Meet Native America: Derek Nepinak, Grand Chief, Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs
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, the 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.
Derek Nepinak, grand chief, Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (AMC). I have also served in the past as chief of my home community.
Can you share with us your Native name and its English translation?
It's Niibin Makwa—it sounds like knee-bin muk-wuh. It means Summer Bear in English.
What responsibilities do you have as grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs?
I am responsible to uphold the constitution of the organization, which requires me to protect the birthright of our children and our families in treaty and inherent rights. I also implement mandates given to me by the chiefs in assembly, as well by the executive, which is responsible for bringing collective action and exercising bargaining power for the benefit of Manitoba’s First Nations communities.
Where is your own community located?
I'm a member of the Minegoziibe Anishinabe (Pine Creek First Nation), on the west shores of Lake Winnipegosis in current-day west-central Manitoba.
Where were your people originally from?
The Minegoziibe Anishinabe are an amalgamation of many Anishinabe (Ojibway) people from the Manitoba interlakes and the tributaries flowing from the Duck Mountain and Riding Mountain water drainage systems. Our families originally come from the Treaty 2 and Treaty 4 territories.
What is a significant point in history from your nation that you would like to share?
There are several important points of history for our community. The most significant, however, is the signing of the treaties. The signing of treaties and adhesions in the 1870s is the basis of our families' relationship with the newcomer settler government.
How did your life experience prepare you to lead?
I was trained at home by my great-grandparents as a very young boy. My first experiences in life were with my extended family, and I observed the roles of the men and women in my family and some of the activities that make up the traditional economy. I observed moose-hide tanning, fishing and smoking fish, gardening, hunting, and keeping horses. Our family was very close, and we were all well taken care of in an extended family situation.
Beyond that, I received an extensive academic education in interdisciplinary studies, graduating from the University of Alberta with a First Class Honours Degree in Native Studies,then graduating from the University of Saskatchewan with a law degree. Understanding law and history is a necessity today to understand how governments deal with us.
Who inspired you as a mentor?
I was inspired by Ovide Mercredi, Phil Fontaine, the late Tobasonakwut Kinew, the late Elijah Harper, the late Dave Courchene Sr., the late Jim Sinclair, the late Joseph Nepinak, and Thomas Nepinak Sr., my uncle.
Are you a descendant of a historical leader?
I am a descendant of the Nepinak clan who originally signed Treaty 2 at a place called Manitoba Post in 1872. Nepinaks have held leadership positions in both the Skownan First Nation in Treaty 2 and the Pine Creek First Nation in Treaty 4 for several generations.
How is your government set up?
Our community operates a Band Council under the terms of the Indian Act. This means a chief and council forming a quorum of leadership.
Is there a functional, traditional entity of leadership in addition to your modern government system?
The traditional governance system of family clans is in place. However, it is confined to family decision-making and is not spoken of within the context of the Indian Act band-governance system. Traditional governance in the family is an organic process, naturally flowing from the family and not derived from processes outside the family lines.
How often are elected leaders chosen?
Leaders are elected by popular vote in a democratic process every two years.
Approximately how many members does your community have?
There are approximately 3,700 band members within my home community.
What are the criteria to become a member?
My home community membership is made up of "status Indians" pursuant to provisions of the Indian Act. There are currently no membership provisions for non-status or unregistered Indians to become members of the Pine Creek First Nation.
Is your language still spoken on your homelands? If so, what percentage of your people would you estimate are fluent speakers?
The language of my people is Anishinaabemowin. In my home community, about 30 to 40 percent of the people speak fluently. Around 75 percent of the community understands the language to some extent, and another 20 percent or fewer do not understand, nor speak, the language.
What economic enterprises does the Pine Creek First Nation own?
The band has a video lottery terminal lounge, which generates in excess of $1,000,000 a year. We also have a tobacco retail program, which allows the band to collect a rebate on provincial wholesale taxes and in turn reflects as a profit to the band in the amount of approximately $500,000 annually. Construction companies also operate on the reserve, and forestry operations in support of hydro development are significant economic generators at this time.
What annual events does your band sponsor?
My home community sponsors an annual pow wow in the late summer, as well as several sporting initiatives for youth.
What other attractions are available for visitors to your lands?
Visitors to our lands are welcome to see a vast array of wildlife, including purebred wood bison, numerous bears, elk, moose, deer, and many fur-bearing animals—beaver, otter, marten, fox, mink, rabbit.
How does your band deal with Canada as a sovereign nation?
As a sovereign nation, the community is now beginning to re-emerge from the long legacy of devastation of the residential school era. The community, under my leadership, implemented a rights-based approach to governance. That means that we stand firm on principles of self-determination and self-government. In order for that to happen, the lands must be protected as well, which has always been a priority of mine.
In my capacity as the grand chief of the AMC, I bring the same principles of rights-based leadership to the collective bargaining and political advocacy initiatives of the Manitoba chiefs.
Derek Nepinak (in feather headdress at center), grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, meets with members of the indigenous peoples' rights movement Idle No More as they march from Victoria Island to Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Canada. January 11, 2013. Photo by Suzanne Ure, courtesy of Chief Nepinak.
What message would you like to share with the youth of your community?
I would like the youth to know that there is a need for them to develop skills and become educated in business, law, history, and other areas in order to bring strong leadership far into the future. We are waking from a terrible intergenerational legacy of residential school assimilation policies, and our young people need to know that they can lead us even further into re-establishing our traditional principles of governance and bringing prosperity back to our families.
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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.