Wabanaki Confederacy: ‘We’re not dead, our fires are still burning strong’

(Members of Wabanaki Confederacy build the Turtle Lodge Aug. 7, 2014 where the meetings were held in the Esgenoopetitj First Nation in New Brunswick over the weekend.)

By Trina Roache
APTN National News
Old alliances looked to re-emerge at the Wabanaki Confederacy summer gathering over the weekend.

Environmental concerns, Aboriginal title and forging a path away from the Indian Act were all on the agenda.

Records date the Wabanaki Confederacy as far back as the 1680s.

It was a political alliance between nations in the east, on both sides of what’s now the U.S-Canadian border. The Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Abenaki, Mi’kmaq and Maliseet joined together against the threat of colonialism and raiding Iroquois.

The purpose was peace.

Over two decades ago, the Penobscot in Maine lit the sacred fires again and efforts were made to revive the traditional alliance.

Gary Metallic is a Mi’kmaw Hereditary Chief from Listuguj. He says the focus of the Confederacy now is to “assert our ancestral jurisdictions because our roots go back further than the Indian Act system. Our roots go right into the ground, since time immemorial.”

Metallic’s biggest concern is comprehensive land claims.

He says the first issue is centred on who is sitting at the table. The advent of the Indian Act destroyed traditional forms of governance. Metallic calls current chief and councils an arm of the Indian Act and says Canada negotiating with bands today is the equivalent of Canada negotiating with itself.

“(As for land claim agreements) we’re saying they’re illegal because we’re not at the table,” says Metallic. “Our people through their traditional governance systems need to be consulted first before any agreements are signed and people don’t know about these because most of the time it’s done behind closed doors.”

Secondly, Metallic and others at the Confederacy say Canada has no right to negotiate deals for lands aboriginal people never ceded in the first place.

Treaties vary across the country.

The roughly seventy agreements with different First Nations took place over the course of three hundred years, mapping out Canada as it exists today. While some ceded land, others such as the Mi’kmaq’s Peace and Friendship treaties signed in the 1700s did not.

Metallic says those treaties are strong because at that time the Mi’kmaq negotiated from a position of power; part of that due to the Wabanaki Confederacy.

“For us these treaties were just about co-existence, how we lived together,” says.

Metallic predicts a ripple effect from the recent Supreme Court ruling that awarded aboriginal title to the Tsilhqot’in Nation, adding, “that’s a big stick that’s been handed to us as traditional hereditary chiefs.”

Aboriginal title is a hot topic in New Brunswick. SWN Resources Canada is exploring for shale gas. Worries that fracking will pollute the water table led to protests last summer and fall. The Mi’kmaq of Elsipogtog say instead of meaningful consultation, there were violent clashes with police, court injunctions and lawsuits filed by SWN Resources.

Activist Willie Nolan and others filed a lawsuit of their own. In it, they say the shale gas giant, the Province of New Brunswick and Canada violated laws protecting the environment and Aboriginal rights. The Wabanaki Confederacy are interveners. Metallic says the suit asks the basic question, “Who owns this land? We never gave it up.”

Hart Perley, a traditional Turtle Clanmother for the Maliseet Nation, says of the gathering, “The energy is so positive, so refreshing…It’s like uniting them and telling the world here we are. We’re here. We’re not dead, our fires are still burning strong.”

The mood at the gathering is peaceful, punctuated with lots of laughter. People share ideas and food. A pot of moose stew doesn’t last long. But the purpose is serious.

And daunting.

“We each have our responsibility as nations to make sure our traditions are passed forward,” says Perley. “That our culture stays alive for future generations.”

Perley says the most vital step is away from the Indian Act. She used to be a band councillor on the Tobique First Nation until she grew increasingly conflicted and left the position.

Perley says there’s no real power for “Indian Act chiefs.” The true power for First Nations lies in the land she says.

Her message to chiefs: “Come to your people. Stand with your people and we can help you get away from the Indian act because guess what? These are your natural resources. This is where you get your money for your programs and services in your communities.”

Perley admits, it’s a hard step to take.

The Indian Act is ingrained in an Aboriginal way of thinking.

“Because of the oppression our people have been put through, they’re kind of stuck there. They don’t see a way out. Well, we’re offering them that. If they stick with our people they would be very strong chiefs,” she says.

Tnohere’s funding for this group. No official recognition. Perley says they don’t need it.

“The land belongs to all the nations as a collective,” she says.

That’s the focus of the Wabanaki Confederacy.

To reassert Aboriginal rights to the land. To revive traditional forms of government and to leave the Indian Act behind.

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