Manitoba First Nations leaders urge return to culture on 50th anniversary of Wahbung: Our Tomorrows

First Nations spiritual leaders in Manitoba are urging their people to go back to their lodges, languages and spirituality in a follow-up to a groundbreaking document that was released 50 years ago. 

Knowledge keepers release follow-up book, Wahbanang

Dave Courchene Jr. and Anishinaabe, Cree and Dakota elders have co-authored a follow up to Wahbung: Our Tomorrows. (Erica Daniels)

First Nations spiritual leaders in Manitoba are urging their people to go back to their lodges, languages and spirituality in a follow-up to a groundbreaking document that was released 50 years ago. 

"We were going through a time of what I believe was the beginning of the resurgence of our people," said Dave Courchene Jr., an Anishinaabe elder and founder of the Turtle Lodge in Sagkeeng First Nation, 100 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg.

"I know my father and others that emerged during that time, they were very vocal in terms of trying to create more independence and more autonomy for the people."

Courchene Jr. is the son of David Courchene, one of the founders and the first president of the Manitoba Indian Brotherhood, known today as the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs.

The 1969 White Paper was a Canadian government policy paper that attempted to abolish previous legal documents pertaining to Indigenous peoples in Canada, including the Indian Act and treaties, and assimilate all "Indian" peoples under the Canadian state. Jean Chrétien, far right, was the Minister of Indian Affairs at the time. (Provincial Archives of Alberta)

In 1971, First Nations chiefs and the Manitoba Indian Brotherhood united to release Wahbung: Our Tomorrows. The document was a response to the controversial proposals of the federal government's "White Paper," which sought to eliminate Indian status and absolve the government of its fiduciary responsibilities to First Nations people.

Courchene Jr. calls it "a total position of assimilation."

"And what it did was it only fuelled that spirit of unity across the country."

Wahbung's response included First Nations perspectives on issues like land, the Indian Act, hunting and fishing, housing and economic development.

Courchene Jr. said leaders from that era opened the door for the next generation to reclaim their autonomy, culture and language.

Derek Nepinak was elected as grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba chiefs in 2011, around the time when Idle No More was taking off. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

In 2011, the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs released a 40th anniversary edition of Wahbung. Derek Nepinak, who was the organization's grand chief at the time and is the current chief of Pine Creek First Nation, said he uses Wahbung as a template for his own leadership.

"I try to aspire to remember who we are and what we're supposed to be when it comes to leadership, from those early leaders that started to stand out and engage in national political narratives," said Nepinak.

He said leaders from the Wahbung era genuinely carried the concerns of grassroots community members, and that First Nations political organizations today need to go back to that community-oriented approach. 

New book calls for return to culture

Wahbanang: The Resurgence of a People: Clearing the Path for Our Survival, released this weekis a direct follow-up to Wahbung, co-authored by knowledge keepers, former chiefs and elders.

The new book is geared less toward governments and politicians, and more toward First Nations people and a reclamation of their cultural identity.

"If you studied Wahbanang, I think it captures a good part of our identity," said Courchene Jr.

"It's not all of it, but I think it's a good start. The elders were able to create some state of unity."

The book was written by Anishinaabe, Cree and Dakota elders and knowledge keepers from Manitoba and Courchene Jr. hopes that it will be available to Indigenous students in the province.

'We always look for answers outside of ourselves. But really, the answers are simple. They're right within us. We know what we're supposed to do. It's actually getting up and doing it,' says Katherine Whitecloud. (Erica Daniels)

"I'm hoping that people take away from it how beautiful and gifted they are as Indigenous peoples; how all the answers people are searching for lies right within their knowledge base," said Katherine Whitecloud, a former chief of Sioux Valley Dakota Nation and one of the co-authors of the book.

While she is grateful to the leaders who wrote Wahbung, she said spirituality and ceremony have often taken a "seat" in policy discussions, especially when it comes to First Nations and government.

"What's clearly missing is that we haven't honoured those original instructions from our creator — our responsibilities for land, our responsibilities for our languages and cultures," said Whitecloud. 

"All the instructions are very clear in our language and we all know them. Inherently, we all know them. It's in our blood and it's a matter of bringing it back to life."


Lenard Monkman is Anishinaabe from Lake Manitoba First Nation, Treaty 2 territory. He has been an associate producer with CBC Indigenous since 2016. Follow him on Twitter: @Lenardmonkman1