A visit to Manto Sipi Cree Nation

The 2018 graduating class of Amos Okemow Memorial School at Manto Sipi First Nation.

June 15, 2018

Treaty One Territory, Manitoba

Andrew Thunder

By Kim Wheeler

On a map it is called Gods River but with a return to their Cree name the community is now known as Manto Sipi Cree Nation. This fly-in community is home to 1,104 citizens, 974 who live on reserve. It is located approximately 588 km northeast of Winnipeg.

On this bright June day, Grand Chief Arlen Dumas of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs is at Manto Sipi to help with the school’s graduation celebrations. Amos Okemow Memorial School is celebrating the graduation of children in kindergarten, grade 8, and grade 12 as well as mature students who will receive their high school diplomas.

The graduation ceremonies have to be postponed for several hours as a Hydro transformer has blown out, leaving the school with no power. Everyone seems to take this in stride and it gives the Grand Chief and Chief Oliver Okemow a chance to meet, talk and tour his community.

Gods River Fishing Lodge

Grand Chief Arlen Dumas and Chief Oliver Okemow of Manto Sipi Cree Nation.

Grand Chief Arlen Dumas and Chief Oliver Okemow of Manto Sipi Cree Nation.

Chief Okemow invites Grand Chief Dumas to the Gods River Fishing Lodge. Originally owned by non-First Nations people, the lodge is now owned and operated by Manto Sipi. It welcomes fishers from across Turtle Island who come here to catch master angler fish like Brook Trout, Northern Pike and Walleye. The main lodge is adorned with mounted fish that have been pulled from the waters of Gods River and the nearby Gods Lake.

Over lunch, they talk about the graduation. Chief Okemow proudly states that there are about 250 students in the school, but quietly says the school is over capacity even with the two portables that have been added. He also explains that the school was built with only a half-sized gymnasium.

“I helped them negotiate funding to build a new school almost eight years ago,” recalls Grand Chief Dumas. “They are still waiting for that funding to build a new school.”

Touring the community

While waiting for the graduation ceremonies to begin, guides from the lodge take the Grand Chief and his staff for a boat tour down Gods River and out onto Gods Lake. The water, while shallow and rocky, is crystal clear. The air is pure and one can taste the scent of the water and trees. This is Creator’s country. It’s no wonder the majority of the citizens don’t leave their home for southern urban centres.

Grand Chief Arlen Dumas was honoured with a star blanket.

Grand Chief Arlen Dumas was honoured with a star blanket.

Back on land and headed for the graduation, the small size of the gym and the delay in ceremony does not dampen anyone’s spirits. Each graduate walks with a community member through the audience who have gathered to witness their family and friends celebrate this special occasion. Earlier in the day, the children in kindergarten had their ceremony and have now returned to watch the grade 8s and 12s receive their certificates.

Although the Grand Chief was there to honour the graduates, the community honoured him with a star blanket. They also surprised AMC staff with gifts as well, a gesture that humbled and honoured them.

In his address to the graduates, Grand Chief Dumas recognizes Moses Okemow, a Manto Sipi citizen as one of his role models. Okemow was one of the first First Nation lawyers in Manitoba.

“There were few role models when I was growing up, but you,” he said turning to the graduates “look around you, there are many role models here. Remember that your Chief and Council work hard for you. There are many people right here who have helped support and guide you as you reach to this milestone in your life.”

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