Responding to the Calls to Action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that addressed the ongoing legacies of residential schools that separated Indigenous children from their families, MCC in Canada declared that it “repudiates concepts used to justify European superiority over Indigenous peoples, such as the Doctrine of Discovery. Such concepts of superiority, coercion, violence and abuse are opposed to the gospel of Jesus Christ and to the inherent dignity and equality we believe all people have received from God.” This repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery is a fairly straightforward task on paper: it fits with our biblical and theological understandings of justice and reconciliation. However, extricating superiority from our settler souls, expunging discovered lands from our accumulated assets and exorcising the doctrine of dominance from our minds are daunting and elusive. The story of Opwashemoe Chakatinaw/Stoney Knoll, land in Saskatchewan of the Young Chippewayan Band, upon which German Lutherans and Mennonites settled, illustrates how challenging overcoming the Doctrine of Discovery can be.
We as settlers need to return again and again to humble learnings. We need our Indigenous relations to help us to a more interdependent understanding of the land and its resources and of the strengths of community and memory.
Opwashemoe Chakatinaw sits at the centre of 78 square kilometres of land near the present town of Laird, Saskatchewan. This fertile land, on the east banks of the North Saskatchewan River and close to the land of Beardy’s Band (relatives of the Young Chippewayan Band), was chosen by Chief Chippewayan and his people in 1876 when the chief signed Treaty 6 with the Canadian Crown at Fort Carlton, creating the Young Chippewayan Band #107. Shortly after the treaty’s signing, the Young Chippewayan Band moved south to Cypress Hills, following the remaining buffalo and staying away from the turbulent conflict at Batoche, Cutknife Hill, Frog Lake and Battleford.
In 1897, with the Young Chippewayan absent from their land due to conflict and starvation, the Canadian government unilaterally erased Young Chippewayan Band #107 from the reserve map, in turn offering that land to German-speaking Mennonite and Lutheran settlers. The government never consulted the Young Chippewayan Band, nor did it offer compensation. Over the ensuing generations, Mennonite and Lutheran farming families have labored and loved on this land—tending the earth, harvesting its bounty and burying their dead on what they named Stoney Knoll. The Young Chippewayan have lived exiled from their land amid endless bureaucratic plodding, seeking safety with relatives on reserves such Sweet Grass and Ahtahkakoop and in the diaspora. While settler farmers bequeathed their government-issued land titles to the next generations, the Young Chippewayan passed down oral stories of a great wrong done to their ancestors at the hands of the Canadian government.
On August 22, 2006, on the 130th anniversary of the signing of Treaty 6 and at the invitation of Chief Ben Weenie of the Young Chippewayan, Mennonite and Lutheran settlers and Young Chippewayan members gathered to share their stories of and love for Opwashemoe Chakatinaw/Stoney Knoll, to name losses and the devastating impact of government actions and inaction, to share food and gifts and to imagine a future of justice and sufficiency for all their children. Representatives of the three communities signed a Memorandum of Understanding that day entitled, “Declaration of Harmony and Justice,” which named shared understandings and desires:
- We are deeply grateful for the goodness of the Creator and the blessings which gave us this land and which give and sustain all our lives.
- We respect the sacred nature of covenants, which order our relationships and bring harmony to our communities and nations, including Treaty 6 which was entered into on our behalf, for the purpose of mutual benefit and maintaining our livelihood.
- We wish for ourselves and for future generations to live in conditions of peace, justice and sufficiency for all our communities. We will work together to help bring about these conditions through a timely and respectful resolution of the issues which history has left to us.
This memorandum of understanding has offered a guiding framework over the last decade as Mennonites and Lutherans have attempted to support the land claim of the Young Chippewayan, holding the Canadian government responsible for the injustice it created. The settler communities have raised funds to prepare a genealogy of the Young Chippewayan Band to document the band as an “identifiable community” meeting land claim requirements.
The 2016 documentary, Reserve 107: Reconciliation on the Prairies, tells the story of Opwashemoe Chakatinaw/Stoney Knoll. Created with input from the Young Chippewayan, Mennonite and Lutheran communities, the documentary dismantles the settler mythology that the land, prior to European arrival, was empty (terra nullius), uninhabited by people and memories. This story teaches us that reconciliation requires respectful relationships and restitution of resources.
Much remains undone in the journey toward justice envisioned by the Young Chippewayan, Mennonite and Lutheran representatives who gathered in August 2006 at Opwashemoe Chakatinaw/Stoney Knoll. Repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery is not done with a pen, but rather through community and responsibility, through conversation and struggle. We as settlers need to return again and again to humble learning. We continue to want to control and manage the process. We still think we know what is best for the land. We need our Indigenous relations to help us develop a more interdependent understanding of the land and its resources and of the strengths of community and memory. We take courage from Ezekiel’s image of hearts of stone turning to hearts of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26). We can learn to be human together on this good earth.
Eileen Klassen Hamm is the Executive Director of MCC Saskatchewan.
Friesen, Jeff and Heinrichs, Steve. Eds. Quest for Respect: The Church and Indigenous Spirituality. Winnipeg: Mennonite Church Canada, 2017.
Heinrichs, Steve. Ed. Wrongs to Rights: How Churches Can Engage the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Winnipeg: Mennonite Church Canada, 2016.
Reserve 107: Reconciliation on the Prairies. (film). Rebel Sky Media, 2016. Available at https://www. reserve107thefilm.com/