Through the 10-day ride of the Calgary Stampede, The Globe and Mail’s Alberta bureau will deliver daily dispatches, in print and online, from the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth.
All through the Calgary Stampede, Amber Big Plume kept the message alive: there were still people in trouble, still calls for help, and they weren’t all coming from Calgary or High River.
At the Siksika First Nation reserve, located 100 kilometres east of Calgary, people continue to sift through the rubble that was once their home. Some 170 houses sat in various stages of watery ruin as spokesman Wesley Water Chief outlined what his community needed most – volunteers for clean-up, trades people for rebuilding, financial donations for flood relief.
“We want people know what’s going on here,” he said.
Ms. Big Plume did her share of informing. In her role as the Stampede’s 2013 Indian Princess, the third-year University of Calgary Law and Society student became more than a ceremonial figure; she proved to be a cultural link at a critical time, someone who used her position and its media connections to underline just how badly First Nation reserves had been hit by the Southern Alberta floods.
Few were better suited to do the job than Ms. Big Plume.
Her family, from the Tsuu T’ina Nation, has a 36-year history of participating in the Stampede’s Indian Village. They had a teepee on the Stampede grounds, where ritual dances are held and Native traditions are displayed. Ms. Big Plume’s godmother Camille Wildman was named Indian Princess of the Stampede in 1999, leaving a large impression on a young Amber.
When Ms. Big Plume was selected as Princess last September, she let it be known that when she turned 20 in 2013 she would have attended 20 Stampedes, seeing how her family first brought her to the grounds soon after she was born.
“Growing up, you’d always see the Calgary Stampede Indian Princess,” she explained. “I always got [Stampede] posters. I have a little booklet of all the girls’ postcards from each year.”
But in late June when rain filled the Bow River beyond capacity, the flooding changed everything. It cost lives, destroyed homes, crumbled roadways. The Morley and Siksika reserves were transformed into disaster areas. People fled, some with just the clothes on their back.
While everyone knew what was happening in Calgary, not enough was being reported from areas beyond High River to the south.
“We used our [Stampede] Twitter and Facebook pages as a resource to revert back to if anyone needed information,” said Ms. Big Plume. “We used Facebook and Twitter pages because we don’t just have native followers. We don’t just have non-native followers. We were tweeting media because the media wasn’t covering [the flood damage in the native communities] at the beginning. We got it out there and then they started covering it.
“Once you saw the pictures, you wanted to help. You wanted to get out there and make a difference.”
Ms. Big Plume reiterated the need for volunteers on the Siksika reserve, noting how there were families who evacuated their homes and chose to live in teepees at the Stampede’s Indian Village. She called it, “The spirit of community that brings everyone together and they know that. Other people are going through a hard time, but Calgary needed this celebration after all this.”
The 2013 Stampede didn’t set any attendance records, and wasn’t going to when all the major concerts booked for the Scotiabank Saddledome were cancelled. (Canadian rock trio Rush, set to play July 24 at the ‘Dome, has switched its show to Red Deer and will donate the evening’s profits to flood relief.)
And yet, the legacy of this Stampede will be that it happened at all; that so many came together to ensure all was not lost. As for Ms. Big Plume, who is planning a career in corporate law to help with Native issues, her most memorable moment came on the morning of the Stampede parade.
Along the downtown parade route where people lined the street to watch, a young aboriginal girl held up a sign that read, “Future Indian Princess sitting here.” The girl waved her sign as Ms. Big Plume rode by on horseback.
“It was a heartfelt moment, because I want to be a role model for kids,” said Ms. Big Plume. “I want to help.”