I struggled with accepting my life in Calgary, because all I wanted to do was live in my home community, the Piikani Nation. So for five years, the Nanton truck stop was the meeting place between two worlds.
The distance never bothered me. Every time I travelled that 2.5-hour drive home felt closer than the time before. The only thing that mattered to me was being in the arms of my Na’ah (grandma) and papa in the foothills of southern Alberta.
My family history doesn’t only lie in the traditions that have been passed down from generation to generation. My family history is also rooted in the ground beneath my feet.
My grandparents live on a small hill on the border of the foothills and the prairies. You look out the kitchen window and see the Rocky Mountains, then look out the living room window and see the view of the endless prairies.
As an Indigenous person, I have strong connections to the land because my ancestors called this place home for more than 6,000 years.
Having that kind of connection to the land and my community is why I had a constant yearning to be in Piikani Nation instead of Calgary. The city where my mom moved us to when I was five years old.
Living between Calgary and Piikani
It’s Friday evening and my mom and I are parked in our usual spot at the Shell gas station in Nanton, Alta. — a small community 46 minutes on the highway south of Calgary — paying close attention to every vehicle that pulls into the parking lot.
Country music is playing on the radio as my mom and I chat. After what seems like forever, a white GMC Canyon truck pulls up beside us and my Na’ah who is sitting in the driver seat looks at us and smiles.
I can see my papa in the passenger seat with his red winter jacket and black Calgary Stampeders hat. My heart fills with excitement because I’ve been waiting all week to go back to my grandparents’ house for the weekend.
Nanton has always been the meeting spot where I would meet my family and would continue to for the next five years.
I get off and give both my grandparents a hug, while my mom grabs my pink duffle bag out of the trunk. I give her a hug and then climb in the backseat of my Na’ahs truck.
We exchange in short conversation before driving south on Highway 2. My heart is happy because for a short two days I get to leave the city life behind and surround myself with the familiarity of the reserve.
The Piikani Nation
Piikani is located approximately 30 minutes east of the Crowsnest Pass, with a population of 3,600 people.
The family dynamics on my reserve go back at least a hundred years. I come from four big families on my reserve — if I don't know someone personally, then I have an idea of who they are.
Connections like this makes us community, because we all come from the same Blackfoot ancestors and share the same history.
My reserve is not a small town; the majority of the land is open and filled with pastures. We have a small town site community where the school, offices and the one convenience store is located. There are plenty of houses in the town site as well.
However, a large number of the houses are located out in the countryside. That’s where my grandparents lived.
When I got to my grandparents‘ house, it was usually full with family. Some years it would be my two uncles and their families, other years it would be my auntie and her family. That was always my favourite thing about visiting home on the weekend, I was constantly surrounded by close family.
Nelbert Little Mustache, my papa, was like any grandpa. He would often spoil me by buying me things.
I’m positive that it was him who agreed to meet me in Nanton every Friday. He just had that kind of love for his grandchildren. He wanted to make sure we were the happiest we can be.
Spending all this time with him, he gave me so much knowledge, things that materialistic objects can not amount to.
As Blackfoot people, my ancestors would pass on our knowledge through stories and orally share what they’d learn. They lived off the land and did not have anything to document their teachings on, so they would pass them down through stories.
Before contact with European settlers, the Blackfoot people were giving names to identify with. After contact we were given English names. Today we still honour that practice and are gifted names by respected Elders. Some elders even say that our Blackfoot names connects us with our spirit.
As a baby I was giving a Blackfoot name, Cee Cee Naki, by one of the respected elders in my community.
I remember so many times where my papa would tell me what my Blackfoot name was and where it came from. I’ve carried that with me all these years and now that I am older, when people ask me what my Blackfoot name is I have the confidence to tell them and give the backstory that goes along with it.
I was named after a “wise old lady” named Cecil, however the elders could not pronounce her English name so they referred to her as Cee Cee Naki.
Being around my papa, he would often share his knowledge and stories with me. Times like this brought me comfort and made me feel closer to my own culture and traditions.
Living in the city, I was exposed to an entire new world. A world where sometimes I felt like I didn't belong.
Traditional family dynamics that my friends in junior high had, like married parents or many lived in the same house since they were kids, assured me that I didn’t quite fit in. My normal was on the reserve two hours away.
My own perfect world
“What did you think about me leaving you all the time?,” I asked Nelbertine (Nel) who is my mom.
I’m my mom's only child, which meant majority of my youth was spent with just us two. My parents separated when I was a little girl. My dad also lived in the city, so I was fortunate enough to have some close relatives nearby.
My mom didn’t have an easy time raising me all by herself. After separating from my dad, when I was eight years old, she had to figure out how to move forward with our life. She battled with alcohol addiction and leaving my dad didn’t make this easier for her.
We moved back to Piikani and into my grandparents’ house as a way for my mom to get back on her own feet, although it was not my mom’s ideal plan.
“They were tough times but I had to make a decision,” my mom said.
The two years we spent living on the reserve were crucial in my life. I was in Grade 4 and at a point where I was becoming aware of the outside world. I got to know who I was and where I come from.
For my mom, this was a time where she had to make big life decisions. She quit drinking and began to focus her efforts on making our life better for the both of us. During this time my mom went from job to job, struggling to find one where her contracts lasted more than six months.
Finding work on the reserve is vastly different than finding work in the city. Each department on the reserve is owned by the Band. My reserve only has 12 departments that manage everyday life such as daycare and health care. As well as five corporations that manage bigger projects on the reserve, such as economic development and education.
Although these departments only create around five to 10 jobs per workplace — providing around 200 jobs — for a population of 3,600 people, 200 hundred available jobs is not enough.
The lack of jobs on the reserve are because of the restrictions the Indian Act imposes.
Under Section 60 of the Indian Act, it states that the Governor of Council can grant, “the Band the right to exercise such control [of] management over lands in the reserve.” Meaning that all Indigenous lands still belong to the Crown.
This regulation makes it complicated for an individual to start a private business on the reserve. When you start a private business on public lands, you are allowed to purchase that piece of land and use it as collateral.
However, on reserve lands you can’t do that because the Indian Act states: “No Indian is lawfully in possession of land in a reserve unless, with the approval of the Minister, possession of the land has been allotted to him by the council of the band.”
These kinds of barriers make it difficult for members of the reserve to create new job opportunities.
According to the Piikani Nation website, many individuals find it hard to secure permanent employment on the reserve — roughly 40 per cent of the population move off the reserve to access employment, housing and education. Some people commute for jobs and back.
After two years of trying to find a stable job, my mom decided to move us back to Calgary.
“I didn't know what was going to happen, I didn't know if I was going to get a job or not,” my mom said.
Learning from the past
We’re sitting on the couch at my house, my mom with her arms and legs crossed it’s late in the evening and you can hear a subtle tone of whatever TV show is playing the background. She reflects back on some the most challenging times in her life.
It was one afternoon in late August that she came home to my grandparents and packed all our clothes into bags. I had no idea why. Then a few minutes later a car pulled up and we went back to Calgary.
I didn’t agree with my mom moving us back to the city.
Any child who had to move away would feel sad because leaving behind your friends and family is heartbreaking. I was content living with my Na’ah and Papa and having family and friends close by.
Little did I know that during this time in my mom’s life she was going through hardships. She had a 10-year-old daughter to take care of and like any 32-year-old woman, she didn’t want to rely on her parents.
In my eyes it looked like she had it all together, but now I know she struggled with her alcohol addiction. Moving back to Calgary and having access to alcoholic anonymous programs was vital to her.
“It was so important for me to stay sober because of you,” my mom said. “In order for you to have a healthy life, I had to be healthy myself.”
I was thankful my grandparents decided to make the trip to Nanton every weekend. Without that commitment, I would be lost and disconnected from my culture.
I wouldn’t know why we have traditions like sweat lodges, a ceremony for men to spiritually cleanse themselves through prayer, or the sundance, which is the highest Blackfoot ceremony held every summer. Of course I wouldn't know the significance behind Blackfoot names.
I wouldn’t have been able to hear my traditional language spoken frequently. All of those trips to Piikani on the weekends and being around my papa kept me close to my culture.
“I was so thankful for mom and papa for helping me and taking you on the weekends,” she said.
It’s been 12 years since we made that move back to Calgary. My mom was successful in her job hunt and now works for Indian Oil and Gas on the Tsuu T’ina reserve. She celebrated her 12th year of sobriety last December.
As for me, I’m a 23-year-old, living in Calgary with a career in journalism. There are days were I still wish I can live on that small hill in the foothills. Every time I drive by the Nanton truck stop, I am reminded that it will always be a place where two worlds meet.
Editors note: A previous verison of this story contained an incorrect photo credit in the top image. We also had the incorrect the spelling of Kaiani in the second photo of the Piikani Nation. We have changed the image captions with the correct spelling and credit.
- By Tawnya Plain Eagle