Whether you are attending a conference keynote, a new art exhibit or a concert, chances are you’ll see an organizer stand before the audience and formally recognize the Treaty 7 land on which the event is taking place. But several Indigenous leaders are taking issue with how southern Albertans are acknowledging Treaty 7 territory.
Michelle Robinson has witnessed problems. As president of the Indigenous Peoples’ Commission in Alberta, Robinson attends and hosts dozens of events.
In January, at the Calgary Women's March, organizers began the event with a traditional smudging ceremony and a Cree welcoming song — both signifying the fact the march was happening on Treaty 7 lands. It’s never wrong to perform a smudging ceremony, said Robinson, but protocol would suggest there was a gap.
“In a perfect world with unlimited funds, we would get a Blackfoot elder that we would give a full honorarium to do an opening ceremony. We would also give drummers — that were part of the Blackfoot confederacy — money so that they would come and they would drum. A perfect way to open anything is with a Blackfoot elder and with a Blackfoot drum group,” said Robinson.
Calgary: Traditional Blackfoot territory
Calgary and surrounding area used to be a major trading hub where Indigenous people would come to exchange goods. The Government of Canada, bound by the terms of the Royal Proclamation, promised to preserve the rights of Indigenous people and their traditional territories. One of these agreements, Treaty 7, was signed with nations of the Blackfoot Confederacy and other Indigenous nations in the Calgary area.
Treaty 7 spans across southern Alberta and spills across the U.S. border. It is comprised of five First Nations: Kainai (Blood), Siksika, Piikani, Tsuut’ina and Stoney Nakoda. In addition, Métis peoples live in the region.
Phyllis Grace Steeves, a Cree-Métis woman and Indigenous professor at the University of Calgary, said when event organizers recognize Treaty 7 lands, they are also acknowledging the First Peoples who resided on the lands before the treaties were created and signed.
“The statement recognizes Treaty territory but also importantly acknowledges the descendants of these First Peoples have continued to live in this area and are deeply tied to this particular territory; their practices, ceremonies and daily lives are tied to this land.”
Steeves said depending on the type of event, she will briefly acknowledge the area as Treaty 7 territory and then offer thanks to the First Peoples of the land for their hospitality.
She added that sincerity is key. Statements ought to be delivered without pretense or hypocrisy. As well, offering tobacco and possibly an honorarium are sometimes customary practices, particularly with larger or formal events. But many organizers “lack the knowledge, experience and community relationships to make this happen in a respectful, authentic manner,” Steeves said.
A growing problem
While many event organizers wish to know more about and build stronger relationships with Indigenous communities, Robinson said some of the problems with improper protocol lie within the Indigenous community itself. Some Indigenous people will deliver a short ceremony or statement for free, and the issue is when organizers begin to expect Indigenous people to participate without proper ceremonial acknowledgments. Robinson believes there needs to be more education about protocols for all involved.
“Non-Indigenous don’t know the protocol, non-Indigenous are not actually giving tobacco, giving honorariums, they’re not doing any of that, so let’s not get mad at each other for the fact that this is being done to us.”
Respecting elders also plays an important role because of their deep inter-generational knowledge. Elders are knowledge keepers. When they are asked to come in and deliver a ceremony and are not offered an honorarium, tobacco or even tea or water, that’s a problem.
Robinson added it’s important that organizers don’t just tack on a token gesture of land acknowledgment and then proceed to run an event that doesn’t necessarily consider the wellbeing of Indigenous communities. She said taking care of elders is critical.
“The kids always go and give elders tea and water and make sure that they’re taken care of and you don’t see that in non-Indigenous circles. For example, if someone goes and asks a Blackfoot elder to open (a ceremony) but they don’t offer them tea, coffee and make sure they are comfortable, then that’s half of it missed,” said Robinson.
A long road ahead
Aubrey Hanson is a Métis woman whose research focuses on Indigenous education at the University of Calgary. She said the proper protocol is about recognizing different levels of acknowledgment. For example, if someone is organizing an event, it is one level to acknowledge Treaty 7 territory and the people and caretakers of the land. The next level would include an Indigenous opening to an event. An even higher level would incorporate Indigenous people and perspectives into the design of the event itself.
Hanson and Robinson both agree that some organizations, including the University of Calgary, have already done a great job. The U of C offers explicit advice on how to acknowledge traditional Indigenous territories. But there’s still a long way to go.
“I think many organizations are growing very aware and many do have the knowledge and I think it is very important for organizations to work on building their awareness,” said Hanson.
Robinson said education needs to start at the base level where people should be asking why organizers don’t know proper protocol and why the education system isn’t teaching it. Context is also important, added Steeves. Making an effort to know and build relationships with First Peoples of the territory is another step to acknowledging Indigenous culture appropriately.
“It may be time to initiate conversations and relationship-building with Indigenous peoples in anticipation of not only future events but the inevitable crossing of paths with Indigenous peoples in daily life,” said Steeves.
- By Josie Lukey