Nearly 100 representatives of the Diocese of Edmonton made the trek to Frog Lake First Nation on Saturday, August 7, to attend the annual pow wow. A bus, the use of which was donated by Connelly-McKinley Funeral Homes, left St. Thomas’ Anglican Church in Sherwood Park at 8:00 am, along with a convoy of smaller vehicles, to make the 240-km journey. Among the many making the trip were a contingent from Cursillo, volunteers on a Base Camp training weekend, individual families and groups from various parishes, including those in the east of the diocese who joined the larger group on site.
All had responded to an invitation from Fred Matthews, Lay-Reader-in-Charge of the Church of the Nativity in Frog Lake. Over the past year, as the diocese has worked at renewing its commitment to the Anglican congregation in Frog Lake, Matthews has been getting a lot of questions from people who want to know more.
“I had initially envisioned this trip to be an opportunity for people from the diocese to get to see the community, meet some of the community members, and learn a little bit about its history and culture,” he says. “However, the trip took on more meaning when the discovery of the remains of children in unmarked graves adjacent to the former Kamloops Residential School sent shock waves across the news wires.”
Acknowledging the tragic events of our shared history continued as the diocesan group made a stop before attending the pow wow. Matthews had arranged for a special meeting at the Frog Lake Historic Site, where a monument stands commemorating the Frog Lake Massacre. There, Herb Stanley, Elder and Cultural Liaison for Frog Lake First Nation, took time to speak to the group.
With storm clouds in the west creating a sharp contrast to his quiet and gentle manner, Stanley described the circumstances that led to the massacre: how three tribes had been squeezed into an area normally occupied by one, leading to food shortages and even starvation; how anger was boiling up over the way treaty agreements were being managed. Conditions were ripe for the Riel Resistance to recruit members to their cause. Violence broke out on April 2, 1885, when nine settlers, including government officials and two Roman Catholic priests, were killed.
In all such conflict, dividing lines are not clearly drawn and innocent people are caught up in the violence. Stanley told the story of a 14-year-old Cree boy who, hearing gun shots, ran toward the fighting. He found one of the priests wounded on the ground and tried to stop his bleeding, to no avail. He stayed with the priest until he died. The boy was Stanley’s grandfather, George.
Stanley also spoke of the many ways that early settlers and the people of Frog Lake helped each other, trading goods and knowledge. He praised Chief Chaschakiskwis, the first chief at Frog Lake under the colonial system, for the far-sighted provision he made for his people. Then Stanley brought that good will into the present, telling a personal story of how he was recently approached by a Caucasian person he didn’t know, who said how sorry he was about the discovery of the graves of children at former residential schools. Stanley was touched but assured the man, “we know you didn’t do it. We don’t blame you.”
For Stanley’s listeners, it was a moment of grace.
Then the storm arrived, the heavens opened, and everyone dashed for their vehicles to drive the last few kilometers to the pow wow, where everything was so thoroughly soaked that it had to be moved indoors to the nearby arena. With remarkable calm, nearly 1,000 people simply packed their things and relocated the huge event. Drummers and dancers set up and got on with the various competitions that would take them through the rest of the day.
“The pow wow was amazing,” said Dr. Mark Armstrong, there with his group of Base Camp volunteers. “The athleticism, the vibrant colours, the amazing headdresses and accoutrements...”
Cathy Allen, the rector’s warden from St. Luke’s in Edmonton, drove one of the many cars that came in the convoy. She said the pow wow whetted her appetite to know more about the meaning behind the dances and all the colourful and intricate regalia.
David Holehouse, Cursillo Lay Director, says his group decided to attend after Matthews spoke at one of their gatherings and sparked the idea of a “reconciliation ride to learn more about our First Nations brothers and sisters.”
“For me and many others,” he says, “there was great emotion and sadness as we gathered by the historical monument. It was also a day of wonder as we encountered the grace and warm welcome of the community at their pow wow. For me, it kindled a great sense of love and solidarity with these beautiful, kind, and talented people.”
Matthews arrived back at St. Thomas’ with the bus at 8:00 pm and was out at Frog Lake again Sunday morning with his congregation. For him, the day he had organised had been a successful step forward in the ongoing work of reconciliation.
“This trip became an opportunity for us, as a Church, to show Indigenous people we stand with them, and we are committed to repairing a broken relationship. I was hoping that wearing their clergy shirts and collars under their orange shirts would give the clergy of the diocese who attended the opportunity to enter meaningful conversations. I did hear from some that they indeed did get those opportunities. I have no doubt that the people who had those conversations will return to their home communities and tell others about that dialogue, and that the people from our diocese will return to their home parishes to do the same. The Holy Spirit was definitely present that day.”