PHOTO | JOY GREGORY
Chief Vincent Yellow Old Woman meets with Calgary Bishop Fred Henry at Siksika Nation.
Nine months after last summer's floods, 1,000 members of the Siksika Nation east of Calgary are still displaced, 25 communities are destroyed and many people are struggling to find hope amidst the ruin.
"We still need prayers," said Siksika Nation Chief Vincent Yellow Old Woman.
Along with prayers, the aboriginal band has received a $100,000 donation from the Calgary Diocese to help it rebuild.
Yellow Old Woman had two reasons for requesting a recent face-to-face meeting with Calgary Bishop Frederick Henry. He wanted to thank the bishop for the donation and to ask him to bless the band council elected in November that he believes was chosen for the times.
"I know that we could face challenges but not on our own, with God," said Yellow Old Woman.
Speaking to Yellow Old Woman and several band councillors March 10, Henry recalled his own feelings of helplessness as flood waters swept through the western side of the diocese last summer.
While inspired by the deluge of volunteerism and goodwill, the bishop worried about where the water would go next. Remembering a spring visit to Siksika Nation, Henry realized people there were especially vulnerable.
Reaching out to the parish priest in Gleichen, a community that borders nation lands, Henry offered financial aid that eventually tallied $100,000.
The money was donated based on the Church's subsidiarity principle - decisions about who gets what are made by those closest to the need. The bishop's only stipulation was that local decision-makers aim to help "the poorest of the poor."
At the grassroots level, subsidiarity meant that if someone needed a bed, those handling the funds didn't simply write a cheque. Instead, they bought the bed and delivered it to the home, explained Barry Yellow Fly, a band councillor whose parish priest enlisted his help delivering the program.
At the meeting, held in the interpretive centre at Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park, several band councillors spoke about the flood's lasting impact on their community. With 165 homes lost to water and mould damage, displaced residents are living in temporary housing, including trailers, hotels and with relatives on the nation or elsewhere.
Councillor Hector Winnipeg said his granddaughter, born two days before the flood, was the youngest to lose her home. While waiting for a new home, his daughter's family lives with him and his wife.
Karen Running Rabbit, who spoke through tears, told of how the flood coincided with the death of a beloved uncle. "Our people were broken," said Running Rabbit, who also lost her home. She attributes several suicides to the flood's devastation.
Warren Drunken Chief addressed his fellow band councillors in Blackfoot before saying he was honoured to meet the bishop.
Watching "God's workers" come to help his people was a powerful experience, said Drunken Chief, who camped with his family for 100 days before relocating to a Strathmore hotel, 60 km away from their home. (As temporary housing on Siksika land is in such high demand, priority is given to higher-needs groups, including elders.)
A first-time councillor, Drunken Chief views the flood as an act of God in how it gave his people an opportunity to work together – and with others. "I continue to be on my knees."
Guy Medicine Shield talked about what it was like to warn family members, then mourn with them the loss of family homes and mementoes. "Don't murmur. Don't complain," he told his siblings and their children as they watched the flood from a ridge above the then-raging river. "Pray. That's the most important thing."
Like other councillors, Casey Maguire sees blessings amid the pain. "The Lord has sent people like you to help us," said Maguire, whose father lost his home to the flood.
Yellow Old Woman, who touched his right hand to his heart after Henry talked about why he directed flood relief funds to Siksika, thanked Henry for a generous and sincere gift. "That is something that is still talked about in the nation."
"I was truly moved by the depth of the sharing," said Henry, adding he felt as though he'd been invited onto sacred ground. "Normally, in our relationships, we do not go so deep, so fast."
He and Yellow Old Woman expressed hope for a future relationship built on what was started with the diocesan flood relief.