CONVERSATIONS: ELMER GHOSTKEEPER

 

The Main Living Room in Elmer’s Home in Buffalo Lake Métis Settlement in North-Central Alberta. (Photo: J Surkan)

Elmer Ghostkeeper is an Elder, Language Carrier, Author and Scholar from Paddle Prairie Métis Settlement in northern Alberta. Elmer grew up closely connected to this land on a mixed farm. His family raised cattle, pigs, chickens, and sheep on their land. They also farmed grain and had horses on their land. Elmer’s father was a very successful farmer. This close connection to his community, culture, and language created a rich upbringing. Elmer grew up speaking the Nehiyaw (Cree) language in his house and is a fluent speaker. Elmer is the father of two sons and a daughter. He holds a Civil Engineering Diploma from the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (1968), Bachelor of Arts, Anthropology Major, from the University of Alberta (1980), and a Masters of Anthropology, also from the University of Alberta (1995). Elmer was instrumental in securing the recognition of Métis in the 1980’s within the Constitution of Canada, which has secured Métis constitutional rights for the foreseeable future.

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Exterior Image of  Elmer’s Home in Buffalo Lake Métis Settlement in North-Central Alberta. (Photo: J Surkan)

Presently, Elmer lives on 40 acres of boreal forest on the shores of Buffalo Lake, AB. Buffalo Lake provides northern pike, walleye, whitefish, and suckers to the approximately 2500 members of the Buffalo Lake Métis Settlement. Elmer is passionate about horses, as many Métis people are. This is a direct tie to Métis culture, as horses were the main mode of transportation in the prairies for generations and as such, are an important part of both historical and contemporary prairie Métis culture. Elmer is an established endurance rider, once covering 100 miles in a single day. He keeps two Morgan/Quarter Horses on his land. Elmer is a respected member of this community shared the following:

“I have been fortunate to be recognized as an Elder and Mentor in my community. I view life here on Mother Earth as a gift, a test, a trust, and a temporary assignment from the Creator. My motivating force is studying, learning and teaching truthful wisdom and knowledge about wellness to self and others. Métis people are bright, industrious and principled. Like most of my fellow community members, I continue to learn new things and rightfully have a sense of pride as one of the Métis.”

– Elmer Ghostkeeper

For Elmer, a homes spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical connection to a site is key in creating a good life. The siting of a home for Indigenous people is critically important, and certain protocols are followed in the choosing of a site. Elmer first walked the site in early March, in a year when spring was late, and the snow was still deep. The site was all boreal forest prior to building the home. There was a knoll down by the lake where a beaver lodge was also built. Elmer offered tobacco to the land here and a he was flooded with a peaceful, calm, and serene feeling at this site. He continued to walk around his land to find another building site, but never did feel that same sense of serenity as the first site. Physically, the site had good drainage, a good slope towards the lake, it was high enough from the lake to never flood and the ice would not pile up onto the site. The combination of all four elements, both tangible and intangible, of the site aligned, and the site was chosen to build his home. This holistic sense of a site is important to Indigenous people in choosing their location to place a home. Elmer described this feeling:

“Spiritual connection to the land is critical in the visioning of the structure. From my perspective, I am land, I am the environment. There is no separation between us and the land. We are 70 percent air, water, and heat—the same as the land. You must really feel good about the site of your future home. You must do the proper protocols prior to choosing the site, and you must feel peace while on that land. Sometimes in a place, you feel bad, down, moody, but there are other times where you know you are in a place and you feel good. You feel safe; when you fall asleep at night at that place you feel at peace. These sites have spiritual power to bring you to a place of higher awareness. These places allow you to dream, which is a form of a soul travelling experience. While you dream, your spirit is travelling across soul planes. In this dreaming your spirit is having many different experiences until you come back to and wake your body up. It is important you build your home in a place where this experience happens naturally; a place where your spirit is. You will know when this happens, you can just feel it.”

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Living space in Elmer’s Home in Buffalo Lake Métis Settlement in North-Central Alberta. (Photo: J Surkan)

Elmer spent two summers living in a canvas wall tent that he framed in with a deck and four-foot pony walls and heated it with a wood stove. Living in this way makes one directly aware of the natural patterns and systems around them as this way of life is more directly affected by these natural systems. This incremental way of building up a site with patience and thoughtfulness is truly a Métis approach to development. It creates a richness and layers of narrative to a site that endures the test of time. The experience of dreaming is an important dimension in the spiritual and physical dimensions of the creation of Métis architecture. A prominent feature of the central living and feasting space within Elmer’s home is a large Grandmother Rock. A vision of having a home built around a rock came to him in a dream, and it took years for him to find the rock that he had seen in his dream. The rock was moved a short distance to the site and the home was framed around it, giving it an important place at the hearth of the home. The design of this home embodies many Métis design principles include a large central communal space organized around a central hearth. This space traditionally was used for a place of political, social, celebratory, and mourning events. This example of self built Métis architecture is in contrast with the government provided subsidized housing in the prairies. These homes can cut off self-determination within communities and create a spiritual disconnection to land and culture. Thus, the home can become a vehicle to perpetuate colonial agendas. Elmer’s home is an example of a home that is doing quite the opposite of that. It is a space that fosters Indigenous creativity. Elmer is the author of a book called Spirit Gifting, written in 1996. It is an insight into a way of life that is connected to teachings of natural law. The following passage is a synopsis of the work:

 

“Elmer Ghostkeeper has created a powerful piece of writing in Spirit Gifting. It provides a new path through a traditional Metis worldview to holistic wellness. Spirit Gifting contrasts this traditional worldview with Western Scientific knowledge to provide a model of self-discovery and individual revitalization, something that more and more of us are seeking. It is a reflection of a life lived by nature’s calendar; a refreshing change from the ninety mile an hour treadmill most of us find ourselves on. This first-person narrative is teeming with life; from his description of birch tree sapping to berry picking time. You can taste the syrup in your mouth or feel the chill of the slough as you read. His description of a time when humans worked with the land, with life, makes it abundantly clear, that in our rush to support progress with machines and ever more power, we have lost our respect for life. It was quietly left behind.”[1]

 

Elmer was invited to open the Métis Architecture and Design Symposium at Laurentian University, but due to uncontrollable flight cancellations he was sadly unable to attend the event. He is a very important person within the Métis community and was recognized publicly for his contributions with an Order of the Métis Nation Award for his dedicated service to the Métis Nation by Clement Chartrier on March 12th, 2004.  Elmer holds numerous achievements and awards. He was awarded the Canadian Young Achiever Award (1982), Ralph Steinhauer Award of Distinction (1994, 1995), visiting Aboriginal scholar at the New Sun Fellowship at McGill University (1998), and an international presenter at the 9th International Conference on Thinking, in Auckland, New Zealand (2001). [2] Most importantly, Elmer continues to do cultural work across the prairies sharing and ensuring the survival of Métis culture.

[1] Synopsis of the book, Spirit Gifting, Google Books.

[2] Biography from the Ghostkeeper Family, Accessed at: http://www.metisnation.ca/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/ELMER-GHOSTKEEPER.pdf.

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Elmer Ghostkeeper inside his self-built home on the Buffalo Lake Métis Settlement in North-Central Alberta. (Photo: J Surkan)

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