First Nations, First Stewards
Interview with Marvin Fox
On December 11, 2009, EMP publisher Bob Harris and EMP editor Jerre Paquette met with Marvin Fox, an impassioned elder of the Blackfoot Confederacy nation, book editor, and teacher of the Blackfoot language at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Alberta. With Marvin’s guidance, EMP began the first of more articles to come, all intended to explore and celebrate the relationship among aboriginal peoples, mountain parks, and tourism in Alberta and British Columbia.
EMP’s focus in this article, is not the many spectacular features and details of our various park lands, as much as it is the special perspective on “place” aboriginal experience provides. We at EMP encourage you to extend your appreciation of Marvin’s comments by posting your own comments on this website. For a rich appreciation of this region’s ecosystem, history, and challenges to its future refer to The Crown of the Continent website. We also encourage you to explore the history and complexities of Treaty 7, which we touch on all too briefly in what follows.
Take Home the Peace of this Place
I’m reading over my notes from our discussion with Marvin Fox, Blackfoot elder. Actually, I’m multi-tasking – reading Marvin’s comments on “place” and watching video footage on the Waterton-Glacier park land. The footage is of a wondrous landscape located at what a PBS mini-documentary describes as “the narrow waist of the Rocky Mountains” where Montana, Alberta, and British Columbia meet. The video records the passions of past and contemporary advocates for the preservation of this special area, officially called The Crown of the Continent. Aboriginal people refer to it as “the backbone of the continent,” indicating a subtle but significant difference of perspective between two distinct cultural groups – historically, white European and North American Aboriginal.
Both names are metaphorical: the word “crown” stamps a regal stature on the landscape, placing it at the top of an official hierarchy of places with attendant legal rights and responsibilities; the word “backbone” heralds a complex, organic relationship between people and landscape. Both names signify the intention to protect and preserve, and both are indicative of a considerable respect for nature. But the differences between them warrant some explanation.
The difference in perspectives between the governmental and aboriginal groups and the different names they ascribe to park land can be traced through the long history of the groups’ troubled relationships. In the late 19th century, the Canadian government was attempting to link all the geo-political areas of the country from East to West. The most significant method of doing so was the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway, which necessarily would run right through aboriginal lands. The government realized the railway could not be built until the rights of the Aboriginal peoples along its route had been settled. Several “treaties” were struck to achieve that end, including the best known of them, Treaty 7, signed at Blackfoot Crossing in Alberta.
The resulting treaty settlements remain controversial to this day, a consequence in no small measure of the differences in perspective about land, about place, and embedded differences between people of a written culture and people of an oral culture. In 19th century Blackfoot, for example, there was no word for “treaty”, and some have suggested the Blackfoot understanding was that Treaty 7 represented, simply and profoundly, “the time when we made a sacred alliance”. A sacred alliance is less about legalities and more about respect; it is less about details and more about deep appreciation and spirit.
At the signing of Treaty 7, for example, the Blackfoot Confederation did not anticipate a shift in ownership (they never felt they ‘owned’ the land) or merely a set of rules to govern human behavior in protected areas; rather, their anticipation was for a shared acknowledgement of the sacredness of place, a sacredness that would determine the use of the land – that would be protection enough for all the animals, trees, and rocks. Well over a hundred years later, Marvin Fox is not convinced we have achieved that sense of sacredness, and so is not entirely comfortable with government plans to encourage tourism in our parks:
MARVIN FOX: I’m a little hesitant because of past histories of 1st Nations people with people going to sacred places without the proper protocol of approaching or using those sites. One that comes to mind is our writing spaces (Writing-on-Stone), where we recorded a lot of our stories’ events (in pictographs on stone faces) and you go there and somebody scrawls “Jerre was here” or “Marvin loves somebody” over something our people wrote there originally. It is the desecration of our sites that I am worried about…. I refer also to areas designated for all-terrain vehicles and I ask is the land there to enjoy nature, or is it there for them to enjoy their all-terrain vehicles to rip up the skin of that area, which I compare to a human being – knife marks all over your body; that’s the image that comes to mind.
In other words, he is not reluctant for people to visit the lands of his forbear – he simply wants them to get beyond treating these lands merely as legal entities to perceiving them and treating them as sacred, as our collective “backbones”.
What is Place?
Marvin Fox, Blackfoot Elder speaks about the Aboriginal concept of “place”, especially as it concerns our designated parks and tourism.
MARVIN FOX: As far as the Blackfoot Confederacy people are concerned, we have been living in the whole Southern Alberta area and parts of Saskatchewan, and then there’s our relatives in Montana. We consider this whole area as our dwelling, as our place where we can gather food…; that’s how I see our territory: there are places where you eat, you find food, and these are the buffalo that we travelled with many years ago, and many places where we went to gather food (berries, and so on), places where you go to rest – if you look at the year’s cycle, places where we camp, we winter, we rest; but that doesn’t mean that when we move out, well, you don’t disown your bedroom when you walk through the door. So that’s how we consider “territory”. That’s why there was a kind of a clash when the native people here and the first Europeans came, and they said “in order to live here, we need to buy it.” And we said no, we said we will share the territory, but we’re not going to sell it. And that was the understanding of the elders – we did not sell it.
And the mountains – you know the story of some of our people in that particular area, The Crown of the Continent – it’s kind of the backbone of North America and a haven for our people, including the tribes in Montana that live in the area. We respect not only people, but we respect places as well.
Sometimes, people get the wrong impression that native people are superstitious, they think there are spirits all over the place – oh no, it’s that every creature, whether it’s a human being or animal or bird or stone or tree has some type of power, some kind of spirit or force (some people use “force” these days) to make it part of creation, part and parcel of what we enjoy – and everybody and everything has some kind of purpose in life, why we are here, but unfortunately we destroy some of these. We destroy people (we tell them to move off because we bought their territory so they no longer have connection to it).
Also, people, a lot of our ancestors…have gone through [the places tourists visit]…but they still live there in their spirit. And it’s not superstitious, it’s just part of us, and we say, ok, our great, great grandfathers camped here, lived here, and their life force, their spirit is still around, you know, and we kind of feel that – I don’t know…it’s not something you can explain logically, rationally; no, it’s just something you can feel. That’s why a lot of these places, like Writing-on-Stone – the people have very strong feeling of forces there…. And there are sacred places that we go to, and that includes the mountains, some of the mountains in North America…where we go for quests, for inspirations, for guidance in our lives.
~Marvin Fox is a co-editor of the book Kitomahkitapiiminnooniksi: Stories from our Elders, Volume 4 a bilingual (Blackfoot and English) resource developed by the Kainai Board of Education by Flora Zaharia, Leo Fox, and Marvin Fox.
Marvin Fox photo credit: Jerre Paquette
See our related story, Crown of The Continent, Waterton Conference, September 2010