In Anishinaabemowin, Gakina Gidagwi’igoomin Anishinaabewiyang means “we are all Treaty people.” What does that mean? And why does it matter? Understanding the spirit and intent of the Treaties is crucial in understanding the Treaty relationship between First Nations and Canada.
According to Elders, First Nations have lived on these lands since the beginning of time and were placed here by Creator. Everything that follows is based on this idea.
The land and everything on it are living gifts from Creator. They can’t be bought or sold. As Cree author Harold Johnson points out, “I do not say that I own this land, rather the land owns me.”
Elders have described oceans, lakes, and rivers, as the veins of a human body, the plants like hair, and the ground like flesh. The people and the land are in a forever relationship according to their responsibilities.
This world view has really important implications for Treaties too. How people understood them, and what they believe they were agreeing to, is really based on these ideas.
People often assume that First Nations didn’t understand what was happening at the time of Treaty. This is false. Treaties weren’t new to First Nations at all, they existed before Europeans arrived here and helped maintain peace and friendship between First Nations.
Agreements between First Nations had a shared understanding that no party could own the land and that because of that, they couldn’t sign it away. Some people might have different rights and responsibilities to different lands but Treaties weren’t about owning it.
And so from the First Nations point of view, the Treaties granted Europeans the right only to access and use some of the territory, but not in any way they wanted. The way they used the territory had to be according to the Creator’s laws that underpinned every agreement. This means that for First Nations, Treaty making wasn’t about giving up land, or any other rights, Instead, Treaty making was a way to confirm Indigenous rights to the land, to languages, to culture, and to a way of life. Not just for one generation, but into the future. For First Nations, Treaties would guarantee these rights were protected and that each party would respect the agreement forever.
Through their actions, settler governments also communicated these ideas. The sealing of Treaties through traditional Indigenous protocols held during negotiations invited Creator to witness the promises made and ensured that promises wouldn’t, and couldn’t, be broken.
Treaty medals were also given out by government representatives at each numbered Treaty and included images that reinforced these points. It was an image that spoke a thousand words. A European settler and a First Nations representative shaking hands over a buried hatchet symbolized peace. A rising sun over an Indigenous encampment showed the people that they would be allowed to keep their way of life. The growing grass, the sun, and the rivers on the medal meant that the promises in them would last as the sun shines, the grass grows, and rivers flow.
And so Treaty agreements aren’t for the history books, they matter a lot, even today. If we respect the intent and spirit of Treaty making, this means no lands have been surrendered or given away. And all the rights that existed before Europeans came, still exist.
For years, First Nations have been fighting back against a restrictive interpretation of Treaty promises. For example, the Treaty land entitlement process allows First Nations who didn’t receive all the land they were entitled to under Treaties signed by the Crown and First Nations, to file a claim to get some back.
But these settlements ignore the fact that the spirit and intent, from a First Nations perspective means that First Nations can use all of the land in addition to those reserved for them exclusively, not that they can only use Treaty lands.
Some First Nations have launched legal challenges that argue for the inclusion of oral histories and for the need to renegotiate terms of Treaties that are seen by First Nations as not honoring the spirit nor the intent of the Treaties. For example, in 2017, twenty-one First Nations took the federal and Ontario governments to court over aspects of the Robinson-Huron Treaty of 1850. Its four dollar annuity established in 1874 was still four dollars in 2017, even though four dollars then and in 2017 mean very different things.
We are all Treaty people with Treaty responsibilities to live in good relation. Treaties can be a part of the foundation of society and of reconciliation, but they can only be meaningful if we listen to Elders and knowledge keepers and if we see them just as they were meant. Agreements between peoples based on friendship, respect, and wellness for all future generations.
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