A section of Treaty 6 can be interpreted in a way which not only makes Indigenous peoples stewards of the land, but also the harvesters of the land.
“It is further agreed between her majesty and the Indians, that the following articles be supplied to any Band of the said Indians who are now cultivating the soil… One plough for every three families… Also for each Band; four oxen one bull and six cows…”
The clause is called the cows and ploughs clause by some in Treaty 6. Alvin Moostoos from the James Smith Cree Nation, said he thinks the first peoples should go back to the lands to harvest.
“They say there’s no money in farming,” Moostoos said. “If there’s no money in farming, why are they still farming?”
Moostoos said Indigenous farmers used to be the best of the best; a sentiment echoed by Muskoday First Nation’s lands manager Joseph Munroe.
He said Indigenous people were farming long before settlers arrived but that all changed after treaty agreements were made.
“[The Crown] tried to remake us into their image,” Munroe said. “Our people were very good at [farming]. They were filling up the local grain elevators and the white farmers were complaining.”
Munroe said measures like the Indian Act’s pass and permit systems were used against Indigenous farmers to prevent and discourage the sale of goods.
In order to leave a designated reserve, Indigenous people required passes from the acting Indian Agent. To sell any goods the same agent would need to issue a permit allowing the requester to sell their goods at market. Initially the system was designed to punish the groups involved in the North-West Rebellion of 1885; it was eventually implemented across all Indigenous communities for 60 years.
Munroe said through the first half of the 20th century, Indigenous people grew gardens to sustain themselves. When his grandfather returned from serving in World War Two he was able to obtain two tractors under policies introduced by Prime Minister Richard Bennett.
He said his grandfather farmed until the Indian agents wouldn’t allow him to sell his cows, pigs and grain anymore because he was an Indigenous activist.
“They punished him; they stopped him. So he had to quit farming in the 50s,” Munroe said. “What’s the point if you can’t sell your stuff?”
Munroe said there isn’t a level playing field when it comes to Indigenous farmers and non-Indigenous farmers today. He explained subsidies exist for non-Indigenous farmers to give them tax breaks on their income. Those same breaks do not apply to Indigenous farmers because they paid a different kind of tax.
“Our taxes were paid in advance by sharing all this land under treaty. In the marketplace, how do you make a level playing field for somebody who’s already pre-paid their taxes?” He asked.
From the 60s to the 80s, he said there were Indian agriculture programs in place to create parity with non-Indigenous farmers. According to Munroe, those programs no longer exist.
A report issued in 2010 by the Western Development Museum numbered Indigenous farmers in Saskatchewan around 500, or just over one per cent of the total farming population in Saskatchewan. One-hundred-and-fifty are labeled as wild rice farmers, 100 are grain farmers and the remainder are cow-calf producers.
A total 1.6 million acres of Indigenous lands are tilled by non-Indigenous people according to the report.
“Outstanding treaty business”
Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations Senator Sol Sanderson said the cows and ploughs clause is on a long list of items yet to be dealt with in terms of treaty.
“People just don’t go there,” Sanderson said. “The knowledge and information [is] just not available. We have to deal with it yet, it’s outstanding treaty business.”
Sanderson said his father, who was a farmer, probably received some benefits from the cows and ploughs clause “but that was many years ago.”
He explained a herd of cattle, which would have contained the required number of bulls, would be provided to a band and then distributed to band members pursuing agricultural initiatives.
“What happened is many of our people stopped farming, and non-Indians took over the lands through agricultural leases,” Sanderson said. “There’s nothing saying that provision is dead.”
Harry Lafond, from the office of the executive director for the Office of Treaty Commissioner in Saskatchewan, said the clause has been interpreted differently by both parties involved in treaty negotiations.
“There is the direct interpretation, so many cattle, and so many ploughs; it’s very directive,” Lafond said. “From the oral tradition, you will get an interpretation of a way of transitioning from one economic system to another economic system.”
Lafond said the intent of those clauses was much more relevant to the era when treaties were signed. The loss of the buffalo industry and the downturn of the trapping industry led Indigenous leaders like chiefs Ahtahkakoop and Mistawasis to look at the economic welfare of their followers.
“Even prior to 1876, leaders like Ahtahkakoop and Mistawasis had already began to work with their people to begin to move into the farming industry,” Lafond said.
He said he doesn’t remember a time when Indian Affairs handed out agricultural equipment in the way it is worded in the treaty agreements.
“Indian Affairs may have interpreted their actions to be fulfilling the treaty when they started cattle farms back in the 60s and 70s,” Lafond said. “The literal interpretation doesn’t occur, very obviously on Treaty Day.”
Lafond compared the clause to the munitions clause in Treaty 6, which grants the heads of families ammunition to hunt.
“What some communities do is go out and buy the ammunition and it gets distributed, but it’s not the government that’s doing that, it’s the communities themselves.”
paNOW reached out to INAC for comment about the cows and ploughs clause but no response was made available by deadline. This story will be updated to reflect INAC’s position once comment is made available.
On twitter: @BryanEneas
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