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The Globe and Mail called it "a friendly invasion". The Regina Leader Post called it "unexpected". CBC National News called it "largest ever". The Saskatchewan Indian calls it "Sanderson's biggest gamble".
What are these major print and television media talking about? The World Assembly of First Nations, that's what.
Billed as "the world's largest gathering of Indigenous peoples" the World Assembly lived up to its billing. Estimates as to the numbers of Indians descending upon Regina those 8 fateful days in July, range from a conservative 20,000 to a radical 35,000. Pasqua Hospital, just one of four major hospitals in the Regina area, estimate they served an additional 30 Indian people per day during WAFN. The city's taxi cab drivers continually lamented the heavy traffic. One cab driver said, "So you didn't get the numbers you expected, eh?" Then only minutes later, as he attempted to change lanes while surrounded by trucks, vans, cars and buses filled with brown faces said, "Damn this traffic. I don't know where it's all coming from!"
WAFN was big - so big people had to make difficult choices about what they would attend. They couldn't go to everything. The WAFN Pow-Wow attracted at least 25,000 people - for every person that danced, 10 people watched, visited, etc., flirted, got lost, studied the beadwork, took pictures or tried to find someone in the crowd. The WAFN rodeo which ran at the same time as the Pow-Wow attracted 7,000 people. Nearly
Mens fastball attracted about 500 players and coaches. In the women's fastball there were 384 players. The WAFN golf tournament had 150 golfers. That's not counting the cheering sections for each event. There were 326 registered media people from 8 countries including the FSI's own large media crew which provided continuous coverage of the event over cable T.V.
There were over 300 politicians representing 24 indigenous Nations.
Needless to say, we're talking big numbers here. Numbers are irrelevant you say? Not in the case of WAFN.
The World Assembly of First Nations was conceived by Chief
Solomon Sanderson as something so big, that the world would have to take notice that Indigenous people exist, that Indians are alive and knocking at the doors of power, not as observers or lobbyists but as powers in our own right. It was Sanderson's biggest gamble. Many said it couldn't be done. It would cost too much.
WAFN cost an estimated $1.8 million. An estimated three quarters of the cost was covered by gate receipts and revenue generated through events. The remaining $450,000 is partially covered by federal and provincial grants as well as corporate and private donations. FSI financial people estimate a short fall is probable.
Throughout the week of WAFN, FSI executive lobbied for funds. One federal government official was told he couldn't come unless he brought a cheque. When he arrived in the lobby of the hotel he was greeted by an executive member who had observed his entry from the second floor balcony! "Rave you got the cheque?" Yes." "Wait right there." The man waited.
WAFN was a gamble, but Sanderson is a born gambler. He is blessed with the best poker face this side of Reno, maybe even Monte Carlo. The guy's got chutzpa in spades. It was through his own sheer will and determination that the World Assembly of First Nations happened at all.
There were many problems to be overcome, not the smallest was the fact that the FSI has traditionally taken an isola-
Politically, the FSI was looked upon skeptically by internationally knowledgeable Indigenous leaders. To many, the FSI was the young ignorant upstart who had the audacity to think it could organize an international gathering of Indigenous peoples.
What did WAFN achieve? Politically it gave a much needed boost to the World Council of Indigenous peoples. It was organized in 1975 by George Manuel, former president of the National Indian Brotherhood, WCIP is recognized by the United Nations as the organization representing Indian concerns in the international arena. In recent years it has been lagging behind. The young upstart gave it a boot.
WAFN brought North American leaders together to the point where they have agreed to elect only one representative to sit on the WCIP executive council instead of one U.S. and one Canadian representative. WAFN made our own North-South dialogue happen and brought the Inuit into it.
What did WAFN do for Saskatchewan Indians? It opened a doorway to the world for thousands of us. Hopefully we will see the sober reality of other indigenous peoples and know that we're not alone. Hopefully we will see that we can learn much from other First Nations. May the doorway always stay open in brotherhood,trust, and peace.
photo: Bert Crowfoot, Nations Ensign
WAFN was so big, people had to make choices about what to enter, what to see.