In commemoration of National Indigenous Peoples Day on June 21, the Tobacco Plains Indian Band walked across the Canada/U.S. border into Montana to honour their Indigenous rights and show support and unity to their southern brothers and sisters.
They were joined by many groups from as far away as Alaska, as well as several influential individuals including Sophie Pierre, Canadian First Nations chief and administrator and Commissioner for the British Columbia Treaty Commission (2009-2015). Individuals from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, the villages of Kivalina and Noatak in Alaska, the City of Fernie, Teck Resources, North Coal and the Canada Border Services Agency were also present.
(Phil McLachlan/The Free Press)
Before the walk began at the Roosville border crossing, Tobacco Plains Indian Band Chief Mary Mahseelah welcomed everyone and spoke to why they were gathered.
“Five years ago we started the walk in the hope to bring awareness and unity to our southern brothers and sisters, as Ktunaxa people,” said Mahseelah. “As we continue to exercise our Indigenous rights, as our people have always occupied the traditional territory that falls on both Canada and the United States, as we know it today.”
“The border walk is really about reminding people that the border is not of our making,” said Tobacco Plains Indian Band councillor Darlene Trach.
“Our home is on both sides of the border,” she continued. “Because the border is there, doesn’t mean we don’t go to both sides of our home, because we have family on both sides. It’s separated our territory but it’s not stopping us from going down and still using our territory, visiting our family and being Ktunaxa.”
(Jonathon Brewer performed a traditional dance during the Tobacco Plains Indian Band’s celebration of National Indigenous Peoples Day, Friday June 21. Phil McLachlan/The Free Press)
“And we’re kind of isolated,” added councillor Bob Luke. “It’s isolated us from some of our relatives, it makes it more difficult to visit with your family or relatives or friends, because you have to jump through the hoops of the border and meet their requirements.”
One of the hurdles, Luke explained, is that the United States doesn’t always recognize their people as Ktunaxa, because they’re ‘not 50 per cent’. Because of this, they sometimes face issues crossing the border even with their Secure Certificate of Indian Status (SCIS).
The group also sometimes faces issues taking cultural items back across the border.
“We have an MOU (memorandum of understanding) with border services, but there’s certain things we have to do to meet the needs of both parties,” said Trach.
Since they started this walk five years ago, Luke said the awareness surrounding it has grown significantly.
This year, the Tobacco Plains Indian Band celebrated National Indigenous Peoples Day with a theme of ‘speak our language’ in the hope of spreading awareness of their culture and motivating outsiders to learn.
(Tobacco Plains Indian Band member Kyle Shottanana carries the eagle staff during the grand entrance of National Indigenous Peoples Day, Friday.)
“We’re here celebrating our language and really bringing it back, gifting it back to the people in their homes,” said Barbara Fisher, Culture and Language Coordinator with the Tobacco Plains Indian Band.
The Tobacco Plains recently finished the creation of a series of DVD’s, which tell traditional Ktunaxa stories in their traditional language. The band created this, with the help of their chief and elders, in the hope of reintroducing their traditional language into the homes of their members.
The creation of these educational videos took eight months of recording and animation. The videos are narrated by Tobacco Plains Indian Band chief Mary Mahseelah. They were also assisted by elder Elizabeth Gravelle.
Over the years, the traditional language of the Ktunaxa people has faded, and almost lost. Thanks to this recent initiative, the language can be preserved.
At the recently-opened health and administration building, individuals gathered after the walk to celebrate, eat lunch, dance and listen to songs presented by the Chief Cliff Singers from the Kootenai Tribe of Elmo, MT.
(Chief Cliff Singers. Phil McLachlan/The Free Press)
For their guests from Alaska, the drummers performed an honour song.
The Tobacco Plains will be celebrating their powwow on Saturday, June 29. Watch for coverage of this in the July 4 edition of The Free Press.