I honestly wondered what all the fuss was about. A Grade 8 student from Balcarres school, Tenille Starr, wore a sweathirt to school with the words, “Got land? [front of the shirt] Thank an Indian [on the back].” She wore it to school on the first day after Christmas vacation, without incident. Later, however, she was told to change because the sweatshirt offended some people who thought the message was racist. The school later relented.
So what’s the problem? The message on the shirt sums up Saskatchewan history in five words. First Nations had been estalished on the land since time immemorial. In a harsh, forbidding climate, they evolved a lifestyle hinging on what the land provided.
Europeans arrived, and began settling the land. They brought disease, and a much different approach to the land. Whereas First Nations saw the land as a gift from the Creator to be shared, Europeans saw it as a resource to be individually owned and exploited. Even as they understood the threat to their way of life, First Nations helped the Europeans survive in a foreign environment. They partnered with the newcomers in the fur trade.
After their conquest of New France in 1760, the British wanted to protect the interests of First Nations to ensure their allegiance and to prevent having to fight any more wars, especially with the threat of revolution brewing to the south in the Thirteen Colonies. The Royal Proclamation of 1763 reserved lands for First Nations peoples and ensured that any access to those lands would need to be negotiated in public by representatives of the British crown and documented in written treaties. With the Royal Proclamaion, the Crown recognized aboriginal peoples as nations, and established a precedent for the Numbered Treaties, which made extensive Western expansion possible.
In the late nineteenth century, more and more Europeans came to settle in the West, which the Dominion of Canada purchased from the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1869. With the bison herds disappearing and their people dying from contagious diseases the Europeans brought with them, First Nations could see that their traditional way of life would no longer be sustainable. They would need to find a way to assure their future in a changing world. The Numbered Treaties provided just such an opportunity.
The First Nations never intended to give up or sell their land. Their intention in negotiating the treaties was to share the land with the newcomers through witaskewin, a relationship allowing peoples of different origins to live together in peace and harmony. They would be able to preserve as much of their way of life as possible, and still obtain the knowledge and means to thrive in a world that looked much different. The Crown would have access to the land. Ultimately, First Nations preserved some land for their people, and obtained education, a medicine chest, protection from starvation, and training in agriculture (or so the treaties stipulated). Settlers could settle the land in peace, and develop it to the depth of a plow. They could practice their religion, continue their way of life, speak their languages, live in freedom. If anyone in Saskatchewan has land, then, it is because of the Numbered Treaties, just as Tenille’s sweatshirt indicates.
Anyone tempted to say in response to that slogan that First Nations peoples get so much for free needs to check the facts. In European phraseology, First Nations people paid for their education and health care for all future generations when their leaders and the Crown signed the Numbered Treaties beginning in 1871. Those treaties were to last as long as the grass grows, the sun shines, and the rivers flow.
Treaty Education has been mandatory in this province since November, 2007. Reaction to a simple sweatshirt shows just how vital education around treaties is. Treaties benefit everyone. After all, we are all Treaty people. That should no longer be a surprise to anyone.
For more information on the Royal Proclamation, see Aboriginals: Treaties and Relations http://www.canadiana.ca/citm/themes/aboriginals/aboriginals3_e.html .