18.08.2009 | The Ktunaxa people

Life Among the First Peoples of Canada

A short insight into life among the Ktunaxa tribe of British Columbia. By Star Hungry Wolf Cardinal, British Columbia (Canada).

Star Wolf with her father

Star Wolf with her husband

Cross the Ocean to Canada, in the south east corner of the province of British Columbia along the Rocky Mountains is an area called the Kootenays. The territory is named after the tribe that has inhabited the area for thousands of years (as their legends have always told them, and now archaeology tells us), the Ktunaxa (to-na-ha). Their origin story speaks of them being created right in their territory, of being created by the same entity that created all of mankind. Today the Ktunaxa continue to tell their legends, especially their origin story, to their children and grandchildren. They listen raptly as the, sometimes hours long, legend touches on all parts of their territory, naming various landmarks and waterways, remembering the spirits that protect certain areas, and why. They say long, long ago elders and orators would sit and tell the origin story for days; it was a great event with feasting and fires.

I work for the Ktunaxa people, as a community development worker for a band of the Ktunaxa called Aq’am- or the St. Mary’s Indian Band. There are all together 7 bands making up the Ktunaxa tribe. There are five in Canada: Yaqan Nukiy, Aq’am, Akisqnuk, Tobacco Plains and Kinbasket. The two in the USA are Elmo tribe and the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho (although technically they are bands, they now identify as tribes- I’m not too sure how that works). Each band is on average 300 people, with a total Canadian population of about 2500. It is one of the smallest tribes in Canada.

I belong to the Blood Tribe, which is a band of the Blackfoot tribe – on my mothers side. Our traditional territory is across the mountains to the east of the Ktunaxa, or Kootenays. The Blackfoot tribe is made up of the Bloods, the Peigan, Siksika and southern Peigan or Blackfeet of Montana, USA. Our population totals around 60,000. I have yet to live for long within my tribal territory, and since marrying into the Ktunaxa tribe have made the place I was born, the Kootenays, my home. My Mom, however, lives in Alberta on the Blood reserve. It is all prairie there, and completely different from the beautiful mountain valleys of the Kootenays.

My Father is of Swiss and Hungarian ancestry, but was born and raised in Germany. He always dreamed of living in the mountains with, and like, the Indians, and today lives a very traditional lifestyle. He wears braids, moccasins, beads and earrings every day, he lives off the grid with no running water or electricity. He pumps his water, chops his wood and runs his computer off 2 small solar panels. The European relatives that I know live in Germany, so I claim German ancestry- which I can from my mothers side. Her great grandfather was a german, who ventured over and married a Blackfoot woman so many years ago. All people from all nations surely know something of displacement and loss of home and connection, we all share the feeling that we should maybe be with our relatives in other places.

The first contact of European settlers with the Ktunaxa, was actually with Blackfoot informants who, for a price, told the settlers all about this small mysterious tribe. The Blackfoot word for Ktunaxa is Kutenai- thus the word for the area, imposed by the settlers was Kootenay. This initial contact, finding out about the Ktunaxa through their enemies and then settling the territory with that information, set the stage for centuries of disrespectful treatment of the original inhabitants and „owners“ of the land, common across Canada. For years now the Ktunaxa have struggled to maintain a tribal identity, amidst what is now a well documented case of attempted genocide. The goverment of Canada strategically tried to wipe out all Native tribes, and the Ktunaxa peoples were some of the hardest hit.

There are more than 700 tribes of Indians in Canada. All of those tribes once spoke their own language, knew their own laws, practiced unique ceremonies and customs and lived intimately with their own distinct territory of land. I say once, because today they struggle to hold on to the traditional knowledge of their grandparents and ancestors. Out of those 700 tribes in Canada the Ktunaxa are the only people whose language is known as a linguistic isolate, that means it is completely unique and does not belong to any of the 12 family groups that all of the other Native languages of Canada are categorized under. The Ktunaxa people have identified their language as critically endangered as less than 30 fluent speakers remain. As with all tribes across Canada, there are strong efforts to save the language mixed with heavy disappointment and hopelessness.

Some of the historic and shared traumas that the first people of Canada, including the Ktunaxa, have survived and in some cases continue to endure is the exploitation of mother earth, even areas held so sacred; epidemic sickness caused by viruses and foods, and alcohol, that we are physiologically not able to metabolize; the generations of people who were forced against their will, and their parents’ will, to attend residential schools where their languages and spirituality were literally beaten out of them, and many sustained grotesque abuses; the endless racism on all levels of society, from systemic to blatant- the general population does not know much about the original owners of this land and the Canadian Government has failed its fiduciary responsibilities.

Each band has an administrative body which operates to serve the local population and to govern the land they were designated by the Canadian government, a small portion of their traditional territory in each case, called a reserve. The Band Administration, like any bureaucracy, is overwhelmed by paperwork and red tape. My job as a community development worker is one of the least desk oriented in the administration office, I try to create programs and resources that will be helpful to the members of the Aq’am community. Band administration is funded by the Canadian government on a yearly basis, every year each program must be reported on and reapplied for, creating a continual backlog of neccesary documentation.

Life for a First Nations person in Canada means the daily crossing of cultural bridges, it means learning the beliefs and systems of many different nations, it means translating those meanings every day. It also means swallowing your horror and shock at all that went wrong in the past and bravely stepping forward as leaders in our communities, and in our nations. It means learning our history, our relatives and our stories, while getting an English education and a good grasp on the capitalist process. It means raising our children simply and consciously, it means learning the Governments laws better than they know it themselves so that someday they will be held accountable. Most of all it means remembering the feast and fires that fed our ancestors and celebrating how far we have come.

© Star Hungry Wolf Cardinal, 18.10.2009


The author

Star Hungry Wolf Cardinal is a Blackfoot/Swiss/Hungarian woman/mother married into the Ktunaxa tribe of British Columbia Canada.  She was born and raised in the Rocky Mountains, where she lives now with her husband and 2 small daughters.

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3 Kommentare

  1. Randi ()

    thought you were native guess your just another wanna be pure blood…aka mutt…not offense…all good.

  2. star ()

    I know what I am, don’t need any wanna be judge judging me LOL thanks friend

  3. randyr ()

    Guess u r jst a european mutt ahaha „friend“ lol i always c wanna b natives take advantage of pure bloods…whites always trying 2 exploit n take advantage of pure bloods…make me sick! … if u were true jst say ur Blackfoot nvrmind the white blood!