Sweet-smelling smoke curls from a smudge bowl. Outside of a tent erected near Jasper National Park’s Snaring River, alpenglow bathes the mountaintops in pink hues. Inside, an historic ceremony is about to take place.
Elders from the Simpcw First Nation and elders from the Stoney Nation cup the wafting smoke and wash themselves with it—over their faces, and up and down their arms. Next, those nations’ chiefs and accompanying members purify themselves with the burning sage. Eyes are closed. Prayers are murmured.
The smudge bowl is then passed to the various community members seated in the circle—including Jasper National Park’s superintendent and the RCMP’s local staff sergeant. They too push the smoke around their bodies. They too are here to take part in the historic ceremony.
“Smudging brings us closer to the Creator,” says Barry Wesley, a traditional knowledge holder with the Stoney First Nation.
After the smudge, the pipe ceremony can begin.
“We haven’t done this ceremony in a while,” Wesley says, striking his drum with a singular pulse. “We are reawakening the spirit of the treaty.”
The treaty between the Stoney and the Simpcw—one which shows their long-standing relationship and demonstrates their mutual commitment to share resources—has been dormant for more than a century.
In the past, for time immemorial, the two nations would come together in this area every four years to trade food, share medicines and perform ceremony.
“These treaties pre-date Canada,” Wesley says.
At the beginning of the 20th Century, to make way for the national parks, the Canadian government removed Indigenous, First Nations and Métis People from their traditional territories—places we now know as Jasper and Banff. The Secwepemc (Simpcw is a camp of the larger Secwepemc) were forced west—their 300 km march ended at Chu Chua, near Barriere, B.C. The Stoneys were forced east.
Wesley’s parents went to residential school in Morley, Alberta (now Mînî Thnî). Not only were their families prohibited to honour the treaties with neighbouring nations, they weren’t allowed to talk about them.
“It was forbidden to share this kind of information,” Wesley says. “You didn’t want to bring it up. You were going to get strapped.”
Decades later, perspectives have changed. Jasper National Park has recognized the historical wrongs the Canadian government committed. In 2005, the Jasper Indigenous Forum was created. Among other goals, the Forum has identified supporting access and reconnection with the park as ways to work towards reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples.
“A lot of people don’t understand that Indigenous People were excluded from their territory where they hunt, fish, live and gather,” said Jasper National Park Superintendent Alan Fehr. “Canada recognized that when the Constitutional Act was passed in 1982 and Indigenous rights were affirmed.”
On October 29, the morning was crisp and dry. Snow covered the fire-blackened trees on Mount Chetamon. Chetamon is Cree for squirrel (literally “He who walks amongst trees.”)
The night previous, the group camped in the Snaring Valley performed a different pipe ceremony—this was an offering to the Creator for the harvest that they were planning, Wesley said. The hunters—young men from both nations—took part in the protocols.
“The next generation is picking it up where my grandpa’s generation left it,” Wesley said.
On October 28, when a single shot echoed over the mountains, those members still at camp—some of them beading, some making jewelry— looked up.
“A gift from the Creator,” Wesley said.
The gift was heavy. It took four strapping young men to skid it out of the bush, to the road. The young men, who call home the Big Horn reserve, near Nordegg, AB, were happy for the skiff of snow and the slight downslope on the terrain. Together with JNP wildlife biologists, they estimated the elk weighed upwards of 800 pounds.
“The Creator put animals here to feed his children,” Wesley said.
The agreement between the Simpcw First Nation, the Stoney Nation and Jasper National Park included the sustainable harvest of up to six white-tailed deer, four elk, two bighorn sheep, one moose and two black bears. However, at the end of the two-day hunt, only three elk, one white-tailed deer and one bighorn ram were harvested.
However, Fehr said the hunt itself was secondary to the treaty.
“The harvest is almost symbolic,” Fehr said. “This is more about the treaty, and the opportunity for the Stoney and Simpcw to introduce their youth to an area that was part of their traditional territory.”
Chiniki First Nation Chief Aaron Young agreed.
“We’re back home today,” Young said. “It’s a new start.”
Bob Covey // firstname.lastname@example.org