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Funeral draws politicians and other dignitaries to Poundmaker Cree Nation

By Jason Warick, CBC News Posted: Feb 16, 2017 5:30 AM CTLast Updated: Feb 16, 2017 10:16 AM CT

Tyrone Tootoosis died at age 58.

Tyrone Tootoosis died at age 58. (CBC)

It’s been 132 years since Canadian troops and RCMP launched an unprovoked attack on the Indigenous people of this territory in what would eventually become Saskatchewan.

The 1885 military assault, known as the Battle of Cut Knife Hill, was followed by decades of the pass system, forced starvation, residential schools and other attempts to solve what was commonly known as “the Indian problem.”

Tyrone Tootoosis funeral

Hundreds of people gathered on the Poundmaker Cree Nation to honour Tyrone Tootoosis. (Jason Warick/CBC)

On Wednesday, hundreds of outsiders again converged on the Poundmaker Cree Nation, just west of the Battlefords. This time, they came to honour a man who dedicated his life to reviving Plains Cree culture.

Tyrone Tootoosis, buried on the hillside near his relative Chief Poundmaker, was known for his work recording the stories of elders, organizing countless powwows, and developing Wanuskewin Heritage Park and the Saskatchewan Native Theatre Company — which is now renamed in honour of his uncle, Gordon Tootoosis.

Tootoosis died of colon cancer early Sunday morning. He was 58.

The funeral drew politicians and other dignitaries from across Saskatchewan and beyond. There were farmers, teachers and movie producers.

“He was a great man. We’re going to miss him a lot,” said Cathy Holtslander, who worked on environmental campaigns with Tootoosis.

Tyrone Tootoosis

Tyrone Tootoosis, who was 58, died early Sunday morning of colon cancer. (Red Sky Performance)

Following several emotional eulogies, mourners queued to view Tootoosis’s body in the open casket.

Rather than one long line, the crowd snaked in clover-leaf fashion. As everyone passed each other multiple times, they embraced, joked or told detailed stories in several parts.

Everyone then passed by the immediate family members. The handshakes were uniform — one moderate shake with little to no eye contact to show deference.

Looking to the future

The presence of author Maria Campbell, academic Priscilla Settee, lawyer Donald Worme, residential school survivor Eugene Arcand, former Saskatchewan Indian Cultural Centre head Dorothy Myo, activist Erica Lee and others served as a reminder of the Indigenous resilience embodied by Tootoosis.

There were also people like family friend Archie Rump, who hitchhiked in four different vehicles to get there.

Rump and others joked the event was also graced by royalty — Maurina Atcheynum, who has been a princess for 40 years. She was crowned at a powwow on the neighbouring Sweetgrass First Nation. The event was discontinued in 1977.

“I’m still reigning,” she said to laughter.

The event was also part business meeting. Sitting on wooden benches and plastic chairs eating soup and bannock, conversations turned to the future.

Some talked about the themes and acts for next year’s Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations powwow, which Tootoosis organized every year since it began in 2000.

Others say they’ll offer to help his widow, University of Saskatchewan professor Winona Wheeler. Their ranch near Duck Lake is filled with hundreds of audiotapes resulting from countless interviews Tootoosis conducted with elders.

Dorothy Myo

Dorothy Myo, a cousin, said Tyrone Tootoosis’s work has to continue. (Jason Warick/CBC)

“He did so much for all First Nations,” said Dorothy Myo, a cousin who traveled with Tootoosis to perform in England and across North America.

“The work is continuing. It has to continue.”

Little Pine First Nation Chief Wayne Semaganis, who first met Tootoosis when they were children, said Tootoosis did a good job of mentoring others.

His presence will be felt next month, when area First Nations will get together to discuss ways their youth can reconnect with their language and traditions.

Semaganis said those values “will keep us strong as a people, [and] acknowledge how we’re related to each other and to everyone around us and to Mother Earth.”