Edward Ahenakew, Anglican clergyman of Cree ancestry (born 11 June 1885 at Sandy Lake Indian Reserve [now the Ahtahkakoop First Nation] in central Saskatchewan; died 12 July 1961 in Dauphin, Manitoba). Proud of his heritage and a firm believer in the Christian faith, Ahenakew dedicated his life to missionary work on reserves, promoting the Cree language and bettering education on reserves.
Early Life and Education
Edward Ahenakew was born into an Anglican Cree family at the Sandy Lake reserve in Saskatchewan. As a child, he attended Atahkakohp Day School, the missionary school in Sandy Lake. He then attended Emmanuel College Boarding School in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, where he excelled as both a student and athlete. (See also Residential Schools in Canada.)
Upon graduation from the boarding school in 1903, Ahenakew returned home and worked as a missionary for a few years. He later attended Wycliffe College (University of Toronto) for two years. In 1910, Ahenakew graduated from the University of Saskatchewan’s Emmanuel College in Saskatoon. He was ordained an Anglican priest in 1912.
After his ordination, Ahenakew performed missionary work on the Cree reserve on Onion Lake (now Onion Lake Cree Nation), which straddles the Alberta–Saskatchewan border. He also worked in various communities in northern Saskatchewan. Through almost 50 years, Ahenakew travelled from one reserve to another in the Saskatchewan diocese and to church synods across Canada.
During his time as a minister, Ahenakew helped the sick who lacked access to transportation for medical care outside their community. In 1918, while working in Onion Lake, Ahenakew saw the devastating toll that the flu epidemic took on the Indigenous people on reserve. As Ahenakew described the situation, “The church was piled high with bodies. On the reserves so many people were dying that mass funerals and burials were being held.” With a desire to better care for the people on the reserves, Ahenakew attended medical school at the University of Alberta. However, he fell ill during his time there and was forced to leave his studies after three years. Ahenakew returned to missionary work, later stating that his medical studies proved useful: “The years were not wasted, for what knowledge I gained has come in handy from time to time.”
Contribution to Cree Literature
At the age of 18, Ahenakew expressed an interest in literature; he founded and edited a monthly newsletter in Cree syllabics that would be published for over 30 years. While recuperating from his illness in 1923, Ahenakew collected and transcribed many Cree oral histories. In 1929, American Folklore published these stories as the "Cree Trickster Tales." Ahenakew also collaborated with Archdeacon Richard Faries in the publication of a Cree-English dictionary, released in 1938. (See also Indigenous Languages in Canada.)
After his death in 1961, articles from Ahenakew’s unfinished manuscripts were edited for Saskatchewan History and The Beaver magazine (now Canada’s History). In 1973, Voices of the Plains Cree, a collection of his writings, including the well-known “Stories of Old Keyam,” was published.
His grandniece, Freda Ahenakew (1932–2011), was a Cree-Canadian scholar who received the Order of Canada in 1998. Freda expressed that Edward Ahenakew’s writings served as an inspiration for her own writing.
During the 1920s, Ahenakew was active in efforts to form a national league that would unite Indigenous voices in negotiations with the federal government about Indigenous rights and related issues. After Kanyen'kehà:ka (Mohawk) veteran Frederick Ogilvie Loft created the League of Indians of Canada in 1919, Ahenakew joined the organization. The western branches of the League, led by Ahenakew and Cree activist John Tootoosis, were the most active in petitioning Members of Parliament for social assistance in Indigenous communities. (See also Indigenous Political Organization and Activism in Canada.)
Ahenakew was arguably most vocal in matters concerning the education of Indigenous children. In the early 1920s, Ahenakew wrote to the federal government, urging them to better fund education on reserves. He also spoke out against residential schools, arguing that they took away “all the initiative there may be in an Indian.” In 1931, Ahenakew helped formulate a resolution passed by the League of Indians of Western Canada requesting that the federal government replace residential schools with reserve schools. (See also Education of Indigenous Peoples in Canada.)
Death and Significance
Ahenakew died on 12 July 1961 while traveling to Dauphin, Manitoba, to help in a summer school for Indigenous lay readers. During his lifetime, he earned the respect and admiration of his colleagues within the Anglican Church and Cree community. Ahenakew was also held in high regard by the people he helped in various communities across Saskatchewan. A firm believer in his Christian faith, and a proud supporter of Indigenous causes, Ahenakew dedicated his life to helping others and to promoting the Cree language.