Shirley Sanderson has dedicated her life to preserving the language, culture and history of Treaty 6
- Kerry Benjoe | September 14, 2023
On September 9th it will be 147 years since Chief Ahtahkakoop signed Treaty 6.
Although Treaty 6 covers the central west portions of present-day Alberta and Saskatchewan, all First Nations have benefited from it because of the medicine chest clause interpreted as the Treaty right to healthcare.
According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, other Treaty promises included: an annual cash payment of $25 per chief; $15 per headman and $5 for all other band members; a one-time cash payment of $12 for each band member; and reserve lands in the amount of one square mile or 2.59 square kilometres per family of five; $1,500 worth of twine and ammunition per year; agricultural implements including gardening tools, livestock, horses and wagons; and for the first three years following the signing, First Nation farmers on reserves were entitled to $1,000 in agricultural provisions.
In addition, rations were to be awarded in times of famine or pestilence, and schools were to be built on reserves.
However, the tribes retained the right to pursue hunting, trapping and fishing on reserve lands.
Chiefs who signed Treaty 6 that day received gifts.
Most people are familiar with the Treaty medals, but most are likely not aware of the blankets each chief received.
Shirley Sanderson from the James Smith Cree Nation has not only seen one of the blankets, which she describes as itchy − she has one in her possession.
“It helps me a lot especially when I am in a place like this,” she said during the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations’ annual Healing Gathering. “It seems like it really helps me bring out the stories. I always feel like they’re there to help me talk. I used to be shy. [The blanket] makes me feel good.”
The 73-year-old is a direct descendant of Chief Ahtahkakoop.
Her father, who has since passed, was Ahtahkakoop’s grandson, he gave Sanderson the blanket to keep in the family.
Along with the blanket she received the oral history of Treaty 6, which is something she cherishes.
“My dad told me, in the future Treaties are going to be mixed up,” said Sanderson.
She believes the old stories, the history, and the Cree language are essential because all three are needed to understand the Treaties and what was said during the negotiations.
Her great-grandfather passed his knowledge to his sons through stories, which were told in the Cree language. Those same stories are what Sanderson now knows, so not only does she possess a Treaty blanket, but the oral history.
“My dad shared a lot of stories with us kids,” said Sanderson.
On Sept. 5, 1876 Ahtahkakoop was in Duck Lake to hear what the Queen’s representatives had to offer. The decision to sign Treaty did not come lightly. After four days of deliberation that included prayers and discussions, Ahtahkakoop and the other chiefs signed Treaty 6.
Sanderson knows that very history is wrapped up in the blanket.
She takes her role as caregiver of the blanket very seriously and the public has seen it only once.
To Sanderson, the blanket is more than a sacred object, it is the embodiment of her family’s history.
It is proof, the stories passed down through the generations in her family starting with Chief Ahtahkakoop, are indeed true.
Soon Sanderson will also take on the care and safekeeping of her great-grandfather’s Treaty medal.
Ahtahkakoop had two sons, so he split the medal and blanket between them.
“My niece is going to give me the medal to hold on to,” she said, adding it will be the first time the two items will be united in about a century.
Although she is only 73, Sanderson has witnessed many changes in society all of which make her more determined to preserve the culture and the traditional ways of life.
“I seen how we lived, how we travelled,” she said. “We used to go to ceremonies by horse. To Onion Lake for the sundance, we used to go by horse, and it took us four days to get there. Thunderchild it took about two-and-a-half days.”
Sanderson said it was a beautiful way to live.
When she was around 12 her older sister married a man from James Smith and took Sanderson with her.
When she was around 14, she met Jacob Sanderson and soon the two were married and James Smith became her home.
These days, Sanderson is very busy and travels throughout the province regularly. She is an Elder for the federal correctional centres, so she travels to Nekaneet often. Sanderson provides traditional counseling services and often travels to the far north. While at home, she serves as the Elder at the local schools.
Sanderson practices many of the customs she was raised in and still goes out on the land to gather medicines. She shares her knowledge with others because she doesn’t want the old ways to be lost.
Sanderson is worried about the language. She says there are less and less people who speak and understand Cree.
Any time she can, she encourages others to just try.
“It’s not that hard,” said Sanderson. “Just start speaking it.”
She said it’s never too late to learn your language.