Words from our Elders: Alex Kennedy, Little Pine First Nation
- | May 25, 2021
These memories of Alex Kennedy are excerpts from the book Wahkohtowin: Nehiyaw Relations. The elders were interviewed and translated by Ralph Arcand and Ira Horse, photographed and published by Ted Whitecalf and a team, including Marilyn Poitras, Peggy Lewis, Patricia Whitecalf-Ironstand and Katrina Forgrave, Sweetgrass Records. Check back monthly for words from our elders.
I'm going to speak English because most of you don't know don't understand Cree. You don't speak Cree. I guess that's one of the subjects today: what do we do with young people that don't know who they are? Don't know where they come from? When I ask young people that, they only think about the surface when I asked them. Who are you? My name is Alex Kennedy. Where do you come from? I come from Little Pine. When I ask a young person who they are and where they come from, it's a little deeper than that.
Who am I? I'm a human being with a spirit. Where did I come from? I came from kisikhok, the heaven. From God, that's where I come from. That's where my spirit comes from and I'm a nêhiyaw.
The word “Cree” was given to us by French people. I've been asking the French people what Cree really means in their language and historically they don't know, but they gave us that name and if you really want to identify ourselves as to who we are, I always say I'm a nêhiyaw. Truly that's who I am, a nêhiyaw and that's one of the things that we have to, as elders, older people, we have to teach our young people those two things: who they are and where they come from. They also must be taught that there's such a thing as sin. Something you did wrong here on earth as a human being will follow you into the next world, the spirit world.
We have a lot of problems at home me and my wife. Forever, we're having spirits come to our house wanting prayers. We don't sleep. They keep us awake and we hear them walking around in a house. We hear them talking outside. Especially when somebody's going to die that happens. I always tell these ghosts that they don't have any business to come and see us now that they're in a spirit world. While they were living as a human being, they should have taken care of what they were as a human being. I told the ghost spirits, “God didn't mean for spirits to come amongst us humans and bother us at night. We need our sleep,” and they usually listen.
I speak to people that are more spiritually powerful than me about this. I asked them and they said they’ve been advised speak to me because they listen. They will listen to you and they will do what you tell them to do, and they usually disappear. But that's what happens if we as human beings don't live a good life here on earth. We’ve taught our children that.
The other thing that I want to talk with, especially with the Elders, one of the roles responsibilities that we've got in this meeting is to discuss what is right from what is right and wrong. God had the wisdom to make each of us different. Nobody's the same. You as an individual, there's nobody in the world that's the same as you. You're different and God created different tribes throughout the world with different beliefs, different ways of worshipping. Christianity, we have been colonized by the Roman Catholic Church, by the Anglican Church and that's the white man coming into this country.
I heard an old lady who knows the creation the Cree creation story. I listened to her on discs, and she said that when God created the man and the woman he would come and see them. Come and talk to them. He spoke to them and he said, “Sometime in the future there's going to be a different human being that's going to come to this land. He's going to look different, he's going to act different. When that human being arrives on this island, that's when your life is going to start getting hard. It's going to be difficult from that time on into the future.”
I listen to that old lady saying that and I sit at home. I've experienced a hard life. In my life I had to work in the cold. I had to sleep in a tent in the wintertime, in February. I thought that was hard. Now I'm living in a in a house where I come, and I turned the switch on, the heat comes on. I turn the switch on, the light comes on. How can it be difficult for me to raise a family in that kind of an environment?
Then I started thinking about the difficulties that we have with our young people with their drugs, their alcoholism, unemployment. They finished grade 12 but they're scared to go anyplace, they stay on Reserve. That continues from generation to generation. That's something that we're going to have to do something about. Gangs are being developed within our community. Young people ganging up with each other. Not only men. But young girls are bullying other young girls and developing gangs. We've had several deaths here on Little Pine as a result of that - drugs, drinking and fighting and we have to do something about that.
The RCMP says, “We can't help you anymore, but help has to come from this community. From you people. If you want us to help you, you have to work with us.” We have to do it; community is work collectively to raise our children in a good way and we have drug lords on this reserve. Young people selling drugs to your other young people. Old people selling drugs to younger people. They argue, “I’m doing good because if I didn't sell them the marijuana they'd be on the stronger drugs!” So, they argue, “I'm being good to those young people by giving them or selling them something that's light, that's not heavy.” Like the fentanyl I think they call a pill that's killing hundreds of young people in Vancouver and it's spreading this way. I think it's already in this community and it's going to get worse.
That's what God was telling these people when he said, “When a different human being arrives here, your life is going to become harder and harder into the future.” That's what I think about. That's what I think that old lady means when she says our life is going to get harder and harder into the future and it's going to get worse. It's going to get worse if we don't do something about it. We have to collectively do something with about it.
The Chief was talking to us about one very important thing and that's worshiping. Believing in God. That's number one within our home. We believe in God, we believe in the spirits that come into our sweat to help us and we teach our kids that. We have three men and one woman. Delvin is the oldest, then Debbie, then Bruce. We adopted a nephew of mine. His name is Milton.
If we want our kids to live a good human life, we got to stop that drinking, we got to stop that drugging up. Because they're going to inherit those cells from us and that's the way they're going to grow up. That's something that we ought to think about and we ought to address. We got to start living differently
I work at Sakewew High School as an elder. Colin Sutherland, Principal at (cree) called and said, “Come and see me.” I went to see him, and I asked where his office was. I walked into his office and there was three of them sitting there. Immediately he got up and gave me a pack of tobacco. He says, “We want you to come and work for us as an elder.” I didn't want a job, but I was given tobacco. I didn't know how much I was going to get paid and one of the roles and responsibilities of an elder is to teach young people, that's what came into my head right away. I took the tobacco. Now I'm working there and what do I see? I see a lot of young girls just doing grade 11, grade 12, becoming pregnant. They're just teenagers and the men get them pregnant, and the men take off and they're left alone with their baby. That's something that we men have to, we have to think about. I tell them straight out at school, I tell him about womanhood and I tell them about manhood, what their responsibilities are.
I tell the young girls right outright, I said, “All the men all they wanted to take your panties off!” They laugh at me and they're thankful that I speak like that, very bluntly. They can understand me, and I speak the same way to the boys.
As elders, we're very important within our communities. We have to rise up and start speaking up and what are the most important things I want to talk about here? There was an argument here a few days ago I think during Treaty Day, there was an argument between two groups of people. One group was saying, “We don't have any elders that know the songs and the pipe for a horse dance, or a chicken dance and we have to go to other communities to go and get help from other old men from other communities to bring to Little Pine, to bring to Poundmaker.” The other person said, “Nope. I heard my old people tell me, ‘whatever we teach you at Little Pine and Sweetgrass never leaves, it stay with it, that's all. You don't adopt other ways.’”
There was a little argument there and what I think, is that we were created by one God as a human being. It doesn't matter what tribe you come from throughout the world, he gave you a religion to worship Him and to know him as Cree Indian people. He gave us the Sundance and the different ceremonies to know his love through those ceremonies, to know him through those ceremonies.
I know for a fact that the person that taught me that sweat that I've got, he was a natural. He was a person that grew up poor. At home his parents drank. A lot of times he didn't have enough to eat when he was a little guy. He said, “A lot of times I was worried when I was a little boy growing up. What's going to happen to me?” And he said he was a loner, and he said, “The animals started coming play with me, the rabbits, the deer. They would come and speak to me.” This one day he said, “I was really worried because,” he says, “I was alone at home and this deer come up to me says, ‘Don't worry about it. Things are going to be okay.’” That's the kind of a natural spiritual human being he is. He runs the same kind of a sweat.
A lot of people think the sweat came from Wyoming. From a different tribe of Indians and a lot of you who heard Raymond Harris, that name? He was the one that went throughout this country healing people through his sweat and this man I'm talking about, they adopted each other.
Harris taught him how to run that sweat and, but he said, “My grandfathers that come to me in my sweat, they don't come from Wyoming.” He said, “There are Cree grandfathers within our area.” He said, “There's different kind of grandfathers up north with the Inuit.” He said, “throughout the prairies as Cree Indians, Lakotas, Nakotas, Dakotas, we have our own spirits. As you go further south, the Apache Indians and Navajos, they have different grandfathers. You go to the ocean and the tribes over there, they live off the water from the sea and that's where the grandfathers, their spiritual grandfathers, come from, the Ocean.” He said, “That's the way they worship.” He says, “I've got Cree grandfathers.”
He says, “I have a sweat that I run a little different from the rest. A lot of people wonder why I allow women to smoke pipe with me in my Lodge, because within this, within our area of Sweetgrass, Poundmaker and Little Pine, we've been taught by our old people woman are not worth smoking with men. They're not supposed to smoke with the men. That's what I was taught,” he says, “You do whatever I'm telling you how to treat the sweat,” he says “life will be good for you.” So I let women smoke in mine. In my sweat, a lot of people think that's no good within Little Pine, but I often think that Little Pine, the Navajos, the Inuits, were created by God. One God only.
The only time that I didn't believe a man coming from another tribe, the Northern Cheyenne, he come here teaching for a couple of years. He started teaching the young people that we are all God and he pointed to me, says, “You’re God, you're God.” And I came outright and I said, “I don't believe you! There's only one God.” And people were mad at me by telling him I don't believe you, but that's what I believe, that there's only one God.
In the creation story, a little part of it teaches us that these four men wanted to find where God was. They had a meeting and they decided that we will all journey up into the heaven and try and see God. They wanted to see God and this fourth one was kind of hesitant. He didn't want to do it, but he says, “three of them already decided,” so he joined them. They all took turns traveling around all over. They come back. Couldn't find Him. Couldn't see God, the three of them. The fourth one, reluctantly he went on his journey and someplace over there, he heard a voice. It said, “Don't those people appreciate what I have given them in life? Go back and tell them that. Go back and tell them what I'm telling you.”
So, he came back and they started arguing, the four men. Pretty soon these two men couldn't understand each other. They had different languages! God created different languages within these four tribes, these four men. They all went in four directions and that's where the different tribes come from is indigenous people.
If we collectively come together and start believing in God, start believing in our spirits, in our spiritual grandfathers and teach that, teach our children that, they're going to become better human beings.
I don't know how many of you here are selling drugs. But I know some of you are and you ought to know that's not going to take us in a good direction. You're going to keep feeding drugs to young people and you're going to destroy their lives. You're going to destroy your own life. Because when you die, on the other side of the other side, in the spirit world, you're going to stand up before God and God is going to ask you four questions: I gave you a life did you respect it? How did you treat your life? I gave you a woman to be partners with. Did you love that woman? I gave you children to raise for me. Did you love those children? Did you raise those children in a good way? I gave you grandchildren. Did you love them? Were you a good role model for them? Those are the questions that will be asked by God from all of us. We have to be honest, we cannot lie to him.
I'll be 78 years old September the 3rd and I think about my life. I look back and I think about all the things that I've done in my life that were sinful. Sometimes I don't sleep all night just thinking about them. I prayed to God to forgive me for all the things that I've done in my life that were bad. I honestly ask him to forgive me and I respect my wife. I love my children.
I used to hear old people say being a parent is good but being a grandparent is better! I'm walking that life now. I think more of my grandchildren that I think of my children. Because with my children I don't think I brought ‘em up the right way. I had to work for a living. I had to be away from home and our oldest son Delvin he says, “You didn't tell us enough that you loved us. You never hugged us.” That's what my kids are teaching me now as a 78-year-old, to be more loving to the people that surround me.
I have attended a lot of Treaty 6 meetings where I hear a lot of old people talking about the treaties. One of the most important things they talk about is when our old people were negotiating with that different human being that arrived here, was that we wanted to live the way God created us. The White man said, “You will always have those,” but what at the white man wrote on paper: you'll continue to hunt, you'll continue to trap, you'll continue to fish, and you'll continue to pick berries. Those are the way you've lived, and you'll always have those.
Our old people meant a hell of a lot more than those four things when they said we want to continue living the way God created us. How we raise our children to teach them to be Cree and to teach them how to speak and understand Cree. To understand what life all is about and how to handle it. How to work within these different lodges and the way we raise our children.
I was in one ceremony and the grandfather there said, “Does anybody want to ask us anything?” I said yes. I said, “We're losing our young people. They no longer know who they are. They don't know their language. They don't know how to be a nêhiyaw. What can we do to help them?” He said, “Bring them to the ceremonies.”
Immediately within my mind I thought about the cultural camps. I really don't believe in the cultural camps. I think they're a little start and I immediately thought that they don't work grandfather, but that was in my mind. He said, “No that's not what we're talking about.” He said, “Bring them to ceremonies like the ceremony that you're in now. Take them to Sundances, ghost dances, chicken dances, horse dances.” He says, “That's where they will go and learn.” He said, “That’s where our young people are going to be spiritually connected with God when they go to those ceremonies! Even though they're just playing around in a campground, but they're still there within that spiritual environment.” I was very glad.
I'm just going to give thanks to Jerry Tootoosis A few years ago, we had a Sundance and he told us, “Gather all the children outside that are playing. Bring them in here. There's going to be a special song for them and they're going to dance in front of this this tree.”
All the kids were brought in and I could see. I had this grandson of ours that's being raised by Debbie and he's not ashamed. He was really dancing, and his friends were looking at him and they started dancing too now and there was about 15, 20 kids in there, in that Sundance Lodge. And they were given that special opportunity to be able to dance within that Lodge and in one of those ceremonies okimâwatik came in. The spirit of okimâwatki came into the into the ceremony. He said, “That's what they call me, okimâwatik-atayokan came into the ceremony. These different spirits are coming to the ceremony, they were identifying themselves. The first one that usually comes in is kise napew mostos. You know the first thing he says whenever he comes in? ‘We work for the creator! That's who we work for and different spirits come in and they speak.’”
Sometimes I can't understand them because I'm hard of hearing and this last time we were there, I think there was what, five or six of them that came in there. Totally and this different spirit. One of them was the center pole from Sundance Lodge. The Morning star came in and the bear. The bear from the South who makes a noise: he has a Thunderbird, the Bear. Thunderbird came a different kind of spirit. That's what God gave us as nehiwahk to raise our children within that spiritual environment to teach them those different things. As elders we have that responsibility, to pass that on to young people. I'm passing these on, they are not my words. I don't own them. They were given to me and loaned to me by other elders. I'm just repeating what they told me. I'm not smart. I'm not spiritually powerful. I don't heal anything around me.