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Land Entitlement Important For Nikaneet

Bryan Tootoosis

SASKATCHEWAN INDIAN      SEPTEMBER 1985      p38  

Chief Gordon Oakes, Nikaneet Band

Chief Gordon Oakes, Nikaneet Band, located southwestern part of the province.

Chief Gordon Oakes, 52, of the Nikaneet Band was not a treaty Indian until 1976, but he's been Chief for the past 12 years. None of the band members were registered treaty Indians until then even though Chief Nikaneet had signed treaty.

Once home to 4,700 Indians before the signing of the treaties, the band now has a population of 182. Fearing such a large band, government policy forced many leaders to relocate, according to the Chief.

Although given many treaty promises, Nikaneet and his people never received any benefits, especially when the land was surveyed and they still refused to leave. Only through research beginning in the 1960s and a lot of hard work did the present band members achieve treaty status.

The Chief is still busy with the land entitlement process repeating several negotiation stages several times because of the high turnover of federal and provincial governments. The education process has to start all over again each time on the philosophy and validity of treaty obligations.

In a September meeting in Regina, the band hoped to establish a Purchase Policy Package which will give them the green light to buy the land they have selected. They are entitled to 15,000 acres. They selected one parcel of land 30 miles northeast of Maple Creek.

"The land claim is very important to us because it will enable us to develop some kind of projects on the reserve. As it is now, the reserve could only support one individual agriculturally. The land we've selected will be a good place to make a living. We plan to set up farm operations like a farm or a ranch," said the Chief.

From 1913-1951, the band land base was a total of two-and-a-half sections. In 1957 they doubled it. They also acquired a small schoolhouse that year but could not keep the teachers because of the wagon trail that provides the only access to the reserve. In the middle 1960s, the children were bussed to the town of Maple Creek, 25 miles away. Consequently, the older people only speak Cree.

Bill C-31 does not impact very much on the reserve as those without treaty status always remained on the reserve. The bill will only require paperwork.

"Other leaders are not happy with Bill C-31 but I am. These people (the applicants under the bill) are my relatives who have lived on the reserve all their lives and married here. There are only two people that have moved to the States," said the Chief.

Indians have to hold on to their traditional beliefs to pull them through these rough times, said the Chief. Even though the band is very small, old traditions like the pow-wow and the sundance are alive and strong on the community.

"Dancing is very important to the Indian people. The drumbeat is important, it heals. Indian people are not like white people who are unhappy when they don't have money. Indian people are happy as long as their children are cared for and they live long enough to see their grandchildren. To the Indian, this is happiness. This is the origin of the pow-wow and the sundance, to celebrate these values. And these values will take us a long way," he said.

Oakes fears Indian Government.

"The money will be good for a while. There will be enough for band business. But in the future, the money will stop coming and Indians will have to get the money by taxing their own people.

"We have to tax the government now for living on our land and not be ashamed to do it. That land was given to us by the Creator. As long as the sun shines, the rivers flow and the grass grows, we must protect our treaties," he said.

Many older people now do not have parents. They are now the parents and they have to keep the teachings we were given alive, he said.

"Our Indianess, what we were given by our ancestors, our religion, our tradition; these are the things that will keep us going. But now even our own people will try to change your religion," he added.

"When I travel, I feel good to come back," the Chief said.