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Chief Delbert Wapass: NMAI’s Meet Native America Series

The National Museum of the American Indian interview series Meet Native America continues today with Chief Delbert Wapass.

In the interview series Meet Native America, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian invites tribal leaders, cultural figures, and other interesting and accomplished Native individuals to introduce themselves and say a little about their lives and work. Together, their responses illustrate the diversity of the indigenous communities of the Western Hemisphere, as well as their shared concerns, and offer insights beyond what’s in the news to the ideas and experiences of Native peoples today.

Please introduce yourself with your name and title.

Delbert Peter Wapass. I'm chief of the Thunderchild First Nation (Piyesiw Awasis).

Can you give us your Native name and its English translation?

Kihiw Ka-pim-oo-teht. It means Walking Eagle.

Where is your nation located?

Thunderchild First Nation is located approximately 120 kilometers northwest of North Battleford, Saskatchewan, and is in Treaty 6 territory. The closest town is Turtleford, which is 13 kilometers from Thunderchild.

Where was your nation originally from?

Thunderchild First Nation came to be when Chief Piyesiw Awasis’s headmen were forced to sign an adhesion to Treaty 6 in August, 1879, in Sounding Lake, Alberta. Piyesiw Awasis did not put his mark to the treaty document.

The reserve community was originally located in Delmas, Saskatchewan, and the community was forcibly moved to Moosomin First Nation, north of North Battleford, Saskatchewan. The members of Thunderchild did not like where they were forcibly moved to and settled in their present location in 1909.

What is a significant point in history from your nation that you would like to share?

In the 1970s in Canada, the document “Indian Control of Indian Education” was developed after 1969 White Paper, "Statement of the Government of Canada on Indian Policy." Thunderchild First Nation was one of the first communities to implement the policies proposed in “Indian Control of Indian Education.” The people of Thunderchild took all of their children from the neighboring provincially controlled schools, such as Turtleford, and moved them back to Thunderchild. The Piyesiw Awasis School was developed and built, and the children of Thunderchild have been at this school since 1971.

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What responsibilities do you have as chief?

My overall responsibilities are to ensure that all affairs of the Thunderchild First Nation are met in accordance to strategic direction that we, as a chief and Council, have developed. Ensuring that there is a balance between economic responsibilities and the wellness of the community. Ensuring that financial accountability is met. As a chief, my overall responsibility is making sure that the band is running to its best, while upholding our treaty and inherent rights.

How did your life experience prepare you to lead the Thunderchild First Nation?

I was raised by my grandfather and grandmother and lived a life where hard work was essential to ensuring that our family was able to survive. I grew up with the expectation that if I didn’t get things done, this affected my family. For example, my responsibility at home was to get the fire going in the woodstove and prepare our meal before I went to school. The hardships, which I considered the norm, ensured that this ongoing hard-work ethic was a normal part of my life.

As I grew older, I wanted to make a difference in everything that I set out to do. The natural progression into leadership roles came from being seen as the problem-solver within my family and with many of my friends. I was formerly a classroom teacher, where you think about the big picture in planning. So it was a natural progression into my present leadership role. I’m a big-picture person, and I like the opportunity to break down this big picture so that I can achieve the goal that I have set.

Those experiences are the foundation. But I also learned things about leadership and working with other people as a school administrator and an evaluator of curriculum and staff within First Nations school systems, a researcher and analyst for different First Nations, and a governance negotiator within the Assembly of First Nations. In addition to serving as chief, I've been elected for two terms as an executive member within the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations with the portfolio responsibilities of education, health, lands and resources and sports, culture, and youth.

Who inspired you as a mentor?

I grew up without a father and latched onto people who were older brother or father figures. There are many role models who inspired me to be my best in everything that I do: My grandfather, Peter Wapass, who passed away when I was young, instilled the understanding of working hard in all areas and to be humble in everything that I do. He always showed me never to hesitate in helping others. My late grandmother, Bella Wapass, encouraged me to complete my education. She wanted to see me graduate from high school and watched me receive my high school diploma. She passed away one week after that.

Other mentors include Joe Quewezance, who encouraged me to keep studying; George Lafond, who taught me always to work to the best of my ability; and Arsene Tootoosis, who wanted me to complete the highest level in education. I went on to receive a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Regina and a Bachelor of Education from the Indian Teacher Education Program, University of Saskatchewan, both in 1994. I earned a Master’s degree in Educational Administration from the University of Saskatchewan in 2010.

As I got older, two elders—the late Norman Sunchild from my community and the late Gordon Oakes from Nekaneet First Nation—stressed the importance of knowing who I am as a Cree person and of understanding Cree ways, traditions, ceremonies, and practices. The elders showed me to concentrate on being a role model and encouraging the young people to be the best they can be while retaining and knowing their identity.

Are you a descendant of a historical leader? If so, who?

My late grandfather, Peter Wapass, always spoke of being a descendant of Sitting Bull—how his family came from the United States, came towards the Yorkton area and then up towards Thunderchild. The Wapass family has relatives within these communities that my forebears came from.

To read the full interview, visit the NMAI series here.