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.
Duke Peltier, Ogimaa (chief) of Wiikwemkoong Anishinabek.
Can you give us your Native name and its English translation?
Niigaan Waasa Gaa Naabit—”one who looks very far ahead.”
Where is your nation located?
The Wikwemikong Unceded Indian Reserve is situated on Odawa Mnis, now known as Manitoulin Island, Ontario, Canada. We are in the middle of Lake Huron, historically known as the Odawa Lake, and we are the largest freshwater island in the world.
Where was your nation originally from?
From time immemorial, the Odawa Nation controlled Lake Huron and all the waterways flowing from it. The original territory stretched from the Ottawa River through to Michigan. Our island, Odawa Mnis, has always been the spiritual and political center of our nation. Some of Canada’s earliest explorers and the Jesuit missionaries from the early 1600s documented in detail our occupation, interaction in leadership positions with others, and jurisdiction of this territory.
Wikwemikong is the largest Anishinabek community on Odawa Mnis and has a long history of strong leadership. We have always fiercely defended our island against encroachments by other nations, as evidenced by oral and documented history. Since 1836, during encroachments and the removal of the Anishinabek from their homelands, the Ojibway and Potawatomi Nations became part of the Wikwemikong community. The Odawa, Ojibway, and Potawatomi are three distinct nations but are closely related as the Anishinabek. When we unite politically, culturally, and spiritually, we are known as the Three Fires Confederacy.
What is a significant point in history from your nation that you would like to share?
The most significant historical event to our people was the 1764 Peace Treaty at Niagara. It truly ended the Seven Years’ War in North America, established peace, and ratified the 1763 Royal Proclamation. Of particular significance, it established our relationship as allies with the British Crown, and today with Canada as the official representatives of the Crown.
At the signing of the 1764 peace treaty, the Odawa and other Anishinabe formalized a nation-to-nation relationship with the Covenant Chain Wampum Belt and a two-row wampum belt. The wampum belts created a binding respect for each other’s governments and our authority over lands. At the meeting, the Crown made a number of promises, one of which was to protect our interests forever. As Ocaita, an Anishinabe speaker, recalled at a meeting in 1818, “If you should ever require my assistance, send this belt, and my hand will be immediately stretched forth to assist you.” Our people here in Wikwemikong are the direct descendants of those Odawa and Anishinabe chiefs who authorized the agreement, and those promises have since been imbedded in our history.
The Crown and the Anishnabek met annually to renew these obligations and discuss important business. The Crown brought substantial presents to the people to sustain their welfare, as part of the obligations, and a great celebration for a number of days accompanied these activities. The wampum belt agreement and the promises that were made have been reaffirmed at these official meetings with the Crown since 1764. For example, in 1836, at a large annuity gathering on Manitoulin Island, our leaders recited the Covenant Chain Wampum Belt, reminding the Crown of promises that were made and the alliance that was to last forever.
We have continually occupied and protected the islands and waters throughout Lake Huron. Pledged through sacred ceremony, the Crown promised to protect our lands and ensure our needs will be provided for, as long as the “grass grows, the rivers flow and the British wear red coats.” As Canada’s highest court tells us, the honor of the Crown must be upheld, so these promises must be kept. As part of our commitment to uphold the agreement—to be an ally and protect the Crown—many of our veterans have sacrificed their lives. Many of our people voluntarily fought and died in every major war the Crown has been involved in since 1764.
Today the honor of the Crown requires that we resolve all disputes between us, especially those related to the lands, fisheries, and basic services which were promised in 1764. Our task today is to continue to remind the government of Canada and its many representatives of this history. In the words of the Crown, “When the Silver Covenant Chain becomes tarnished, it would need to be polished.” As this year marks the 250th anniversary of the 1764 peace treaty, we look forward to polishing that chain and reconfirm our relationship based on the two-row wampum and the Covenant Chain Wampum.
As I stated earlier, the Wikwemikong Unceded Indian Reserve is composed of the Odawa, Ojibway, and Potawatomi Nations. We are proud to say that we have never surrendered any rights to our lands and resources and continue to derive our livelihood from our homelands, as we have from time immemorial. We continue to exercise exclusive jurisdiction of all areas within our territory as the Wikwemikong Unceded Nation.
What responsibilities do you have as chief?
My main responsibility is to provide leadership for our people through strategic directives, as defined by our Council. Our decision-making approach is by consensus to ensure that we meet the needs of our people in a unified way. We are focused on economic development initiatives to foster self-sufficiency, on nurturing and supporting the talents of all our band members through a creative and responsive education system, and on maintaining a holistic healthcare system that incorporates Anishinaabe traditional knowledge and medicines with the mainstream approach to health care. Together these targeted areas all link to my highest priority—the protection of our lands and the rights of our people.
How did your life experience prepare you to lead the Wikwemikong Unceded Nation?
From a very young age, I was consistently reminded that I was given the responsibility to work for my people.
When I was a child, my father felt that it was important for me to be grounded in the culture of our Anishinaabe people. In our ceremonial lodge, I received my first name, Nimkii Gwiizenhs, with accompanying instructions to carry a very special pipe later in my adult life.
My parents shared with me the gift of our Anishinaabemowin language and taught me the importance of a work ethic and of pursuing my dreams. They supported all my endeavors, including sports, and I owe a lot of what I have to my passion for hockey. With their approval, I left home when I was 16 years old and moved to St. Michael’s Indian Residential School. My transition into a new environment allowed me to blossom as a leader as opportunities arose for advancement in both education and sports. My peers selected me to be the valedictorian of the class of 1994, and I was also being recruited by many junior hockey teams and U.S. colleges. Ultimately I ended up playing for the Weyburn Red Wings and the University of Saskatchewan Huskies.
While in Saskatoon, I met many of Saskatchewan’s past and current leaders who nurtured my leadership qualities and also provided opportunities for me to gain valuable work experience in proposal development, event marketing, media relations, corporate relationship-building, and project management. These experiences prepared me for my return home to Wikwemikong where I was tasked to establish a recreation program on behalf of our Council. I fulfilled this role successfully for ten years managing multiple projects.
The leadership and management skills that I gained over the years allowed for an easy transition into an elected position on Wikwemikong’s Council. During the three consecutive terms I served prior to becoming chief, I held portfolios in Education, Lands and Resources, and Economic Development.
Who inspired you as a mentor?
I have had many mentors throughout my life. I will briefly mention a few. My mother, Sandra Peltier, taught me that lifelong education needs to be our passion in order to achieve our goals. My grandmother Annie Peltier taught me the value of kindness and the power of forgiveness. As a decorated Veteran of WWII, my grandfather Andrew Manitowabi showed me what true courage and commitment to our land and people is. As the most successful entrepreneur in Wikwemikong for the past 60-plus years, he also showed me what determination will get you.
While living in Saskatchewan, I was adopted by Don and Dolly Eyahpaise at Beardy’s and Okemasis First Nation. To be accepted as one of their own by this family inspired me to accept everyone into my circle, regardless of their circumstance. Also George E. Lafond, of the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation, was a mentor to me by providing me with guidance, and he continued to support the pursuit of all my goals both in personal life and with sports, in particular, with the Petequacay Blades.
Recently, I have been inspired by Dr. Cindy Blackstock, of the First Nations Child & Family Caring Society, for her leadership to pursue fairness and equity for First Nations families. As a result of one of my discussions with her, I recommended to my Council the creation of a Wikwemikong Unceded Children’s Bill of Rights. I am proud to say this law was enacted by Council this year and was celebrated in our traditional ways with the children of Wikwemikong. This bill was enacted to ensure that Wikwemikong’s priority will always be the future well-being of our children. The people of Wikwemikong gave chief and Council the mandate to protect and maintain our grandchildren’s inherent rights on our Anishinabe lands and waters, and the leadership followed up with a very strong bill to protect those rights.
To read the full interview, visit the NMAI series here.