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Biography & Autobiography Native Americans

My Heroes Have Always Been Indians

A Century of Great Indigenous Albertans

by (author) Cora J. Voyageur

Brush Education
Initial publish date
Nov 2018
Native Americans, Native American Studies, Native American
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    Nov 2018
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    Nov 2018
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    Jan 2010
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In a series of inspirational profiles, Cora Voyageur celebrates 100 remarkable Indigenous Albertans whose achievements have enriched their communities, the province, and the world.

As a child, Cora rarely saw Indigenous individuals represented in her history textbooks or in pop culture. Willie Nelson sang “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys,” but Cora wondered, where were the heroes who looked like her? She chose the title of her book in response, to help reflect her reality.

In fact, you don’t have to look very hard to find Indigenous Albertans excelling in every field, from the arts to business and everything in between. Cora wrote this book to ensure these heroes receive their proper due.

Some of the individuals in this collection need no introduction, while others are less well known. From past and present and from all walks of life, these 100 Indigenous heroes share talent, passion, and legacies that made a lasting impact.



Read about:

  • Douglas Cardinal, the architect whose iconic, flowing designs grace cities across Alberta, across Canada, and in Washington, DC,
  • Nellie Carlson, a dedicated activist whose work advanced the cause of Indigenous women and the education of Indigenous children,
  • Alex Janvier, whose pioneering work has firmly established him as one of Canada’s greatest artists,
  • Moostoos, “The Buffalo,” the spokesperson for the Cree in Treaty 8 talks who fought tirelessly to defend his People’s rights,
  • And many more.

About the author

Dr. Cora J. Voyageur is a full professor in the sociology department at the University of Calgary, where she has taught for more than 20 years. Her research interests explore the Indigenous experience in Canada, including leadership, community and economic development, women’s issues, and health. She is a Residential School Survivor and a member of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation from northern Alberta.

Cora J. Voyageur's profile page

Excerpt: My Heroes Have Always Been Indians: A Century of Great Indigenous Albertans (by (author) Cora J. Voyageur)

Aatsista-Mahkan (Running Rabbit)
Warrior, Leader, and Head Chief

It must have been obvious to those who knew the young Aatsista-Mahkan that he was destined for greatness. In 1833, Aatsista-Mahkan (Running Rabbit), the younger brother of acclaimed Niitsitapi Chief Akamukai (Many Swans), was born in central Alberta.

As a teenager, Aatsista-Mahkan won the respect of his community. For his first raid, Akamukai loaned him a protective amulet made of a round mirror decorated with weasel skins and eagle and magpie feathers. He captured two enemy horses on that raid for his brother, Akamukai. His brother eventually gave him the amulet after Aatsista-Mahkan was successful on three subsequent raids. As his success continued, Aatsista-Mahkan’s reputation grew among the community, and he began being referred to as “the young chief.”

He also gained a reputation as a person who could resolve conflict. For example, a young man accidentally shot and killed the daughter of Head Chief Crowfoot while camped at the Oldman River in southern Alberta. Aatsista-Mahkan intervened on the young man’s behalf and persuaded Crowfoot the event was, in fact, an accident. He offered Crowfoot two horses for damages.

He married the daughter of the Chief of the Fish Eaters Clan, Seen From Afar, and would go on to have four wives and eleven children. One of his more famous children, Duck Chief, would later also become a Head Chief. At about the age of 38 years, Aatsista-Mahkan became Chief of the Biters, a south Piikani Clan, after the death of his older brother, Many Swans.

He was a signatory of Treaty 7 in 1877.84 At that point, Aatsista-Mahkan reportedly had about 90 members in his band. He settled at the Kainai Reserve in 1881 and began a farming lifestyle. The Indian agent, Magnus Begg, noted that Aatsista-Mahkan quickly adapted to the settled life. He became a prosperous farmer, by the standards of the day, and accumulated an array of farm implements, including a wagon, mowing machine, horse rake, and high-top buggy.

The following year, Aatsista-Mahkan was named one of the two Head Chiefs along with Old Sun of the Niitsitapi. The two men replaced No-okska-stumik (Three Bulls) who had passed away. Aatsista-Mahkan was considered the more progressive leader and often spoke for the entire group while he shared leadership with Old Sun. Aatsista-Mahkan maintained his reputation as a wise leader and was respected for keeping his family free of internal conflict while controlling the Council with a firm grip.

His character and judgement were respected by both the Niitsitapi People and the government. At his death, he was honoured as ranking with leaders such as Crowfoot and Old Sun. Aatsista-Mahkan died on or about January 24, 1911, at the Siksika First Nation located east of Calgary.

Anderson, Anne
Language Teacher and Author

Anne Anderson had a mission to preserve the Cree language. She fulfilled a promise she made to her mother to not only speak and teach the language but to also preserve it for future generations by writing it down. Anderson became a prolific writer and wrote many books used for academic purposes. In total, she wrote 92 books dealing primarily with Cree language, herbal remedies, and history. She also wrote a Cree dictionary. Her first book, Let’s Learn Cree, was written with the help of her niece, Elaine Rowe, on Anne’s kitchen table in her Jasper Avenue apartment in Edmonton. Elaine worked closely with Anderson for many years. Anne’s perseverance in keeping her language alive led her on many journeys that were both impressive and inspirational.

Anne Anderson was born on a river lot farm about four miles east of St. Albert in 1906. Her mother, Elizabeth Callihoo, was Cree and her father, William Gairdner, was Scotch-French. She was the couple’s eldest daughter and she had four brothers and five sisters. Her mother insisted that the children speak Cree at home. Anne and her siblings attended Bellerose School, but at age 10, Anne went to Gray Nuns Convent a few miles from St. Albert for a few years before returning to Bellerose School. Anne completed Grade 10. Her father passed away of acute appendicitis when she was 16, and this created a financial challenge for the large family. Anne helped support her family by doing housework for neighbours.

Anne married William Callihoo in 1926 and went on to have two children: Patricia and Herbert. In 1947, she married Joseph Anderson in Frog Lake, where she worked as a supervisor for the Fishing Lake Métis Settlement. She later married Alex Irvine in 1979.

Anne put an ad in the newspaper for a Cree tutor and received an overwhelming response, which led to the opening of the Native Heritage and Cultural Centre in 1984, and she was founder and president of Cree Productions Learning Centre in 1974. She also taught Cree and Métis Culture at the University of Alberta, Grant MacEwan Community College, Fort Saskatchewan Correctional Centre, Charles Camsell Hospital, Fairview College, YWCA, and Edmonton’s Boyle Street Co-op.

Anderson was awarded an honourary doctorate in 1978 from the University of Alberta. She also won the Native Council of Canada (now the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples) Award and the Woman of the Year Award, and was appointed to the Order of Canada. A park located at 105 Avenue and 162 Street in Edmonton is named in her honour. Anne’s wish to have a bronze statue of a buffalo, symbolizing survival, in the park was made possible by Lloyd Pinay from Peepeekisis First Nation near Fort Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan.

Anderson’s efforts gave many people a chance to preserve their language and understand who they are and where they came from. She will be remembered as a kind-hearted woman with drive and passion who not only fulfilled her mother’s dying wish but went beyond her dream for her many other contributions to Alberta.

Auger, Dale
Artist, Playwright, Storyteller

Dale Auger is best known as a visual artist, but he was also a singer, playwright, musician, photographer, storyteller, and theatrical director. Dr. Auger was a Sakaw Cree from the Bigstone Cree Nation in northern Alberta and was born on January 16, 1958, in High Prairie. His education began as a young boy when his mother took him to be with the Elders: “I used to say to myself, ‘Why is she leaving me with these old people?’ but today I see the reason; I was being taught in the old way.”

Academics did not appeal to the young Dale and he dropped out of school in Grade 6. He returned to school as an adult, upgraded his education, and entered the Native Communications program at Grant MacEwan Community College in the early 1980s. He studied fine art at Alberta College of Art and Design before pursuing a bachelor’s degree in education. Auger continued his studies and ultimately received a PhD in education from the University of Calgary in 2000.

Auger explained how he strove to communicate with his art: “Because these worlds we live in, what we might know as the Indian world versus the white world, sometimes it has created such a complex place for itself that the basic human need to communicate cannot be there. Sometimes we don’t communicate because we’re so far apart.”

His work was regularly showcased and sold at the Calgary Exhibition and Stampede and his annual exhibit in Bragg Creek, Dale Auger and Friends: A Premiere First Nation Art Event.

His paintings are held in private collections across Canada, the United States, and England. They have also been part of public collections such as the HRH Prince of Wales Collection at Buckingham Palace, Elizabeth Fry Society, Saskatchewan Indian Federated College, and many other public institutions.

Besides being a renowned visual artist, Dr. Auger founded Mamawi (Cree for “all together”), a theatre group that re-enacted scenes of Indigenous men and women hunting, recounting Traditional Stories, and precontact history. He was often a featured guest speaker at such events as the Youth Empowerment and Recreation Symposium, where he spoke about the importance of culture, sense of community, and self. He appeared on several national television productions and appeared in Medicine Walker, produced by the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network.

Dale Auger passed away in October 2008. He left to mourn his passing his wife, Grace, their three children, and three grandchildren.

Bad Boy, Margaret
Teacher and Traditionalist

Margaret Bad Boy was a respected Elder who played an important role in the Siksika First Nation and in the Blackfoot Confederacy. At the time of her passing at 101 years old, she was reported to be Siksika’s oldest and most respected Elder. She was a custodian of Siksika ways and felt it was important to pass down Traditions. She taught the young and old about their heritage.

Margaret Bad Boy was born the daughter of Three Suns and White Elk on the Siksika First Nation in 1900. She married Dick Bad Boy and the couple raised cattle and horses. She was known as the mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother to many, although Margaret did not bear any children of her own.

Margaret was known for her great knowledge of the Blackfoot culture. She was a Medicine Pipe holder and a member of several Indigenous religious societies. Margaret was consulted about naming ceremonies, Sundances, teepee transfers, and smoke ceremonies. She was also instrumental in the repatriation of Indigenous cultural items from museums since she was one of the few people who could identify the items.

Margaret was involved with many publications and language tapes that teach the Siksika language. Aakaitapitsinniksiists—Siksika Old Stories is part of an oral language skills series developed by the Siksika First Nation and approved as part of the Alberta Education elementary school curriculum. In this series, Margaret Bad Boy and another Siksika Elder, Beatrice Poor Eagle, tell Traditional Stories about Napi—the Niitsitapi trickster.

Bad Boy had a real love for horses and the Calgary Stampede. She began attending the Stampede as a child with her father and continued to go with her husband. The Bad Boys would travel into Calgary every summer to put up a teepee and enjoy the Stampede. They also provided horses for what has been dubbed the world’s largest outdoor event.

In 2000, Margaret oversaw the transfer of a Sacred Shield for the Calgary Native Women’s Shelter. She approached the founder of the women’s shelter about transferring the Shield because she believed the women in the shelter would need the strength and courage provided by it.

She was described as “one of the last of [the] truest members of our community who lived culturally to the truest sense.” Margaret was known as the community helper, whether it was to help the sick with her traditional remedies or for her kind ear to listen and give advice. People from all over the Blackfoot Confederacy, from Alberta to Montana, would come to her for advice.

Benson, Mel Edward
Resource Developer

As a First Nations resource developer, oilman Mel Benson has travelled the world. He owns several businesses and fully supports and mentors his fellow Indigenous people in employment and business.

Mel was born to Lena and James Benson on February 14, 1949. He was raised in a large family with three sisters and eight brothers in Lac La Biche in northeastern Alberta. He is a member of the Beaver Lake Cree Nation. As he was raised, Benson recognized the importance of education and he persevered to finish high school; he completed Grade 12 by correspondence courses and through night classes. Taking courses, attending seminars, constantly challenging himself, and learning from successes as well as setbacks have helped him build his career.

Benson worked as an instructor at Alberta’s first Native Studies program at Grant MacEwan Community College in Edmonton before moving into the resource industry. In the 1970s, as Esso Resources’ socio-economic advisor during the planning for its Cold Lake heavy oil project, he developed industry-leading policies in the areas of Indigenous employment, education, and training. He also worked as socio-economic and northern development manager on the Norman Wells expansion project—worth nearly $1 billion—and then it was on to the Beaufort Sea (1984) development as a project/operations manager in the operations department. He was the superintendent of drilling operations when he was transferred to the production department in 1985. For most of the 1990s, he headed Imperial Oil’s Drayton Valley oilfield. Again, both Indigenous people and the community benefited. In December 1999, Mel retired from Houston-based Exxon International and returned to Calgary. He began an oil and gas management consulting company that serves local as well as international companies and agencies.

Benson was among fourteen individuals awarded National Aboriginal Achievement Awards (NAAA, now Indspire) for business at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa on March 28, 2003. John Kim Bell, executive director of the NAAA, said Benson was “the most successful Aboriginal person ever to work in the oil and gas industry . . .. He oversaw 1,200 oil wells, eight natural gas plants, he had hundreds of employees under his management . . . then he was hired to install a $4-billion pipeline in Africa. So as a business leader and entrepreneur, it’s hard to get bigger than those numbers.” His other awards include a Development Award from the Government of Northwest Territories, an Alberta Justice Crime Prevention Recognition, a Red Cross Service Award, the Maskwacis 4-Band Council Award, an Alberta Aboriginal Recognition Award, and the Dr. Ralph Steinhauer Award—University of Calgary, Native Centre.

Benson believes we all as individuals, both adults and young people, can and must give something back to society and support the less fortunate. He believes the Creator provided us with skills and gifts, and an opportunity to share them. Mel’s advice to others: “Work hard, be kind to yourself and those around you, and remember to have fun.” He resides in Calgary. He spends his recreational time travelling, golfing, and spending time with family and friends.

Berube, Craig
Professional Hockey Player and Coach

Spending a career running your body into others might not seem like a logical way to make a living. Craig Berube proved it could be done rather well and built himself a nice 17-year career out of it. Craig was born in Calahoo on December 17, 1965.

Berube spent time in the Pacific Coast Junior Hockey League (PCJHL) with Williams Lake before “getting a cup of coffee” with the Kamloops Junior Oilers of the Western Hockey League during the 1982–1983 season, playing in four games. The next two years would show an improvement in Berube’s game as he increased his point totals each year as a member of the New Westminster Royals. Berube remained undrafted, however, and signed a free agent contract with the Philadelphia Flyers on March 19, 1986. Berube finished his WHL career with the Medicine Hat Tigers, where he went to the 1986 WHL championship before losing to his former team in Kamloops, now the Blazers, in five games.

Berube played his first NHL game during the 1986–1987 season as a member of the Philadelphia Flyers and would also find his way into a half-dozen Flyers’ playoff games as they made their way to the Stanley Cup finals before losing to the Edmonton Oilers in seven games. During his first five years in the NHL, he racked up 948 penalty minutes.

Berube found himself near his hometown as a member of the Edmonton Oilers following a trade in May 1991. He would never play a game with the Oilers, however, as he was the third member of a trade that sent Oiler all-stars Glenn Anderson and Grant Fuhr to the Toronto Maple Leafs. Berube would play out the rest of his career with the Calgary Flames, Washington Capitals, and New York Islanders, along with a second stint with the Philadelphia Flyers. In 1998, Berube went to the Stanley Cup finals with the Washington Capitals. He scored his first career playoff goal in Game 4 against the Buffalo Sabres during the Eastern Conference final. The goal turned out to be the game-winning goal and gave the Capitals a pivotal stranglehold on the series. Berube, following the game, called that goal the biggest of his career.

Berube wound up his career in the NHL with another tour of duty with the Calgary Flames following the 2002–2003 campaign. He retired from professional hockey after 33 games with the Philadelphia Phantoms of the American Hockey League during the 2003–2004 season.

Berube finished his National Hockey League career with 61 goals and 98 assists for 159 points in 1054 NHL regular season games. He added 3 goals and 1 assist in 89 playoff games. Berube garnered 3,149 minutes inside the penalty box during his 17-year NHL career.

Craig Berube is currently an associate coach with the St. Louis Blues in the National Hockey League.

Big Plume, Joseph Lloyd
Champion Snooker Player

One of the greatest snooker players to ever grace Canada’s pool halls was the late Joseph Lloyd Big Plume. He was born in 1927 and was known as “Indian Joe” in pool circles. He knew many successes—he was a good hunter, farmer, Councillor, and family provider. In pool, he was the consummate artist of this exacting game—the total package. Joe credited his prowess at pool to his grandfather, as well as Calgary Métis Jim Whitford and his dad, George, who took him into the Calgary pool halls.

“I started sneaking in (at age 14) . . . I was big for my age,” Joe said. From the 1950s to the 1980s, he was unsurpassed—a master player with hundreds of century runs and three perfect games (147 points)—something even some world champions cannot boast about. He played many champions, and spectators watched in awe and amazement as he worked his magic. World champions spoke about him in high regard—people such as Cliff Thorburn, John Spencer, Alex Higgins and, yes, the legendary Minnesota Fats, whom he once defeated. Some of the greats he defeated include Thorburn, North American champion George Chénier, Canadian champions Bill Werbeniuk, Jim Wych, Tom Finstad, Jim Bear, Brady Golan, John Bear, and others. In 1972, he lost a tough set 8–5 to Spencer but came back to win 4–3 in a later match. He managed to upset then-reigning champ Werbeniuk in the Canadian Championship quarter-finals, although he never won the Canadian crown.

Joe did not seek fame and fortune, unlike many other champions. He was a family man who didn’t want to be on the road. Many said he could have been the “king of pool,” perhaps world champion. However, he preferred to return home each day to be with family and his community, the Tsuut’ina Nation, near Calgary. John Spencer believed he would have ranked near, if not at, the top of the list as the world’s best. He was an enviable “potter” and could play unbelievable shape. And his smooth, flowing stroke was a work of art that made it all look easy. Indeed, he literally made those balls dance. He was so adept, opponents feared to miss even one shot because he would run the table on them. He competed in the World Amateur Championships and was third in the Canadian Championships, and he won both the Calgary and Alberta titles many times. Joe was an icon, a free spirit who walked his own path at his own pace. Those who knew him were proud to say, “Yes, I knew Joe . . . saw him play; he was absolutely amazing. The best!” One thing is certain; anyone who ever played him always knew they were in for one “heckuva” game.

As for his home territory, he truly left his mark, and he was an inspiration, mentor, and model for so many others—both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people—to follow. Many great players learned from Joe or were inspired by him. His gentlemanly manners also endeared him to many who remarked that he was the best ambassador. On a personal level, Joe sat on the Tsuut’ina First Nation Council (1977–1984). He and his wife, Dora, raised 11 children.

He had a wide circle of friends, including farmers he partnered with to work his crops. He was gentle and easy-going and enjoyed a good laugh and friendships. If you were in the loop with Joe, you were a sure bet to be a long-time friend of his. Joe Big Plume passed away on March 2, 2004.

Other titles by Cora J. Voyageur