CREEK, Saskatchewan - As mile after mile grinds on, the novelty
of a Unity Ride begins to dissipate when the scenery changes ever
so slowly. The initial euphoria dwindles once days merge into
weeks and this cross-country trek becomes a test of patience and
for all of the physical aches of continuous horseback riding along
with the mental strains of teamwork and camp uniformity, organizers
and participants swear the cause is greater than any individual's
minor suffering. Especially when it's the youth who can witness
Native pride in motion, that's why the end justifies the means.
the last three years, Eric Mitchell of the Okanagan Reserve in central
British Columbia has been a host of this sacred journey throughout
Canada. Starting June 2, he and his fellow travelers have galloped
eastward across the prairies linking up with numerous bands retracing
the steps of their ancestors in the heartland of the continent.
Rides began in 1986 when the Lakota elders of North and South Dakota
were guided to regain the spirit of their nation that had been broken
since Wounded Knee. Although Canadian history doesn't have
any one defining moment such as this massacre, Indians north of
the border nonetheless have suffered enough despair and poverty.
That's why Mitchell's group will have been on the road
for seven weeks covering 1,200 miles from Vernon, British Columbia,
to their finish on July 18 in Sioux Valley, Manitoba. Ideally for
those who they meet, this encounter can serve as a time of reflection
and to take an active role toward change.
riding horses and making this an exciting journey, it's to
inspire First Nations communities to want to create for themselves
a more suitable life for the next 500 years," Mitchell said.
order to accomplish the ride, Mitchell is joined by a cadre of family
and ride participants numbering about a dozen. The total number
within the traveling party fluctuates however as the ride picks
up new participants for a couple of days while saying goodbye to
others along the road.
of those who have accompanied Mitchell from June also seek their
own fulfillment for spending almost two months on the ride. Sylvia
Patrick from the Stl'atl'imx Nation in Pemberton, British Columbia
(two hours north of Vancouver) gave notice at her job as a secretary
for a health board once she heard about the ride and after meeting
hear the stories, I fell in love (with the idea) and wanted to be
here. There would be struggles and ups and downs but I wanted to
respect my nation and be a role model for the youth and young women,"
Patrick, Mitchell and the rest of the crew combine riding with sharing
the daily activities such as preparing meals and setting up camp,
one of the participants is completing his own marathon as he attempts
to become the only member to ride the entire distance.
Tom from Douglas Lake, British Columbia and also of the Okanagan
Nation operates his own ranch so horses are second nature to him.
Yet, by deciding to join the Ride only two days before its departure
didn't give him much time to prepare for the daily 30-50 mile
oldest of the participants, Tom is 69.
carry the (men's) staff is an honor because it represents not
just my people back home but all nations. At times whether I'm
hurting or in pain, I'm not doing this for myself but for the
women, children and grandchildren I've come across," Tom
prompts the immediate success of a Unity Ride is the magnificence
of horses trotting along the highway. Besides the natural curiosity
and well-wishes of the public, when a party consisting of five horses
and a half-dozen vans pulls into a reserve, the riders are usually
accorded dignitary status. That's why it would be natural for
the participants to act as ambassadors in promoting Native history
children were excited because we were camped just off their playground,"
Patrick said about one of the first nights in Creston, British Columbia
where they were requested to address the local elementary school.
"'What do you do?' was what we were asked and I said
'Think of it like a two-month camping trip but riding horses
in the early morning the crew will have been up for several hours
beforehand, especially Tom who feeds and waters the animals around
5 a.m. Gathering around the center of the camp where the eagle feather
staffs are stationed some encouraging words are spoken by the elders
as the horses and riders are smudged with the sweet-smelling smoke
carry these by horse and foot to show the youth that our traditional
ways of doing things and philosophies are as valid today as in the
past," Mitchell explained about the significance of the staffs.
ride attempts to log as many miles as possible before the heat of
the day when it's necessary for both the horses and riders
to break for lunch. On this day outside of Maple Creek in southwestern
Saskatchewan, two members of the Pasqua First Nation (east of Regina)
joined. In order to give the original five horses a rest, two of
which were being broken in, and to make up for some lost time, Clayton
Cyr Sr. and Clayton Jr. brought an additional six horses to use
as the tour passed through the province.
generosity was just one example of what has been donated to the
Ride by the numerous reserves. Before embarking, Mitchell contacted
several of the nations so they could be accommodated with a campground
and access to water for the horses. Not only were such favors met
but also continuously offered by Natives and non-Natives. Donations
of money and food, for animal and man, and spontaneous assistance
showing the message of unity were also received.
honor of riding by horseback throughout the countryside, even if
the trek is adjacent to the Trans-Canada Highway, is majestic but
also exhausting. Water breaks set up by other crewmembers that have
driven ahead provide welcome relief every half-hour when the summer
sun beats down mercilessly.
the ride ends, it will have been the elder Tom who has subjected
his body to the most on the ride. While the intrinsic value of seeing
western Canada by horseback will have a lasting impression, he will
have spent more than 200 hours riding, an activity that easily hampers
his already stiff back.
a rest break Tom was asked what keeps him going and how he maintain
mental sharpness through all of the trotting.
I ride, I pray. I pray for the horses, the other riders and Mother
Earth. I pray also for the other nations that one day we can all
come together as one nation," said Tom on what he contemplates
completion of this year's ride marks only the halfway point of what
is a two-year process. Next summer, the team will return to Manitoba
and continue for two months until they reach the opening of the
International Elders Summit hosted by the Six Nations of the Grand
River Territory in southern Ontario in August 2004.