ON THE WRITE ROAD: "Indian" stories and riding bison

The mid-80s were volatile times for Indigenous people in Alberta, so there was never a dull moment at Kainai News, which I continued to write for as a freelancer while I went to school. Not only was it a good learning experience that provided me with extra cash, it also opened free passage to exciting events and access to great stories.

Land claims were a major issue across the province (and the country), particularly in places where oil exploration was planned. Encroachment on traditional territories was having an adverse effect on local economies and suicide, particular in youth, was alarmingly prevalent.

The Hobbema reserve, in Northern Alberta, had the highest youth suicide rate on the continent at the time as, in between 1985-87, the suicide rate along young men was over 80 times the national average and there was a violent death almost every week. I recall a striking photo in one of the major Calgary dailies, of nooses on a tree in Hobbema; one of those soul-shattering shots that hit you right in the gut.

Interviewing people about dead or missing children is the hardest thing I ever had to do as a reporter. The only thing that comes close is speaking to people about the abuses they endured in residential school.

But there was another big story, an ongoing story that wouldn’t go away, much to the chagrin of the Getty provincial government. The Lubicon Lake band was the centre of a David vs Goliath battle, trying to stop oil exploration that they claimed was threatening their traditional lifestyle and economy (a claim supported by a drastic drop in sustenance hunting numbers). It was a huge international story, attracting music and movie stars, including Buffy St. Marie.

Buffy’s sold-out Lubicon benefit concert was raucous, buoyed by a just cause and the electric presence of an indigenous legend. I got some good photos as I roamed the front of the stage as the then 47-year-old star delivered a magnificent performance. After the show, I met her backstage for an interview, in which she pledged her support for the Lubicon.

I then hustled out to the lobby, where Lubicon band Chief, Bernard Ominiyak, was speaking to the press. It was a striking scene: a modest looking man, with a red plaid shirt and wearing a Lubicon Band baseball cap over his long, braided hair, surrounded by dozens of reporters from across the globe. He was a rock star, with huge international support that forced the Alberta government to, ultimately, make a deal.

Unfortunately, the Lubicon deal with the province was tenuous and once the Olympics passed and negotiations dragged on, the Lubicon lost much of their audience and support. Remarkably, the battle continues to this day and, even more remarkably, Ominiyak is still the leader – sort of. He leads one of two factions that say they are the proper leaders of the Lubicon. The feds recognize the other group, which Ominiyak says is more amenable to the government’s wishes. Complicating things further are accusations that Ominiyak and his family secretly pocketed millions from the band, a charge he claims was started by the federal government.

Another event that my Kainai News press badge got me into was the Calgary Stampede. It was my first rodeo, literally and figuratively as I had never rubbed elbows with so many professional photographers than I did in “the pit,” a dugout that put us at ground level (guarded by railings) in the arena. It was cool but, then, disheartening as when I got down amongst the professional photographers, I noticed the big difference in our hardware.

Every photographer had a big bag and two or three cameras slung around their necks with large lenses. I reached into my jacket pocket and rubbed by point-and-shoot for a few seconds before deciding to leave it there because, well, I didn’t belong. Feeling small, I walked back up the little hill and out of the pit.

I spent the rest of my time at the Stampede finding other spots, different vantage points, to take photos from. One of the most interesting spots was the stalls that they release the bulls and horses from … and the bison. That’s right, the bison.

There was a special rodeo event at the Stampede just for Aboriginal youth. It was a bucking event but, instead of horses or bulls, it involved bison – or Buffalos as they are commonly called. Was I the only one who thought this was incredibly bizarre??

As one of the Aboriginal youths, wearing just buckskin shorts and regalia attempted to mount the Bison, it became agitated, swinging its massive head from side to side, pounding the walls of the pen, denting them. The youth hesitated, waiting for the bison to be calmed down by the handlers. He looked scared, but there was a small amount of prize money and a trophy to be won. I also got the feeling that he some of the others were put up to it rather than being enthusiastic entrants.

After I took a few pics, I scanned the arena and noticed that there were other kids mounting bison in other stalls. As the announcer was nearly at the crescendo of his pitch, I realized that the kids would not be going out on their bucking bisons one at a time, as it’s usually done with horses and bulls but, rather, they would be released at the same time.

Bam! All pen doors flew open, and six bison, with Aboriginal youth on their backs, came bursting into the arena. I couldn’t believe it. The kids looked terrified as they held on for dear life, their hands grasping the hair on the bison’s shoulders. They had no safety equipment.

A couple of kids were barely out of the pen before they were tossed. It didn’t take long for the others to be thrown off either as they were sent flying in the air and a couple landed hard; one, in particular, dragged himself off, a hand on his back. He was hurt but, thankfully, well enough to get out of the way.

At the end, the kids got trophies and a small cash prize and returned to the Indian village to show their wares. The village, now known as the Elbow River Camp, showcases Aboriginal culture, with several teepees erected, singing and dancing, and traditional foods being served. I loved the Bannock!

The foods were great at the Stampede and the event was simultaneously entertaining and disturbing. But it was all just an appetizer. The main course was coming in February, 1988, when one of the world’s greatest sporting events would roll into town.

NEXT: A party of Olympic proportions!

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