By Kim Twatt
Robert had, through kindness and extreme luck, months before my fiftieth birthday, booked a surprise holiday for us in Saskatchewan. Flights to Saskatoon, a hire car and flight home from Winnipeg would allow me to visit Magnus’s haunts. When he booked this holiday I had not yet made contact with the people of Sturgeon Lake but he knew I had to get to that part of the world for the sake of peace in the household.
Thus began an extraordinary journey – the journey to meet my Cree relations, eighth cousins. Sturgeon Lake First Nation put me in touch with Alexander Dietz and his wife, Linda, in Saskatoon. Alexander, a brilliant scholar on the First Nations people of Western Canada, works tirelessly for the First Nations. Having Cree relations is by no means rare among us Orcadians, but to be able to find my relations after a 200 year gap was pure magic. Alexander is probably the only person who could ever trace the Cree families since he can identify people and their descendants from both their Cree names and the names used by missions and schools, etc. – family names such as Charles and Daniels.
The Dietz family invited us to stay with them for a couple of days before travelling on to Sturgeon Lake Reserve. At this stage I was completely naive, knowing nothing of Cree life today, or even 200 years ago. Alexander knew the best way forward was a bit of guidance and then experience. He suggested I should not try to categorise people and went on to explain that since Cree people traditionally observed very strict marriage rules, it was common practice to welcome outsiders as members of a Cree community. Where that outsider or his children lived their lives as members of a Cree community, sharing the culture and lifestyle of their relations, they were identified not as half-Cree, not as Métis, not as half-breed, but simply as Cree. Those Europeans who preferred to have their families live a life distinct from that of the aboriginal people tended to be the antecedents of those individuals who later formed the Métis nation who have a unique culture and social structure. However, many of the children of Euro-Aboriginal families, particularly if the father had returned to Europe or, as is the case with Magnus’s family, the father died, preferred the lifestyle of the Cree relations and became part of the Cree world. Alexander told us of Akaysininew (George Sutherland of Orkney), born “white” but who eventually became Cree and had 23 surviving Cree children. So Magnus Twatt was by no means unusual.
Linda, Alexander and their son, Andrej, took us to Wanuskewin, Saskatoon, an interpretative site which gave us a grounding into the culture and lifestyle of First Nations people. We then met Chief Earl Ermine, Jack Long and Craig Bighead from Sturgeon Lake First Nation. Over several cups of coffee they told me a bit about the reserve, its people, and their work and aims today. Craig introduced us to his wife, Shirley, who is Director of Health. We were invited to stay on the reserve and Shirley invited us to a lunch at the Health Centre during our stay there.
Sturgeon Lake First Nation has just over 2,000 members. It is located about 30 miles north-west of the city of Prince Albert. The reserve, no.101, consists of about 35 square miles with picturesque Lake Sturgeon running almost its full width. The Band Government consists of a Chief and six Councillors who are elected for a three year term. About half the band members live on the reserve with the other half living mainly in Saskatoon and Prince Albert. Living on the reserve are around 1,400 residents (including spouses of members who are not themselves members). The school, which took 20 years of negotiations before it came to fruition, caters for children from kindergarten to grade 12 (age 5-17) and accommodates 300 students. Other facilities include the band office, health centre, a healing lodge, council chamber, child and family services programme office, fire hall, water treatment plant, 205 residences, etc.
Next morning we set off with the Dietz family for Fort Carlton. During Magnus Twatt’s time working for the Hudson’s Bay Company the fort had been rebuilt up river. Magnus had helped with its construction. The fort today is in another location so, as a result, we were not looking at the exact buildings he would have seen but the layout and function of the fort were similar. Today visitors can see the array of furs which were traded by the natives for goods such as Hudson’s Bay blankets, guns and ammunition, traps and supplies. Here, 125 years ago Magnus Twatt’s grandson, Chief of the William Twatt Cree Band representing 20 lodges (tipis), signed Treaty Six. William’s Cree name was Ah-yah-tus-kum-ik-im-am, meaning ‘the man who moves his tipi’.
Treaty Six included a medicine chest, a unique feature of this treaty, which should equate today to medical health provision. The signing was made after days of negotiation, deliberation and ceremony.
With the information so far, I set off for Sturgeon Lake with Robert and 12-year-old son, Alistair. Rather apprehensively I met Harold Kingfisher, great grandson of William Twatt, my eighth cousin, in Prince Albert. Any concerns were soon dispelled. Harold was a very warm and friendly man who was able to see things from my point of view and I soon felt that I had known him for years. Over the following four days Harold and his sisters, Yvonne and Carole, guided and looked after us. We were filled to overflowing with information.
We turned off the metalled road onto a wide dust track. This is Sturgeon Lake Reserve, Harold announced……
Next – The Journey continues in Part 8