Review: Treaty Words

Written by Aimée Craft, illustrated by Luke Swinson. Published by Annick Press, 2021.

Given the recent news concerning the tragedy at the Kamloops residential school, this book would be an excellent way to help describe and explain the historical context of the residential schools. The book is short and approachable, and the language level and the concepts in the book make it suitable for students in late elementary school or secondary school. This is a most eloquent, and subtly illustrated explanation of the concept of treaty, the abstract embodiment of what it means to participate in a collaborative effort, and not just about the more limited idea of a specific legal treaty agreement. The more universal concept is best summed up, as the book points out, in three words — respect, reciprocity and renewal. The book offers a powerful but under-stated and nuanced description of what the concept of a treaty relationship means to indigenous peoples, with roots in the distant past.

The book is a dialogue between a young indigenous girl and her Mishomis (which means grandfather in the Ojibway language) as they sit beside a river. The unnamed girl feels most at home interacting with nature as does her Mishomis. In his lifetime, he had researched the sturgeon in the river and he had led territorial cartographic projects retrieving the original names (and their significance) of many geographical locations. Now he periodically spends his time living in the wild. He views the river as a relative and his relationship with the river, and with nature, is a treaty relationship.

The Mishomis teaches his grand-daughter how to listen to nature so that “every sound was inside and outside of them.” Nature was all around them and different aspects of nature are in a treaty relationship with each other. The grand-daughter realizes that it is privilege to commune with nature, and that she, and everyone, has a responsibility for the well-being of the natural world for as long as the sun shines. When the Earth was created, says the Mishomis, a treaty relationship between the Creator, Mother Earth, Grandfather Sun and Grandmother Moon evolved to create and preserve life. The Creator taught the people how to forge a good treaty relationship. The word ‘aagooiidiwin,’ meaning an agreement to work together describes a good treaty. People learned to develop treaty relationships with the animals and both partners respected the other and benefited from the relationship.

 When the First Nations made a treaty arrangement with the Queen, both sides agreed to work together but many of the Queen’s children thought they owned the land and attempted to control the First Nations through the treaty relationship. The book is positive in tone, displaying no anger or bitterness. To add some historical context, I will point out that there were eleven series of numbered treaties between 1877 and 1921, many of which were hastily arranged, and that there were unfulfilled promises on the government side. There were limited funds for education, supplies and land. Signing the treaties gave the government far too much control over Indigenous life, including such things as alcohol-related policies, and the horror of residential schools.

The grand-daughter was ashamed that she didn’t know the language of her people because that was an important part of understanding her place in Creation. She also began to understand that her Mishomis may not have many seasons left and that he was passing his wisdom down to her to carry forth to future generations. He taught her that every person has free will to learn about treaty relationships or not. Learning from nature defines us as human beings.

Most readers’ ancestors did not choose to understand treaty relationships. In too many cases, they did not respect their treaty partners. They went so far as to destroy rather than respect First Nations, along with a lack of respect for nature in general. The mass graves at the residential schools are a terrible reminder of how the newcomers to the land betrayed the treaty relationships they took part in. Given the ravages of industrialization and the formidable challenges presented by climate change, we are only going to survive as a species, I fear, if we finally understand and embrace the concept of treaty relationships which First Nations have known about for centuries.

— Murray Young

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  1. Pingback: FIRST NATIONS – Forgotten Musical Culture Recalled – According to The Kidd

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