In the summer, most Indigenous communities across North America have a celebration called “Indian Days,” with festivities that include a powwow, a rodeo and hand game tournament.
Hundreds of people camp out at the powwow grounds in tipis and tents. There are food vendors and sometimes carnival rides.
The Indian Days are teeming with culture as dancers walk around in regalia; the beat of the drum becomes embedded into the background and community members visit with friends and family.
The event encourages cultural revel and with that comes inclusion -- non-Indigenous people can usually be seen joining in on the celebration.
The touristy types can be easily seen spectating from a safe distance and a well secured comfort zone. They’re usually nailed to the bleachers, toe-tapping to the drum and overly polite.
When I first attended the Piikani Nation Indian Days, I could spot out the usual tropes and archetypes, but through the jingles and feathers and crowds of people I saw a white man.
This wasn’t just any white man; he had a scruffy beard, tinted glasses and a big jovial smile.
Mark Anderson was noticeable not by his appearance but by his involvement. He buzzed around the powwow arbour like a humming bird.
“If I’m able and capable of fulfilling a request from someone then I should make that sacrifice and do it,” said Anderson.
One moment he was judging the teen boys’ chicken dance competition and the next he’s assisting elders with their seating, then at 1 a.m., the end of the powwow, he was helping tabulate scores.
“When I was growing up we didn’t have anything like this. There was no white culture celebration. I think we had something called ‘Pioneer Days’ where we square danced and learned about the migrations west in the 1800s, but it’s not the same as the real cultural celebration that is the powwow,” said Anderson reflecting on Piikani Indian Days.
Born in southern Alberta and of European descent, 43-year-old Mark Anderson, or Piitawotaan, is a fixture in Piikani Nation.
In 2009, Anderson was initially hired as a fourth-grade teacher at the on-reserve Napi's Playground Elementary and is now also a part of the annual Piikani Powwow Committee, Piikani Minor Hockey Association, and he has organized the princess pageant for four years.
Most importantly, Anderson married into the Blackfoot community and has since had two Blackfoot daughters with his wife Andrea Anderson (nèe Scout), in addition to his five children from a previous marriage.
Anderson represents a unique facet of Indigenous culture and identity; he is not a status Indian but a white person who has been accepted and adopted as a member because of the commitment, dedication and care he puts into the relationships he’s built in the community.
The term Status Indian comes from the legal definition set forth in the 1876 Indian Act. This legislation determines who has status and who does not. It has been updated many times and ultimately says that status is based on ancestry.
There is no other legislation in Canada where a race of people has to biologically prove through bloodlines that they belong to that race.
Membership is a different story and is usually a set of rules constructed by the native community to establish who is a community member and who is not. This isn't always a formal process but is rooted in tradition rather than biology.
Mark Anderson is a traditional member of Piikani but he does not have Indian status.
“He was very fond of our traditional ways, our values and customs. He was very dedicated beyond his teaching role,” said former Piikani Chief and elder Peter Strikes With A Gun. “I’d see him at the celebrations, he was always the person doing the extra things.”
Strikes With A Gun was the elder to give Anderson his Blackfoot name in 2014.
“I gave him the name Piitawotaan. I have carried this name from my grandfathers. I told him ‘I feel very comfortable [giving you this name] because you deserve to be recognized for your dedication.’”
The name translates to Eagle Shield and according to Strikes With A Gun the shield is the protector of the soul and dignity. The shield was important to warriors who went out to battle because it meant if they died, the shield would guarantee safe passage onto the next world.
Strikes With A Gun says Blackfoot names are important because it means that you will be needed and called upon.
When I meet people I can introduce myself, nitaniiko nitankasis Piitawotaan, the name that was given to me is Eagle Shield. That means a lot to me because it was gifted to me, to be a part of the community,” said Anderson.
Anderson’s humble beginnings started in Taber, a small town east of Lethbridge, known for its famous “Taber corn.” His family belonged to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
One of Anderson’s eight siblings was his adopted Cree brother Mike Anderson.
“My parents never presented him as our ‘adopted’ brother, he was just one of us. When you’re born into a situation like that, you don’t see it as different, you see it as normal,” said Anderson.
It wasn’t until Anderson was 12 years old, when he realized his brother Mike was adopted.
Having a Cree brother opened Anderson’s eyes to the discrimination against Indigenous people and at times he would share that burden by also taking the insults.
“We would get teased at school. Kids would call us ‘Indian Lovers,’” said Anderson. “Mike probably went through way worse than we did but it bothered me, it hurt me, it frustrated me when I came in contact with someone with their mind so closed.”
Anderson's mother always created an open environment between his Cree brother Mike and the rest of his siblings. That is where Anderson developed his open-mindedness to Indigenous culture and people.
In 1992 Anderson graduated from M.R. Myers High School in Taber. Six months later, he left home to do a service mission for the church in Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas and Texas.
Anderson is still a practicing Mormon and is often questioned on that front from fellow Mormons.
“People know I’m at powwows, ceremonies, they ask me, they have that worried look in their eyes that I’m running off and joining some pagan doctrine: ‘Are you allowed to do that? Have you talked to the Bishop about that?’,” said Anderson. “It’s fine. I’m not compromising who I am.”
Anderson doesn’t see it as a problem and finds Blackfoot spirituality and the Mormon faith complementary of each other.
Upon coming home from his mission Anderson spent a year at the University of Lethbridge in open studies where he took a Native American Studies class which first exposed him to the American Indian Movement, The Oka Crisis and Indian Residential Schools.
He remembers going home and sharing what he learned with his mother.
“She was American. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Christopher Columbus are all her heroes and she had that romantic ideal. I would talk to her about how North America was stolen and she would get defensive and argumentative,” said Anderson.
Anderson would bring up his new-found knowledge often and overtime his mother became aware and understood that there was another side to the story.
He then spent the next 10 years bouncing between school and truck driving and had married and started a family. He would have bouts of returning to school, then he would leave again to drive a truck to support his growing family.
In 2007 Anderson’s life shifted; he chose to finish his education but also separated from his first wife. It took a year for the divorce to be finalized and for the purpose of this interview Anderson didn’t want to “bother” the readers with the details.
While finishing up at the University of Lethbridge, Anderson drove a taxi and was an usher at The Enmax Centre and in 2009 he graduated with his bachelor’s of Education, and bachelor’s of Arts.
After graduating Anderson applied to teach at three nearby reserves; Siksika, Kainai and Piikani.
Piikani called him back for an interview and he was hired as the fourth-grade teacher at Napi’s Playground Elementary on Piikani Nation.
Although Anderson had landed his dream job, he would still drive taxis on weekends in Lethbridge. He would have usual taxi cab banter with passengers about things like work and family.
Anderson can recall one passenger scoffing his new teaching job at Piikani Nation.
“People would say ‘oh, that’s just a starting job right? Until you teach at a real school?’,” said Anderson. “I was like ‘no, this is a real school. This is where I see myself for 20 or 30 years.’”
Anderson will be the first to tell you he doesn't claim to be Indigenous but because of the eight years he's spent in the community and the relationships he's built, he feels a strong connection to the land and people.
“My skin may be white, and my bloodline may be all Northern European by ethnicity, but my heart is Piikani. Piikani is my home,” said Anderson.
It's that evident time and commitment that Anderson has put in that makes most community members warm up to Anderson.
“The connection didn’t happen overnight, as years went by it got stronger and deeper with the more time I spent with the people and built the relationship,” said Anderson.
At Napi’s Playground Elementary it’s not uncommon for the elders in the community to be present in the schools for assemblies, ceremonies or to participate in any in-class cultural activity.
Piikani Nation member Mary-Ruth McDougall is one of those elders. She can recall being drawn to Anderson and would frequently visit his classroom.
“I was really impressed with his relationship with the students. He really cared for all the students and he tries to learn the culture and the language because that is lost among our youth,” said McDougall.
McDougall would prove to be essential when tragedy struck and Anderson’s mother died unexpectedly in 2011.
“I really felt for him. So I told him ‘I’ll never replace your mother but I’d like to take you as my son,’” said McDougall.
To this day they remain close. Anderson makes it a priority that his kids have a relationship with their grandmother Mary-Ruth.
This practice of traditional adoption goes back to the pre-colonial era of the Blackfoot -- before Canada, the Indian Act and Residential Schools.
“In the early days, our people just took in children as their own. Once they adopted a person, they were theirs. There was no ‘my adopted son, or my adopted mother,’ they took them in as family,” said Kent Ayoungman, a ceremonial knowledge holder at Old Sun Community College in Siksika Nation, an hour east of Calgary, Alta.
I arranged to meet Anderson at his classroom on Feb. 20, the Family Day holiday to see where he works. He greeted me at the doors of the school and escorted me to his classroom. Anderson wore a loud Toronto Maple Leafs shirt, which was his way of dressing up for an interview.
“It’s one of the few collared shirts I have,” chuckled Anderson.
The school was empty with most of the lights shut off. The on-reserve elementary school is culturally decorated with pictures of notable Blackfoot chiefs and other Indigenous imagery. Outside each classroom are bulletin boards with student art projects.
His fourth-grade classroom is filled with former student art projects, gifted stuffed animals and a pet garter snake.
Above Anderson’s desk is a cupboard full of native arts and crafts, a favourite pastime of his.
His interest in the native customs and culture started when his students would share their talents in the class, whether that be singing, dancing or drumming.
“I should be encouraging my students and if I’m encouraging them then I should be willing to do it as well. I want my students to be proud of who they are,” said Anderson.
He has three hand drums, which he’s crafted himself.
According to Anderson, the wholesome energy a drum gives off fuels his love for drums and drum making.
“I’m told the drum represents the heartbeat of mother earth. I’ve told my students, it’s more than that it’s all of our heartbeats too. We all have the same heartbeat underneath. We’re all the same inside, we are all that drum, it’s just the skin colour that make us different.”
Editor's Note: A previous version of this story contained an image of Anderson with his children. In light of the charges made against Anderson on Jan. 11, 2018, we have removed the photo to protect their privacy. We have also altered the second image for the same reason.
- By Trevor Solway