Clarence Nepinak, Anishinaabe elder who worked to preserve culture, dead at 73

Clarence Nepinak, an elder and knowledge keeper who dedicated his life to teaching people about Anishinaabe culture, has died. He was 73.

Clarence died on Wednesday evening in Winnipeg, following a months-long battle with bone and colon cancer. He was moved into palliative care last Friday, his wife, Barbara Nepinak, told CBC News.

The couple are well-known for their commitment to preserving and advancing Indigenous culture. In 2019, they were both inducted into the Order of Manitoba — the province’s highest honour — for those efforts.

Clarence was also a member of Minegoziibe Anishinabe, also known as Pine Creek First Nation. 

Chief Derek Nepinak said Clarence’s death is a huge loss for the community about 320 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg, where the elder would still regularly return for teachings and ceremonies — even a couple of times over the last year, as his health deteriorated.

“It shows the depth of his commitment to the people and to the work that he did,” said the chief, who is distantly related to the elder.

The chief said the elder’s death comes on the heels of another loss in the family. Clarence and Barbara’s daughter, Rebecca Nepinak, died suddenly on Oct. 4 at age 42.

Elder Clarence Nepinak was a longtime member of the standing Indigenous advisory council at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (Aaron Cohen/Canadian Museum for Human Rights)

“In the last chapter of her life she took on the traditional role of caring for our parents. We will always be indebted to her for her dedication to them, specifically our father,” Rebecca’s obituary says.

The Southern Chiefs’ Organization — which represents 34 First Nations and more than 81,500 people in southern Manitoba, including Minegoziibe Anishinabe — posted on Facebook offering its condolences to Clarence’s loved ones.

The post said the elder was “instrumental in the continued revitalization of our languages and culture” and spent most of his 25-year career “advocating and breathing life in to Ojibway ways.”

The Minegoziibe Anishinabe chief said the Nepinaks were role models who “emulated the ways of the Anishinaabe people when it comes to the institution of family.”

“They did a lot of important work celebrating our culture and giving young people an opportunity to find pride in who we are. And that’s the legacy of his work,” he said, adding Clarence was able to overcome being forced to attend residential school and find a way to thrive and celebrate his identity.

WATCH | Clarence and Barbara Nepinak share teachings:

Sharing culture and bannock with new Canadians

5 years ago

Duration 0:58

For Barbara and Clarence Nepinak making bannock in their teepee set up at The Forks is more than just an annual winter tradition; it’s part of how they pass down their culture to the next generation.

The chief said Clarence’s teachings at men’s gatherings on Minegoziibe Anishinabe, where the elder spoke of practising gratitude and learning how to love, will stay with him for a lifetime.

He said Clarence’s legacy also includes his work with Health Canada, where he integrated traditional medicine into the health field, and the Summer Bear Dance Troupe.

That group’s performances include appearances at Folklorama, which said in an emailed statement it was saddened by the news of his death and called him “a wonderful and gentle soul that always made us smile.”

Clarence worked with many groups throughout his life, including the Vancouver-based Healthy Aboriginal Network and the Elders Advisory Council at the University of Winnipeg. 

He was also a long-time member of the standing Indigenous advisory council at the  Canadian Museum for Human Rights, which called him a “pillar of guidance in the community” in a statement on Twitter Wednesday.

He and Barbara were also both involved in Indigenous cultural programming at The Forks and at Festival du Voyageur.

Elder Clarence Nepinak, seen here with Arthur Mckay, shared his teachings with many different organizations throughout his life. (Lenard Monkman/CBC)

Colin Mackie, the festival’s director of heritage and education programs, said both have been instrumental in shaping its programming for well over a decade.

“I’ve noticed a change over the years, a very positive change, and that’s largely due to their inputs and what they have to say,” Mackie said, adding that highlighting the importance of Indigenous cultures and heritage in the story of voyageurs and the fur trade is critical.

“It’s our responsibility, it’s necessary to include those perspectives and those teachings in how we present that history.”

Reflecting on the news of Clarence’s death on Thursday, Mackie said he thought back to a busy day during Festival du Voyageur a few years ago when he was running around with his son Rowan in tow, who was then about a year old.

Clarence and Barbara were there, preparing for demonstrations of Indigenous artifacts and tools.

Elder Clarence Nepinak, seen here with his wife, Barbara Nepinak, and Clifford Spence, is being remembered as a kind person who spent his life teaching people about Indigenous culture. (Justin Fraser/CBC)

“I had my son in my arm and I was running around and Clarence came up and he said, ‘Oh, let me help you out.’ And he took my son off my hands,” he said.

“He’s just a very kind, kind person. And I still have that image in my head of him taking care of my kid while I had to go and work. And man, was that little kid happy to be there.”