MASKWACIS – With drums reverberating and voices raised in song, Alberta’s largest aboriginal community rang in the new year on Tuesday night and said goodbye to its Dutch moniker of more than 100 years.
At midnight, Hobbema celebrated a historic change, reassuming the Cree name Maskwacis that was dropped in 1891 at the bequest of Cornelius Van Horne, president of the Canadian Pacific Railway.
Pronounced mask-wa-cheese, the name means Bear Hills in Cree and is a more suitable mantle for the community of 15,000 whose population base is drawn from four Cree bands.
Nearly 1,000 people jammed the Louis Bull Tribe’s gymnasium to celebrate the occasion, round dancing beneath basketball backboards from which glittering Christmas ornaments were strung. The crowd filled the bleachers and stood beneath six white tepees that decorate the wall at one end of the floor.
Shortly before midnight, chiefs from the Samson and Ermineskin Cree Nations, Montana First Nation and Montana Cree and Louis Bull Tribe signed a memorandum of understanding during a special commemoration attended by local mayors and Verlyn Olson, the area’s MLA.
The ceremony culminated a daylong celebration hosted by the Louis Bull Tribe that included a traditional feast and piping ceremony. People danced for hours, shuffling around the gym to the accompaniment of aboriginal drummers and singers.
“This is a really special night for our four nations here,” said Elmer Rattlesnake, a member of the Louis Bull Tribe who served as emcee for the evening program. “It is like a new beginning for everyone.
“Hobbema has been synonymous with gangs and shootings, but now everyone has a chance to start over.”
Overwhelmed with joy, the community celebrated late into the night, the drumming and singing growing louder and the line of dancers hundreds long. Elders danced, holding hands with teenagers and children.
“For me, the real treasure of changing our name back is that it means something to the young people,” said Conrad Young, a band councillor with the Ermineskin Cree Nation. “Maskwacis connects to our language, our history and our tradition.
“It really allows us to show who we are and where we are from.”
Leaders from the four First Nations worked with officials in Ottawa for several years before government signed off on the name change. For more than a century the community was dubbed Hobbema after Van Horne’s favorite landscape painter, Meindert Hoebbema.
The name was assumed after a train station was opened in the community approximately 70 kilometres south of Edmonton.
“Hobbema is a Dutch name but there is nobody Dutch here,” Rattlesnake said. “He must have been a heck of a painter.”
In midafternoon, people from the four bands began festivities with a meal of rice and raisin soup, bannock, berries and tea. The celebration ended with chiefs donning traditional headdresses and officially ushering in a new era with an old name.
Celebrants ranged from Max Blood, an 82-year-old singer and drummer, to 14-year-olds Shaunita Potts and Carlynn Rabbit, who clambered out of the bleachers to join round dances numerous times.
“I think it’s awesome,” Potts said. “I like the name.”
As the crowd rang in the new year, Samson Cree Chief Marvin Yellowbird addressed the gathering.
“We are free, Cree and Maskwacis,” he said.
The crowd roared, and in moments, broke out in dance.