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Family, Community, and the Making of a Traditional Outfit (Fort Vermilion Winter Carnival, 1983)

Updated: Mar 30, 2020

Authored by: Valerie Smith, née Mercredi

March 29, 2020

I was 15 and so excited....Winter Carnival would be coming soon.

The Winter Carnival was one of the main events in Fort Vermilion, Alberta (my home town) that our community looked forward to. Fire making, nail driving, bannock making, log sawing, tea boiling competitions, dog sled racing, plus other competitions, were part of the weekend.

Men and woman wanting to be crowned King and Queen of Winter Carnival. Along with this was the competition of Indian Princess (as it was known then) and Carnival Queen.

Most wont believe this but I was pretty shy back in the day. I was fine among my friends, but in public I was painfully shy. If I was to walk to town on my own it was head down and don’t make eye contact, anxious all the way there and back. I was often teased that I was looking for dimes.

As winter carnival was approaching, I was asked if I would be interested in running for Indian Princess. I, of course, was hesitant. I knew I would have to stand in front of people and do a speech (that was frightening to me). I didn’t have a clear knowledge of my language (being an "Indian Princess" meant I should know my language). I had to sell tickets (what if no one bought any from me?). I didn’t have a dress (that’s not a dress I could buy in a store). So many obstacles in front of me, how could I do this?

So, I spoke with my Grandma Celine, and I told her about this decision I had to make.

“What do you think Grandma, should I?” I asked. She said, “If you want to, I’ll bead your dress, and I’ll ask Auntie Margaret if she’ll sew it for you".

And that’s where it began...

Auntie Margaret Clarke was my Grandpa Norbert’s sister, and my Grandma Celine's sister-in-law. She and Grandma were very well known for their sewing and beadwork. To this day my Grandma is renowned for her beading and making of moccasins, gloves, etc. Her work is featured in the Fort Vermilion Heritage Centre. Grandma needed help and she knew she couldn’t get this dress done on time without Auntie Margaret.

Now, the dress itself was going to be a large task, but a dress wouldn’t be complete without Mukluks. Grandma decided she would make those too. And as the ladies started with their work, I had to begin with mine.

Tickets by the booklets were handed out. I had to sell as many as I could before a deadline, as this was a large percentage of points to go towards me in this competition. I remember my Dad saying, “I'll take some of those, and I’ll see what I can do”. I knew he was worried with me doing this. He was a very, very protective Dad when it came to his kids and he didn’t want to see me have hurt feelings if I didn’t win. But nonetheless, he showed me his support, and I took it! I also knew that with my family and friends I would be able to sell at least some of these tickets so I wasn’t going to worry about that.

With the outfit in the works, and tickets being sold, I now had to work on that speech. Oh my, that speech. The speech was to show my ancestral heritage, and my knowledge of language and culture.

We were raised going to the trap-line, my brother Leon and I. We even had our own little line Grandpa made for us to snare rabbits. Every morning we would run outside to see if we had anything, and if we did Grandpa would skin them for us. Good times on the trap-line.

I spent most of my young life with my grandparents, they were my second parents. The spoke Cree to each other as my Grandfather wasn’t much for speaking English. In fact, my Grandma spoke mostly for him in English.

I knew some Cree, and I understood what they were saying to each other for the most part, but yet, I couldn’t speak fluently. I had to do that speech in Cree. It is part of who I am and I wanted to be able to show that.

I wrote my speech in English and Grandma helped translate. I practiced that speech over and over again...

"Tansi indowteemic, Valerie Mercredi sewcasian...". That’s all I remember, the beginning of this speech, and how that came to me now is beyond me. This was 37 years ago. I had to spell these Cree words phonetically, as I didn’t know how to spell in Cree, hence why it looks like that.

By now I had the speech done and memorized, as well as my dress, headband, mukluks all done. My Moms friend, Velma, lent me that jacket in the picture. I remember being so worried about wearing it. It was a beautiful jacket and was warned to be careful with it, it was a very generous offer and I was grateful. So off to the the pageant I went. My tickets were all handed in and now I was to go in front of a panel of 3 judges to recite my speech.

It started off well. The first two judges had their questions, and I thought I answered pretty good. But that third judge, I’ll never forget her, she started speaking to me in Cree, and she asked her questions in Cree. I was lost...

I stumbled and finally said, "I’m sorry, I don’t understand what you’re saying". She asked me, "How can you be an Indian Princess and not speak Cree?”. I reverted back to my shy self and said..."I don’t know". I knew right there it was over. But, I thought, that’s alright, I tried.

In the end, I didn’t win, but I did place second! My friend at the time, Beverly, won. She had a beautiful dress, she was fluent in Cree, and she sold many tickets. She was such a nice girl and she deservedly won.

Looking back, I now see that all these people came together for me. The love and care in all that work my Grandma and Auntie Margaret did for me, my Dad, and my family and friends helping me sell tickets. It's a memory I will always have. Last month, Fort Vermilion brought back the Winter Carnival, and hosted a very successful event. It makes me glad to know this tradition has been revived and there will be many more memories made.

This was hard for me to write because even though I lost my grandparents a few years back, it’s still fresh in my heart, and going into the memory bank reopens these wounds. It hurts, and it will always hurt...but it’s a way of healing too. If I can share these little stories with my children and grandchildren and that’s a nice feeling.

Thank you for reading and take care.

-Valerie Smith

Pictured below: Grandma Celine with her great-great granddaughter, Isabelle; My husband and I with my grandparents, Celine and Norbert Roberts.

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