By Terry Lusty, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
(ANNews) – Edmonton, host city for the first National Elders Gathering (NGE) back in 2017, was again the site for its third round at Northlands Expo Centre over four days, from October 30 to November 2. As was the case in 2017, the colossal gathering realized over 5,000 registered attendees.
With this year’s theme being Coming Home, Voices of Elders, Day One kicked off with a traditional grand entry featuring representations from innumerable communities throughout the provinces and northern territories, in addition to a sprinkling from our American neighbours to the south. Over 4,000 delegates packed the place on that first day to witness and/or participate in the opening grand entry, pick up their registrations, and settle into some of the offered sessions.
The grand entry proved most colourful as many of the delegates donned Indigenous-designed regalia, ribbon shirts and/or skirts, jackets, and sweaters.
The event was also a deja vu for many of the visitors who renewed former acquaintances or met new ones. The smiles, handshakes, backslaps, hugs and acknowledgements were heartwarming – reminiscent of a huge family reunion.
The NGE is meant to “build bridges and foster greater understanding and reconciliation” between all people and to show the world that the Elders’ words and teachings are valued, and that their legacy and resilience are honoured.
It is a means of learning one another’s history, culture and traditions via storytelling and information sharing. It’s a time to build relationships and friendships and to renew past ones, to exchange memories, knowledge, and experiences.
The NGE’s specific vision statement is expressed as, “igniting the spirit of sharing and celebration through the guidance and wisdom of the Elders, walking in harmony and in unity.” The national event was federally incorporated as a non-profit society in 2017. It requires a lot of planning, discussions, cooperation, teamwork, effort and a belief in what you are doing.
The 2017 initiative spawned the development of NICE (National Indigenous Cultural Expo) in 2018, which drew 7,000-plus attendees to Edmonton and featured cultural workshops, a powwow, an arts and crafts tradeshow, Metis dance and music, handgames, Inuit traditions, a fashion show, and more. NGE is overseen by a vital advisory council represented by Treaty 6, 7, and 8 regions, as well as the Metis Nation of Alberta, Metis Settlements General Council, Inuit Edmonton and the Assembly of First Nations.
The opening day of the gathering included a “unity” Round Dance just before the supper hour. All four days commenced with a 7 a.m. pipe ceremony (four different pipes) presided over by Elder Fred Campiou. The ceremony was followed by 8 a.m. NGE registrations on each of the first three days.
From 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Days Two and Three included presentations on: reconciliation, culture and language, health and wellness, climate change, children and family, and justice.
Out of respect for tradition and protocol, organizers wisely incorporated smudging, sweat lodges and Elder resting areas.
Day Two was also really well attended; it featured high-energy handgame demonstrations and a special talent show in the latter portion of the day. One highlight of the afternoon was a performance by the terrific country and bluegrass group from Alberta, the Soggy Bottom Boys. Their presentation was very professional, comparable to a performance by the pros in Nashville.
Both the handgames and talent show attracted hundreds of viewers and dozens of participants from the NGE delegate ranks. The handgames were comprised of teams from the far northern communities of the Dene Tha and the Deh Cho.
An early presenter on Day Two was Elder Regena Crowchild whose background includes a long-involved period with the former Indian Association of Alberta. The Tsuut’ina First Nation member addressed a lot of the early Canadian history when settlers, government and churches arrived on Turtle Island and attempted to colonize, assimilate and remove Indian culture, lands, language, and lifestyle.
“They tried to get rid of us,” she stated. Children were put into foster care, child welfare isolated us, drug and alcohol abuse entered, and now, they want to take away the Indian Act! If they do, “What happens to our rights?” she charged. If they get rid of the Act, next is the reserves, and so on. “They’d be out of the Indian business.”
Government, she explained, “talks to the AFN and organizations, but not to us (the people). That’s why we attend conferences – to voice our concerns, protect our rights.”
“In 1985, they gave us self-government but still make rules and dictate to us,” she complained. They also limited the life of our memberships which is our right, not theirs, she added.
As for Indigenous languages, presenter Eugene Alexis implored people and communties to address this issue and implement teachings “through the school curriculum and within the communities too – i.e., on signs and posters.” He also suggested wide usage and repetitive use, and concluded that Native languages are “beautiful and important.”
Hall E at the Expo Centre played host to an Indigenous market/trading post where crafters and clothiers promoted and sold their merchandise. One couldn’t help but notice a significant abundance of ribbon shirts, skirts, and Native-designed sweaters, vests and jackets. Beaded goods were also plentiful but just one proprietor had a well-stocked supply of beautiful silver and turquoise jewelry.
The evening of Day Three offered up a hot, sit-down meal followed by an Intertribal Showcase, then a social dance with entertainment by country singer Jarrid Lee and fiddling champion Calvin Volrath who certainly treated the crowd to some magnificent music. Lee demonstrated his exceptional vocal qualities that have him nominated for a major country music award. Folks should remember his name and watch for his shows and appearances on APTN and CFWE Radio.
On Day Four, the final day, the conference synopsis and overview report was provided by Loretta Bellerose. Her excellent presentation was followed by a closing prayer from Elder Alice Kaquitts and Fred Campiou. Champion hand drummer and traditional singer Edmond Bull offered the closing drum song.
All was concluded before noon, at which time many lingered and lounged about in the main foyer to bid farewell to fellow delegates. A group of B.C. Elders banded together to sing some of their own traditional drum songs, while bystanders listened reverently. Off to another side a flute player shared his soothing melodies while wishing and praying for visitors to return to their homefires safely.
It was a memorable experience for the delegates and many will make an effort to attend the next gathering which will be held either in Saskatoon or Edmonton (still to be determined) in 2025.