bison

I’m reading a book called Crazy Horse: A Lakota Life by Kingsley M. Bray right now.

In both Canada and the United States, the disappearance of the buffalo was the biggest humanitarian and environmental catastrophe that you’ve never heard of. Scientists are only beginning to recognize now that cattle also introduced diseases into wild herds that weakened them.

The American government wanted the bison gone — it had two transcontinental railroads to build and dealing with freedom fighters like Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull was impossible as long as they had access to the food and shelter supplied by those big herds.

Here in Canada, the situation was slightly different. The government knew the bison would be gone eventually but their priority was not to be financially responsible for the First Nations people in western Canada. They thought they had time, and if you had ever seen one of those massive herds you would have understood why they believed that.

Let’s say you and I are standing on a rise in the prairie. We say to each other, “Do you hear that?” But that isn’t exactly what we mean. What we mean is do you FEEL that … the sound is coming out of the ground up through our feet. An hour later … look to the north as far as you can, look to the south as far as you can. That herd is a mile wide, and it passes us by for an hour. You would never, ever forget a sight like that.

Only two years after Treaty 7 was signed in 1877 (the agreement the Crown signed with the indigenous people and settlers in my area) the bison were gone from southern Alberta and the people here were starving. We talk about the bison on the tour of Chestermere that’s happening tonight — did we have bison herds in this area? Come to find out how glacier rocks and a natural prairie spring offer us some clues.

recommended read: frontier farewell

Frontier Farewell: The 1870s and the End of the Old West

By Garrett Wilson

In 1870, the great plains were inhabited by European fur traders, Metis settlements, Plains First Nations people and millions of buffalo. By 1880, the landscape was unrecognizable – the First Nations people were settled on reserves, settlers were beginning to stream into western Canada, and the planning and construction of the great spine of the railroad was underway. The North West Mounted Police had the American whiskey traders on the run and were dealing with the delicate matter of American refuges. Perhaps most significantly of all, the buffalo were gone. This triggered the biggest ecological and humanitarian crisis that you’ve never heard of, but the landscape was open for the settlers that the Canadian government were depending on to make good on its investment in buying the North West Territories from the Hudson’s Bay Company.

This is a great read for the 152th anniversary of confederation and is vital knowledge for any Canadian. I had no idea that smallpox had played such a huge role in the shaping of western Canada. Did you know that the law in Canada often applied very differently in the eastern part of the country? Garrett Wilson breaks down the contracts the Canadian government signed with indigenous people, exploring differences between the individual treaties and the needs and motivations of the people signing them. The book reveals that the important decisions made by a removed and detached government in Ottawa were to have a profound effect on the relationship that Canada has today with Metis and First Nations people. And what really happened to the buffalo?

Thrilling, engaging, frustrating, with many moments of clarity along the way, of finally getting it – why things are the way they are. That was my experience of reading this book. It clocks in at 527 pages so let your friends know that you love them and bid them a fond farewell. Stock up on all the groceries you could possibly need for the next two weeks and tell your family not to interrupt you unless the house is on fire. Then climb into your time machine (I sat in a patio chair on my back porch with an iced coffee) and prepare to disappear into the magnificent world of western Canada in the 1870s, a journey not so much through space as through time.

the custer fight

The Custer Fight by Charles Marion Russell
Painted in 1903, Library of Congress, Washington D. C.

June 25 and June 26, 1876: on these days in history, the Battle of Little Bighorn, also known as “Custer’s Last Stand” was fought in Montana.

This event was to have significant consequences for the Canadian government, which was trying to negotiate treaties with the First Nations people in western Canada (Treaty Six was signed in 1876).

Among the headaches for the NWMP and the Canadian government: the Blackfoot had been approached by the Sioux, who requested their help in defeating the Americans. The Sioux promised in turn to help the Blackfoot drive out “The Red Coats”. The request was really a demand, promising retaliation against the Blackfoot if they did not participate.

Also, with in the year, 1,000 Sioux refugees would cross the border at Wood Mountain, requesting land and protection. The 1870s were a period of economic downturn in North America and the Canadian government was already looking to cut costs. They had no interest in adding to their expenditures, even if the humanitarian aid was desperately needed.

The presence of the Sioux would put pressure on the already dwindling Canadian bison herds and have implications for the Canadian government and the First Nations people of southern Alberta who depended on the bison for absolutely everything.

Read more:

  • A Terrible Glory by James Donovan
  • Custer by Larry McMurtry
  • Frontier Farewell by Garrett Wilson