Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Pembina Chippewa Métis Cemetery

After recently reading about a trip by a teacher and her students to the Pembina Metis Cemetery, I got in touch the instructor, Leslie Peltier.

I asked Leslie if she could share with me about the ties between
Turtle Mountain and the Pembina area by answering the following questions:

1. Why is the Pembina Metis Cemetery important?
2. Does anyone have relatives buried there?
3. Does anyone have any biographical information and/or stories of people buried there?
4. I grew up with many Metis families, went to school with them, but didn't know they were Metis never hearing the term until many years later. I seriously doubt many Metis I knew really knew their own history. They were heavily integrated into our communities. Which is ironic, because after studying the history of our area, the Metis were the first and the majority in the Pembina area when it began being a settlement. Most Metis left, for various reasons, but some stayed. How do you see the legacy of the Metis people to the Pembina area?
5. Why did you choose to study about the Pembina Metis and/or the cemetery?

Their answers are below...
Dear Trish,

Thanks (Miigwech) for waiting for answers. The class is now over and the students are dispersed, doing other things this summer, but are still interested in the ongoing struggle to maintain our generational connections by ceremonies and grounds clean up as was done by our group on May 20, 2008 with tribal councilmen and Turtle Mt. Tribal dept. of Natural Resources. I spoke with the students and told them to answer your questions as they want. I will try now to do so.

1. The Pembina Chippewa Métis Cemetery is important as a direct line to our ancestry, as a part of our people’s gynecological history and to our cultural roots.

2. Yes, there are many Chippewa people here at Turtle Mt. Chippewa Reservation that can trace back to Pembina relatives 3-4 generations.

3. Such information would have to come from the elders memories. To do that and record it are another matter. It would be on an individual to individual family basis, family stories.

4. ...Yes it is ironic that the very people who worked so hard to make money for the big fur trade companies all moved on and were left penniless and unwanted, or ashamed to admit to being Indian. That is the one essential element that the faculty and students here at the Turtle Mt. Community College insisted on upholding in our research – that our sense of pride in being Chippewa extends to those ancestors buried there in Pembina and in all the other yet to be discovered places along the Red River cart trails extending from the Red River all the way across the present-day state of North Dakota. Today we teach that we (members of T Mt. Band of Chippewa) should have pride in our people’s knowledge of the land, the methods and techniques of the hunt and in our Indian customs.

5. Because there is so much unfinished and misleading information out there about us as a people. We also felt that a serious injustice has been done to our people that needed to be addressed. We studied it to uncover the truth and to look at the alternatives we have available to make wise decisions in the future if other burial sites are in peril both here on the reservation and off.

Hope this is what you wanted. Miigwech! Leslie

They are maintaining the cemetery now, showing respect by keeping the grass mowed and fixing the markers as needed. The tribe is also talking about sponsoring an archeological survey to verify grave locations and individuals' indentities in those graves.

Custody of the site was given to the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa after an unsuccessful bid to make the area a state park by the Union Nationale Metisse, a Manitoba-based organization founded to preserve Metis culture. Earlier the same year, the group from Canada planted simple, wooden crosses to mark the graves of some of those buried at the site.

Controversy stirred in 2005, when the Union Nationale Metisse said members of Turtle Mountain weren’t taking proper care of the cemetery.

That’s not the case now, according to Brady Grant, the tribe’s natural resources director. For the past three years, he’s made the 300-mile roundtrip about six times a year to mow the grass and re-seed bare spots at the site.

Learning About the past

Leslie Peltier, who teaches Contemporary Indian Issues at the Turtle Mountain Community College, stood for the first time Tuesday at the cemetery’s edge. She offered tobacco — a sign of respect — as she stepped onto the site. It wasn’t until she glimpsed an eagle overhead that she said she felt their visit was the right thing to do, she said.

The visitors prayed and performed ceremonies of respect to honor the dead. A drum group from Turtle Mountain sang and prayed there as well.

Peltier and two of her students, Symone Morin and Alexis Zaste, visited the site as part of a class project.

“Since these are our ancestors, we decided to look into it. We didn’t know the history of it; I didn’t even know this was here,” Zaste said. Her class put together a presentation about the site, titled “Plowed Over,” and presented it to other students from tribal colleges in the state.

There are about 50 markers at the site on about two acres of land, but there’s an additional eight acres preserved. The additional acreage is covered by tall, unkempt grasses and possibly hides the remains of many more unidentified Metis.

Those in attendance talked about ways to improve the site, including adding a place for prayer and possibly planting trees.

Wilkie said the tribal council should fund an archaeological survey on the rest of the site.

“We need to take this back to the council and expand on it. I’m 85 years old, and I want to see the fruit of it come around,” she said.