Sundance strengthened prospective native leader

A friend of mine is running for the office of the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations. He declared his intent back in the summer and we…

A friend of mine is running for the office of the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations.

He declared his intent back in the summer and we spoke recently about his hopes and aspirations. He’s young, intelligent, articulate and he’s been active politically for 20 years

His name is Perry Bellegarde. He’s a Cree from the Little Black Bear Reserve in southern Saskatchewan. We played hockey together in the early 1980s when he was in university where he would eventually earn a bachelor of administration degree.

He was a tenacious right winger and an even more persistent student. He kept his stick on the ice and was never out of the play in either arena.

What’s impressive about Perry is his devotion to traditional leadership. He’s gleaned this from the Sundance. For years he’s been a participant in that most powerful of spiritual rituals and he’s listened to his elders and what they taught him. It makes him a humble and proud man and it will make him a formidable leader.

Years ago when I was in my early 30s, I went to a traditional tribal gathering in the mountains of Montana. It was called Return to the Buffalo. There were a handful of traditional teachers and healers who brought their novices and students. They represented a cross section of First Nations cultures and I was lucky enough to be asked to accompany the elder I worked with.

We met in a wide meadow that was cupped in a bowl formed by mountains. In the purely tribal times, the people would gather in that meadow for ceremonies. You could still see the vague ring where teepees had sat and we pitched our tents in the very same place. We were there for the same purpose — to be taught the protocols of ceremony and to meditate and pray.

The leaders had erected a teaching arbour where they sat to instruct us and tell us stories. The arbour was a half circle of poplar trees with the branches cross-laid to form the roof. Each of the trees represented a traditional principle and over the course of days the elders told us what each principle was and how it applied to a traditional life.

Those principles were loyalty, courage, truth, honesty, justice, spirituality, respect, non-judgment, fidelity, wisdom, humility, trust and perseverance: 13 principles that were the backbone of the traditional way. There are 13 poles in a teepee incidentally, 13 moons in a lunar year, 13 weeks in a quarter and on the back of a turtle where the name Turtle Island comes from, there are 13 segments around the edge of the shell. So the number was not arbitrary.

They told us that traditional leaders worked to exemplify those principles in the course of their lives. They told us that no one ever succeeded in living them 100 per cent but the value lay in the pursuit of the ideals. Leaders, they said, are made from that struggle and not born.

In these troubled political times, First Nations people are challenged. So too is Canada. There are many areas where our lives and the issues arising from the process of living intersect. So for someone to say simply that they work on native or First Nations issues is shortsighted. Because native issues are Canada’s issues and they have been for some time.

As the Assembly of First Nations heads into its election year in 2009, the choice of a leader is crucial. The time when we could afford to isolate ourselves from the forward political motion of the entire country is long passed. Treaty rights, land claims, resource sharing, economic development and governance are issues that affect our mainstream neighbours too, and a leader needs to acknowledge that.

That’s why I’m glad Perry Bellegarde is running. Not because he’s a friend of mine, but because he brings to the table the essentials of the feast. He’s a traditional-minded politician and he lives according to the principles that drive that mindset. The Sundance has taught him the practical application of those tribal methodologies in a contemporary life.

That’s vital. Perhaps even more crucial these days than at any time before.

The economy, the environment and technology have Canada in flux. That means native people too. Finding our way, finding our sense of balance and equilibrium as Canadians and as First Nations people requires a dedication to principles — the principles that underlay the foundations of great nations.

There are 13 of them. They apply to all governments and all leaders. I learned them in a native context but there are essential to any human life and the life of a people and the life of country. Perry Bellegarde has walked with them for years and the AFN needs that kind of leadership now.

 Richard Wagamese is Ojibway and the author of Keeper’n Me. He won the Canadian Author’s Award for Dream Wheels and his new novel, Ragged Company, arrives in August from Doubleday. He can be reached at