Prairie Fire Review - Askiwina

Reviewed by: Lily Iona MacKenzie

I grew up on a farm in Alberta. In the summer, the Blackfoot camped for several days each year in an empty field next to our land on their way to the Calgary Stampede. I played with the kids, and their mothers used our wringer washing machine to do laundry. The wonderful thing about childhood is that prejudice has not formed yet. I just wanted to play with these new neighbours, curious to find out about their different way of life. As I grew older, I had less direct contact with First Nations people, but I was aware of the reserves that kept them and their culture separate from ours.

My interest in learning more about these fellow Canadians drew me to review Doug Cuthand's book Askiwina: A Cree World. Over the years, Cuthand has been a valued spokesperson for the Aboriginal community. In 2005, he published a collection of his newspaper piecces as Tapwe.

While mainly about the Cree in Saskatchewan, many of Cuthand's stories and observations are universal, and they gave me insight into my experience of the Aboriginals who mainly lived on reserves in various parts of Alberta. "Askiwina" is a Cree word that refers to the passage of time, roughly meaning "over the years" (iii). Cuthand covers that passage by telling many stories about the Cree's origins, their history, and their myths. Throughout the book, he weaves profiles of Aboriginals who made significant contributions to their culture.

Often these prominent individuals used some aspect of the dominant culture to gain power and influence. One example is Edward Ahenakew, "the first in a series of political and spiritual leaders that worked within the church to help their people on a broad level. Like the early leaders of the civil rights movement in the United States, Ahenakew was able to speak out and use the resources of the church to further the progress of the people" (22).

Harold Cardinal was another indigenous leader who excelled. He "completed his L.L.M--Masters of Law--degree at Harvard and in 1999 received an honorary Doctorate in Law at the University of Alberta. He was working on his doctorate at the University of British Columbia at the time of his death" (90) Working within the establishment, Cardinal led the renaissance of the Indian political movement and was influential in assuring that Aboriginal rights are part of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Cuthand points out that Cardinal "saw aboriginal people as the 'red tile in the Canadian mosaic,' equal but distinct" (90).

Another Aboriginal who asserted her presence was Gladys Johnston. An effective political organizer, she worked for a time as a secretary for John Diefenbaker (92). She also was involved with the Department of Indian Affairs, helped form the Saskatchewan Indian Women's association, was appointed founding president of the Battleford Indian Metis Friendship Centre, and played a role in the formation of the Union of Saskatchewan Indians (92). 

While this book will attract a general readership, it also should appeal to First Nations youth as an inspirational overview of what makes the Cree (and other Aboriginals) unique. In the section "Struggles and Success," Cuthand reports on several positive movements that the Aboriginals have initiated. One is the Montreal Lake First Nation, which is "undertaking a bold experiment to help youth who are classified as 'at risk.' The project is designed to help young people learn a useful trade, become self-sufficient, and learn more about their culture and community" (105). 

In reading this book, I realized that Cuthand had fleshed out parts of my history as well. Many Canadians are cut off from parts of their past if they don't recognize the strong Aboriginal culture that permeates the dominant society in visible and invisible ways. Cuthand has created his own mosaic here that shows how interwoven Natives and Whites are. Both can benefit from this journalist's exploration of First Nations' past and present.

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