Saskatchewan

Reconciliation hockey: Maple Creek, Nekaneet First Nation share special bond

Whether it's a hockey game that bills itself as a battle between Cowboys and Indians or an art project that sees elders teaching Indigenous skills to school students, people who live in Maple Creek and Nekaneet First Nation say they share a unique bond.

Art project explores a relationship residents say is unique within Canada

The relationship between the communities of Nekaneet First Nations and the town of Maple Creek is unique within Canada, residents say. A recent art project is bringing students together to learn about that relationship and First Nations traditions. (Photo by ML Perrin)

When Connie Phillips moved to Maple Creek with her husband Geoff, the two artists were amazed to see the way residents of the community interacted with their neighbours in Nekaneet First Nation.

"I grew up with all the negativity and the name-calling," she said, explaining she had seen division and racism while living in communities in Saskatchewan and Alberta.

"And so when I moved here, it was amazing to me," she said. "I was actually shocked when I heard about that hockey game. I was like, 'You actually call them Indians?'"

She was  referring to the famous Battle of the Little Big Puck, an annual hockey game that pits cowboys against Indians.

"Over the years, I've learned about how unique this town is with the First Nations people here."

Caroline Mosquito, a 54-year-old Nekaneet First Nations band member, describes the hockey game as a cherished tradition in the community that stretches back nearly four decades.

The Battle of Little Big Puck sees ranchers and cowboys taking on Nekaneet First Nations band members, with both teams dressing up for the third period. (Cypress Hills Destination Area/Facebook)

"It's very, oh my God, exciting," Mosquito said, recalling how those on the Indians team dance and drum before getting dressed in traditional outfits for the third period of hockey.

And the Cowboys?

"They don't do nothing," she laughs again. "I don't know why they don't rodeo."

Phillips and her husband had received support through the Saskatchewan Arts Board for a project exploring identity. As part of that Living Heritage project, one of the aspects they studied was the unique relationship between the residents of Nekaneet First Nation and Maple Creek.  

Maple Creek residents and artists Geoff Phillips (right) and Connie Phillips invited local students to take part in the Living Heritage project, learning about their area's history and how they, as students, continue to shape history. (Photo by ML Perrin)

Classrooms were invited to come and learn from people such as Mosquito, who showed the children how to make bannock, while others taught the students how to make teepees or how to bead.

"We want them to learn we're friends, we're family," Mosquito said.

She was tickled that when she taught the children to use the word "kookum" to refer to a grandmother, they quickly added it to their vocabulary, telling her, "See you later, Kookum!"

Nekaneet elder Lena Buffalocalf demonstrates how to make a teepee during a program held as part of the Living Heritage project. (Photo by ML Perrin)

The project not only taught the students about how the two communities were linked, but how history has been shaped and how it continues to be shaped, Phillips says.

"I was trying to show these kids, this is history in the making right now. We're talking about history from a hundred years ago but today is history," Phillips said.

History part of unique relationship

Those who live in the area point say that's why the people of Nekaneet and Maple Creek have come to share a bond.

Nekaneet didn't have official reserve status until 1913, and did not receive any federal funding for a long time, says Joe Daniels, who lives on the reserve.

"The way we survived, we worked for the ranchers," he said.  "Over time, you develop a relationship with people. All our history is intermingled."

To be able to fully understand another culture, you have to fully immerse yourself in it.- Joe Daniels, Nekaneet First Nations resident

Daniels says the ranchers had an openness to learning from their First Nations neighbours, with both peoples sharing their knowledge and traditions with one another.

"To be able to fully understand another culture, you have to fully immerse yourself in it," he said.

Now, Mosquito says, whether it's staging the Battle of Little Big Puck or helping the Living Heritage art project, or powwows and feasts open to everyone in both communities, that history continues: "We work as a team. We're all one."

Is it possible for other small towns and First Nations to learn from Maple Creek and Nekaneet, even without having the same kind of history?

Daniels, Phillips and Mosquito all hope this is possible, that communities can learn to listen and learn from each other's cultures.

"We would wish more would be like us here and get along,"  Mosquito said.

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