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The Last Of The Traditional Chiefs

Stan Cuthand

SASKATCHEWAN INDIAN      APRIL 1989      p13  
The Traditional Chiefs who did not go to school and were not acculturated in Western Culture were those who lived prior to the 1930's. They maintained the Indian Status quo. They had the dignity, humour and concern and displayed a greatness only traditional norms can give.

Such Chiefs were:

James Blackman
Little Pine Reserve 1920-1940
Sam Swimmer (shown on right)
Sweet Grass Reserve 1920-1943
Pat Myo (Mayaw)
Moosomin Reserve 1917-1937
James Okenee
Thunderchild Reserve 1921-1946

Chief Sam Swimmer

These Chiefs became well known in the wider Indian Community. They were affluent, materially and culturally, in varying degrees which means they all had cattle and horses and did some farming. It was the custom of the people not to select the poor, the dependents, the non-hunters to be their leaders or Chiefs. Their simple philosophy was that a man of wisdom usually knows how to make a living and has some means.

It was in the winter of 1930 that there was a big dance at Poundmaker's Reserve. Cacaw (Chachaw) Robert Thunderchild got up and spoke, "My Relatives" he said, "I have come to be with you tonight. I have known many years of failure, being unable to accomplish any task that my people trusted me to do for them. It is very hard to convince the Indian Agents how the people can be assisted to make a living...."

"We who are Chiefs are useless to our people. We are good for nothing."

There was an applause and laughter and Cacaw sat down.

Chief Sam Swimmer took exception to what Cacaw had said. He got up, waving his cap in his hand, facing the leaders and elders setting on benches against the wall. But the Acting Chief *John Tootoosis Sr. stopped him and said, "Why don't you face the people?" Chief Swimmer laughed politely and said "I will face this way," as he turned towards the women's side. Chief Swimmer considered himself a great speaker, as did most leaders. He continued. "When the Indian Agent comes to the Reserve he cannot do anything. He says, 'Where is the Chief?' "When there is a Band Meeting, the Chief has to be there, otherwise the meeting is useless. When treaty payments are made who stands by to see that everybody is paid? It is the Chief and a Red Coat (RCMP). When the pasture is rented to White ranchers, to put on their horses and cattle. Who has to sign the agreement? The Chief signs it. We cannot say that the Chiefs are useless. They are important and have always been important. People need a spokesman and that is what Chiefs are supposed to do. I have yet many things to say, but enough for now."

Chief Swimmer sat down and there was applause. The drummers sang, the people got up to dance the 'Move Along dance' to the new song hits of the year. When the dance ended Cacaw got up to speak. "My Relatives I did not come here to talk. I came here to visit my relatives. I said to my wife, 'Let us go to Cutknife and visit and at the same time observe the dance.' My wife replied, 'Yes, let us go see them.' Here we are; I came to visit, not to talk."

With that Cacaw sat down. That was the end of that episode. Some Chiefs were sensitive as to their usefulness to their people. The decisions were sometimes rejected by the Indian Agents or the Farmer Instructors and often Chiefs lost f ace before their people they had a hard role to live by in this new path they now had to follow.

It was during a hard winter of 1937 when James Blackman, Chief at Little Pine in cooperation with Mr. J. S. Macdonald, Indian Agent of Battleford Agency had arranged for some men to go and work for the Saw Mills at Kapuskesing, Ontario. Their travel being paid by the Indian Affairs Branch.

There was a dance sponsored by the Reserve members. At this dance Chief Blackman asked those who were selected to go to work, about 12 men in all, to stand up at the front of the hall. He spoke "My Friends (Nitotemitik), these men standing here, are going away to work. It is not easy to go away; it is not easy to leave their families behind. But times are hard. They need to make a little money. Their families will be provided with some rations. The Indian Agent promises to help them. If this goes well it will be repeated next winter.

I do not want anyone to interfere with the wives that are left behind.

We shake hands with them. We hope patience will be with them; they will be away until early spring."

Chief James Blackman was not the best speaker, but he was a silent sincere man. Many times, the men criticized him at meetings. In his silence he was powerful.

There were times that both the Band and the Indian Agent agreed to try a new program such as employment with saw mills, that the band pasture be leased to white farmers.

Chief James Blackman looked after the Band pasture or summer. Some of the men visited him everyday, saying "He is paid for our pasture and he should feed us".

The traditional value of generosity of a leader prevailed. It was a painful experience for the Chief's wife to provide meals for the "dissidents".

Chief Sam Swimmer gave up the custom. He held a band meeting in his house. Ed Fox reminded him as 'Okimaw' he should at least provide tea for the members. Chief Swimmer, explained that he had no food in the house. The Chief was a peacemaker and urged his men to refrain from hurting one another. Two young men drove their horses wildly to the camp. The Chief spoke to them to be careful. "You might hurt a child." One of them started to talk back, telling off the Chief all his short comings ending with "You did not feed me when I went to visit you." The other agreed and another arguement was encouraged by the young men, lot the Chief did not argue, saying "Eka mihtawe" (Don't be covetous).

The Chiefs received verbal abuse but they maintained their dignity and were resolute in the loyalty to the Band Members.