‘Making Treaty 7’ hopes to create dialogue amongst all races within Treaty 7 territory

The new play Making Treaty 7 aims to educate Calgarians about how that agreement came about. But in preparing for the play, its creators and performers also learned how little is known about Treaty 7 — even among First Nations.

Treaty 7 was a deal signed in 1877 by several First Nations in southern Alberta, which saw much of their land transferred to the British Crown.

While doing research for the performance, which was most recently staged at Saint Mary’s University, the creators did an experiment: they walked up to random strangers and asked them what they knew of Treaty 7. The lack of knowledge was staggering.

Cowboy Smithx, a performer who was recruited early on for the play, said, “I’d say your average Calgarian knows very little, or nothing at all.”

But even some of those involved in the production of the play say their knowledge of Treaty 7 had been lacking.

Chris Hsiung, of Hidden Story Productions, captured the event says he knew very little about the treaty despite doing very well in school.

“I was very studious in school, but what we studied was European history,” said Hsiung. “I had this impression that Canadian history was boring and non-existent — that there was really nothing before the Europeans came.”

Panelists Reg Crowshoe, Cowboy Smithx, Kris Demeanor and Michelle Thrush answered questions about the performance.

Photo by Trevor SolwayThis very lack of knowledge is what motivated Hsiung to make a documentary similar to Elder in the Making, a successfully crowdfunded documentary about aboriginal culture. That film is still in production.

“Being reasonably well-read and educated (I) don’t know anything about the heritage and history of this land that I grew up on and benefit from, then where’s everyone else knowledge? As well as people who have immigrated here, they aren’t getting that education either.”

Performer Kris Demeanor, who is of Swedish and German heritage, said the blame for this ignorance lies with Alberta Education.

According to Demeanor, Treaty 7 is “not studied in schools and not talked about in social circumstances, within families or the greater community of Calgary.”

Demeanor grew up in Oakridge, a suburb of Calgary, and says the only knowledge he got of native tribes was from Disney movies, the Calgary Stampede or John Wayne. A chain-link fence would separate a reservoir where he played and the Tsuu T’ina Reserve.

He would peer through the fence expecting to see “full-on braves” with headdresses and war paint dancing around teepees because that’s what western society had taught him to expect of aboriginals.

To make sure they set that record straight, the creators of Making Treaty 7 did a number of intensive symposiums with elders from Treaty 7, where they listened to stories, perspectives and what they were concerned with.

Smithx, from the Piikani and Kainai tribes, said it took a lot of research and listening to get the story right.

“The process was actually quite intense and rigorous, especially when you’re dealing with stories about residential schools and how traumatizing it was for our family members and ancestors,” said Smithx. “A lot of difficult subject matter to comb through, then to think about how we’re going to represent this on stage.”

Cowboy also states although the three-hour show was jam-packed with content, they are only scratching the surface.

A metis elder expressed what the play meant to her heritage.

Photo by Trevor SolwayBut, according to Reg Crow Shoe of the Piikani Nation — an elder who was consulted — what was important is they did so in a way that reaches both aboriginal and non-aboriginal youth, who also don’t know enough about Treaty 7.

“The mode they delivered it on is a western mode, and I think that’s the language today for young people to understand and I’m grateful for that.”

An example: Demeanor played Colonel James McLeod, a key figure in the signing of Treaty 7 and representing her majesty, the Queen. In a parody of the signing, Demeanor and Andy Curtis (who plays Commissioner Laird) act as “slimy salesman” who you would see on late night infomercials conning Chief Crowfoot and Chief Red Crow. Using toilet paper as the Treaty, the fast-mouthed officials use government stricken language to pitch the Treaty to their aboriginal counterparts.

“You’ll be so comfy on those newly allotted parcels of territory that you won’t care. You’ll need permission to leave them, because you wont want to.”

The piece was meant to emphasize the lack of translation, the cunning motives and the confusion of what really was being surrendered.

Saint Mary’s University native liaison specialist Michelle Scott saw the live play in September and instantly knew she had to bring it to her school.

“Iit had a way of powerfully educating people in a way that was very accessible but also so riveting and raw,” said Scott.

An audience of over 160 attended that performance. But there’s a need for more people to learn about Treaty 7.

Narcisse Blood, an Elder from the Blood Tribe, said this story is only the beginning, “Making Treaty 7 is an untold story…well let me put it another way, maybe it has been told. It’s an unheard story, like many other oasis we haven’t heard.”

tsolway@cjournal.ca