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Living in their own way

STONEY NAKODA –Ahomapénî in the Ĩyãħé Nakoda language means acknowledging a being’s right to exist in their own way.
Reserve Dogs
Reserve dogs wander in Morley on Thursday (May 9).

STONEY NAKODA –Ahomapénî in the Ĩyãħé Nakoda language means acknowledging a being’s right to exist in their own way.

That is how the Nakoda AV club prefaced its film, Ahomapénî: Relations and Rez Dogs, a Stoney Nakoda Nation made "dogumentary," exploring the relationships Stoney Nakoda people have with their animals.

Acknowledging the cultural differences Indigenous and non-Indigenous people have with their pets, the film aims to educate Stoney Nakoda First Nation neighbours to the different ways people think about human-animal relationships on reserves and in settler dominated spaces.

“The inspiration of the dog documentary is to make people understand our side of taking care of dogs – our surrounding neighbours don’t understand how we take care of dogs,” Amber Twoyoungmen, Nakoda AV club member explained after a screening of the film at the Whyte Museum in Banff earlier this year.

“Through their eyes, they see a dog that is roaming that has no home, so they take the dogs, they take them and ship them away without consequences.”

Twoyoungmen knows first hand what it is like, as she is also the victim of dog theft.

Living on a reservation that spans from the Cochrane town limits to Highway 1X, and consists of three bands, Wesley, Chiniki and Bearspaw, with approximately 4,000 to 5,000 nation members, Twoyoungmen explained that dogs on the Nation live and roam free.

Twoyoungmen explained that when her dog went missing for a couple of weeks, she just assumed he died. But the teen heard rumours that non-Nation individuals sometimes come to the reservation to take dogs.

“I didn’t know people take dogs,” she said sadly.

“I thought it was wildlife, then I heard there was a group that comes in to take dogs.”

Twoyoungmen said shortly after hearing the rumour, she began searching through rescue agencies in the province, and soon found her family pet.

“It was a really nasty description. It was saying he wasn’t taken care of and other cruel things, but that’s not true,” she said looking down at her feet.

“He was really loved. He was our family … Our dog got shipped to Lethbridge and we never seen him again.”

After hearing similar experiences in the community, the youth were inspired to tell their stories through film.

Shot on AV gear, a Canon Rebel T5i, found in a junkyard, the club members explained their first-full length documentary took five years to film, speaking to elders, Nation members who lost their pets, Nation youth, school officials on the Nation, veterinarians off-reserve and surrounding area rescue agencies.

The club also filmed in Morley, inside homes, residence yards, council chambers, at the school, near the rivers, in addition to inside of Calgary rescue agencies, inside city homes and yards, dog parks, the Calgary zoo, veterinary offices, the Tsuu T’ina Police station, Yamnuska Animal Rescue and the Cochrane SPCA.

“They don’t think about what’s going to happen, are they taking this dog from a home? They are traumatizing these dogs from what they live to [introducing] them into a cage environment, so we want to give an understanding to our surrounding neighbours on how we treat our dogs,” Twoyoungmen said.

“Our dogs are family. Our dogs are wild as they are supposed to be, but they have a place to go and a family to go home to.”

Indigenous people have been interacting with animals for centuries and only recently have their ways changed, the club explained.

“As our culture and lifeways were stripped away, so too were our traditional relationships with animals. Even though we have lost so much, we keep parts of our culture alive [and] we continue to respect our cousins the Sũga, or dog people,” a document put together by the AV club states.

Touching on the loss of their culture through residential schools, an education system introduced by the Canadian government designed to assimilate Indigenous children into Euro-Canadian culture, the institutions are well documented for the physical and mental abuse from the 1800s to the last school closing in 1996.

From re-teaching the Ĩyãħé Nakoda language, to the reintroduction of cultural learning, such as teepee building and importance of the bison, into the school curriculum to telling their stories through film, the Stoney Nakoda people have been working fiercely to recapture their culture and keep it alive.

The Nakoda AV club acknowledges the Stoney Nakoda people have a very different relationship with their animals and say they know the misguided desire from their neighbours comes from a place of kindness.

“You want what is best for the animals. We do what we think if best for animals too, our ways of deciding what is best are just different,” the club said in a statement.

Similar to the English concept of respect and the question “do you respect me,” Ahomapénî asks for the right to “be.”

Challenging typical Euro and urban stereotypes of how animals should be treated, the film dispels the myths that all reservation dogs are “homeless.”

While there is a portion of the dog population that does not have true homes, as the Nation also faces the problem of being a dog dumping ground for people off-reserve, another issue brought up in the documentary. Morley is located 60 kilometres west of Calgary, and 46 kilometres east of Canmore and the Stoney Nakoda people have been working with surrounding area rescue agencies to ensure family dogs are returned home when they are abandoned on-reserve.

Cochrane and Area Humane Society is one of the Nation’s partners as it is one of the rescue agencies where people might drop off “stray dogs” after picking them up on Highway 1A.

“Essentially any stray animal, no matter from where, we automatically check for ID to see if it showed they are an owned animal,” said Janine Rossler with the society.

“We check for a microchip, check for a tattoo, check for a collar with a tag and if we find out the animal is owned, we do whatever we can to trace it back to an owner and trying to find the owner back home.”

Officials from the Cochrane and Area Humane Society said sometimes the process can be difficult because the animal might not have any identification and the family might be unaware the dog is missing. Rossler encourages Nation members with potentially missing pets to call the shelter with the description of the animal.

“What we do in terms of education is permanent identification, but also how to get animals back home if they are taken. A microchip can be put in at any vet clinic, or also when they are getting spayed or neutered and tattoos are helpful for rural dogs because it’s visible, that this animal is owned and has ID, the only disadvantage is tattoos fade over time,” Rossler said.

“In terms of education, I think there is a lot more that can be done. I think people have big hearts and the best of intentions when they see a dog on the side of the road, but if they are friendly, healthy-looking and not injured, it is likely they are owned.”

The Alberta Animal Rescue Crew Society is based out of Calgary and has worked with the Nation for spay/neuter assistance. AARCS’s marketing specialist Amber Marleau said they also do not remove free roaming from the reservation without written consent from the guardian.

“AARCS has worked with First Nations communities for 13 years and has always operated under this process. Unfortunately, we believe there are groups and individuals who do remove free-roaming dogs likely under the impression that they are stray animals in need of assistance,” said Marleau.

“AARCS advocates for dogs staying in the community with their families. Should the welfare of a dog be brought to our attention, best efforts are made to work with the guardian to find an amenable solution.”

Other rescue agencies in the Bow Valley said they have worked with the Nation by providing insulated dog shelters and dog food. In 2016, the Alberta Spay Neuter Task Force, working with the Cochrane and Area Humane Society and AARCS were able to spay/neuter, vaccinate, treat for parasites and tattoo 401 animals on the Nation.

“We work with community members and pet owners in Stoney Nakoda First Nation for many, many years and we know the amazing pet owners there are out there that love their dogs and take really good care of them and to think that someone driving through is thinking automatically seeing a dog without a person needs to be picked up, increase the chances of that person losing their pet if they go to another shelter,” Rossler said.

“The dogs are overall so well looked after and people absolutely love their pets ... we would never go to the reserve or someone’s home and take an animal.”

For the neighbours surrounding the reservation, Nation members are asking for understanding.

“We do appreciate the non-Nation members helping our community, we just want them to understand more,” Twoyoungmen said. “And if you want to help the community, don’t go in there by yourself – it’s better if you have someone from the community with you so you can understand more.”

Towards the end of the film, the videographer asked youth and elders what do dogs need to be healthy and happy?

“Love, care, food and shelter.”

The next screening of Ahomapénî: Relations and Rez Dogs is kicking off on June 28 at 7 p.m. at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity in the Max Bell auditorium.

For more information on the dogumentary or to book a screening, go to

Jenna Dulewich

About the Author: Jenna Dulewich

Jenna Dulewich is a national and provincial award-winning multi-media journalist. Joining the Rocky Mountain Outlook in 2019, she covers Stoney Nakoda, MD of Bighorn, Canmore and court.
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