SPECIAL REPORT

IN SEARCH OF PRIDE

NATIVE PEOPLE WANT MORE RESPECT

BARRY CAME,BARRY CAME July 3 1989
SPECIAL REPORT

IN SEARCH OF PRIDE

NATIVE PEOPLE WANT MORE RESPECT

BARRY CAME,BARRY CAME July 3 1989

IN SEARCH OF PRIDE

SPECIAL REPORT

MACLEAN’S/ DECIMA POLL

NATIVE PEOPLE WANT MORE RESPECT

Little Pine is an Indian reserve, one of the 2,277 in Canada where roughly half of the country’s 450,000 status native people reside. It is spread across 16,000 acres of rolling prairie along the Battle River near the farming town of Cut Knife (population 530) in central Saskatchewan. Seven hundred Cree live there, all descended from the bands whose chiefs affixed their marks to a treaty with Queen Victoria in 1876. Under it, the Cree exchanged 121,000 square miles of what is now Western Canada for a few farm implements and a small sackful of dollars. The reserve is not the largest in the country, nor the smallest. It is neither the richest nor the poorest. In fact, Little Pine is all too typical—of native poverty and national neglect. “It doesn’t look all that bad but don’t let appearances fool you,” said resident Alex Kennedy as he wheeled a maroon sedan around the reserve’s winding metalled roads. “There’s a lot of suffering here.”

Causing suffering to others is not part of the average Canadian’s self-image. On the contrary, as the Maclean ’s/Decima poll showed, Canadians like to think of themselves as a tolerant and generous people. But the Canadian Human Rights Commission recently described Canada’s treatment of natives as “appalling.” In fact, Canada’s natives have much in common with their aboriginal brothers in the United States, where a different history of assimilation and different government policies have resulted in many of the same problems. And they are caught in a similar contradiction: they want greater autonomy but they are unequipped to exercise it.

Little Pine is a microcosm of overwhelming despair. Eighty per cent of its population is unemployed. Nearly everyone who has a job works for the government, administering federal and provincial Indian-support programs that they had little influence in shaping. Nearly 50 per cent of Little Pine’s 143 housing units—mostly nondescript little clapboard bungalows—lack the water, sewer, sanitation and central-heating services that are taken for granted in the rest of the country. Half the population is of school age, but only seven students will graduate from Grade 12 this year. It has been only about two years since the federal government replaced the one school on the reserve—a group of ramshackle trailers—

with an impressive 12-room building at a cost of $5 million.

The reserve has few of the amenities of urban life, but it has fallen victim to urban vices. Alcohol and substance abuse, including glue-sniffing, even among children as young as

5 is widespread. Gambling is endemic. “Alcohol abuse and bingo are our two biggest problems,” said registered nurse Louise Blais, who helps run the reserve’s health clinic. In May, 547 of the reserve’s 700 people collected social assistance. Said Kennedy: “If you get stuck on welfare you eventually have to pay dearly for it; there’s no such thing as a free ride. Our people don’t even know if existing on welfare is right or wrong any more—they’ve been on it so long it’s like breathing.”

The Indians blame their problems on bureaucratic and legislative obstacles that severely limit their ability to rule themselves. Canada’s status, or officially registered, natives are governed by the 1951 Indian Act and several treaties granting them such special rights as education and hunting and fishing on their lands. But they have little control over their own lives. Said First Vice-Chief Daniel

Bellegarde of the Regina-based Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations: “What we are facing today is a web of racist, paternalistic, dependence-producing structures that have one and one only purpose—assimilation.” Partly in response to a nationwide campaign by Indians, the Canadian government has committed itself to a policy of transferring responsibility for running Indian affairs to the native peoples themselves. But Bellegarde says that there is little evidence of that policy on the Saskatchewan reserve. In fact, natives say, the government is merely trying to saddle them with administering programs designed by its bureaucrats—but without adequately preparing them for it.

At the same time, fully one-third of Little Pine’s $2.9-million federal grant last t year was earmarked by Otta= wa for social assistance. An_ other one-third went for edug cation. Most of the rest was g used to finance the operation g and maintenance of the re^ serve and the workings of band’s elected council. Only $19,000 was set aside to teach the band how to run the system. The reserve is expected to take over the operation of the school but, so far, residents have received little guidance on how to prepare for it. Said Little Pine band manager Bernice Frank: “They created this mess and now they want to transfer the management to us without transferring the resources to manage it.”

The natives say that they are also concerned that Ottawa may use devolution as an excuse to eliminate some special treaty rights and benefits—including fully paid postsecondary education—in return for greater autonomy. Said Kennedy: “We’ve got to be very careful that self-determination isn’t just another white man’s ploy to rob us of our rights.” The issue may be as critical for Canada’s self-image as it is for the people of Little Pine.

BARRY CAME in Cut Knife

,he Bear Paw Mountains are well named.

They appear to shamble across the northern Montana plain, a cluster of lumbering hills 550 km south of Saskatchewan’s Little Pine Indian Reserve. A band of American Indians lives in the Bear Paw on a reserve called Rocky Boy. Like the residents of Little Pine they are Cree and Chippewa. But their 107,000-acre reserve is more than six times the size of Little Pine. And the Montana Indians have already attained many of the trappings of self-determination sought by Saskatchewan’s natives: their own tribal government, administration, judicial system, police force, health scheme, educational and welfare programs— even a bar and bingo hall. Still, Rocky Boy’s 2,500 inhabitants seem to be as disheartened as Little Pine’s residents. What is more, they say that they are aghast at the prospect that their relatives across the border would even contemplate following their example. “If this is what they want up in Canada,” said former tribal Judge Geneva Stump as she waved an arm around at the modest houses dotting the pine-clad hills of the reserve,

“then you better tell them to think about it again.”

While the Cree and Chippewa of Rocky Boy appear to have won more control over their own destiny, Stump says in reality they are still struggling with interference from the white man’s government. And for Indians on a reserve with few resources, self-government has resulted in few material advantages over the Indians in Little Pine. The same sad litany of problems afflicts both Canadian and American communities. The average annual income at Rocky Boy is less than $2,000 (U.S.). Unemployment is slightly more than 80 per cent. Almost everyone who does have a job works for the govern-

Would you be happy, indifferent, or unhappy if one of your children married someone from a different racial background?

CANADA

UNHAPPY

INDIFFERENT

HAPPY

13%

60%

25%

UNITED

STATES

32%

51%

15%

ment, either the local tribal authorities or the federal and state agencies that run reserve programs. Welfare is a way of life, just as it is at Little Pine. In May, 450 families, roughly 90 per cent of Rocky Boy’s population, collected so-called General Assistance payments from the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs-$38(U.S.) per person every two weeks.

Clapboard bungalows, most without central heating and many without adequate sanitation, predominate. Substance abuse is as widespread as in Little Pine. Stump, who served for four years as a judge in the tribal courts, estimated that 90 per cent of the cases she heard were directly related to alcohol or drugs. Declared Duncan Standing Rock, the band’s public defender: “Everyone I represent is in trouble because of booze or drugs or both.” But there are differences between the two communities. For one, the Montana Indians are better educated. There are on-reserve classes, run by the tribe, extending from preschool to college level.

This year, all Grade 12 students graduated.

In other areas, however, Rocky Boy residents seem to be less fortunate than those of Little Pine. Health care is a tribal responsibility, organized under a state-chartered insurance corporation. But because the band has few income sources, Rocky Boy’s people collectively owe the hospital at Havre, a transportation and marketing community of 11,000,50 km north of the reserve, more than $265,000 (U.S.) in unpaid medical bills. As a result, some band members have been refused admission to hospital. A similar, although less drastic, situation prevails at the local funeral home, where Rocky Boy Indians have been unable to pay the costs of embalming — required under Montana law—and burial. Declared Stump: “Not only can we not 5 afford to get sick, we cannot = even afford to die.”

I Like Canada’s Indians, g many of the United States’ 1.5 S million natives, who live on g 304 large reserves, blame ^ their woes on a system designed by others. “The history - of Indian self-determination in this country is a sham,” said Gary Eagleman, a tribal elder. “It is designed to make us fail, to terminate us as a separate people.”

Eagleman says that while federal authorities have instituted Indian self-government, they do not respect it in practice. He points out that most of this year’s $4-million (U.S.) budget is derived from administering 18 separate federal assistance programs, ranging from preschool child care to support for small businesses. But 53 cents of every federal dollar budgeted for Indians is taken up with administrative costs before it reaches the reserve. And the funds that do finally trickle down are closely monitored by the federal government despite supposed Indian control.

Earlier this year, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal in San Francisco upheld Eagleman’s conviction for embezzlement, handing down a two-year suspended sentence. His crime was to authorize the payment of a $38 (U.S.) welfare cheque to a Rocky Boy band member who was not entitled to it. “It’s pretty hard to swallow,” he sighed as he sat sipping coffee in the bungalow he shares with his wife. “Sometimes I wish the white man would just go back to wherever it was he came from and leave us in peace.” It is a wish often voiced with passion by native peoples all over the continent.

BARRY CAME on the Rocky Boy Reserve