Hunter reconnects youth to culture and identity on native prairie

Article and photos by Katie Doke Sawatzky

Published Oct 1, 2018 3:30 PM

I stand beside Philip Brass, a 40-year-old hunter from Peepeekisis First Nation, in an aspen bluff that surrounds a frozen, snow-covered slough. We wait for three boys, all of them from Peepeekisis or surrounding Nations, to slowly make their way back to us.

In the cold of winter, hunting with youth out on the land is what occupies Brass most weekends. His official role is gang-prevention officer for the File Hills Police, but he’s really a mentor who tries to connect with youth on reserves.

The land out here, an hour and a half northeast of Regina, is a quiet prairie landscape, in the ecoregion of Saskatchewan’s aspen parkland. Quiet, but not devoid of activity. The boys are getting close. They’ve nearly completed their circular walk through the slough, which pushes the rabbits toward us. When one boy yells that some are headed our way, Brass quickly climbs on a fallen trunk and aims his rifle at the bright snow. In the course of several minutes, he kills three rabbits. Justin*, the shortest boy, who is still a ways from meeting us, gets one, too.

“What I do is all outdoor land-based activities and or traditional ceremonies. Taking boys to sweat lodges or feasts in the summertime… sundances or anything,” Brass tells me after we’ve returned to his truck and the boys have laid the rabbits in the back. “Most of the boys I work with … their dads are either incarcerated or deceased or have just never really been a part of their life.”

At another slough, Brass charts the directions the boys will walk with his finger in the snow. The trick is to have them spread out in a line as they move through the bush; that way more ground is covered. They silently nod their heads, but once they’re off they continually shout to one another to let each other know where they are.

“We’re not hunting for sport, we’re hunting for sustenance. It’s a totally different relationship what we’re actually doing and why we’re doing it."

The fact that they’re learning to work together as a team is obvious, but they also learn perseverance. The boys come up empty-handed at several of the sloughs we stop at. All that walking through thick bush for nothing, but they don’t complain once.

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Brass’s work isn’t just about teaching teamwork, it’s about building connections, not just between himself and the boys, but between the boys and the prairie landscape.

In the grand scheme of their being the original habitants of this land for over 10,000 years, First Nations Peoples have only recently been allowed to hunt freely outside of their reserves. The signing of Treaties Four and Six in the 1870s by the nêhiyawak, Anihšināpēk, Dakota, Lakota, Nakoda and Ojibwa, isolated those Peoples on reserves. The parcels of land were tiny compared to their traditional territories, which included the majority of the cypress upland, mixed and moist-mixed grassland and aspen parkland that make up Saskatchewan’s prairie region.

In the 1880s, the pass system, an illegal federal government policy, restricted people from leaving their reserves without the permission of an Indian Agent. If they did and were caught, they paid a fine or were incarcerated. The Natural Resources Transfer Act of 1930, in which the federal government transferred control of natural resources on all Crown lands to the provinces, stated that First Nations people be able to hunt on unoccupied Crown lands. This was later entrenched in the Canadian Constitution in 1982.

Brass occasionally hunts on what were the Ituna – Bon Accord and Garry community pastures under the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration, before the federal government divested from keeping pasturelands in 2012. He also takes boys to fish on Fishing Lake, an hour and a half north of Regina.

“We can’t eat the fish out of the valley here,” says Brass. He says that the waters his father and grandparents used, their traditional waters in the valley, have been contaminated by agricultural runoff and raw sewage out of Regina. “So we have to travel further now just to access clean water to fish.”

Hunting on and off reserve land with these boys allows them to move freely through their traditional territory, and exercise their treaty rights. For Brass, it also restores a relationship broken by the removal of Indigenous Peoples from most of the prairie.

“We have a deep spiritual relationship with this place,” he says. “It’s a powerful force in our lives as Indigenous peoples especially since we have been forcibly removed from the land for over a century."

We are in a different slough now and Brass whispers so he doesn’t spook away any rabbits hiding nearby.

"I think it’s the foundation of all of our social crises in our communities. It all stems from lacking this, so when you can put young people back on the land you begin to see the ripple effects throughout their life and a lot of the negative social habits disappear.”

The last hunt is the longest. Brass drives us to a large area covered in aspen and wolf willow. After waiting half an hour, the boys finally make their way to us. Justin has two more rabbits. Brass lays all the rabbits and several rough grouse he shot on the snow by the truck. Marcus, the oldest of the boys, gets tobacco from the truck and places a little near each animal’s nose and mouth. We stand in a half-circle and Brass says a prayer of thanks. He shows the boys how to skin the animals and then butchers them on the bed of his truck, while they look on.

"I think it’s the foundation of all of our social crises in our communities. It all stems from lacking this, so when you can put young people back on the land you begin to see the ripple effects throughout their life."

Brass lives on the Peepeekisis First Nation reserve and is a pipe-carrier for his band. For him, the traditional practice of hunting on prairie is key to Indigenous spirituality and to the well-being of his community.

“We’re not hunting for sport, we’re hunting for sustenance,” he says. “It’s a totally different relationship what we’re actually doing and why we’re doing it. I always have the same answer, you know, they tell us it’s the Indian problem. There’s never been an Indian problem, period. The problem has been industrial development, colonial occupation, the obliteration of our ecosystems to agriculture, all of that.”

The comradeship among the boys has grown since we picked them up in the morning. Some of them are known as “deviants” at school, Brass says, but out here on the plains they are becoming leaders and friends. On the way home, the boys discuss basketball in the backseat while Brass tells me that Justin will receive his Indian name the next day at the White Raven Healing Centre in Fort Qu’Appelle. Brass will drive him to the centre, where an Elder will give it to him in a sacred ceremony through a naming song.

“Is it a sort of celebration?” I ask.

“For sure,” Brass replies.

The boys' names have been changed to protect their identities.

Learn more about the history of Plains Peoples on native prairie in Saskatchewan with the Prairie and Peoples interactive timeline.