By Clint Buehler
He joins an illustrious group of other honourary Blackfoot chiefs, including Prince Charles; Pope John Paul II; Alberta premiers Peter Lougheed, Ralph Klein and Ed Stelmach, and historian and author Pierre Berton.
The “Kainai Chieftenship” dates back to 1919, but was formally established in 1950 to create a bridge between Native and non-Native communities, and to preserve the Blood Tribe’s heritage and history.
Prime Minister Harper is only the second serving prime minister to receive the honour. John Diefenbaker was the first in the 1950s. Jean Chretien also received the honour, but when he was Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, not prime minister.
Blood Chief Charles Weasel Head says the honour “was created to acknowledge persons who have contributed significantly to the swell-being of the Blood Tribe,” and honoured Harper after being touched by the apology he gave three years ago on behalf of the Canadian government for its role in the residential school system.
“Our view has always been forward-thinking rather than dwelling on the negativity of the past.” Chief Weasel Head says he looks forward to a new era that that builds relationships for the future.
The honour came shortly after the federal government took a step closer to approving a self-government agreement with the Blood Tribe.
Calling the chieftenship a great honour, Harper said “I am particularly proud of this honour (because) it recognizes the efforts that our government has been taking to help preserve the rich culture and heritage of First Nations in Canada while also investing in the future of Aboriginal Peoples.
“My family and I are deeply gratefrul for this gift and I will carry my Blood name, Chief Speaker, with great joy and pride.”
There was also a special significance to the ceremony installing Harper as honourary chief.
In the ceremony, the inductee is brought into the ceremonial circle by a capturer, a traditional role filled by a warrior, in the past always male.
For the first time it was a female who escorted Harper to the buffalo rung where he was to have his face and hands painted yellow and red, and to receive his eagle feather headdress.
That female was Blood Tribe member Master Corporal Melissa Whitegrass. Accompanied by a drum group, she told of being wounded in an attack on her convoy in Afghanistan by a suicide bomber, an attack that left her with a broken back and killed six NATO soldiers and 18 Afghan civilians.
Exactly one year later, on May 18 of this year, her daughter Dawn-Rae was born.
“My daughter was supposed to be born in June but she came a year after I was blown up. And then they asked me to do this. It was all meant to be. Especially being the first woman,” Whitegrass said.
“Mr. Harper is such a gentleman. I’m really glad he accepted the invitation to come here. It was an honour for me to be part of this.”
In his remarks, Harper offered hid “heartfelt thanks” to Chief Weasel Head and the Blood Tribe Council for “bestowing on me this rare and profound honour. I would like to offer special thanks to Elders Wayne Plume, Pete Standing Alone and Melissa Whitegrass and to all those who have contributed to this magnificent ritual. To be a member of the Kainai Chieftenship is to become part of a great tradition.
“To understand and appreciate this I look to Chief Red Crow. He was a strong leader in a difficult time of transition. |He fostered new economic opportunities for his people while defending their religion. He instilled in them a fierce and famous pride in their identity, and I’m pleased to see that this tradition continues to flourish among the Kainai.
“It is an inspiration not only to everyone gathered here today, it is an inspiration to all Canadians, and it is an inspiration to me as Prime Minister. The Blood Tribe’s history and culture are unique, but at the same time, we can all identify with its values and aspirations.
“Your pride, your self-sufficiency, your tradition of reaching out and working with others to achieve good things together , these are things our government hopes to foster not only in our relationships with First Nations and Aboriginal peoples, but in everything we do in our service to Canadians.
“Last week, we reached an important stage towards a self-government agreement with the Blood Tribe. This is a positive development for which everyone involved deserves credit.
“Another figure in the history of the Blood Tribe, James Gladstone, was the first representative of First Nations to sit in Parliament, appointed to the Senate by John Diefe3nbaker. This was a significant achievement, but it came after many years of hard work and accomplishment on Gladstone’s part. And it was not a mere symbol or a cap on his career. It was a new opportunity to keep working for the people and causes he championed.
“This is how our government views our service to Canadians, and especially our partnership with First Nations and Aboriginal peoples. We will work hard to provide practical benefits. We will welcome breakthroughs when they come, and we will view those accomplishments not as an excuse to rest, but as an inspiration to keep going.
“As Chief Weasel Head noted, in 2008 we reached a very important milestone together. In the presence of Canada’s Aboriginal leaders, I stood in the House of Commons and apologized officially for the government of Canada’s role in the Indian residential school system.
“I know that the Blood Tribe was deeply affected by that system, and I’m glad to hear that the government’s apology was well received. But the work of healing and reconciliation continues, and we must also continue our work together to improve the quality of life of Canada’s First Nations and Aboriginal peoples.
“I’d like to note another recent milestone. As a result of the election of May 2nd, Canada now has the largest number of Aboriginal Members of Parliament in the history of our country. And I am personally very proud to say that five of those seven MPs are government members, including two who are members of cabinet.
“This is truly a great accomplishment which we can all celebrate. Aboriginal voices are increasingly strong, taking a greater part in decisions which affect us all. This is good not only for Aboriginal Canadians, but for all Canadians who benefit from the wisdom and insight of the first inhabitants of this land.
“I am deeply grateful for the honour bestowed upon me today. It is an experience I will never forget. It is a bond of friendship which will inspire me in my service to you and all Canadians. Thank you.