“The plains are large and wide. We are the children of the plains, it is our home, and the buffalo have been our food, always.”— Chief Crowfoot negotiates the signing of Treaty 7, 142 years ago today.
Treaty 7 was the agreement the British crown signed with the people in my area (what is now southern Alberta, Canada).
Siksika, Kainai, Piikani, Chiniki, Wesley, Bearspaw and Tsuu Tina and of course us pioneers/settlers made a legal agreement, promising that we would all live together, and keep the peace. The Métis were most certainly present in southern Alberta too but they were not given an opportunity to make a treaty at all and this was to have ongoing fall out that continues to this day.
Many bad times were to come for the people who signed the treaty. During the 1870s the Canadian government was dealing with a worldwide recession and they were putting pressure on their agents in western Canada to save money when it came to dealing with indigenous populations. People who lived in western Canada at the time had these prophetic things to say:
“When the government has to spend $100,000.00 to perform what $10.00 would accomplish at present, they may wake to find they have been sleeping on a volcano.”
— Dickieson, 1878.
“But as the wise men at Ottawa know more of the Indians and Indian matters than those of us who have passed a lifetime among them, it is little use saying anything under the circumstances. Master Indian is going to cost the country a trifle more than they fancy.”
— Archibald MacDonald, 1879.
Also, doesn’t this sound familiar, with people in western Canada trying to advise the federal government of a preventable but rapidly looming crises being ignored?
This is James Macleod. He was a colonel in the NWMP in the north-west Territories at the time Treaty 7 was signed (the NWMP arrived in Calgary in 1875). He once said this about building relationships with First Nations people:
“It is quite unnecessary to lavish presents upon the Indians. The great thing is to treat them kindly by providing them with the room where we ourselves sit, give them a cup of tea or coffee and a piece of bread and as much tobacco as they can smoke, speak to them about their camps, the buffalo and their horses and they go away perfectly contented.”
This seems to me to be the way to build a relationship with anyone: go for tea or coffee, ask them about things that are important to them, be a good listener and if you have something they enjoy, share it.
The contemporary perspective would be to cool it with the tobacco, though!
At the time, smoking a ceremonial pipe together had a spiritual significance that the British Crown and Canadian government did not fully understand. “Peace pipe” was the closest they could come to describing the ritual. But in fact, tobacco was a sacred plant that would ensure that only the truth was spoken by the negotiators. And whilst the indigenous chiefs smoked the pipe along with Colonel Macleod and the other western Canadians who had a vested interest in making this new agreement work, David Laird, who represented the Crown, did not.
When Prince Charles visited Blackfoot Crossing in 1977 for the one hundredth anniversary of the signing of Treaty 7 he did smoke a pipe. But when Canada got its own constitution just a few years later, the British Crown gave the Treaties over to the Canadian government as part of the deal.
“The plains Indians surrendered 50,000 square miles to the invading white men on the understanding that a better future awaited them. In the months following the signing [of Treaty 7] more than 600 Blackfoot died of starvation.”
— Garrett Wilson
At least from my perspective, there have been good times — my favourite part has been sharing cups of tea and listening to each other’s stories. I will do my best to be a good neighbour no matter what the different levels of government decide to do next!
“Great Father! Take pity on me with regard to my country, with regard to the mountains, the hills and the valleys; with regard to the prairies, the forests and the waters; with regard to the animals that inhabit them, and do not take them from myself and my children forever.”
— Crowfoot signs Treaty 7.
- The Great Blackfoot Treaties by High Dempsey
- Frontier Farewell by Garrett Wilson
- Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life by James William Daschuk
- The Banker and the Blackfoot by J. Edward Chamberlin