Bringing Oral History to Life: The Secret Treaty Tour and Book Launch

By Abby Wall, PembinaValleyOnline, June 29, 2024

On Saturday, the Neubergthal Heritage Site at the Commons Barn hosted “The Secret Treaty” Tour & Book Launch. This event celebrated the release of “The Secret Treaty,” an excellent graphic novel that dives into the often-overlooked history of an early handshake agreement between Mennonite settlers and the Ojibwe people. The event was not just a celebration of the book, but a call to action for reconciliation and understanding. 

The tour and launch, organized by the Mennonite Coalition for Indigenous Solidarity, drew a large crowd, eager to engage with the history told by David Scott, an elder and spiritual leader of the Swan Lake First Nation. Scott, a respected oral historian and Indigenous environmental knowledge keeper, collaborated with illustrator Jonathan Deke to bring these important stories to life.

“No amount of paper can fully capture the Ojibwe stories, but they need to be told,” said Scott. “It’s a relief to know that finally, people want to listen, people want to hear these stories… I finally found a way to tell these stories.”

The event started with a tour led by Scott, who guided participants to key historical sites. These locations were significant as they marked earlier encounters between Mennonite settlers and Ojibwe people. The first site visited was a crossroads in the middle of farmer’s fields, which David Scott described as a place where Mennonites and Ojibwe people would have first met in the 1870s. The second site was near the Buffalo Channel, where Scott spoke about the waterways and the drastic changes to the landscape over time. These areas once held different meanings and roles before being repurposed for industrial agriculture, and Scott’s insights explained their historical and cultural significance.

“It’s really important that we have access to their stories and their knowledge, and he [Scott] shares it in such a genuine and effective way,” said co-organizer Shaun Friesen. 

Scott’s storytelling brought to light the profound relationships and agreements that existed between the Indigenous communities and the early Mennonite settlers, relationships that have been historically underrepresented.

“It [The Secret Treaty] has a lot of weight behind it, but it represents something that’s been overlooked and ignored and Mennonites have not lived up to. This event is hopefully drawing some attention to that, getting the word out, getting the books in people’s hands, and getting people a reorientation to this particular landscape,” said Dyck. “I also think Mennonites are lucky to be receiving this story, It’s an opportunity for us to look beyond our own immediate well-being, and think more broadly about how we want to live here… and what a more equitable and less extractive future would look like.”

Jonathan Dyck highlighted the collaboration, noting the importance of presenting these stories in an engaging and accessible format. The graphic novel, with its vivid illustrations and captivating narrative, aims to educate and connect readers of all ages.

Melanie Neufeld from the Mennonite Coalition for Indigenous Solidarity spoke about the event’s wider goals: “It’s a way for us to begin to figure out how to organize and to do the justice work that is necessary.”

The Secret Treaty Tour & Book Launch was an important event for the Pembina Valley. It marked the beginning of a new chapter in the shared history of the Mennonite and Ojibwe communities. It highlighted the importance of acknowledging the past, learning from it, and working towards a more inclusive future.