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.

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

cypress hills massacre

June 1, 1873: on this day the Cypress Hills Massacre occurred. A party of drunken American wolfers (men who were paid to travel around southern Alberta poisoning wolves, and the absolute lowest on the scale of social order) decided to attack a camp of Assiniboine First Nations people whom they (incorrectly, it turned out) accused of stealing horses. A man called George Hammond led the attack, saying, “Let’s go clean out the camp.”

The attack only killed a few Assiniboine warriors. The rest of those murdered were women and children. Some of the women were taken prisoner and sexually assaulted. This horrible event finally forced the Canadian government to turn its attention to a situation that had gotten increasingly out of hand in its new domain of the North West Territories and inspired the creation of the N.W.M.P.

Two murder trials were held, one in the United States and one in Canada. Ultimately, no one was convicted, with the philosophical position of both juries seemingly, “What is the problem here? All they did was kill a bunch of Indians.”

What an interesting start we got off to, huh? Many of the conditions we have in western Canada, with ongoing resentment at the federal government when it is slow to respond to a crisis were present from day one, with First Nations being the lowest priority of all.

Read more: Firewater by Hugh Dempsey, The North-West Mounted Police: 1873-1885 by Jack F. Dunn or Frontier Farewell: the 1870s and the End of the Old West by Garrett Wilson.