Meet Native America: Delbert Peter Wapass, Chief, Thunderchild First Nation
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 people today. —Dennis Zotigh, NMAI
Please introduce yourself with your name and title.
Delbert Peter Wapass. I'm chief of the Thunderchild First Nation (Piyesiw Awasis).
Can you give us your Native name and its English translation?
Kihiw Ka-pim-oo-teht. It means Walking Eagle.
Where is your nation located?
Thunderchild First Nation is located approximately 120 kilometers northwest of North Battleford, Saskatchewan, and is in Treaty 6 territory. The closest town is Turtleford, which is 13 kilometers from Thunderchild.
Where was your nation originally from?
Thunderchild First Nation came to be when Chief Piyesiw Awasis’s headmen were forced to sign an adhesion to Treaty 6 in August, 1879, in Sounding Lake, Alberta. Piyesiw Awasis did not put his mark to the treaty document.
The reserve community was originally located in Delmas, Saskatchewan, and the community was forcibly moved to Moosomin First Nation, north of North Battleford, Saskatchewan. The members of Thunderchild did not like where they were forcibly moved to and settled in their present location in 1909.
What is a significant point in history from your nation that you would like to share?
In the 1970s in Canada, the document “Indian Control of Indian Education” was developed after 1969 White Paper, "Statement of the Government of Canada on Indian Policy." Thunderchild First Nation was one of the first communities to implement the policies proposed in “Indian Control of Indian Education.” The people of Thunderchild took all of their children from the neighboring provincially controlled schools, such as Turtleford, and moved them back to Thunderchild. The Piyesiw Awasis School was developed and built, and the children of Thunderchild have been at this school since 1971.
What responsibilities do you have as chief?
My overall responsibilities are to ensure that all affairs of the Thunderchild First Nation are met in accordance to strategic direction that we, as a chief and Council, have developed. Ensuring that there is a balance between economic responsibilities and the wellness of the community. Ensuring that financial accountability is met. As a chief, my overall responsibility is making sure that the band is running to its best, while upholding our treaty and inherent rights.
How did your life experience prepare you to lead the Thunderchild First Nation?
I was raised by my grandfather and grandmother and lived a life where hard work was essential to ensuring that our family was able to survive. I grew up with the expectation that if I didn’t get things done, this affected my family. For example, my responsibility at home was to get the fire going in the woodstove and prepare our meal before I went to school. The hardships, which I considered the norm, ensured that this ongoing hard-work ethic was a normal part of my life.
As I grew older, I wanted to make a difference in everything that I set out to do. The natural progression into leadership roles came from being seen as the problem-solver within my family and with many of my friends. I was formerly a classroom teacher, where you think about the big picture in planning. So it was a natural progression into my present leadership role. I’m a big-picture person, and I like the opportunity to break down this big picture so that I can achieve the goal that I have set.
Those experiences are the foundation. But I also learned things about leadership and working with other people as a school administrator and an evaluator of curriculum and staff within First Nations school systems, a researcher and analyst for different First Nations, and a governance negotiator within the Assembly of First Nations. In addition to serving as chief, I've been elected for two terms as an executive member within the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations with the portfolio responsibilities of education, health, lands and resources and sports, culture, and youth.
Who inspired you as a mentor?
I grew up without a father and latched onto people who were older brother or father figures. There are many role models who inspired me to be my best in everything that I do: My grandfather, Peter Wapass, who passed away when I was young, instilled the understanding of working hard in all areas and to be humble in everything that I do. He always showed me never to hesitate in helping others. My late grandmother, Bella Wapass, encouraged me to complete my education. She wanted to see me graduate from high school and watched me receive my high school diploma. She passed away one week after that.
Other mentors include Joe Quewezance, who encouraged me to keep studying; George Lafond, who taught me always to work to the best of my ability; and Arsene Tootoosis, who wanted me to complete the highest level in education. I went on to receive a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Regina and a Bachelor of Education from the Indian Teacher Education Program, University of Saskatchewan, both in 1994. I earned a Master’s degree in Educational Administration from the University of Saskatchewan in 2010.
As I got older, two elders—the late Norman Sunchild from my community and the late Gordon Oakes from Nekaneet First Nation—stressed the importance of knowing who I am as a Cree person and of understanding Cree ways, traditions, ceremonies, and practices. The elders showed me to concentrate on being a role model and encouraging the young people to be the best they can be while retaining and knowing their identity.
Are you a descendant of a historical leader? If so, who?
My late grandfather, Peter Wapass, always spoke of being a descendant of Sitting Bull—how his family came from the United States, came towards the Yorkton area and then up towards Thunderchild. The Wapass family has relatives within these communities that my forebears came from.
Approximately how many members are in your band?
We have 2,765 members, both on- and off-reserve.
What are the criteria to become a member of the Thunderchild First Nation?
You must have a blood relation from Thunderchild or be married to a member of that community. If you are transferring to Thunderchild from another First Nations community, you must apply to the Band Membership Board, and the application will be forwarded to the band for a vote.
Is your language still spoken on your homelands? If so, what percentage of your people would you estimate are fluent speakers?
The Cree language is still spoken within the community. Fifty percent of the community members still speak the language.
How is your nation's government set up?
Thunderchild Cree Nation was originally part of the Indian Act election system, where the elected chief and Council members were answerable to the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development first, then to their community members. The nation moved away from this act, and since 1993 we have followed the band-custom election system. The chief and Council are elected by the members of Thunderchild Nation. The nation has its own Band Constitution, Election Act, Appeals Tribunal Act, and Financial Management Act, which have been developed by the Legislative Committee.
The chief and seven headmen and headwomen are elected for four-year terms and are responsible for specific portfolio areas. For example, as the chief I am responsible for economic development, oil and gas, human resources, housing, and public works. Each portfolio has staff within the departments to support the elected leader who is responsible for that specific portfolio. The director of finance/human resources is responsible for the human resources within the staffing component.
Is there a functional, traditional entity of leadership in addition to your modern government system?
There are no hereditary leaders within the community. The modern government system is in place.
How often does your Council meet?
The chief and Council meet twice monthly, on the first and third Thursdays. Band meetings—with all community members—are held on a quarterly basis.
What economic enterprises does the Thunderchild First Nation own?
We own the following: In oil and gas, Tonare Energy/Thunder Oil. In other resources, Thunderchild Agriculture, Thunderchild Elk Ranch, and Thunderchild Farm. Thunderchild Gas Station. In tourism, Thunderchild Outfitters and Moonlight Bay Resort. And a partnership with Onion Lake Cree Nation and the Maoris of New Zealand.
What annual events does your band sponsor?
We host the Annual Thunderchild Pow-wow. The 48th annual pow-wow will take place July 25 through 27 this year. We also hold an annual hockey tournament in March, and annual father/son and mother/daughter banquets.
What attractions are available for visitors on your land?
Moonlight Bay Resort and the Thunderchild Monument where the first Chief Thunderchild is buried.
How does your band deal with Canada or the United States as a sovereign nation?
Thunderchild is a sovereign nation, and the direction has been to be economically self-sufficient. Any partnerships or dealings with U.S. tribes are developed independently.
What message would you like to share with the youth of your community?
Know and understand who you are and where you come from. Learn your language, culture, and history. The elders’ teachings and their vision are the foundation and principals that we, as First Nations people, must follow.
Get your education. Stand up for your rights as a Cree person, for the young, and for those are not born yet. Live in balance between your Cree world and the “white world.”
Is there anything else you would like to add?
Yes. I'd like to thank my wife, Doreen, and our four children—Dakota, Delbert, Jr. (Napew), Delaine, and Doryen.
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From left to right: Representative Ponka-We Victors (Tohono O’odham/Southern Ponca) taking the oath of office in the Kansas House of Representatives; photo courtesy of Kansas Rep. Scott Schwab. Bird Runningwater (Cheyenne/Mescalero Apache) at the Sundance Film Festival; photo courtesy of WireImage. Sergeant Debra Mooney (Choctaw) at the powwow in Al Taqaddum Air Force Base, Iraq, 2004; photo courtesy of Sgt. Debra Mooney. Councilman Jonathan Perry (Wampanoag) in traditional clothing; photo courtesy of Jonathan Perry. Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne/Hodulgee Muscogee) at Blackhorse et al. v. Pro Football, Inc., press conference, U.S. Patent and Trade Office, February 7, 2013; photo courtesy of Mary Phillips. All images used with permission.