"White Chief" Runs a 'Model Reserve'
On a recent fall weekend, Chief John Thunder was gearing up to break ground on a $12.5-million hotel and spa at Buffalo Point First Nation on tourist-heavy Lake of the Woods. His picture-perfect band, one of the tiniest in Manitoba, is also among the province's richest, with an 18-hole golf course, a 375-slip marina, and teepee-inspired offices by brand-name architect Les Stechesen. Fittingly, the 47-year-old chief - 10 years into his mandate - has a business degree from the U.S., and the French cuffs to match.
There's another reason this native leader stands out. In these parts, the former Bemidji State Bears goalie is known as the "White Chief." The moniker makes his pale face cloud with anger. (Thunder, they say, has a temper to rival the name.) "It's about what's in your heart," he says, voice thick with emotion. "I've danced powwows; I've made my own regalia, my headdress. I was raised up that way. That's who I am."
Thunder inherited the chieftaincy from his dad, a white American adopted into the OJIBWA community as a young boy, and in 1969 named to the helm by his childless Aboriginal uncle, then-chief Warren "Shorty" Thunder. "Dad felt he didn't have the blood-right - not being Indian," says Thunder, who's never struggled with this dilemma. "Growing up, I was beat up by whites because I was an Indian," he says - and vice versa. "I went to an Indian hockey school in Winnipeg one time, and the whole week long, me and my brother had the s-t kicked out of us, because we looked white." Through his father, Thunder, his blond wife and their four children acquired Indian status. One day, he'll name one of the kids, aged 15 to 22, chief. (But the line stops there: unless they marry an Aboriginal person, which Thunder thinks is unlikely, the status Thunder's children inherited from their grandfather will die with them, according to rules laid out in the Indian Act.)
Thunder has the clear-cut support of Manitoba's Aboriginal leadership. "It's not the colour of your skin, but the colour of your blood," argues Dennis White Bird, head of the Treaty Relations Commission of Manitoba, who adds that Thunder has created a "model RESERVE" at Buffalo Point. Indeed, native brass consider Thunder - who claims two per cent unemployment and $2 million in gross annual revenue for his band - a "leader by example," says Grand Chief Ron Evans of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs. "If we had ever sat back, waiting for government to assist in our development, we'd look just like the rest of them," says Thunder, who is also chair of the Southeast Manitoba Tribal Council. Ultimately, he wants out of the Indian Act, to govern as he sees fit - "No more restrictions." And Manitoba chiefs are lined up behind him.
But closer to home, Thunder faces complaints that he's running his reserve unfairly. "The Indians are all stuck in a corner," says Don Sandberg, Aboriginal policy fellow for the Winnipeg-based Frontier Centre for Public Policy, who collected data at Buffalo Point for a survey on Aboriginal governance. Indeed, the bulk of the reserve's residents are non-native cottagers, summering on 350 leased lots. "When you knock on doors, it's like you're in white Winnipeg," says Sandberg. Most of the 54 band members, to whom this land belongs, are grouped along a single dirt road in the southwest corner of the reserve. "Thunder calls it the residential area," says Ernest Cobiness, son of Eddy, a painter with the so-called Indian Group of Seven. "We call it the segregated area."
The cottagers aren't to blame, say band members. "The development was supposed to help the people," says Don Kakaygeesick, whose brother Robert is the lone Aboriginal on Buffalo Point's three-person band council. Don, who lives off-reserve, in Minnesota, calls Robert a "token Indian," because he doesn't genuinely participate in decision-making. "We've never had a meeting or a referendum about whether we should be leasing our land," says Cobiness. "You don't like it? Too bad. If this reserve's doing so well, why are the band members living below the poverty line?" (Band members also say local unemployment is a lot higher than two per cent. "None of us are working," says Don Kakaygeesick.)
But there's a broader issue, too. Like some advocates for Aboriginal entrepreneurship, Thunder chafes against the property structure set out by the INDIAN ACT, which hinders the creation of an indigenous business class - from wheeler-dealers to tycoons. "In business, the main objective is to make money," he argues. "But on First Nations, that profit has to go into building community infrastructure. That means you take all your profits and give it to your community. That's why Aboriginals will never get ahead." On reserves, land - the world's most common form of collateral - is held in trust by the Crown. Even when Ottawa turns over title ownership to First Nations, individual members cannot access loans from the bank. Legally, the capital belongs the community.
So who gets the spoils? And who directs development? Buffalo Point isn't the only band struggling with these questions. On reserves where there has been economic development, inevitably it's been to the benefit of a small elite, says the University of Manitoba's Peter Kulchyski, an expert in Aboriginal cultural politics. That has led to unhappiness among the majority - legally, shareholders in the development. In 2001, band members took Thunder to court, in a bid to pry open the books of the Buffalo Point Development Corporation, a business started 30 years ago by his father, Jim.
The issue isn't allegations of fraud or mismanagement; still, Cobiness claims Thunder has made Buffalo Point his private paradise. "There's just one family benefiting." Beyond the chief's relatives, band members don't staff reserve businesses, he says. (Buffalo Point employs outside Aboriginals and non-natives, some of whom bring fiscal and marketing expertise not found among band members, says Thunder.) Cobiness equally accuses Thunder of only paying lip service to his Aboriginal heritage. "He's never come to a single fall feast or naming ceremony." And even Thunder admits he can't speak Ojibwa. Then again, neither can Cobiness. The cultural issue came to a head in 1998, over the construction of the $1.5-million Lake of Sandhills golf course, then in the development phase. Community elders claimed the golf course was going up atop sacred burial grounds. "We told John Thunder, 'Don't go in there,' " says elder Helen Cobiness. "We tried to stop him. The men put up heavy posts, marked with ribbons and eagle feathers. But John threw those in the bush. He just bulldozed everything. That was the end of that; we didn't have enough money to pay for a lawyer."
Thunder can't be turfed: Buffalo Point is one of the few Canadian First Nations with purely hereditary rule. Along the B.C. coast, where inherited chieftainships are common, an elected chief or bureaucracy generally operates parallel to the ancestral ruler. Not here: even Kakaygeesick was appointed to his council position. "Canadian taxpayers are funding an unelected, non-native chief to run this community," says Cobiness, noting that 70 per cent of the band membership at Buffalo Point supports the call for democratic change. In 1995, 35 dissident band members staged an election to topple Thunder, but Indian and Northern Affairs Canada - which says it considers this an "internal dispute" - doesn't recognize the result. In 1999, dissidents tried again, this time organizing a sit-in at Buffalo Point's band offices. The occupation ended when the RCMP stepped in, with dogs and full riot gear, arresting three community members.
"Basically, the government reinstated a dictatorship, at the point of a gun," says Terry Nelson, the radical chief of the Roseau River First Nation next door (where unemployment stands at 78 per cent). Nelson, the lone Canadian on the board of directors of the American Indian Movement, a militant U.S. indigenous-rights group, says his group's leadership is willing to step in at Buffalo Point. But community elders - led by Helen Cobiness, Florence Kakaygeesick and Sam Gibbons - do not wish to raise the spectre of violence.
And even Thunder's loudest critics salute him for creating an economic engine and attracting private investment to reserve grounds, no small feat in First Nations country. Buffalo Point is Mayberry North: deer graze along the peninsula's tidy gravel streets, and as Kakaygeesick says, thanks to Thunder, there are roads and a future where none existed. "There's only one problem," says Sandberg. "The Indians are still on welfare."
Maclean's November 19, 2007