A Reflection and Memories of Wahbung

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Background

In 1971 the position paper, Wahbung, was developed. It was during a time when a movement of resurgence was beginning; when the leaders of that time found the spirit in themselves to give a greater and stronger voice to support our identity as a People.

We were in the midst of a colonized world, which was dominated and supported by Christianity. There was very little reflection of our identity as a People. The memory of our identity as a people was erased by forced confinement by the boarding school. During the writing of Wahbung, most communities were ruled and governed by the oppressive Indian Act, as they are today. The only difference in that time from modern time was that there was still a strong spirit of independence in spite of what we had suffered as a People.

At that time, the introduction of social welfare was just beginning to be implemented. In today’s world we find not only the enforcement of a dominant force of colonization, but also that the spirit and the will of the people has resigned itself to be dependent on this very force that has denied the identity of a unique and independent Nation, that once reflected its own governance and sacred relationship that it has with the Earth.

The intent of Wahbung had been to give voice to the People demanding our right to our own self-determination, to remove ourselves from the bondage of an oppressor who denied them the right to live and express ourselves as a unique People. Our uniqueness was defined by our relationship to the higher power of the Great Spirit.

mib-logo

Significance of the Wahbung Logo

The logo that is on the cover of the original position paper, Wahbung, was the logo of the Manitoba Indian Brotherhood. The artist that did the logo was Joseph Land from White Dog, Ontario. He was commissioned by my father, David Courchene Sr., to design a logo that would represent the Manitoba Indian Brotherhood, as the letters ‘MIB’ indicate in the logo. The logo had great significance in that it reflected our spirit and identity as a People, which the Manitoba Indian Brotherhood represented.

The logo itself is shaped in a Circle. The Circle has always been a symbol of our belief system. It is a reflection of our understanding of the Circle of Life. It represents the Sun, the Moon and the Earth.

Emerging from the Circle is the symbol of the Thunderbird, another significant symbol of our Ancestors. To our People, it has been the spirit of the Thunderbird that represents the voice of the Great Spirit. It reminds us to speak, in our own voice, words of kindness and love.

During his term as Grand Chief, my father was honoured by an Elder from Sandy Bay First Nation. The Elder was the late Tom Fish. My father was given a name in ceremony – Nii Gaani Benehsi – which means Leading Thunderbird. The logo of the Manitoba Indian Brotherhood had been designed before he had received the blessing of his spiritual name.

The symbol of the bird emerging from the logo could also represent the Eagle. To our Ancestors the Eagle represented the Law of Love. The Eagle also represents Vision. The Elders would say, “You cannot lead a People without Vision, a Vision that is founded on the spirit of Love.”

The Thunderbird/Eagle with its wings is holding a Pipe – a most important symbol that represents a gift given by our Great Creator. The Pipe is meant to be used to have and ensure a sacred relationship with Spirit, beginning with the Creator itself, and then with Mother Earth and with the Spirit in the four directions. The sacred Pipe has always been in the forefront of invoking the Spirit. The Pipe anchored our Ancestors to the Spirit, to Nature, to the Land. The Pipe reflected our spirituality as a People.

The top of the Thunderbird is shaded in red, with the balance of the white and red on the head. The red represents our People, the Red People. The white shaded area of the face represents our White brothers and sisters.

Notice the white part of the Thunderbird – his eye is red and his mouth is shaded in red. What this represents is that through the leadership of and help of the Red brothers and sisters, our White brothers and sisters will be able to see like us why we love the land so much. The Elders say that once the White People understand why we love the land so much, they will speak with us.

The four pointed shapes above the Pipe represent the four directions – the balance of life. The logo tells the story of our relationship with the Great Spirit and our sacred relationship with the land.

Our understanding of this relationship came through ancestral understanding and knowledge. The four points represent our understanding of the four elements of our being – Spirit, Emotion, Body and Mind. These points also represent the four elements of Nature – Earth, Air, Water and Fire. Nature operates on the principle of balance. Our spiritual relationship with all of life is represented by the sacred Pipe. The Pipe shows very clearly our relationship with the Great Spirit, the land and the spirits that sit in the four directions.

The number 1871 inside the tail of the Thunderbird signifies a time when an agreement was made between the First Peoples of this land and the Crown, represented by the Queen and her representatives. The sacred Pipe consummated that agreement and relationship. The number 1971, also represented inside the tail, was the year a reminder was given to the People to return to the beginning of the original understanding of this relationship. That reminder was the document Wahbung.

To return to the beginning of that understanding is to return to building a shared future for all of us and the kind of real relationship we can have together. Obviously, since 1971, we have yet to advance to a point of reaching an understanding that will ensure all of our survival. If we are to advance into the future it must begin with us as the First Peoples. The term Wahbung gives us a clue as to what we need to do. We must return to our beginning. The root of the term Wahbung means the beginning. This beginning – the foundation we set – is what will determine the future. It is through remembering and acknowledging our past – our history – that we remember who we are. We must remember the original instructions we were given by our Great Creator. Within the original instructions are the duties and responsibilities we were given, that guide us in how to be the keepers of a knowledge that will help lay the foundation to support a new life, which our Ancestors foretold would be born on our homeland. Our past reminds us that through the gift of our teachings we accepted our responsibilities as keepers of the land.

The resurgence of our People to go back to our roots began in 1971 with the statement of Wahbung. Forty years have now since passed for all to recognize the significance and importance of making the journey to the beginning, that will set a course and a path, that will lead us out of the darkness into the path of the Sun that our Ancestors knew and lived so well.

Memories of Wahbung

In the early days of my youth I remember listening to the discussions of my grandfather (Paul Courchene), who was Chief, and my father (David Courchene Sr.), who was a Council member. They were always discussing how to improve the lives of our People. I remember one discussion very clearly – what was being discussed was the government giving the right to the Indian to vote for the first time.

To many this may have seemed to be a positive change for our People, but that was not the way it was seen by my father and grandfather. To them it meant a further assimilation into the way of life of the colonizers and his governance. This always stuck in my mind. The belief of my father and grandfather was grounded on the firm belief that we are a fully and unique independent people; a sovereign People. Why would we want to vote for a dominant and subjugating government that would rule over our lives whether we voted or not. The balance of power would always rest in their hands. As the First People we did not have the numbers to have any political influence. My father carried a firm belief in our sovereignty, our independence and our freedom all of his life. He instilled in us as a family that we are Anishnabe People, unique, with everything we needed in order to survive as a People.

He would say, “We have a culture that is so rich when it comes to respecting all life and respecting the land.” My father would say, “Never ever give up on who you are in order to belong.” He lived his life based on this uncompromised belief in who he was as a proud Anishnabe. We were constantly reminded of this strong belief.

A most devastating illness has been inflicted upon us, not an illness of the body but an illness of the soul. I speak here of our imposed static state at the bottom of the bottom rung of the social ladder of Manitoba society, our life of perpetual poverty, of poor housing, and our lack of participation in progress. For the Indian People to gain themselves they must return to the traditional ways in regards to language, to their spirituality. It must be a part of the future. That is if we are able to be the true nation of our culture.

David Courchene Sr., Grand Chief of the Province of Manitoba, October 3, 1971

In 1967 my father was elected the leader and Chief of Sagkeeng. It was still in a time when the Indian agent had full control over the community, with the support of the missionaries. On his first day of being elected my father went to the Indian agent’s office, which was in a federal building adjacent to the reservation. In firmness he told the Indian agent: “From here on in you will never speak on behalf of my People again. This I will do as the leader of my People.”

I could feel there was a spirit of change that was coming. I remember at this time the community was divided by the Catholics and Protestants. In his term as Chief, the boarding school was dismantled and my father proposed a consolidated school so that all of the children could go to school regardless of their religious beliefs. The missionaries took objection to this proposal and fought him from the pulpits of their churches, claiming that my father was the devil himself. It was the Catholics who showed the biggest opposition. It was the community itself in a referendum that decided in favour of the consolidated school, much to the disappointment of the clergy. These were the beginning times that my father was beginning to reflect the spirit of the leadership that he would bring in by becoming the Grand Chief of Manitoba and the leader of the Manitoba Indian Brotherhood.

I found myself being with my father and witnessing many events that challenged his leadership. I was also very fortunate to be with him when many other leaders of the time would visit. There was much discussion on the approaches that needed to be taken to help remove our People from a marginalized world, living in poverty, under complete domination by a foreign culture.

There was Harold Cardinal from Alberta, Walter Deiter from Saskatatchewan, George Manuel from British Columbia, and there were many others. It was during this time that Prime Minister Trudeau proposed the 1969

White Paper. There was a unanimous objection from all of the First Nation leaders to the 1969 White Paper. They saw it as a final move to assimilate our People and eradicate the treaties of our People. They knew they would all have to unite across the country to defeat the Prime Minister’s 1969 White Paper.

It was at this time that the Manitoba Indian Brotherhood introduced a program called Community Development. This program would become key in bringing the essence of what Wahbung would become. It was under the direction of the Grand Chief and the Vice Presidents. The Executive Director of the Community Development Program was Alan Pratt, who had supervisors from the distinctive regions and provinces in the field, and I was one of those officers. The area I was assigned to was Sagkeeng, Little Black River and Hollow Water. Our role was to aid the community leadership in advancing their concerns through proposals, and also ensuring their concerns would be brought to the attention of the executive of the Brotherhood, which represented the unified voice of the People of the province. The Community Development Officers (CDOs) became the foot soldiers of the organization. There was a direct link to the communities which resulted in a strong voice for the Brotherhood. In the words of my father; he would say, “We must never lose sight and connection with the People.” And so it was the task of the CDOs to ensure that direct connection.

In an address on October 5, 1970 to the Community Development Officers, he said:

CDOs are, in effect, agents of social change. Their purpose is to assist their respective communities in a process of self-examination, of evaluation, of seeking alternatives to a given set of circumstances and of planning action to correct any imbalances that are found. The CDO’s role is unique in that he is expected to provide leadership without actually leading. He is expected to stimulate community concern and community action, and direct the energies thus generated into areas of productive activity for the benefit of the community, without at the same time presuming to do for others what they are capable of doing for themselves.

He said further:

“The Community Development Worker is a member of a team whose principal concern is the advancement of mankind, and particularly the advancement of the community he is serving.”

I remember entering the community of Little Black River and meeting the Chief, Lawrence Harry. And these were the first words of introduction from the Chief: “Let me be clear to you,” he said, “You don’t know anything. But if you are willing to learn, I will teach you.” It was a teaching of true humility and it set me on a clear and proper course of working with the People and its leadership. True to his word, he shared much with me, particularly stories of the Ancestors.

There was another very influential Elder by the name of Bill McPherson from Little Black River, who seemed very unapproachable because he gave the impression he was someone you did not want to mess around with. My father gave me this advice: “When you go and meet and are with the People, always approach the Elders first.” Bill was one I was afraid to approach but I did. I remember knocking on his door, afraid and hoping he would not be home. I heard a loud voice, “Come in.” I entered and there was Bill sitting on his chair, and I introduced myself. Bill said, “I know who you are. And I appreciate you coming over to visit.” From that moment, we became close. Bill mentored me and he was an Elder that knew so much. Every time I would visit the community, I would be invited to come over and eat with his family. It was truly a blessing. There was always talk of the way it used to be when our People truly lived on the land, and the concern Bill had with how things are changing and not necessarily for good. Our friendship lasted until his passing.

Then in the adjacent community of Hollow Water that I entered, I approached the Chief, Arnold Williams. He was a very gentle man with a gentle and beautiful wife. They accepted me like a son to their family. After meeting with the Chief, I met with Elder George Barker, a very influential individual in creating the Manitoba Indian Brotherhood. Once introduced and after much listening, our friendship grew. The stories he shared helped shape my desire for the old ways. His stories told of our beautiful life given by our Creator, and his concern about the introduction of a new way of life that was destroying our identity as a People.

There was another prominent Elder in the community named George Bushie whom I befriended. Again it would be at his home where I would share many meals with him and his family. It would be in these times that I would learn the importance of the role of Elders in my life.

My association with the Chiefs and the Elders of that time helped me to understand how to stay connected to the People. The Elders were key in terms of giving advice and direction, something I have never forgotten in my life. When in 1969 the White Paper appeared, as workers in the field, we were instructed to seek the opinions and the concerns of the Elders. It was a time of many meetings, many workshops, and sitting with the Councils to ensure their voices would be heard. At an executive level all this work would lead to the position of Wahbung. As CDOs it was our role to carry the concerns and wishes of the People we were assigned to.

I remember the spirit that all who had been a part of this resurgence carried – a spirit that reflected a deep love and concern that we had for the People. As difficult as things were these were exciting times. The resurgence was happening within the People. The Brotherhood under a strong leadership created a hope and excitement for the future. That was what Wahbung was – a movement to offer a clear direction and to challenge the Canadian government to honour and respect the original intent of the Treaties. And simply – Treaty was a relationship that was to reflect the respect for the uniqueness of the original independent Nations of this land, and a declaration of our resolve to be given an equal opportunity to share in the wealth of the land.

The dominant society have taken a People who enjoyed life who accepted their responsibilities for their fellow man, [a People] who learned to live with their environment and knew contentment and happiness, and converted them to a People who have accepted with indifference their status of the social ladder in this country. One can accept physical deprivation and one can endure social isolation, but as a human being we cannot accept that life itself is irrelevant and that we ourselves have no useful purpose or meaning in our very existence.

David Courchene Sr., Grand Chief of the Province of Manitoba, August 1970

Ogitchi Tibakonegaywin – The Great Binding Law of Kizhay Manito (the Great Spirit) – and the Seven Teachings

Wahbung was about returning to the beginning. The symbol of the relationship we have with our beginning, our Creator, was defined in the Wahbung logo by the Pipe, a gift given to our People to ensure direct connection to the Spirit and the Ancestors. Our connection to the Spirit through the Pipe gave us a firm understanding of and belief in a supreme law that we call Ogitchi Tibakonegaywin, which is translated as “The Great Binding Law of Kizhay Manito (the Great Spirit)”. The symbol of the Pipe, reflecting our connection, reflecting this law, gives a hint to our resurgence as a People and a return to our traditional ways.

Ogitchi Tibakonegaywin – this Great Binding Law – has helped us to connect to Spirit and has helped us to have a deep profound love for the land. In our understanding of this Great Binding Law our People have recognized that all life is connected and that all life has been given original instructions on how to be and live its uniqueness.

For everything he created, the Creator gave an instruction, an original instruction, about how we were to go about living. To the pine tree, the Creator gave an instruction about how to be a pine – the shape of its needles, how it was to bear branches, everything the pine needed to be a pine. It was the same for all the things in Creation – each was given original instruction.

So it was with the human beings. For each People, the Creator placed all things necessary to support and nourish our lives. For each People, the Creator gave an instruction, an original instruction, about how we were to go about on Mother Earth as human beings. Each People was given its languages, its teachings, its way of life, and its ceremonies.

Just as the pine tree never tries to convince the oak tree to change its ways, so it is that the original People never tell each other what they should do and believe. We welcome each other, each following our special ways.

The original instructions were the same for us all – these were to bring peace and love into the world, to put all children at the centre of our lives, and to walk the path of the heart.

The Great Binding Law now sets the foundation for this time – for our continued movement towards our survival – and, finally, for finding our rightful place in our homeland, by living our identity as a people. We can only hope for change when we repeat what our ancestors did when the Europeans first arrived – that is to give and share. In this time we must give and share a knowledge that is so rich in helping mankind realize and live the values or teachings that respect all life, and help support a new world that will honour the Earth as a living entity, that must not be dominated or owned, for the sake of profit.

As a People we have also been given teachings by the Spirit that can lay the foundation toward fulfilling these original instructions, which help all of us to engage in relationships with each other and Mother Earth, based on these teachings. Our teachings are represented by animals to ensure that we recognize our sacred relationship with nature, with the land and all of life. Our teachings are to ensure that we never lose the truth that we owe our existence to the Earth. We must treat the Earth with absolute respect. When we follow our teachings Nature rewards us with life and abundance. Nature would never betray those who show love and respect for her.

The first teaching is Respect, represented by the Buffalo. The spirit of the Buffalo leads us to a life based on true giving and sharing.

The second teaching is Love, represented by the Eagle. The spirit of the Eagle brings a vision that is inclusive to all life, which will help us unite as the human family.

The third teaching is Courage, represented by the Bear. The spirit of the Bear gave us the Courage to do what is right, as expressed in the heart of every human being.

The fourth teaching is Honesty, represented by the Sabé. The essence of Honesty is to be true to our words and actions.

The fifth teaching is Wisdom, represented by the Beaver. The spirit of the Beaver brings us the Wisdom that reveals our unique gifts. Our gifts are to be used to help build a world of freedom and peace.

The sixth teaching is Humility, represented by the Wolf. The spirit of the Wolf reminds us that in the great circle of life we are all born equal and free.

The seventh teaching is Truth, represented by the Turtle. It is the spirit of the Turtle that helps us understand Truth that can ensure a good life that is balanced and in harmony with nature. Living Truth is living all the seven teachings: Respect, Love, Courage, Honesty, Wisdom, and Humility all together are Truth.

These teachings are universal and inclusive to all life and bind us in unity with the Great Spirit. The animals that represent these inclusive teachings bring a spirit that connects us to Nature and the land.

These teachings are brought forward now to lay the foundation of how we must proceed in breaking these chains of bondage and this dependent attitude that has created our present environment of poverty.

Wahbung Then and Now

Today we are challenged first of all to position ourselves within the belief system of our Ancestors, that represents a way of life that we were given by the Creator and to continue in our quest to educate our White brothers and sisters, of the Supreme Law of Ogitchi Tibakonegaywin. We need to make them understand that the path of our Ancestors was to live in harmony with the Laws of Life, of Nature and the Cosmos, the Great Binding Law of Kizhay Manito, and the totality of all our Laws and Teachings. The Great Binding Law governs all manifestations of life and Nature, and it governs the whole universe. All life operates under this Great Binding Law.

The position paper Wahbung represented the voice of the People. It proposed ideas of how we could be removed from our marginalized world to a place where we could live our dreams, our autonomy and our sovereignty as a People. All it has required, then and now, is the opportunity to share in the wealth and abundance of the land, and the respect to live the ancestral ways of our People.

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