Roy Little Chief, Siksika politician and advocate for Indigenous rights, dead at 81

Roy Little Chief, a former chief of the Siksika First Nation and prominent voice for Indigenous rights, is dead at age 81.

Little Chief was a recipient of the Queens Golden Jubilee Medal, and a central political figure since the '60s

Roy Little Chief has died at age 81. (Submitted by Bob Hawkesworth)

Roy Little Chief, a former chief of the Siksika First Nation and prominent voice for Indigenous rights, is dead at age 81.

For more than 60 years, Little Chief was an activist. He was a recipient of the Queen Elizabeth II Golden Jubilee Medal in 2002 for his work improving the status of First Nations communities.

He died Thursday in a Calgary hospital after months of failing health, according to an emailed release.

"It's a tragic loss for two reasons," Kathleen McHugh, director of Siksika Nation Disability Services, said. "Each time we lose an elder, we lose a little bit of our history. We lose stories and legends and all that wisdom that our elders carry, they are the knowledge keepers."

'He had a purpose and he never stopped'

"And Roy was, you know, people talk about how aggressive he was in his younger days and how he didn't back down from people of authority when he wanted to change something for the people. And so people either liked him or they didn't like him. That didn't matter to him. He had a purpose and he never stopped."

Little Chief was born on Aug. 26, 1938, in the Blackfoot Hospital at Siksika Nation. 

He comes from a political legacy. His maternal grandfather, Eagle Rib, signed Treaty 7 in 1877.

Little Chief was a survivor of the residential school system. In the '60s, he began working with the Indian Association of Alberta, and in the early '70s, fought against a federal white paper that called for the elimination of a separate legal status for First Nations.

McHugh said she first met Roy during his work as the southern director for the American Indian Movement in Alberta, where he worked alongside his wife, Linda.

"She worked alongside him all of his life ... they were just advocating for positive change for the rights of our people."

McHugh said he was also an early voice against racism in policing, during his work on the Siksika police commission and with the Calgary police.

"This would be in the '70s, and he brought up the abuse that the people were subjected to at the hands of police," she said, adding that he travelled to Ottawa to fight to maintain the Siksika police force, a losing battle that saw the Nation's police stripped of their power and control handed to the RCMP.

In the '80s, Little Chief helped organize support for the inclusion of Indigenous rights in the repatriation of the constitution.

He served as Chief of Siksika from 1981 to 1983.

He helped develop "listening conferences" in the late '70s and early '80s to bring an awareness of First Nations issues to church congregations, and was the member of an Indigenous delegation that participated in reconciliation efforts between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland.

He served with a variety of organizations, including the National Anti Poverty Organization, the National Residential School Survivors Society, the Calgary Urban Treaty Alliance (which he co-founded), and the first City of Calgary Aboriginal Urban Affairs Committee.

McHugh said he was also a strong advocate for foster children, who fought to keep them with First Nations families, as well as residential school survivors and missing and murdered Indigenous women, before the issue gained traction in the early '90s.

"He would always come in [to my office] and we'd have tea and he'd tell me about all the work he was doing," she said. 

She also said as a young man he was passionate about music, as a founding member of the Blackfoot A1 Drum Group, travelling and "keeping the songs going." The group performed at Expo 67 for Canada's centennial and other cultural events across North America.

He is survived by his wife Linda Little Chief, their six children, many grandchildren and a great-grandchild. 

A memorial service will be held at The Gordon Yellow Fly Memorial Arbour at 1 p.m. on Thursday.