In 1876, Chief Chippewayan signed onto Treaty 6, which designated 77 square kilometres of land near Laird, Sask., to the Stoney Knoll Band.

But in the years that followed, a series of challenges made it difficult to sustain the 80-person population on the reserve land. With dwindling buffalo herds making food scarce, and difficulties with a transition to farming that was encouraged by the government, the band was forced to leave the area in search of food.

Within just over 20 years, the Canadian government had given the land to someone else.

"Largely due to starvation they ended up leaving that land to look for food and they landed up at Cypress Hills," said Leonard Doell from the Mennonite Central Committee in Saskatchewan.

"In the meantime, their land was taken away from them at Laird in 1897, and then it was given to Mennonites to settle."

Now, 120 years later, the Mennonite and Lutheran communities are working with descendants of the Young Chippewayan, also known as the Stoney Knoll Band, toward a land claim settlement.

Leonard Doell

Leonard Doell, of the Mennonite Central Committee, met with Ben and Sylvia Weenie and then later met with them at a feast on Stoney Knoll. (Reserve 107/Vimeo)

Land transferred without consent

The Department of Indian Affairs started withholding payments from Young Chippewayan band members in 1885 because it suspected members had participated in the Riel rebellion. 

'The Young Chippewayan story is not totally unique' - Leonard Doell, Mennonite Central Committee

By 1888, it no longer identified the Young Chippewayan as a separate band, and in 1895 talks were underway about dispossessing the band of its land. The minister for the Interior concluded it did not need consent from the band and moved to transfer the members to other reserves, where they were not always welcomed.

In the early 1990s, descendants of the Young Chippewayan First Nation submitted a specific land claim. But in 1994, the Indian Claims Commission inquiry concluded that under the Indian Act and the law the claimants were not a band therefore not entitled to submit a specific claim.

Fundraising concert to track genealogy

In a partnership that started about 10 years ago, the Young Chippewayan First Nation is working with the Mennonite and Lutheran communities toward the land claim settlement.

To do so, Doell said the federal government requires them to track the Young Chippewayan genealogy and identify the living descendants to whom the land should be returned. 

This Saturday, the Spruce River Folk Festival fundraiser is being held near Prince Albert to help pay a researcher hired to do the genealogy work.

But the event has a broader goal of raising awareness about "landless bands" like the Young Chippewayan.

"The Young Chippewayan Band is only one of a number of bands that never received their land or signed treaties but for some reason either lost their land or had it taken away," said Doell.

"The Young Chippewayan story is not totally unique that way." 

Others seeking recognition

Ray Funk, an advocate for landless bands who works with the Young Chippewayan, said he was aware of at least six other landless bands in Saskatchewan.

"Other landless bands became aware of what we were doing and got in touch, so we have provided a forum, at this point for four landless bands, to tell their story," said Funk.

"And then, happily, some move forward."

He said a band of Chief Big Bear's descendants near North Battleford, Sask., recently had their land claim recognized, providing hope for others. 

'There's a definite sense of loss regarding the identity of the Young Chippewayan Band' - Gary LaPlante, Young Chippewayan descendant

In 2013, a conference for landless bands was held at the Dakota Dunes Casino in Whitecap, Sask., about 30 kilometres south of Saskatoon.

Part of the reason for holding the conference was to build on the limited information about landless bands.

The Indigenous Times reported at the time that other bands seeking recognition included the Peter Chapman, Chakastaypasin, Chacachas and John Cochrane First Nations.

Sol Sanderson, a former chief of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations and a member of the Chakastaypasin First Nation, said he is currently working with 26 bands from Manitoba, Alberta and Saskatchewan on unfinished treaty issues. 

He said there were a number of ways reserve land was taken away from First Nations, including corrupt land sales. There are also reports of individuals being allowed to sign away land without the support of their membership.

According to the Saskatchewan Indigenous Cultural Centre, three high-ranking government officials, including the then-deputy minister of Indian Affairs, rigged a public competition process in 1901 in their favour to purchase the Ocean Man, Pheasant's Rump and Chakastaypasin lands.

"They unilaterally dispersed the membership to other bands without the consent of the membership of any of those bands that occupied the lands, and no consent from the band [from which] memberships were transferred," said Sanderson.

"There's been a lot of internal social issues resulting from the membership being transferred into different bands, that affects the families and the communities. It still exists today in many cases."

Keeping story strong

Gary LaPlante is a descendant of the Young Chippewayan Band, who is now working with the Mennonite and Lutheran communities on the Laird land claim.

He said he felt a sense of duty to ensure the story of what happened to the Young Chippewayan Band is not lost over time.

"There's a definite sense of loss regarding the identity of the Young Chippewayan Band," said Laplante.

"I think with the descendants, with the realization and [coming] to know their history over the years, [they have] come to really understand who they were and how they were dispossessed of land and as a result, dispersed.

"Their dream of any semblance of nationhood as a band, a community, was lost."

Ben Weenie

The late Ben Weenie, who inspired Gary LaPlante to continue the fight for recognition of the transfer of Reserve 107 without Young Chippewayan consent. (Reserve 107/Vimeo)

LaPlante said the late Young Chippewayan designate Chief Ben Weenie had made it his life's work to keep the story alive.  

He said Weenie was initially apprehensive about meeting with the Mennonite and Lutheran communities after tensions between communities in the Laird area in the 1970s.

But LaPlante said he always felt the Mennonite community had good intentions.

Around 2006, Weenie, his wife Sylvia and LaPlante met with Mennonite leaders to share their story and discuss the future.

"We were able to put any kind of discussions about past wrongs, we put that all aside," said LaPlante.

"We were talking reconciliation before reconciliation became a catchphrase in Canada."

Future hopes

The story of the Young Chippewayan band and the partnership with the Mennonite and Lutheran communities is the subject of a documentary, Reserve 107, which is being screened at the folk festival on Saturday.  

LaPlante hopes a specific claim settlement can be reached to allow opportunities for the descendants to return to the land.

"Nobody's going to go and dispossess anyone but if there was an agreement, a specific claims agreement settled, they could actually be able to buy land and those descendants who wish to honour their ancestors, or have those ties yet to those families … that they have the ability to come together like their ancestors had wanted," said LaPlante.

Indian Claims Commission Young Chipeewayan Inquiry

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