Elder in the Making

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author: quinn bell  a&c writer

We are all Treaty people / jeremy davis

About more than just film

We’ll always have to make treaty with each other, and with the land.” — Chris Hsiung 

 

This weekend, in order to promote awareness and take action on the legacy of the Canadian residential school systems, the Royal Saskatchewan Museum hosted three days of education and community building. Over three hundred students participated in Orange Shirt Day activities at the Museum on Friday, learning from survivors about what was experienced in residential schools.  

On Saturday night, the Royal Sask. Museum hosted the documentary/storytelling film Elder in the Making, which was co-produced in and about Treaty 7 territory by Chinese-Canadian director Chris Hsiung, and Niitsitapi Blackfoot filmmaker Cowboy Smithx. The film follows Hsiung (a self-declared “newcomer” to Canada — his parents having immigrated from Taiwan) and Smithx (an “elder-in-the-making”) as they take a road trip together through traditional Blackfoot territory, in and around what is today known as southern Alberta. The two men compare their stories — both have struggled to live in Alberta with double identities, growing up with two languages and cultures — and they set off together in search of reconciliation. 

Along the way, Hsiung and Smithx meet with elders, friends, rodeo and powwow competitors, golfers, buffalo ecologists, archivists, heritage site tour guides, activists, and educators. Importantly, the two learn from each other, asking each other tough questions, giving insight to and comforting each other, and laughing often. Throughout, Hsiung learns how Canadian history is so often (wrongly) romanticized in museums, films, and textbooks; he seeks out the truth, finding beautiful and painful stories along the way. 

A huge part of the pair’s journey is coming to a better understanding of history. One stop on their trip is a great metaphor for how we, today, create images of the past in order to protect our identity: Fort Macleod, Alberta. Fort Macleod was the first settlement of the North West Mounted Police (now, the RCMP) west of Saskatchewan. Visit the fort today and you will see old military cannons, large walls, and watchtowers. Hsiung and Smithx quickly find out that these were “put up for tourism purposes” — Fort Macleod was actually a small settlement with few resources and few people to go to war with. Just as the fort has created the town’s history in their own image, so too do many people on Treaty land create stories about Treaty history in order to make it easier to swallow. Coming to terms with what’s happened, however, is a first and essential step towards reconciliation. 

Elder in the Making was very well received by the audience at the Royal Sask. We were all laughing together at Smithx’s wonderful humour, his constant teasing, and his good heart. Hsiung’s decision to include jokes made by everyday people — even in the middle of some of the film’s toughest moments — was really rewarding. I could feel the collective sigh in the theatre when we were shown the heaps of slaughtered buffalo. We were all silent and shifting uncomfortably when we heard that over 90 per cent of the Indigenous population was killed by smallpox — and when Hsiung showed what that would look like were it to happen in Canada today. 

Even so, the good humour kept things vaguely optimistic. When Hsiung first arrived on Smithx’s reserve and said, “It’s nice to be on your land,” Smithx’s only reply was: “I’ve heard that one before.” Later on, while discussing the ridiculous former laws that banned Blackfoot people from golfing (or going to bars, or holding the Sundance, and so on…), someone piped up that at least now he could “hit white balls without being fined.” A good sport for letting off some steam! 

The hope of the documentary was, I think, to bring us all together as Treaty people. Elder in the Making has a lot to teach about our shared stories, about our failures and successes, and about our humanity. When Hsiung says, “The treaty we broke was the unwritten one based on trust and a commitment to help,” he isn’t implying that the treaty is ended. No, it’s an invitation to have conversations and work to build that trust again. 

After the film screening, there was a Q&A with Hsiung, and after that, we all shared some very tasty food in the main lobby, catered by Dickie the Sioux Chef. Over fresh bannock, Saskatoon berry jam, sweet potato swirls, mint tea, and buffalo meatballs, people discussed what they had seen and shared their own experiences. The Royal Saskatchewan Museum got it right this weekend, and provided the perfect chance to start having treaty-building conversations. 

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