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As The Twig Is Bent So Shall The Trees Grow

Harold Read

SASKATCHEWAN INDIAN      APRIL 1971      v02 n04 p03  

Tonight as I sit at my desk, I think and reminisce of some of the men that it has been my privilege and pleasure to work with over the past 25 years - and, heading the list is Allan Ahenakew - treaty Indian, a Christian, a man of Character, and a man who is swayed neither to the right nor to the left, a man who calls the shots as he sees them.

Allan Ahenakew is a man who thinks and works for the betterment of all people. I believe he has given his life for the Indian People.

Allan was born at Stony Lake, north of Rig River on April 3rd, 1892. We understand his father, Mr. Louis Ahenakew, taught school at Sandy Lake.

Allan started school when he was five years old and was taught by his father for two years.

The picture then changes and we see the Mother of this young lad, hooking up the horses and starting out in the summer of 1900 with the team wagon and her young son for Prince Albert as the Father and Mother felt that the old Anglican School in the west end of Prince Albert would offer greater possibilities for their boy.

It was a long, tiresome journey and the young lad enjoyed the trip with his mother, little realizing the lonely hours and nights that were ahead of him.

The old wagon pulled up to the school, and with very little of anything in the way of earthly belongings he walked into this old boarding school, and as the door closed he stepped into a new world. He was only eight years old, and how he longed to go back home. He said: "I seemed lost for the next two years."

The years (seven or eight of them) slowly passed by. Allan said - many times they went down town and it always seemed they had no money and how he longed to buy something, even some candies, he often thought of just taking a handful but his Father and Mother had always told him - never steal - he said - this seemed to stop me.

We then find Allan back home but still feeling very restless and in the spring of 1917 we find this young man in a cafe in Dinsmore, south and west of Saskatoon, with very little money but really wanting to get a job. He wondered if it would be hard for an Indian to get work, also how would they like him. When he was asked if he wanted a job he said: "Yes, I will work for you two weeks and if I don't suit you, you don't need to pay me. But, if I don't like you I don't have to stay either. " Well, he stayed for seven years and was the top man over all the other hired men.

Edwin Ahenakew, the Father of David Ahenakew who is now Chief of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indians, on Allan's return from Dinsmore in 1925 said: "Your story seems like that of Joseph on his return from Egypt."

In 1927 the people of Sandy Lake Reserve elected Allan as Chief, a position he held for some 40 years. The people said they elected him because he was a radical fighter, he was critical, but as the years went by this radical fighter increased in knowledge and wisdom and found very little headway was ever made by criticizing everything.

So, as the years slowly went by the wisdom of the old Chief was realized by Indian and Whites alike.

Around the camp fire and the convention tables many things were said about him; some good and some not so good but he never changed from the things he believed to be right.

Some of the Indian people that did not understand too well said : "He has sold out to the Federal and Provincial governments," others said: "He is a man too far ahead of his time," - and others: "A man that came too early."

We remember the time when one of the members of his Band digressed from what the old Chief felt was right in a game infraction, he stopped the hand of the Law on two occasions, but when it happened a third time he said: "Go ahead, he must learn the hard way."

In 1948 Chief Allan worked very closely with the Federal and Provincial governments at the annual fur meetings right across Saskatchewan. He understood and strongly supported the Fur Program because it had People involvement and educational possibilities.

The Chief of the Sandy Lake reserve was requested by the Department of Natural Resources and the people to accept the position of Cree convention interpreter for 21 annual Trappers' conventions. The Cree people always said: "He spoke the best all around Cree of all the interpreters, and the officials always said: "He gets your ideas and thoughts across."

At many of the murder trials across the north Allan was called to interpret, all people knew he was very careful in really trying to get the truth as it was given. Despite his long and varied experience, Allan regards interpreting as a difficult and responsible task. He points out that one short sentence in English may often require several in the Cree tongue to bring out the full meaning of the same idea. "You must be able to mentally translate an entire thought, not just a sentence or a phrase, before interpreting the message in words," says Allan.

Among his most trying experiences some years ago was the responsibility of interpreting in court for an Indian charged with a capital crime. "I felt as if I was holding the man's life in my hands," he recalls. "I could not make the smallest mistake." Allan admits he was immensely relieved when the charge was reduced to manslaughter.

Some three years ago, when the buffalo were released in Saskatchewan, the old Chief was selected by the Buffalo Committee as Chairman of that group.

We also find that when the Provincial Government felt it wise to invite the Federation of Saskatchewan Indians to put a member on the Big Game Advisory, Allan Ahenakew was chosen by the F.S.I. to represent them.

It has also been found good by the F.S.I. to have the old Chief act as one of the Senators, and we hear he has quite a steadying effect on the younger members, and this of course can be expected.

I think of some of the statements made by the old Chief; one evening one of the Indian folks, who was quite vocal, mentioned that he was very quiet - Allan quietly said : "I never talk unless I have something to say."

Another time when discussing church matters there was some concern with the lack of interest being shown by the younger folks. Some suggested a modernizing of the Church; after some time the silent old Chief was asked for his opinion, his quiet reply was : "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's and unto God the things that are God's."

As a speaker the old Chief is outstanding, he does very little research, he does not use notes, he says they hinder him, but he prays much about the matter and states: "I have never been let down yet." His talks many times are quite critical towards his own people as well as others. When speaking he often states there is only one person that you must watch and that is you. Yes, as a speaker the Chief has humour, he is serious, he is concerned and he is much in demand right across Canada and many times at the conclusion of his talk he humbly sits down amidst standing

As I sit and write of Allan Ahenakew, one of Canada's sons, yes, a chap that is really a Canadian - I wonder, are all of these attributes that he has, his because he is an Indian - I wonder, no, I think not, they are, his because of Whom he serves, Whom he worships, Whom he believes in. I say this because this is what he says.

Many times Allan comes to my office, closes the door and says: "We are not getting together enough, it's very important that I know what you are thinking about, what your plans are. How can I speak on the radio, talk to people if we don't communicate to one another."

Where does the old Chief get all this wisdom, if you ask him he would say "there is only one source of wisdom, and this source is certainly not man."

I have travelled across the northland with Allan, yes, and into crowded cities, I have shared the tent and bedroom with him, and always before he goes to bed and when he gets up he kneels by his bed and prays for strength and guidance and wisdom, and then I have seen him read his Bible. I have seen some laugh at him, he pays no attention, and strange as it may seem they have now passed on but the old Chief is still going on.

This year was the first time he ever missed a Trappers' Convention, but he said the days conflicted with the big Anglican Synod convention in Niagara Falls, Ontario and of course, first things comes first, so he had to decline the invitation to act as interpreter, for the 22nd Trappers' Convention.

The old Chief is a very dedicated church man. Almost every Sunday you can see Allan and his seven-year old grandson, Ricky, on their way to the old church. He says, with much parental pride, "he's a smart boy". But sometimes Ricky has wondered if he isn't wasting quite a bit of time sitting for so long in the old pew with Moshom. A few days ago the Chief came into my office, closed the door and said: "that Ricky is doing well; it's surely true, bring up a child in the way he should go. Ricky said on the way home from church last Sunday - Moshom, I don't memorize the prayers any more I say my own."

But was Allan always a victor on all occasions - no he was sometimes really beat. I remember some years ago, he went to Regina to see the Minister of Natural Resources. The receptionist in the Legislative buildings took him up to the Minister's office, he spent two hours discussing important issues relating to his people then shook hands, smiled and left and immediately got hopelessly lost. He was worried he could not find his way out of the white man's big house, after sometime the Big Chief met a cute little mini-skirted secretary, he told her, "I can't find my way out" she took him by the arm and they walk down the broad aisles together and then coming down the marble steps I saw him smiling and shaking hands with her. As we walked out to the car together, he said: "It's been a busy day."