How a Mennonite music festival is helping landless Indigenous Bands in Saskatchewan

By Tyler Marr
August 12, 2017 - 5:00pm Updated: August 13, 2017 - 12:39pm

It had all the telltale signs of a summer music festival.

A makeshift stage sat at the foot of a restored red hip roof barn. Lawn chairs were in hand and people milled about taking in berry bushes ripe for the picking and on site meals. Wood signs were directing people where they needed to go and vehicles lined a freshly hayed field.

But a tipi nestled in the corner of the farmyard was the catalyst to set this festival apart.

For eight years, visitors from as far as Ontario have come together on Ray Funk’s acreage for the Spruce River Folk Festival. The one day event is about much more than just music.

Hosted in part by the Saskatchewan Mennonite Church, Mennonite Central Committee and the Young Chippewayan First Nation, the annual cultural event is organized to shine a light on the issue of landless Bands within the province. 

“Reconciliation is at the heart of it,” Funk said. “We don’t get to pick the stories that history leaves to us, but we do get to move the story forward.”

Funk has hosted the event each year on his land north of Prince Albert. It has grown over the years to include greater aspects of reconciliation such as a pipe ceremony, which opened festivities Saturday morning. The tipi was packed with participants from afar, and for many, it was their first time at such an event. 

The reconciliation Funk spoke of dates back to 1876 when Treaty Six was signed at Fort Carleton.

That year, a ripe 30 square miles of farmland located near the present town of Laird was granted to Chief Chippewayan and his people. But not ten years later, increased settlement and the decline of buffalo in the area impeded on their way of life. 

The Chippewayan people - now lead by Chief Chippewayan's son Young Chippewayan - heard of buffalo near Cypress Hills and uprooted themselves to follow the food.

Fearful to return to the area after the events that unfolded in nearby Batoche in 1885, the Band settled around North Battleford.

In May 1897, that 30 square mile patch of land was granted by the federal government to the Hague-Osler Mennonite Reserve - who had settled in the area two years prior - for agricultural purposes.

But in the 1970s, the Mennonite Reserve was approached by people who said the land they now cultivated belonged to the Young Chippewayan people. This understandably caused some stir but led the Mennonite community on a mission to justify the claims.

They quickly found they were true, but the claim had been rejected by the Indian Claims Commission (ICC). 

A 1995 report from the ICC on the matter showed the Department of the Interior had taken the Young Chippewayans land without their consent, but said genealogical research was needed to prove there is an identifiable community or Band left to have the Treaty provisions honoured. This ownness was placed on the backs of Young Chippewayan people.

Wanting justice for the Band, in 2006, the Stoney Knoll Gathering was held between the Young Chippewayans, Mennonites and Lutherans on the land in question. A memorandum of understanding was signed with a pledge to work together and find a way to help the landless Band.

The communities held the initial fundraiser in the hopes of collecting $15,000 needed to help cover the cost of a researcher to find the family tree.Three years on, they had raised the necessary funds but wanted to do more. In the time since, the festival has helped fund and produce a short film, Reserve 107: Reconciliation on the Prairies, and have plans to do more.

“There is something in people that they want justice to be done,” Leonard Doell said. He works on the Indigenous Neighbours program inside the Mennonite Central Committee and has been involved since 1977.

He said music and food are an excellent way to bring people together, build relationships, “get to know each other and work together for justice.”

Berny Wiens was the emcee for the musical portion of the afternoon. He is a farmer in the Rosetown area, comes from a Mennonite colony and served a brief stint in the late nineties at the helm of the provinces Intergovernmental and Aboriginal Affairs portfolio.

He said the event was encouraging and an important step to educate and understand the cultural and spiritual background over the “little snapshot of the struggle with the Chippewayans.” 

“Mennonites, who were immigrants and occupied what had been First Nations land, have acknowledged the injustice and are trying to do something about it,” he said. “And the First Nations are fully engaged in that mutual endeavour. I am excited that some good things are happening.”

Though still without their land, the Young Chippewayans were recently included in a successful legal action rewarding compensation to 14 Saskatchewan First Nations whose treaty payments were withheld for punishment during the Northwest Rebellion between 1885 and 1888. 

The hosts were aware of at least six other landless Bands in Saskatchewan.


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On Twitter: @JournoMarr

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