By Evan Radford

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Leroy Little Bear holds a copy of the Buffalo Treaty. Photo credit: Evan Radford.

As the 30th annual Treaty 4 Gathering neared its end with the regular Chief’s Forum on Friday in the Qu’Appelle valley, history was made when several chiefs signed a new, interprovincial and international document, the Buffalo Treaty.

The treaty is different, because it’s not an agreement between First Nations peoples and the Crown; it’s a collaborative nation-to-nation treaty between different Aboriginal nations on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border.

First developed by elders, youth and Leroy Little Bear of the Kainai First Nation (Blood Tribe) in southern Alberta, its main intent is to reintroduce buffalo into the lives, cultures and economies of indigenous people, regardless of where they live.

It was first signed on Sept. 23, 2014 in Browning, Montana, after three in-depth discussions with Blackfoot leaders in Alberta and Montana, according to Little Bear.

The original signatories include: the Blackfeet Nation, the Blood Tribe, the Siksika Nation, the Piikani Nation, the Tsuu T’Ina Nation, the Assiniboine and Gros Ventre Tribes of Fort Belnap Indian Reservation, the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of Fort Peck Indian Reservation, and the Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Confederated Salish and Koothenai Indian Reservation.

In his 30-minute pitch for signing the treaty to the chiefs at the forum, Little Bear emphasized how the Buffalo Treaty represents a starting point for the process of sovereignty among Aboriginals.

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The buffalo and its reintroduction to the lives and lands of Aboriginal Peoples is the main catalyst in that process, he said.

When speaking with Treaty 4 News, Little Bear explained how he sees sovereignty playing out in the context of the Buffalo Treaty.

“The whole notion of sovereignty is really a matter of degree. And a phasing-in to greater and greater autonomy, a greater and greater amount of self-decision making,” he said. “It’s kind of like we’re taking on more of our own decision making, and that’s what everybody on both sides of the border are talking about.”

Little Bear noted how this represents a kind of departure from the past, especially in the Canadian context – Aboriginals north of the 49th parallel signed various treaties with the Crown, and eventually, “they acquiesced into the whole notion about Indian Act, Indian Agents, residential schools, you know, all of those colonial notions,” he said.

“But now, it’s coming to the point where they’re saying, ‘hey you know, we’ve tried their way, and it’s not quite working for us. I think it’s time to go back to our own ways and follow those ways again.’ [It’s] is an example of that talk about sovereignty: ‘Let’s make our own decisions, let’s reestablish our relationships with First Nations, instead of being cut up into little reserves, separate from each other,’” he said.

Sakimay First Nation chief Lynn Acoose signs the Buffalo Treaty at the Chief's Forum. Photo credit: Evan Radford.

Sakimay First Nation chief Lynn Acoose signs the Buffalo Treaty at the Chief’s Forum. Photo credit: Evan Radford.

In total, chiefs and appointed representatives from 10 First Nations signed the treaty.  First Nations taking part are: Sakimay, Star Blanket, Okanese, Ocean Man, Ochapowace,  Peepeekisis, Yellow Quill, Pheasant Rump, Wuskwi Sipihk (Manitoba) and Sapotaweyak (Manitoba).

Chief Cadmus Delorme of the Cowessess First Nation was among those who declined to sign the document.

During the question period of the forum, Delorme said he’s not opposed to the treaty; but he said he wants more details about what’s in the treaty and what outcomes it provides for development.

Article III of the treaty, for economics, states that signatories “agree to perpetuate economic development revolving around buffalo in an environmentally responsible manner including food, crafts, eco-tourism, and other beneficial by-products arising out of buffalo’s gifts to us.”

“The treaty speaks to economics, which begins to say, ‘hey, the treaty says cooperation. Let’s get together and talk about economic development.’ The buffalo was our economics.” Little Bear said.

“Our people have been relatively unhealthy. Let’s get back our healthy ways prior to contact,” he said.

When asked about the larger groundswell of action and collaboration by Canada’s Aboriginals, Little Bear attributed the shift, in part, to technology.

“Everybody’s carrying around iPhones, everybody’s on Facebook. So now the younger generations are making contact with people on the other side of the country,” he said.

Those connections are giving people access to more information, regardless of distance and time, he said. “Consequently, that’s what’s stirring the talk and so on that’s taking place.”

That includes supporting protestors in North and South Dakota who are demanding ecological and aquatic considerations before the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline goes ahead, he said.

“We need to say ‘hey, we need to go and help our friends, our Sioux friends down there in South Dakota on this water and pipeline issue,’” he said.

What’s different now, according to Little Bear, is that Aboriginal collaboration is optimistic: “It’s very positive talk, as opposed to being negative and fatalistic and so on. People are talking very positive about coming together.”

The next milestone event for the Buffalo Treaty will be its second anniversary, held in Banff, Alberta, September 28-29. It’s expected that more Kootenai nations will sign on to the treaty at the anniversary event, according to Little Bear.

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