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Forced to become farmers in the 1920s by a government bent on assimilation, today’s generations are guided by cultural traditions in their relationship with the land

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Stewart Breaker looks over a newly harvested field on the farm he shares with his family on the Siksika Nation.Sarah B Groot/The Globe and Mail

Stewart Breaker has been harvesting the fields of his family farm for as long as he can recall.

The farm, which is situated on the Siksika Nation, near Calgary, was started by Mr. Breaker’s grandparents in the 1920s. That’s when agriculture was introduced to the community by the federal government, and the Blackfoot people, traditionally nomadic hunters and gatherers, were forced to set down roots.

“I grew up with it, I guess, as part of the cultural assimilation,” says Mr. Breaker, who is in his mid-60s.

Over the years, many families in the Siksika Nation have farmed the land. But today Mr. Breaker believes there are just four family-run farms left.

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Mr. Breaker explained that it is important to keep the farm going to provide employment opportunities for his children.Sarah B Groot/The Globe and Mail

Mr. Breaker – whose Blackfoot name is Aposoyiis (Weaseltail) – is one of six brothers still actively involved in the cereal grain farm where they grow barley, wheat, canola, tame hay and buffalo grass.

The land has provided his extended family with work to offset high unemployment rates on the reserve. But Mr. Breaker is also trying to balance the economic opportunities that agriculture provides with honouring his cultural traditions by maintaining respect for the land.

Before farming was introduced, the Blackfoot people traditionally picked only 80 per cent of the available food, Mr. Breaker’s son Laine Breaker explains. They left the remaining 20 per cent on the plant or in the ground to allow for regeneration.

“They didn’t want to defile the places that they were gathering from,” says Laine, whose Blackfoot name, Iihkitopi, translates to Rider. “They wanted to make sure that it is just as lush and just as plentiful and bountiful the next year, if not more.”

The family tries to continue those traditions by practising a reciprocal way of life, which means allowing the land time to rest by not planting crops for two or three seasons.

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Harvesting on the Breaker family farm on the Siksika Nation.Sarah B Groot/The Globe and Mail

Climate change has presented fresh challenges. On a good year, the farm yields 60 to 70 bushels an acre. However, this year, that average is down to 10 to 15 because of drought. And it’s become harder to avoid using too much herbicide, as new invasive species threaten the crops.

In addition to farming, the older Mr. Breaker – who is an elder in his community – works in the Indigenous relations office at the City of Calgary. He is also completing a masters of Indigenous languages at Blue Quills University, with a focus on the Blackfoot language.

For him, being a steward of the land is an important part of those efforts to maintain his cultural heritage.

“In our traditional view, we don’t own the land,” he says. “The Earth is part of us. She is our mother.”

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Stewart Breaker plays with his dogs beside the first piece of farm equipment his grandfather Harry Breaker bought on the Siksika Nation.Sarah B Groot/The Globe and Mail

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