Okimaw Wallace Fox, Onion Lake Cree Nation.

Okimaw Wallace Fox: NMAI’s Meet Native America Series

Dennis Zotigh

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.

Okimaw Wallace Fox. The English translation for Okimaw is Chief.

Can you share with us your Native name and its English translation?

Sīsīkwaniyiniw kīsikonahk kā-ayakowet (it sounds like seeseequan-eeyinew keesikona ka-ayakowait). This name translates into English as "To shake the sacred rattle that sings in the spirit world."

Where is your community located?

Onion Lake Cree Nation is in Treaty No. 6 territory. Our community is located 50 kilometers north of the border city of Lloydminster, in Saskatchewan and Alberta, Canada.

Where were your people originally from?

We are all from the families represented by our Headmen, Seekaskootch and Makaoo, who each negotiated for reserved lands and represented our peoples during the making of Treaty No. 6 in 1876. These reserved lands were amalgamated in 1914 into Onion Lake Cree Nation.

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

These are not so much events in our history as key ideas. First is the protection of our nation on all fronts. Filling the roles and maintaining the core vision, which is retaining economic sovereignty and independence. Independence is the day before treaty.

How did your life experience prepare you to lead?

My parents raised me with very strong work ethics: To work for what you have—to earn what you have, you have to work—and to have the desire to help all people. I always thought that I was going to finish high school and go to university to become a lawyer. Little did I know that I was going to be voted in to Council at the young age of 21 and, a few years later, as Chief. That has been my calling since that time, having served with former Chiefs and having received guidance, understanding, and learning on the meaning of the spirit and intent of treaty.

What responsibilities do you have as Chief?

A leader must have a vision. That vision is to break the threats and strangleholds of Indian Affairs and their oppressive policies on all the peoples of our reserves. To be Chief, it is necessary to be able to see outside of the parameters of the reserve boundaries and the boundaries of Canada, to know that there is a bigger world out there.

Who inspired you as a mentor?

One of my brothers was always very outgoing. I have five older brothers, and we were always working; all I ever knew was to work. As I grew to understand the culture and ceremonies, my mentor was Jim Cannepotatoe. He was a ceremonial Elder and Lodge Keeper on the reserve. There were many wonderful Elders who have been my mentors and who have since passed on.

Approximately how many members are in your band?

Onion Lake has a population of 5,800 members, with about 3,700 who live on reserve.

What are the criteria to become a member of Onion Lake?

We have a Citizenship Law that was developed by the people of OLCN. There is an application process—a committee and Elders review applications. The law includes instances where there is a member who wishes to relinquish membership from another band.

Is your language still spoken on your homelands? If so, what percentage of your people would you estimate are fluent speakers?

I am estimating 50 percent of our people speak the Cree language. The Cree language is still generally spoken in the community by those who are 35 years and up.

How is your nation's government set up?

Our nation has passed our own Convention Law, OLCN Election Law, Lands Law, Citizenship Law, and Education Law, and we are in the process of stepping out of the Indian Affairs Indian Act system. Contrary to the stereotype of the "Indian Act Chief," I will never succumb to INAC policies and direction—Indian and Northern Affairs, now Indian Affairs and Northern Development Canada. I serve the members of Onion Lake first and foremost. That is my belief.

Is there a functional, traditional entity of leadership in addition to your modern government system?

We are in the process of developing governance systems based on the original tribal systems of the Cree peoples.

How often does your Council meet?

Chief and Council meet once a week, generally on Tuesday. We have band meetings and special meetings—such as where OLCN leadership and senior administration provide budgets—at the end of March, prior to the April fiscal year, to seek the support of our people. We do this because OLCN's own sources of revenue provide 65 percent of the funding needed to operate our services. We require the approval of the membership because this is their money. This is the transparency process where all departments, including the Chief and Council, present their annual budget line by line, including salaries, administration, and travel, to share with the people who are present.

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

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