Treaty 7 between Canada and the Plains First Nations was signed here in 1877.
Driving along the TransCanada Highway about 100 km east of Calgary, I am surrounded by gently rolling prairie landscape and cultured fields of grain rippling in the breeze under an enormous sky filled with darkening clouds. Turning south, I reach the Siksika Nation reserve.
The word Siksika means black (sik) foot (ika) in the Blackfoot language.
More prairie grassland passes and I turn into a curving driveway where a large sign set amongst mesquite and scrub grass announces the Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park. One hundred yards farther stands the Blackfoot Centre, a dazzling contrast to the surrounding prairie, with bold, beautiful architectural lines. Commemorating Siksika culture and history, the Centre is elegant, evocative and dramatically silhouetted against a prairie sky full of scudding clouds. A roofline of “sundance poles” form a circular design reminiscent of medicine wheels.
The upper entrance level is spacious with meeting rooms, a gift shop, library and cafeteria where, later, I enjoy a delicious bannock. Large windows along the back offer dramatic views down to the gentle curve of the Bow River valley and the famous crossing where Treaty 7 was signed.
My guide, Lane Breaker, a tall, serious Siksika man, meets me and leads me to the lower level which has numerous displays inside tipis and “silos” depicting the rich culture and history of the Siksika Nation. He describes how life before contact with Europeans was rooted in the natural world with instructions for life, belief and faith passed on orally. All the food came from the wild and the buffalo was central to everything, providing food, clothing, tools and shelter. I think of the buffalo rocks smooth from frequent rubbing along the entrance drive. He describes how pemmican, a staple, was made by mashing together and drying berries and buffalo meat.
But the buffalo are long gone. One of the most reprehensible acts of colonization was the massacre of enormous buffalo herds, numbering in the millions, which once seemed inexhaustible and were the very foundation of Blackfoot and other Plains Indians societies. Furthermore, repeated outbreaks of smallpox and the introduction of whiskey helped decimate and overpower the indigenous peoples. I could feel Lane’s bitterness.
One display depicts the Old Sun Residential School near Gleichen, which was built in 1929, and the horror of those times when the government’s goal was to erase indigenous culture. Today the school operates as the Old Sun Community College.
In the theatre I don a headset and take a virtual reality tour back in time and explore a typical Blackfoot village during the early 1700s. It is exciting as I experience the preparation, roles, and activities of a buffalo hunt. I walk amongst the herd, traverse along the cliffs, help build a cairn and learn about the Blackfoot language, tradition and culture.
Leaving the Centre, I head downhill into the valley. I come to a group of five towering tipis where, I later learn, you can spend a night. I sit on a gentle rise and gaze at the river where it has a shallow crossing. I think of all the history that has happened here. Treaty 7 between Canada and the Plains First Nations was signed here on September 22, 1877, by the Blackfoot Confederacy consisting of the Siksika (Blackfoot) and four other Nations: Kainai (Blood), Piikani (Peigan), Stoney-Nakoda, and Tsuut’ina (Sarcee). The Treaty involved many matters but the main one, which was not understood by the Indigenous Nations at that time, involved them ceding an enormous swath of land, roughly 130,000 square kilometres stretching from the Rocky Mountains to the Cypress Hills in the east and from the Red Deer River in the north to the US border.
In 1910, the Surrender Claim involved the seizing of a further 115,000 acres of Siksika’s most productive agricultural lands and minerals. The Siksika Nation considers this unlawful, contrary to the Indian Act and are vigorously fighting it in court.
Today, the Nation is led by Chief Joseph Weasel Child and 12 councilors, elected for three-year terms to govern the 7,500 Siksika. Two of their main goals are to develop a framework for self-government so the Nation can be removed from the jurisdiction of The Indian Act, and to continue the struggle to regain their lands.
I daydream of yesteryear when hundreds of tipis dotted the valley, when horses splashed across the Bow River, smoke curled skyward from numerous fires and the Siksika lived in harmony with nature. The bold lines of the Blackfoot Crossing Centre proudly and elegantly reflect the rich culture and history of the Siksika, and highlights how much they have lost over the past two centuries.
I quietly wish them well in their struggle.