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.
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.
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, 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 people of the 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 legends. 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.
After his death in 1961, articles from Ahenakew’s unfinished manuscripts were edited for Saskatchewan History and The Beaver; and 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 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 Aboriginal issues. After its creation in 1919 by Mohawk veteran Frederick Ogilvie Loft, Ahenakew joined the League of Indians of Canada (see Aboriginal People: Political Organization and Activism). 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 Aboriginal communities.
Ahenakew was arguably most vocal in matters concerning the education of Aboriginal children. In the early 1920s, Ahenakew wrote to the federal government, urging them to better fund education on reserves (see: Aboriginal People: Education). 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.
During his lifetime, Ahenakew earned the respect and admiration of his colleagues within the Anglican Church and Cree community. He 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 Aboriginal causes, Ahenakew dedicated his life to helping others and to promoting the Cree language. He died on 12 July 1961 while traveling to Dauphin, Manitoba, to help in a summer school for Aboriginal lay readers.
Honours and Awards
In 1932, Ahenakew was named general Indian missionary for the Northern Diocese of Saskatchewan. One year later, he was appointed Canon of St Alban's Cathedral in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan.
In 1947, Ahenakew received a Doctor of Divinity degree from Emmanuel College (University of Saskatchewan).