You are on page 1of 20

Little Shell History Tour

A narrative of our 2014 Nehiyaw-Pwat homeland tour

Blog created by Kim McKeehan, Councillor, Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians of


Taansi! Boozhoo! Bonjour! Hello!

I am a member of the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians of Montana touring the traditional
territory of the Plains Chippewa, Cree, and Metis in order to learn history and renew friendships
across the ‘medicine line’ (in Canada) and at Turtle Mountain Reservation.

My companions are elders of the Little Shell Tribe and Nicholas Vrooman, writer of The Whole
Country was…One Robe: The Little Shell Tribe’s America.

Come along and learn with us about history, language and celebration!

(Kim McKeehan)

Stone Child College on Rocky Boy’s Reservation

August 19, 2014 /

Members of the Little Shell Tribe are related to the Chippewa-Cree of Rocky Boy’s reservation
in the same way we are related to the Chippewa and Metis of Turtle Mountain: we are
descendants of the Pembina settlement and the Nehiyaw Pwat confederacy. Our group was
received in Box Elder, Montana, by Stone Child College president Dr. Nate St. Pierre. He
introduced us to the Cree language preservation team, led by Thelma Stanley:

Thelma, her sister Ethel and elder Helen Parker are teaching the Cree language using the syllabic
alphabet popularized in the mid-1800’s. Each of the forty symbols represents a sound and,
Thelma adds, each has its own song. Signs around campus utilize the syllabary as well as
phonetic spelling and English translation. This sign identifies the name of our current month

After enjoying lunch with these folks, plus one of the founders of the Northern Cree drum
group–Charlie Wood–we took a tour of historic sites around the reservation and met with the
college librarian. The SCC library has recently been expanded to include rooms for children and
adults to connect and learn.

Stone Child College librarian, Joy Bridwell, gave us a tour of the archives and shared a list of
holdings to contribute to the Little Shell archives being created through this project.
Common ground was also witnessed as yet another of our relatives expressed his commitment to
ending violence against Native women (remember Walking With Our Sisters?). Dr. Nate St.
Pierre is acting chairman of the Montana Native Women’s Coalition, which offers services,
conducts workshops and raises awareness about this epidemic. I’ve added the MNWC website to
the Blogroll to the right if you want more information.

We ended our visit with a commitment to continue working together to bring language and
culture to our mutual descendants. Next, members of our committees will meet with Great Falls
Public Schools to see how we can achieve our common goals. We will also continue building
relationships with Rocky Boy tribal members as we share in a ceremony brought by our Turtle
Mountain relatives at 9 AM on August 23rd (before the Pow-Wow) at the First People’s Buffalo
Jump State Park.

Maarsi, Kinanaskomitin, Miigwech, Merci,
Thank You
July 3, 2014 / Leave a comment

We’ve been home for a few days, resting up from this amazing journey and settling in to what
we have learned. Travelling throughout our historic homeland we discovered that the great
diversity reflected by our current membership is consistent with our culture over the centuries.
And we have seen how this diverse population is unified through language: story, history and

If you find some of the history here surprising, you are in good company. Many of our parents
and grandparents repressed their history and culture in order to avoid the very real threat of
deportation or because they believed assimilating into American culture would keep people from
starving. American textbooks have always oppressed the histories of the indigenous people here.
It is time for these histories to be known, for our children to inherit the truth.

Our primary intention was to research language revitalization, make connections and purchase
supplies for that project. That has been accomplished and more. The most important result of this
trip is that our elders have been deeply educated about our history and culture. This “cultural
capital” has become a spark that will grow as these elders pass that education on to others.

We will be travelling to Stone Child College in the coming weeks, so look for at least one other
post to this blog. In the meantime, enjoy the links posted to the right.

Maarsi, Kinanaskomitin, Miiwech, Merci, Thank you!

Turtle Mountain
June 27, 2014 /

Covered in lakes, the 6 x 12 mile Turtle Mountain Chippewa Indian Reservation (and
surrounding trust land) is home to 13,000 Michif and Ojibwe Pembina descendants. Fluent
speakers of both of these languages, as well as Cree and Assiniboine, live here. Turtle Mountain
Community College retains instructors of Michif and Ojibwe languages, both of whom need our
prayers as they recover from illness. Dr. Jim Davis, college president and our gracious guide,
estimated that the community is losing one of their fluent speakers every couple of weeks. This
alarming statistic is representative of Native American languages at-large. Dr. Davis is
committed to prioritizing revitalization in the months and years to come, and invited the
Montana Little Shell community to work with Turtle Mountain to create mutually beneficial
programs including web-based classes and immersion camps.

Dr. Davis introduced our delegation to JT Shining OneSide, who shared cultural resources with
us, including the Seven Teachings or neeshwaswi gikinamagawinan. These words are containers
of Ojibwe culture, including imagery and stories, that inspire the mission of the college:

Birchbark scrolls are yet another form of language utilized by traditional Ojibwe people. Ancient
stories drawn on the soft inner bark of the Birch tree have been used to transmit original
instructions since time immemorial. Reading these scrolls is a sacred duty passed down orally in
the Ojibwe language. We stayed at the Skydancer Hotel, named for the story of a young couple
whose grief for their daughter is transformed through a sacred journey wherein the young girl is
returned to the stars from which we all descend. Richard LaFramboise’s reproduction of the
scroll is displayed in the lobby. This image depicts one of four tasks the father is asked to
perform, capturing his daughter from the spirit world in an enchanted satchel:

Richard and his wife, Becky, treated us to a traditional meal including bear meat gravy, wild rice,
and chokecherry mash. We were joined by descendants of historical leaders Thomas Little Shell
and Francis Cree, and shared an evening of storytelling. Here is Richard, a nationally recognized
artist, with some of his bead work creations:

We left this gathering with the understanding that the revitalization of language must be
enfolded in the process of relationship building within a broad cultural framework that includes
traditional art forms and story. Richard and his family join the circle of relations that are ready
and willing to assist the Little Shell of Montana in that endeavor.

June 26, 2014 /

I woke up tender-hearted yesterday as we headed back across the border into North Dakota along
the Red River. Although my father’s life was cut short by alcoholism, he did say some things to
me about our family history. I remember his sweet face flushed with pride as he told me that we
are from Pembina. I didn’t know what it meant, but I knew it was important and I always loved
the sound of the word. Standing on the land called Pembina, some of the most fertile soil in the
world, I felt the weight of ancestral grief. The irony of his and many other lives whose health and
wealth would have been guaranteed here, but which were disrupted, displaced, and disinherited,
brought a silent reverie to my mind.

The Pembina homeland was lost when Ojibwe Metis, travelling farther and farther into the
northern plains for buffalo hunts, were displaced by Scandinavian squatters. The Old Crossing
Treaty was the United States’ answer to this dilemma, and it remains the Little Shell Tribe’s
foundation for federal recognition. Through many generations we have stayed connected to our
original birthright through the struggle to be paid for what we lost, but in truth we have not lost
what was most important: we recognize ourselves. As descendants of the original people of this
place and a community where indigenous people lived in harmony with European settlers, we
have a birthright that no one can take away and a large community of relatives that stand ready to
come alongside us. It’s time.

Louis Riel
June 25, 2014

Winnipeg’s most famous son, Louis Riel, is revered as a national hero. He is considered a
founder of the Confederacy of Canada and a human rights leader on par with Martin Luther
King, Jr. However, he is barely known south of the 49th parallel even though he lived and taught
school in Montana. He was also deeply associated with the Landless Indians located in the

United States. Here he is posing with Little Bear (Imasees) who negotiated with Stone Child for
the Rocky Boy reservation:

Riel received a world-class education in Quebec, which is why the Michif and First Nations
chose him as their president and spokesman when the Hudson’s Bay Company began divesting
itself of Rupert’s Land. As the land they had been living on for generations began to be sold out

from under them without their consent, the Michif of Red River settlement consolidated their
voices. They wrote a declaration of independence, a constitution and declared a second
provincial government. However, after being accused of a murder during the Red River
Resistance of 1869-70, Riel began living in exile in the United States. He traveled back to
Canada to lead the North-West Resistance, where he ultimately surrendered in order to take his
plea for Metis rights to a public forum. Instead he was hung for high treason.

The deep racism illustrated by this poster kept the Metis from gaining rights or recognition for a
century after his death:

Otchipemsu’uk, “the people who own themselves”
June 24, 2014 / 1 Comment

Winnipeg arose around the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers. When the first
Hudson’s Bay Company men came down the Red River Chippewa (also known as Saulteaux,
Soto, Ojibwe, and Anishinaabe) families took them in and thus began the great Metis nation. By
definition, the Metis in Canada are descendants of the first settlers here where the woodlands
meet the plains. This is also true of Little Shell’s band of Chippewa-Cree, whose families can be
traced to the Red River settlements of Pembina and St. Boniface. Even before first contact with
Europeans, this area was a great center for commerce in the indigenous world. When French and
Scottish men married into Anishinaabe families, their combined strengths made the Metis leaders
of the northern plains buffalo culture.
Before it became a part of the British Empire, this part of the country was 80% Metis. Manitoba
became a province in 1870 but the majority of the Metis/Michif population didn’t receive ‘scrip’
or property rights. Twenty years later the Metis population of Manitoba had dwindled to 6%.
Many of these families moved west into Saskatchewan and also the Turtle Mountains. By then
the buffalo had been nearly exterminated and the Hudson’s Bay Company had laid off their
Michif/Metis hunters. These became what the Cree called otchipemsu’uk or “those who own
themselves” because they were not beholden to any employer or government. Descendants of the
landless or road allowance people dispersed from this area are the modern constituents of the
Manitoba Metis Federation.

Lawrence Barkwell, one of the architects of this amazing organization, welcomed us to the Louis
Riel Institute (LRI) located within the walls of this building. LRI is the center for education and
culture in the Federation, which houses every department a modern government needs to serve
its people. There is even a natural resources department, which issues Metis Harvester cards
allowing traditional subsistence practices to flourish.
The Metis had to fight a long legal battle to gain this level of recognition, beginning with the
right to sue the government for something that happened in 1870. Today there are provincial
Metis Federations in Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and B.C. which serve hundreds
of thousands of Michif.

The Bell of Batoche
June 22, 2014 / Leave a comment

As we gathered to say farewell to our hosts at the Gabriel Dumont Institute, we were present for
a historic event! The Bell of Batoche arrived under the careful attention of Guy Savoie. As he
tells it, the bell–christened Marie Antoinette–was stolen as “spoils of war” after the 1885
resistance and taken to Frog Lake before it was shipped to Millbrook, Ontario where it was used
in the fire hall and displayed at the Royal Canadian Legion. BillyJo DeLaRonde retrieved it in
1991 and has kept it hidden until today. There is controversy as to whether this bell is authentic
as some people believe the original bell was donated to the St. Laurent cathedral which
subsequently burned to the ground. Mr. Savoie, however, believes not only that this is the
original–and tells a convincing oral history to prove it–but he also believes that the return of the
bell heralds the reunification of the Metis people. Just as the bell once called Metis warriors to
the Battle of Batoche, it now calls us to revitalize our culture.

Norman Fleury Sings a Michif Drinking Song

June 22, 2014 / Leave a comment

Leona and Caroline both heard this song from their parents, did you?

National Aboriginal Day, part two

June 22, 2014 / 1 Comment

After a full day of learning at Batoche and the beautiful St. Laurent cathedral just downriver, we
stopped for tea at Gabriel Dumont’s final home. After being pardoned by the Canadian
government and spending some time touring with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show as well as
public speaking, Dumont retired to ‘Gabriel’s Crossing’ and lived as a ferryman shuttling carts
across the Saskatchewan river. Today Maria Campbell, a jewel of the Metis Nation, met us there
for tea. Ms. Campbell began her fame as the author of a novel, Halfbreed, which describes her
childhood in the road allowance community and her years as a young woman struggling to make
her way as a Metis woman. This book touched the lives of so many people that it has been
required reading for Canadian schools and defined for a generation what it means to be a Metis

Presently Maria continues her work as a Metis/Michif scholar through several Canadian
Universities and works prayerfully to advise the Walking With Our Sisters project which raises
awareness about the epidemic of Native women who have gone missing or been murdered in
Canada, often without adequate inquiry by authorities or coverage in the media. Curated by artist
Christi Belcourt, a travelling installation of 1,800 vamps (beaded or embroidered moccasin tops)
remind viewers of lives rendered incomplete through violence. Follow the link to the right to see

If you want to read Maria’s more recent work, the Gabriel Dumont Institute has published an
extraordinary book of Michif stories that she rendered in the vernacular of her family to preserve
both the color and meaning of the Metis worldview. Stories of the Road Allowance People is
wonderfully illustrated by Metis artist Sherry Farrell Racette and accompanied by an audio cd.
The photo below depicts a lively conversation with Maria, Gerald Gray, Sr., and Norman Fleury.

National Aboriginal Day, part one

June 21, 2014 / Leave a comment

We could smell the river as soon as we opened the car door. This river full of fish and a bank rife
with berries sustained the Metis settlements at Batoche when the buffalo had all but disappeared.
It was here that Louis Riel declared a second provincial Canadian government for the Metis after
riding back from Montana (accompanied by Montana Michif, notable the Azure brothers). The
battle that occurred on this site was the final military resistance of the Metis and resulted in a
neutralized Nehiyaw Pwat. Communities of Michif struggled to stay connected while living on

“road allowances” or Canadian public lands, while many traveled back across the border into the
U.S. to make a living.

Today’s celebration of National Aboriginal Day at the site of the Battle of Batoche was a model
of cultural resilience as school children watched one of their peers dance the Red River Jig, a
Metis tradition evolved from both Scottish and pow-wow dancing:

Harriet Oakes & Ed St. Pierre tell Michif history in the Red River frame style chapel:

The museum on site tells a comprehensive story about the Battle and the Metis/Michif way of
life. This diorama depicting a Metis woman shows the blend of Plains Indian buffalo culture and

European dress: