Research takes masters student back to her First Nation home

By Costa Maragos Posted: April 12, 2017 6:00 a.m.

Cheyanne Desnomie’s research about the Peepeekisis First Nation has been published in the peer reviewed, Nebraska Press and forms the basis for her masters thesis in history.
Cheyanne Desnomie’s research about the Peepeekisis First Nation has been published in the peer reviewed, Nebraska Press and forms the basis for her masters thesis in history. Photo by Rae Graham – U of R Photography

When Cheyanne Desnomie was looking for a research topic for her Anthropology honours paper, she didn’t have to go far.  

Desnomie returned home to the Peepeekisis Cree Nation located on Treaty 4 land near Belcarres, Saskatchewan to delve into the long-standing issue that has created a social divide between band members for generations.  

Desnomie graduated as the only Honours student in the Anthropology department in 2014 and is the first Indigenous student to complete the honours program. Desnomie is student success facilitator at the U of R’s Aboriginal Student Centre.  

Her research on Peepeekisis has been published in the peer reviewed, Nebraska Press and forms the basis for her masters thesis in history.

Chief Peepeekisis
Peepeekisis (Sparrow Hawk) was the second chief of the Peepeekisis First Nation. His father, Chief Canahachapew (Ready Bow) was present at the signing of Treaty 4. 

The matter of band membership at Peepeekisis is deeply rooted in what Desnomie states is the Federal government’s “various colonial and assimilation policies” and “a social experiment grounded in British colonial expansionist ideology.”

Peepeekisis is one of four First Nations that forms the File Hills Colony in Saskatchewan.  

The legacy of Peepeekisis, writes Desnomie, is the “social experiment” imposed on its people by the Federal government." 

“Unlike other reserves in Canada, Peepeekisis served as the location of a radical experiment in Aboriginal experimental assimilation and colonial policies,” writes Desnomie. “An attempt at creating an agrarian First Nation utopia by the Canadian government, this social experiment is little known to the Canadian general public.”

During the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, graduates from the Indian residential and industrial schools were chosen to transfer to the Peepeekisis Cree Nation Reserve.  Land was set aside by the Federal government for use in a project with “the intent to create an agrarian, utopian community of First Nations participants,” writes Desnomie.

Those who stayed were eventually granted full band membership.

The experiment was deemed a success and “the colony was heralded both in Canada and internationally as an innovative success,” says Desmonie.

It even prompted a visit to the colony by Governor-General Earl Grey.

“Despite this level of recognition, it becomes apparent under a close examination that the project was rife with eugenic implications, land displacement, and a general disregard for the original members of the Peepeekisis band.”

In 1955, original band members took legal action. The judge ruled in favour of the more recent colony members maintaining full membership.

The research here examines the matter through the eyes of descendants of the original members.

Desnomie says when she reviewed the literature of File Hills, “I discovered that most, if not all, of the documents were presented from a European Canadian standpoint.”

She says she has “chosen to explore and represent the voices of the overlooked and unrecognized: the original band members and their descendants of Peepeekisis Cree Nation.”
“Previous research conducted by other scholars on the colony has often been primarily focused on the transfers of ex-residential and industrial school graduates to Peepeekisis. With few exceptions, very little information has been presented about the current situation that the descendants of the “original” band members of the Peepeekisis community have experienced.”
Desnomie says her paper is intended to “provide a voice for those who may not have previously had the opportunity to tell their stories. When I conducted interviews and created spoken records with members of the community, their memories of the past and ideas about the present revealed painful feelings, questions of identity, and a desire for unity.”

“The current social divide can be attributed to the File Hills Farm Colony, which not only contributed to a fractured, disempowered community but also perpetuated a loss of identity experienced by both sides. Placements who were chosen to participate had marriages arranged for them by the crown and church, and they lost band membership on their home reserves. Original Peepeekisis members were displaced and prohibited from using the entirety of land initially assigned to them by the Canadian government.”

Desnomie points out that during her conversations, the focus was “never one-sided. Equal concern and attention was paid to both the injustices suffered by the colony placements and the hardships endured by the original members.”

“There is hope the band can settle their claims, hope that the community will come together, and hope that the story of the band’s past and present will be told.”