May 27, 2005
A Government of our Own (Speech by Chief John Miswagon)
[Chief Miswagon began his presentation with some remarks and prayers in his own tongue.]
Good morning. I would like to thank the Frontier Centre for its invitation and Mr. Holle for his gift of tobacco. I acknowledge my relatives, the Nanayawin, and their ancestors for allowing me to be here in their traditional lands. I am please to see you here this morning—exercising your Treaty rights, including your Treaty right to be here and your Treaty right as Canadians to share this land.
I have been asked to speak this morning about Pimicikamak and its traditional government.
Pimicikamak is the name of my people. We are a people of rivers and lakes. The traditional territory of Pimicikamak is around Sipwesk Lake in the heart of the boreal forest, five hundred kilometres north of here. Flowing through our land is Kichi Sipi, the Great River that you call the Nelson River.
Pimicikamak’s traditional government is quite new, and yet it is also ancient. This may seem like a contradiction, but I will try to explain.
Pimicikamak Okimawin – our traditional government – is ancient because it existed as a government “of the people, for the people, and by the people” long before the United States of America created its Constitution. Our ancestors governed themselves in our territory since time immemorial. Pimicikamak did not have rulers. It had leaders. Leadership was based on consensus and especially upon respect that was earned.
Oral history tells us that, around the time of our people’s first real contact with the settlers, Tepastenam was the most respected leader of the Pimicikamak people. In the summer of 1875, he traveled to Norway House and invited the settlers to share our territory. According to our laws, he adopted them. To signify that, it is said, he made his mark on a document that came to be known as Treaty #5 and so did Lieutenant-Governor Morris on behalf of the Queen.
Subsequently, in common with other indigenous peoples, Pimicikamak’s government was suppressed. But it was not lost. You might say that it went underground. Our Elders kept it alive. Over the past fifteen years, Pimicikamak Okimawin has been reviving.
Of course, it is not just a matter of reviving the government of our ancestors from the 1800s. Traditional ways provide the framework; but we also need to catch up with more than a century of modern governance. That is why Pimicikamak Okimawin is also new.
You might wonder why we would base our modern government on traditions. The most important reason is because these traditions are part of who we are. They are central to our culture. They are integral to our identity as a people and our relationship to the land. They embody the wisdom of hundreds of generations of our forefathers. They are what is right for our people.
As it turns out, there is another reason for basing our modern government on our traditions.
Three years ago, researchers from Harvard University came to visit us in Cross Lake. They were from the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development. For many years, they have studied economic development among Indian tribes—mostly in the United States. They looked at what works and what doesn’t. They found three keys to sustainable economic development.
In a statement to the United States Senate, Professor Joseph P. Kalt, who headed this research, reported that the three requirements for sustainable economic success for American Indian tribes are:
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