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Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Forever indebted

Posted: 01/25/2014 1:00 AM | Comments: 0

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T-shirt and hoodie maker Jeff Menard poses with his hoodie featuring the 'Got Land? Thank an Indian' slogan. A  Saskatchewan student was told not to wear this sweatshirt in school, although officials have since relented.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

T-shirt and hoodie maker Jeff Menard poses with his hoodie featuring the 'Got Land? Thank an Indian' slogan. A Saskatchewan student was told not to wear this sweatshirt in school, although officials have since relented. Photo Store

My fingers hammer on a laptop, the laptop rests on a couch, and the couch sits in an apartment on Treaty One land, just beyond the Assiniboine River's edge.

This is a simple acknowledgment, a practice rare (but catching on) of naming the territory we stand upon. In Winnipeg, that land is described in the first treaty, a document "made and concluded this third day of August in the year of Our Lord one thousand eight hundred and seventy-one." It was signed by the lieutenant-governor and seven chiefs: by Miskewkinew and Kakekapenais, by Nashakepenais and Nahawananan, by Kewetayash, Wakowush and Oozawekwun.

This is where we are now, and from where this place has come.

And as for where we're going, well -- by speaking our history, we pack it into memory and carry it along. Because history is a fragile thing, filaments all at risk of snapping when there are none left to tend the web. Someday -- a thousand years, two thousand, more? -- there will be none left to speak of Treaty One, as there is no one now to speak the names of the Mound Builders who raised great earthwork monuments along the Louisiana bayous.

Technology has slowed history's erosion, but it will not stop it. Even the sun will die someday.

But so long as it rises and sets on land that we call Canada, we are all inextricably bound by this, by history and the treaties and the peoples who were signatory. If I write this column in an apartment just beyond the river's edge, then it is because of everything that went before. This past is not a pretty one, but it is ours. By acknowledging it, we centre ourselves in the fullness of the story, a community indebted to those who wove the stained skeins of its history.

Or, another way of saying this, cheekier by half: "Got land? Thank an Indian."

This phrase is emblazoned on sweatshirt, and one of those sweatshirts belongs to a 13-year-old girl named Tenelle Starr, and recently she wore it to school in Balcarres, Sask. She is from Star Blanket Cree First Nation, and the shirt is thus a declaration. "It supports our treaty and land rights," she told CBC, and how magnificent to see a 13-year-old child growing into an understanding of these things. "It's important."

A handful of parents complained about the sweatshirt, and school staff asked Starr to take it off. They quickly reversed the decision, in a discussion the school division's CEO later called "productive," and a Star Blanket First Nation council member told CBC the school division and the First Nation were "on the same page."

It should have ended there, with all parties signing on to the same page. Just another in a long list of flash-flood misunderstandings around history and race.

But the story blew up in national media, and when it did a rain of anger beat down upon Tenelle Starr. To be clear: grown adults, who I will not validate here by speaking their names, actually took to Facebook and comment sections to shout a child into silence. Her family called the RCMP -- as any parents would, to protect their child -- and in a decision mystifying to me, CBC gave the worst offender screen time to advance her rage.

And me, well, the only thing I can see about the sweatshirt to trigger such hate is it leaves little doubt to whose voice it belongs.

These sweatshirts are made by a Winnipeg man, Pine Creek First Nation member Jeff Menard, and they've been selling like hotcakes since the media storm over Tenelle Starr's experience began. The quip -- let's be honest -- does not run deep. It's more akin to a public Tweet, a succinct and wry reminder the members of those Nations who signed the treaties have their own experiences of what those treaties mean.

Meanwhile, most non-indigenous Manitobans probably couldn't say with any certainty whose traditional land they are standing on. I couldn't, for far too long.

But here I am now, just one woman typing on my laptop, on a couch, in an apartment located in a city called Winnipeg that is raised up on Treaty One land. And to all of those who keep alive the story of that came to be, to all of those who still recognize the living breath of our history, to all of those descendents of those who were signatory -- thank you for that.

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 25, 2014 D2

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