histories that highlight intertribal contact and relations, but nonetheless maintained distinct tribal boundaries. Tribal history approach masks the importance of kinship in band formation and maintenance. This approach is useful for understanding general historical trends of specific cultural and linguistic groups and provides the context for multi-cultural and mixed bands. However, it does not quite acknowledge that most Aboriginal groups on the northern plains of Saskatchewan were multi-cultural in composition. Why were they multi-cultural and why have scholars failed to convey their multi-culturalism was one of the things I was really thinking about when I was approaching my research.

Multi-culturalism for First Nations, for Aboriginal groups on the northern plains was important for survival, was important for military survival and economic survival. The customary kinship practices of the Cowessess people and other groups were spelled out in the Elder Brother stories. However, many scholars have not recognized or understood or simply ignored the law of the people. Without this fundamental understanding of Aboriginal cultures, many scholars have had to resort to extrapolating relations at the band level to relations at a tribal level, thereby distorting a view of Aboriginal societies. The tribal history approach ignores the importance that kinship played in band formation and maintenance. Extrapolating band-level relations from those at the tribal level has presented a confounded view of Aboriginal societies.

As a doctoral student, Neal McCloud, a member of James Smith First Nation, which is just located a couple hours north of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. He wanted to write a history of the Plains Cree. James Smith is a Plains Cree reserve. He soon relates however that his project would not be as straightforward as he first thought. ‘I had always assumed that my reserve, James Smith, was part of the Plains Cree Nation because that’s how my family identified. However, as I began to talk to various old people from reserve, I became very aware of the contingency of the label 'Plains Cree.' I became aware of the ambiguous genealogies that permeated my family tree as well as the narrative ironies that emerge when one tried to create a national discourse. In addition to the discovery of my own family tree, I became increasingly aware that the situation on James Smith was widespread and the assertion of a pure essentialized Cree identity or even a Plains Cree identity was extremely misleading and limiting.’ McCloud began to realize that the people of his reserve, like many in Saskatchewan, were of mixed ancestry. He found that ‘the reserve system solidified, localized and de-simplified the linguistic diversity and therefore the cultural diversity, which once existed in Western Canada.’ McCloud discovered that members of James Smith were descendents of Plains Cree, Saulteaux, Métis, and Dene people. The tribal specific approach fails to explain the existence of multi-cultural bands such as Cowessess and James Smith in the pre-treaty period. Contrary to tribal view, most Aboriginal bands on the northern plains in Saskatchewan were kin based and multi-cultural. Plains Cree, Saulteaux, Assiniboine and Métis individuals shared similar cultural kinship practices that allowed them to integrate into other bands.

Now to be clear, mutli-cultural bands like Cowessess did not form singular hybridized cultures, but rather were able to maintain multiple cultures. That is, this is not to suggest however that cultural sharing did not occur, but that there were significant numbers of various cultures within bands that allowed these individuals to be incorporated into the band without having their culture, without having to acculturate into one specific cultural group. So when Alanson Skinner published some of his findings, he talked about clans. He talked about clan systems with the Saulteaux. Now I should mention, the Saulteaux are what we call 'Saulteaux' are Plains Ojibwe. Those are Anishinaabe people. So he was talking about the clans of the Saulteaux people. And so on Cowessess, he found that there were two clans, the Eagle clan and the Blue Jay clan. Now what was interesting is that there were no clans for Cree people. Cree people didn’t have clans. So the only clans that were on Cowessess in the early 1900s were these two clans for Saulteaux people. So 30 years after settling on reserves, Saulteaux members of Cowessess were still known to belong to their clan. So they had lived on the reserve together for over 30 years but still had maintained their clans. Skinner also collected, these stories that he collected, another thing was interesting. He collected these stories, these Elder Brother stories, and he published them in 1913. But what he did when he published them, the title of the article that he published it under were Plains Cree Stories. He published them as Plains Cree Stories with a footnote saying that these stories were the same with the Plains Cree and the Saulteaux people and the Saulteaux people instead didn’t use the term [Ojibwe language], they used the Nanabush. So we see how the essentializing of their cultures are beginning with what Skinner, but other factors are at play here as well.

There is anecdotal evidence to suggest that there was some culture sharing between Plains Cree and Saulteaux band members. One elder once told me that the old people like my grandfather spoke what she called a 'half-breed Cree.' Now when she said half-breed Cree, I was thinking she meant Michif, which is the Métis language, a mixture of French and Cree or English and Cree so there’s a Michif language. But that is not what she meant. She said it wasn’t, that wasn’t what they spoke. They spoke a Cree/Saulteaux language. So there was a mixture of Cree and Saulteaux. Their languages would start to become mixed. So I asked her if she could understand that language and she said 'no,' she couldn’t understand that language because for her she was Assiniboine and that wasn’t her language. And so she was still identifying as an Assiniboine woman who spoke or at least could understand Assiniboine, but could not understand half-breed Cree, as she called it.

Individuals from various cultures were able to coexist in the same band because they shared similar cultural attributes. A central cultural trait was the way in which kinship was practiced. They all followed the same kind of kinship rules. They all followed the same kinship rules. It didn’t matter if they were Assiniboine or Cree or Saulteaux or Métis and what’s important is that the Cree and Saulteaux are very similar linguistically and culturally they’re very similar. Assiniboine, they’re Siouxs, those are Sioux people, very different language, but they also follow the same kinship practices and so did the Métis. And the Métis are very important when considering the fact that they are supposed to be and they usually are described as being both culturally and significantly racially distinct from First Nations people. But if they were that distinct racially and culturally distinct, why was it there are so many Métis people in the bands pre-reserve? And I do talk a little bit about that, well, talk a lot about that in my dissertation.

In 1985, when Bill C-31 amended the Indian Act and altered band membership codes, many First Nation people voiced their displeasure. The new membership codes allowed those who had lost their status and their children to regain their status. The majority of them were women but there was also a mechanism in place for men to voluntarily give up their status and usually they had to meet certain criteria to enfranchise, what’s called enfranchise. But the majority of people who had lost their status was women when they married non-Indians. As reported in the media, these tensions, and there was tension between, there was lots of tension between those who had status and those who didn’t. As reported in the media, these tensions were due to competition over resources and issues of authenticity and governance that were probably too complex to capture the mainstream, the attention of most Canadians. Bill C-31 and the complex set of policies and legislation implemented by the Canadian government to define federal Indian status and band membership engendered issues of authenticity, government funding for First Nations and influenced individual and collective responses to the new members. The legal debate couched in terms such as tradition, culture, self-government and colonial oppression made it clear that many First Nation people had either internalized the imposed definition of 'Indian,' had employed these definitions for their own benefit or had political reasons for supporting the continued if temporary use of the definitions.

Cowessess First Nation’s political leaders were not a part of this national debate over Bill C-31. In the interviews I conducted with Cowessess people showed that in contrast to positions of most First Nations leaders, Cowessess band members had a relatively high tolerance for members who had regained their status through Bill C-31. These feelings are consistent with the cultural values expressed by band members, which placed importance on maintaining family ties and which are consistent with the values of kinship found in the law of the people. Many responded, mentioned that they felt that it was wrong that First Nations women had lost their status when they married non-Indian people and believed that women were entitled to being reinstated. Others stated that Bill C-31 didn’t go far enough because there are still many relatives who are not eligible to be reinstated. This is not to say that all were in agreement with Bill C-31. However, the overwhelming majority of people I interviewed formally and talked to informally felt that Bill C-31 was a positive for the band.

In fact, this one quote, this one interviewee that I had summed it up best and here’s a quote: ‘It never really made much of a difference, Bill C-31. Other reserves were different than Cowessess in their treatment to Bill C-31 where most of their members, the other reserve band members, stay on reserve and for them bringing in people who were Bill C-31s created a bit of jealousy. So many other bands made a rule that Bill C-31s weren’t band members. Cowessess did not do that, probably because we are more open than that in that most of our people live off reserve. Our people have been marrying other people for a long time, white people included, for generations by now. In that sense it -- including Bill C-31 band members -- is nothing new to us. We are a small reserve. They’re all Indians. On our reserve, 80 percent of our people leave and marry other people so in that sense when Bill C-31 came along, you had two extremes where one was very strict about who were Indians, the other extreme maybe people wouldn’t want to be inclusive of the members they bring in. So Cowessess would be more on the other extreme of being more accepting. There are some Cowessess people who have a hard view, but the majority don’t.’ So this explanation acknowledged their historical marriage practices of Cowessess people how that acted to incorporate people into the band and it also recognized the fact that Cowessess people understand that marriage practice, this kind of marriage practice was a cultural trait. Though there were some who viewed Bill C-31 as having negative impact, most saw it as having a positive, as a positive for the band. Many were, they were happy that their relatives were able to regain their status. Many respondents however also stated that Bill C-31 didn’t go far enough. Nonetheless, in the interviews it became clear that unlike other bands Bill C-31 members were welcome in the band.

In 1992, another event happened that demonstrates the way in which Cowessess people viewed kinship and the impact it has on their social and political situation. In 1992, Canada and the province of Saskatchewan signed an agreement with 22 Saskatchewan First Nations. This was the Treaty Land Entitlement Framework Agreement. Now this framework agreement, what it was, it provided the mechanism by which First Nations would be able to gain the land that they were entitled to through treaty, but had not up to that point. Cowessess made a claim to be a part of that group, but their claim had not been validated. To have a claim validated, a First Nation had to demonstrate that the original band census that was used to survey the reserve was incorrect. The stumbling block for Cowesses was that the federal government had insisted that the band members, the original band members census for Cowessess had been 470, which was 130 more than the reserve was surveyed for. However, Cowessess had argued in fact it was much greater than that. One of the stipulations to get the TLE [Treaty Land Entitlement] claim validated was that an individual’s name had to appear on a band’s annuity pay list in two consecutive years to be counted towards the claim. Cowessess couldn’t prove that. Cowessess negotiators had noticed that there were many people who had accepted annuities one year, but who then never again appeared on the pay list. Cowessess argued that these people did not appear the second time because they had died. Indian Affairs argued that the people might have gone to other bands, taken Métis scrip or left Canada entirely to join relatives on American reservations in Montana or North Dakota. Cowessess researchers determined that the people in question did not appear on any other band list in Canada or United States nor in the scrip records. They also found no trace of them in the records of the Hudson Bay Company, which would have been an important source of income. Cowessess then argued that these people be included in the claim by linking their disappearance from historical records to Edgar Dewdney’s 1880s starvation policy. What’s that you say? I’ll tell you.

In the 1880s, the Canadian government under the orders of Dewdney who was at that time the Lieutenant Governor of Northwest Territories, implemented a starvation policy in order to persuade 3,000 to 5,000 Indians, First Nations people to leave the Cyprus Hills region of Saskatchewan, which is in southwestern Saskatchewan. He considers his policy a success. ‘I look upon the removal of some 3,000 Indians from Cyprus Hills and scattering them through the country as a solution to one of our main difficulties as it was found impossible at times to have such control as was desirable over such a large number of worthless and lazy Indians, the concourse of malcontents and reckless Indians from all the bands in the territories. Indians already on the reserves will now be more settled as no place of rendezvous will be found where food can be had without a return of work being extracted.’ Terrence Pelchat, the Treaty Land Entitlement Manager for Cowessess during the time of the negotiations, linked Cowessess's position regarding the pay list to Dewdney’s policies. ‘Cowessess claimed that these persons died on the prairies during the year between treaty payments. It was the federal government policy at that time to withhold food and rations to certain Indians and Cowessess's claim was that Indians starved on the Plains because of it. We argued that the federal government should not benefit in that case because it was their policy, their own policy that killed them and they can’t benefit now by not paying Cowessess land benefits because Cowessess members were dead and couldn’t show up for the pay list counts.’ The federal government has never acknowledged a starvation policy or its devastating affects on Cowessess people. The government was reluctant for a discussion of this issue to enter into the public realm so Indian Affairs decided not to challenge Cowessess on the issue. They agreed to include these people on Cowessess though each name had to be reviewed individually and verified to see if they could be included.

So what happened with Cowessess is that they got up, when they got up to about 810 names, or sorry, they got up to about 700 names. They got up to about 700 names and Cowessess said, ‘How many more names do you have?’ They said about 300. The negotiators said they couldn’t go that high. They cannot, every name that they presented was getting verified, was getting included, but they knew, the negotiators knew they couldn’t go that high so they decided that what they could do is, they can reach a negotiated number. Now the down side was that they didn’t get the claim that they should have got but they may never have gotten that claim because the federal government wouldn’t have paid the money or at least that’s what the negotiator, the federal negotiator said. So they ended up with a number of 810 negotiated. So the only band in Saskatchewan with a title claim that doesn’t have a hard number with their figure, but they have a negotiated number 810. But what that says, although they know they have a good 190 more names. So they went from 470 to 800, but they know they had 1,000. Those people that were not included were all people that died as a fact, they claim that died of starvation due to the starvation policy and that was from one band. That was from one band. So the importance of the TLE to Cowessess then in terms of asserting their culture identity is summed up by this, to the question, do you think there was any kind of connection between the TLE and the importance of family?

This participant responded by saying that TLE, sort of tying TLE to treaty rights, maintenance of family and the social dislocation of band members. This is his answer. ‘Yeah, you look at what we didn’t have. We were entitled to this [certain amount of land] and we didn’t get it. What did we miss because of the result of that? We have 3,080,’ at this time, ‘We have 3,000 people. 80 percent of them live off reserve. Well, could it be because we didn’t have half our land? Could it be that the half that we didn’t get, we lost a quarter?’ They lost another quarter, so they didn’t get a whole bunch of land through TLE, but they also lost a quarter of their land was alienated illegally through fraud. So they lost another part of their land. ‘Could it be we lost a quarter of it through government fraud? What happens when people leave? They no longer have the support of the community. They have to take their children somewhere else and they raise their family without the support of back home, without the support of the reserve. If you don’t have the reserve to live on, where are you? Where are you going to go? I guess that is why Cowessess has such a big membership leap. That’s why so many people left the reserve by the 1950s. That’s why we have so many people who have left. So to me, that is what TLE means. When you look at it from a treaty rights point of view and it wasn’t until we got $46 million, it was only then that I realized how valuable our treaty right was and that TLE is a treaty right and that treaty right was supposed to somehow guarantee the security of Cowessess people and if we never got that, then that’s what happened. Our people lost security. So that’s what happens to Indians when they don’t have their land. Indians lost their status of the reserve. Indians without land are nothing. So that is what TLE is. It represents what happened historically. It answers why there are so many off the reserve. It answers why the social conditions are the way they are. It also offers some kind of hope for the future now that we can reconnect with the land. We know what the land represents to us, how we can use that to our benefit. I think we have a hell of a future. Maybe I won’t see it, but I know my family will. So TLE in terms of land, I think we just don’t know how important it is to us. To me, that’s what I think. I think that the treaty right to land can be fulfilled. I think what would happen if all of our treaty rights were fulfilled. We don’t know what we have until we see it’s gone. When we get $46 million, you know what you were missing before and you know what the treaty right was that you were fighting for. Nobody knew that I don’t think. We had our past leaders, they understood the importance. If they didn’t fight for it, we would have,  what would we have?’ So the TLE for this band member represents hope, but it also represents the fulfillment of treaty. It represents the connection to family. It also represented, he also mentioned that it also represents the sacrifice of the ancestors. Their ancestors provided a legacy. Even though they were not originally not counted as being a part of the band, they were part of the band and the $47 million, that’s how much Cowessess received in their claim. As a result of the TLE was the legacy of those band members who starved to death on the plains as a result of the Canadian government.

Traditional stories help us to understand how Aboriginal people view and practice their kinship relations. This is perceived by many as being what differentiates them from mainstream Canadians. It is of little wonder then that DeMallie has implored Native Studies scholars to be creative in their approach to recognize and gain a better understanding of the importance of Native kinship patterns. Kinship patterns do not exist in a vacuum. They interact with the social environment that surrounds the people who exercise them. Like other cultural aspects of the band, kinship practices of Cowessess have changed considerably since members have settled on the reserve. Some of these changes were forcibly imposed on them while others were adapted by members to meet the challenges of the new era. What may be surprising to many is the degree to which contemporary kinship practices, whether customary or new adaptations, still observe the principles found within the law of the people. Elder Brother stories help to explain Cowessess kinship practice of the pre- and early reserve period when people were easily incorporated to the band including the adoption of white people, as I mentioned earlier. The Canadian government’s assimilations policies however sought to undermine the law of the people including the regulation guiding kinship practices. These attempts were in many respects successful, yet for many Cowessess people, the notion of kinship -- as epitomized in Elder Brother’s behavior -- continue to obtain demonstrating the ideals of the traditional law of the people remain implicitly central to principles guiding band member’s social interaction. The extent to which current Cowessess members tell the stories or even know the story is not certain. What is apparent however is that the values encoded in those stories have persisted. These valued didn’t just come from anywhere, they came from these stories and from pre-reserve and early reserve periods to the present. Unfortunately, scholars have not taken Elder Brother stories into account when describing historical northern plains Aboriginal societies, even though many Cowessess members may not have heard any of the Elder Brother stories,

So in conclusion, the way in which Cowessess people have interacted and continue to interact and practice their cultural kinship has allowed them to make certain arguments that, political arguments like with the Treaty Land Entitlement, like the way in which they have incorporated Bill C-31 members, that have, and we don’t know to what extent the other bands could have benefited by using this approach, but what we do know is that by incorporating their kinship practices that they have been able to maintain over the years has helped them in putting forth political argument that will in the end strengthen their sovereignty and provide for a better future for them. Thank you.


Manley Begay:

Thank you, Rob. Like I said, listening to Rob makes me think of north of the 49th parallel, it’s just so close and there are a lot of interactions between First Nation peoples up in Canada as well as those down south. For instance, my people, I’m Navajo and we have relatives all the way up into the northern part of Canada, the Dene people. We’re very close relatives. We speak the same language. And so as Rob was talking about his First Nation I was thinking about, it’s really a story of love because of interrelationships and intermarriages that went on and about the federal government’s meddling in the affairs of Native people leading to some misconstrued policies that really screwed things up. It’s about some sense of regaining strength, losing strength and regaining strength once again and providing a sense of hope for what could be the future. So these are sort of things that came out at me and ultimately, I was thinking about love again because of the interrelationships that went on and how do you move a society forward. So those are things that I sort of thought of as Rob was talking. A couple questions, by the way we have food next door in 332. So if you go out the door here, just turn right and just follow the arrows and there’s food and refreshments there as well. Rob might want to field some questions. No questions? Okay, let’s go eat. Questions please.

Robert Innes:

It’s good for me.

Nance Parezo:

I’ll ask him something.

Robert Innes:


Nancy Parezo:

Somebody did listen. We all listened. Rob, there’s a lot of groups like I was thinking of St. Regis with the Iroquoian groups. Do you think if people started redoing the histories on a lot of the groups that are going back you’d find the same type of things going on that you’re finding up here? It’s kind of a unit-of-analysis question back to your dissertation days. And how can we think, if we’re doing more history, how can we keep it being so isolationist like it was in Skinner’s day? These are little, these are communities that are like floating in time and space and that was never reality. So what do you think we can do?

Robert Innes:

Well, I think that, yes, I think that for most communities, I don’t know about all communities but I always think that generally speaking that most communities you would see that there are, the makeup of communities are much more complex than we think. I would think so and that most communities had mechanism to incorporate people without making them give up or inculturate, assimilate into the group that they’re, but it all depends though, there are, in Saskatchewan there were the young dogs who were Cree-Assiniboine, sorry, yeah, they’re Cree-Assiniboine that did develop a hybridized Cree-Assiniboine culture. So it does happen that the people do come together and create a new culture or if individuals go into a group, they may assimilate, but it depends on how many people are going into the group. So for Cowessess, there were significant numbers of each of these groups that they were able to maintain their culture or distinct culture, distinct identities.

Nancy Parezo:

I was thinking like the...too who are going both through time with alliances with the Crow sometime and then Blackfeet and that’s just,

Robert Innes:

And we don’t know, even on Cowessess with Saulteaux and Cree, because they were already fairly close culturally and linguistically and they were starting to become hybridized with the language, but the Assiniboine weren’t. So that was kind of interesting. It might have something to do with the degree of difference of the culture that people are interacting with.

Manley Begay:

More questions?

Audience member:

It’s really interesting to think about populations being these very dynamic things and how, and I know nothing about Canadian politics, but in the U.S. the policies have all been created around the homogeneity and stagnant nature of the populations so that now what you start to see as people do move off their reservations and live and love and marry in urban settings and more and more children are not full blood one tribe, you see tribes now trying to address do they have to lower their quantum. It’s almost like it’s inevitable with the structure that’s in place that the federal government can make it so that there is no one who is American Indian anymore.

Robert Innes:

Well, that’s where it becomes I think falling into the categories that are being placed out by the colonizer. So what I see with Cowessess is that there were, to be a Cowessess band member you could have been part Assiniboine, part Cree. My mom, my grandmother was Métis, my grandfather spoke a Cree-Saulteaux language, but still we’re Cowessess people. But most people would identify as Cree or they would identify as Saulteaux so they essentialize their identity. And when I ask people, ‘What kind of reserve is this? What’s this reserve? Would you say it’s Cree or Saulteaux or what, ’ Some would say Cree, some would say, but a lot of people said mixed. But when we take on the definition that you have to be three quarters or whatever Cheyenne to be a part of this band or this tribe, well, chances are there was never any, it’s been a long time since there was a full-blooded Cheyenne. Not to say they weren’t full-blooded Indians, but I would guess that prior to the reservation, settling on the reservation that they were culturally mixed. But because we accepted and we have to accept or we don’t, but people have, this definition that well you have to be three quarters Cheyenne, now, and the clock starts fresh from Dawes Act on, I guess. So yeah, I think that’s how we, by following that way then that’s when you can tell that the kinship practices are being undermined.

Manley Begay:

Any other questions?

Audience member:

Do you speak your language?

Robert Innes:

No, I don’t. No. The language on our reserve is, there’s only a few speakers left. There’s only a few speakers left. Part of that I think, it was interesting because I was talking to, they’re teaching it in the schools, teaching Cree in the schools, which is interesting because she was from another part of the province which is a predominately Cree community, very little intermarriage with other groups. She was saying that the language that she hears people talk, they have this ‘shhhh’ sound she says and she was attributing it to Michif because she’s saying that’s Michif, but I’m thinking, ‘No, that’s not Michif. I think that’s Ojibwe. That’s Anishinaabe and that’s the way they speak.’ So that’s part of the, I think that’s where that comes from, but yeah, the language is almost gone with the fluent speakers, although they’re introducing it in the schools.

Audience member:

How are they reintroducing it then, because if there’s only several or a few fluent speakers, then how is it, ?

Robert Innes:

What they’re introducing is Cree. They’re not introducing the language that my grandfather spoke or they’re not introducing Assiniboine or even Saulteaux. They’re introducing Cree. So this is part of the essentializing of the identity because they see themselves as Cree or Saulteaux, but they’re not going to be introducing this mixed language.

Audience member:

So what’s your thought process on the other nations now that are starting to lose their languages?

Robert Innes:

Well, that’s, one of the things you hear a lot is that if you don’t have your language, you’re no longer Indian. How can you be Indian if you don’t understand the language, you don’t understand the concepts that are in the language? And I don’t quite agree with that, I can’t. But I see the importance of the language and the importance of reclaiming the language. However, I think what happens is that people -- when they think of culture and think about Indian culture --they think of the more public displays of culture, the language, traditional ceremonies, powwows. They think of those public displays, but they very seldom think of the everyday things that you do that comes from your culture and that really defines you as who you are, and that to me is how you interact with your relatives and who you consider to be a relative. So when there’s someone sick at the hospital and 40 people show up and they’re told, ‘Well, this is only for immediate family,’ and you say, ‘Well, this is only like a third of us.’ And Native people are like, ‘What’s wrong with this,’ because everyone’s thinking, ‘This is the way everyone is.’ But reality, no, no one’s, not everyone’s like that. And so although I think that language is important and those other public displays of culture are important in defining and asserting and creating and maintaining culture, but they’re also the more difficult. It’s a lot more difficult. A friend of mine, he wanted to learn how to speak Ojibwe and he’s done a pretty good job in doing it, too, as an adult and we were living in Toronto at the time. He went to an Ojibwe language class. There were 35 people there. There were about 10 or 11 white people, the rest were Ojibwe. About three weeks later, four weeks later, there was still the 10 or 11 white people there, but only one Ojibwe because it’s not easy. It’s not easy. But maintaining your kinship is much easier. I’m not saying that you should do one over the other. If you can do both, you should do both, but I think to acknowledge the importance that kinship plays and how it is culturally rooted is I think important.

Manley Begay:

Clearly culture is very complex, culture is ever evolving, culture is not static, and I think Rob has given us a lot to think about. So with that we’ll conclude, but let’s give him another round of applause.

Robert Innes:

Thank you.


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