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UN Special Report: Inside the Medicine Chest

UNITED NATIONS - J. Wilton "Willie" Littlechild never forgets to read the fine print. That's because he's the first Treaty Indian from Alberta province to graduate from law school, made an honorary Cree chief for his efforts in 1976. He also happens to be the first Treaty Indian in all Canada to serve as a Member of Parliament (MP), elected in 1988 to the House of Commons for five years. Littlechild hasn't only studied the law, in other words, he's helped write it, too.

At the Second Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, held in May in New York, Littlechild served as official rapporteur, in keeping with his prominent role in the world indigenous rights movement. He worked the floor of the United Nations assembly - conferring, organizing, delegating, and presenting - like an old pro, an outspoken but easygoing figure in the noisy bustle of the two-week summit.

Like many Native people, Littlechild has a special relationship with the law. As a member of the Ermineskin Cree Nation, based in Hobbema, Alberta, he's subject to the provisions of Treaty No. 6, signed in 1876 by representatives of Her Majesty Queen Victoria and the Woods and Plains Cree nations.

Treaty 6 is the dwelling-place of the famous "medicine chest clause." "A medicine chest," the treaty orders, "shall be kept at the house of each Indian Agent for the use and benefit of the Indians." The accord generously promises that the Queen shall relieve the Indians as well of any "pestilence" or "general famine."

What, exactly, is the medicine chest? Some courts have ruled the clause entails a supply of free medicine - and not much more. Native advocates respond that the chest is a metaphor for full-scale government-funded medical care.

Littlechild goes a step further: the medicine chest provision, the intent behind it, and delivery of its services are all under federal attack. "The government has been woefully, in my view, and I would also say deliberately, violating that treaty clause."

The trouble began, says Littlechild, before the treaty ink had even dried. Cree tradition has it that during the 1876 discussions the medicine chest idea was intended to apply across the Canadian territories. When the No. 6 draft was finished, however, something big had been lost in translation: Other Native bands had been dropped from the bargain.

"So the government sometimes argues that 'Treaty 8 and 7, you don't have this right because it's not in the document.' But that's not how the elders understand it in terms of the original spirit and intent of the treaty," says Littlechild, a member of the Canadian Bar and the Indigenous Bar Association for 30 years.

Medical care on the reserve suffered further when, several decades ago, Ottawa separated Indian affairs from health services. The move was done, Littlechild says, without the consent of treaty nations. And once the two areas were split into competing departments and bureaucracies, he explains, the medical side, which delivered hard services, suddenly claimed the treaty didn't apply to them.

"The elders sometimes get upset, and they say, 'you can't divide up the crown like that,'" Littlechild recounts. "'It's one crown,' they say, 'as we have one headdress.'" Health services in Indian country were left in the lurch. The left hand of the government no longer acknowledged what the right one had written down.

"Treaty Indians" like Littlechild are so-named because of the binding legal agreements their ancestors signed. They are included among "Status Indians" in Canadian law and, as such, are eligible for government benefits. ("Non-Status Indians" are not federally recognized.) The numbered treaties the nations signed were offered by the government to resolve land title in the face of immigration and the coming of the railroad in the late-19th century west.

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Like U.S. tribes, Canada's First Nations have weathered many storms: legal wardship, land allotment, assimilation, struggles over native title. But there are important differences, too. Canadian reserves, less than 1 percent of the country's land, tend to be much smaller than their U.S. counterparts - the Ermineskin, established in 1885, is 25,000 acres, only about one-fifth the size of a small western reservation like Crow Creek.

But the Ermineskin Cree are lucky in another way. Revenues from oil and gas deposits have made them a "have band" (as opposed to a "have-not band") an official designation by Ottawa. The "have-nots" get priority in government funding, explains Littlechild, which is fine by him. "But we're still entitled to that treaty right," he says of No. 6. "Just because we have some resources doesn't mean you should deny us that right."

While the Ermineskin people don't have a hospital, they did build, with three other Cree nations, a health center where they provide youth counseling and in-patient services. What would the average Canadian think of local conditions if he stopped to buy a tank of gas in Hobbema?

"They might be impressed by our facility; they might be impressed that we deliver our own services. But they would be appalled by the conditions of the people," Littlechild adds glumly. Alcohol, drug abuse, suicide, diabetes - the list is familiar south of the border, too. "It's a real ongoing battle."

Since Cree is his first language, Littlechild knows the profound impact that culture can have on community health. After all, Treaty No. 6 was written down in English, not in the tongue of the bands who signed it. Perhaps the original intent of the medicine chest would be indisputable now had it been rendered both ways.

"Language is critical in terms of the transmission of traditional knowledge, of medicines," adds Littlechild. "We still have elders - in fact my sister is one of them - who practice traditional medicine. She cannot pass that knowledge on to someone in English? We have, as you would imagine, specific names for specific herbs and specific use for that herb or medicine in treatment."

After losing a generation of speakers to television and radio, the Ermineskin Cree have taken charge of their future. Resource revenues have allowed them to build their own schools, hire their own teachers, set their own curriculum - and teach Cree up to grade 7. "I'm sure many of our neighboring tribes can't do that even if they wanted to."

Of about 60 Native languages spoken in Canada today, Cree is one of only a handful that linguists expect to survive. Some 200,000 Cree are registered across the country, and close to half of them speak their mother tongue, more than any other aboriginal language in Canada. Culture alone is a critical resource for community well-being.

"I will acknowledge that [the government] does treat us better than a lot of other indigenous people," Littlechild admits. "But it's still not good in terms of a working relationship ? If we're not a nation with our own language, territory, religion, culture, and government, we could not have signed those treaties," he said.

Self-determination will have much to say about the future of the Cree. Local health services and language instruction are important evidence that the people of the Ermineskin, even without a large land base, are building a medicine chest of their own, not forgetting the one they believe they were promised long ago.

Even today, says the former MP from Wetaskiwin, the treaties are under attack in Parliament. But the international system, he adds, like the United Nations, can put pressure on national governments by saying, "'Look, you have legal obligations by treaty, respect those.'"

The well-traveled lawyer from Hobbema gives an audible sigh. "Otherwise, you know what happens - we end up in court."