Treaty No. 7 Commemorated

RCMP Quarterly Vol. 42, No. 4 Fall 1977

Treaty No. 7 Commemorated

By S/Sgt. J. C. Roenspies

Introduction: No one knows for sure where they came from or how long they have been here, but it is generally accepted that the North American Indian has occupied this continent for about 25,000 years. Most anthropologists agree, however, that they probably migrated from Asia during one of the several ice ages, when much of the earth’s water was trapped in the huge glaciers which covered much of North America. The water level of the oceans was down by some 200 to 450 feet, creating a land bridge believed to be from 200 to 700 miles wide between Alaska and Siberia. Alaska’s climate was much gentler during the periods of glacial thaw than it is today, permitting a fairly lush vegetation to flourish. During these warming periods when the two great glaciers withdrew from each other over a period of centuries, like two great giants pausing for breath before renewed battle, passes probably opened permitting migration to the southern reaches of this continent.

Lost in the mists of time are the reasons for leaving the Asian continent. Did they merely follow animals of the hunt or did the pressures of over-population force a reaching-out to hitherto unfamiliar environs? Did a shaman, invoking the spirit world, point to the east as the direction where friendly spirits would welcome them or did larger and more warlike tribes force them off their former lands? Whatever the reason, come they did – in wave after slow wave, over a hundred centuries or more, periodically blocked by glaciers, while in warmer times they inexorably spread south and east. Some occupied the west coast of the continent and adapted to the environment. Others remained in the mountain valleys of the western cordillera, while the more adventuresome, in succeeding generations, spilled over mountain passes to occupy new lands. Language and custom eventually changed to reflect the new conditions, so much so that some former kin groups were seen to be hostile and threatening strangers.1 On and on they moved, over the mountains, across the plains, through the eastern woodlands to the east coast until the entire country we know as Canada was occupied by some fifty tribes, each seeing themselves different in some way from all the others. Yet, no matter how dissimilar they saw themselves, one common force remained to be either conquered or to be lived with in harmony by all tribes – the environment. At the same time, it was the environment in which each tribe lived that dictated each would be different from the other. For instance, the abundance of game and fish on the West Coast left the inhabitants with little worry about food, and there was little need to domesticate plants and animals. The Iroquois, on the other hand, had learned to make the environment work for them and had domesticated corn to guard against leaner times. Winter snows provide another example of the environment’s influence on Indian life. The prairie Indians saw the buffalo disappear to the south each Fall, and thus they would face the possibility of starvation should luck be against them. To the tribes who lived in the woodlands adjacent to the tundra, the fall snows brought the migrating caribou into their territories resulting in times of plenty.2

Just as nature provided the bounty for the Indians, so too did her quirks bring hardship, starvation and death. No one would be so foolhardy as to predict that the buffalo would come again this year, just as they had in the past several years, for who could explain the reason why when instead they chose a migration path several hundred miles east or west of their usual route. No one could predict or explain a drought and dried up sloughs and decimated the waterfowl population, or raging forest and prairie fires, or ravaging floods, or early snows, or killing frosts – the possibilities are endless. The dread of such phenomena were plainly visible in one way or another, but the unexplained causes were usually attributed to various Spirits. Yet the Indians’ very dependency on nature forced them to read and understand nature’s signs, to cope with her various moods so that rather than being beaten by her they could live in harmony with their “Great Provider.” Religious rituals and the very social structure of their day-to-day lives, including the clothes they wore, the shelters they built and the games they played, were all attuned to the environment in which they lived.3

One of the greatest riddles in the prerecorded history of North America is why Europeans advanced in attempts to control the environment while the North American Indians essentially remained under the environment’s control. Dr. Diamond Jenness, a Canadian anthropologist, suggested several reasons. Eurasia had certain types of wild cereal grasses which were more easily domesticated than any found in North America. The only universally domestic animal in North America was the dog, whereas Eurasians had domesticated horses, camels, elephants and other beast of burden. The wheel was common in the Old World, while in the New it was only used as a toy by Inca children. Most importantly, the Indians had not developed any form of written communication, and therefore, new ideas or discoveries which were unrecorded, to some extent died with the person conceiving them. As is usually the case, ideas which were passed along by word of mouth tended to become distorted with each telling and generally lost their impact over time.4

In any event, it is not difficult to imagine how the introduction of any new dimension into the delicate balance between the Indian and his environment could have profound effects. One such dimension was introduced with many Plains Indians ever having seen a European.

In the early 1500’s, the Spanish Conquistadores brought the horse with them when they set out to conquer and colonize Mexico. Whether the horses escaped or were stolen from the Spaniards, or both, the lush pasture of the Great Central Plains lent itself to the proliferation of the horse population so that by the 1700’s, the horse-culture of the Plains Indians was well entrenched. With the horse their life style changed forever. Increased mobility, many times over, was the first change, and with increased mobility came an increased range. No longer could a tribe remain reasonably secure behind their own boundaries. No longer need the Indians concern themselves with the migration fluctuations of the buffalo. If they were numerous and powerful enough, they rode to where the buffalo could be found, regardless of in whose territory they happened to be. Hostilities increased so much that in the late 1600’s and early 1700’s the whole of the great Plains rose in a flux of war. Even war changed. Coupled with increased mobility and range was the need to increase one’s social stature through war and warlike ventures. To steal into the enemy’s camp and make off with his horses undetected was indeed the mark of a brave warrior. To lead the charge into a group of hostile warriors and touch one of them with a coup stick and more so, with a bare hand, was far more honorable than killing him from a distance with a bow and arrow. Thus, war became less lethal after the horse-culture became firmly entrenched. Within each tribe, the numbers of horses any man had indicated his prowess as a horse-thief, his wealth to purchase brides and his ability to provide for his family. Thus his social stature generally was held in relation to the number of horses he claimed.

Despite this being a very simplistic, perhaps overly simplistic, resume of the evolution of man in North America before the coming of the European, there is little doubt that the Indian was not prepared for the onslaught when it came. Their societies were intricate and complex, their religious ritual and belief systems, the social structures and their day-to-day lives were all part of and derived from the environment in which they lived. Thus each facet of their lives had many parts, and even the parts had parts, so that a disruption of any one of them would reverberate through all the others.

The coming of the European was the opening of the floodgates. Their numbers were few at the beginning, and undoubtedly had the Indians wished, they could have easily pushed the white man from their shores. There is no question either that such a measure would have been only a temporary stop-gap, for the age of exploration was on in Europe, and especially, the push to find the elusive western passage to the Orient. Blocking the path to the Orient was the huge land mass, the North American Continent.

Westward settlement in Canada moved very slowly for the first 200 years, largely due to the hostility of the Iroquois against the French settlers. After the conquest of New France by the British in 1759-60, coupled with the British presence in the Hudson Bay watershed, western frontiers were pushed steadily back. Fur traders and explorers, once a trickle, now became a tide, and with them came the disruptions which would change the Indians’ way of life forever. European technology was introduced as trade goods, such as axes, guns, knives, clothing, and worst of all – liquor. Furthermore, Europeans brought diseases which were devastating to the Indians. Two other changes, perhaps more subtle, but equally as disrupting to the Indian social structure, were introduced as well. Wishing to have the trade goods which had become status symbols, the Indians now trapped and hunted for profit, not just to provide for the family, the clan or the tribe. Thus their economic system was upset. To have more trade goods they had to produce more furs, pemmican, or whatever else the traders would accept. If they could not produce more, that portion to be shared with others was reduced. The introduction of a new religion and the belief in a single omniscent and omnipotent God disrupted, and even changed, an Indian’s relationship to his fellow tribesman and to the environment.6

Events were moving much faster south of the 49th parallel than they were in Canada. The American West was filling rapidly with sellers, with perhaps some pause for the American Civil War. After 1865, the movement west was continued, with considerable fighting between Army and Indian. Some Indians moved north of the border where they were relatively safe from the Cavalry, but this did not deter the whiskey traders, who had discovered that they could sell or trade their product with impunity in what is now southern Alberta. Rev. C. Scollen, a missionary amongst the Crees and the Blackfoot, writing to the Governor of Manitoba in September, 1876, commented on the Blackfoot population’s decline to about one half their original number, on the decay of their systematic organization and utter demoralization as a people. He wrote that in the past ten years or so, the illicit whiskey traders had played on the Indian’s passion for that drug, and had traded the Indian out of the very essentials he needed to live – his horses, rifles and his equipment. While intoxicated Indians often fought and killed or were killed themselves, at times by the whiskey traders who refused to give more whiskey because the Indian had nothing left to trade. They were poor, clothed in rags and starving, without horse or rifle, and ill-equipped to fend off the smallpox epidemic of 1870. By the summer of 1874, Rev. Scollen said it was painful to see the state to which the most opulent Indians in the country had been reduced. “…But this was the year of their salvation; that very summer the Mounted Police were struggling against the difficulties of a long journey across the barren plains to order to bring them help. The noble corps reached their destination that same fall, and with magic effect put an entire stop to the abominable traffic of whisky with the Indians. Since that time the Blackfeet (sic) Indians are becoming more and more prosperous. They are not well-clothed and well-furnished with horses and guns…

For everyone, the time was ripe to begin treaty negotiations with the Blackfoot Confederacy. The Federal Government wished to ensure that the peace and prosperity of the plains, brought on by the presence and fair dealings of the North West Mounted Police, would be consolidated. The Canadian Pacific Railroad was being built and land claims had to be established before the right-of-way could be decided. At the same time, the West could not be settled by farmers and ranchers unless the Indians had first surrendered portions of their land. Perhaps more ominous was the report that Sitting Bull approached Chiefs of the Blackfoot confederacy to join the Sioux in a war against the white settlers. Had they agreed, the results would have been devastating.

On the other hand, the Indians had no desire to return to the soul-searing days of the whisky traders and to abject poverty and starvation. They were at peace with each other and they were prosperous, but the numbers of buffalo were rapidly decreasing. More and more settlers were moving westward and the Indians knew it would be only a matter of time before their lands were gone. Proud and independent, they wanted to reserve some land for their exclusive use to make the transition into farming or ranching as smoothly as possible. They knew too, that war with the Whites would turn the Great Plains into an inferno which would play havoc with the Indians in the long run. Thus in 1876, treaties were concluded with several plains tribes, a notable exception being the Blackfoot Confederacy.8

In 1876, Father Scollen reported that the Blackfoot Indians wished to conclude a treaty without unnecessary delay. They were probably the most independent of all the plains tribes, yet they were the most dependent on the buffalo for practically all of their everyday needs. With its disappearance, they would be utterly helpless. They had resisted the encroachment of the white man for years but had fallen prey to the dread whiskey traders and the fearsome Henri rifle the traders carried. With the coming of the Mounted Police, that threat had gone. With more and more farmers and ranchers settling around Forts Macleod and Calgary, the Indians believed that their land would be gradually taken from them without ceremony unless something was done. They wanted to hold some territory for themselves without fear of being molested. Furthermore, says Father Scollen, they had written and made representations to government officials the previous year that they wished to come to an understanding with the Government.9

1877: Lieutenant Governor of the North West Territories, David Laird, and Colonel John Macleod of the North West Mounted Police were the commissioners chosen to negotiate Treaty No. 7. Word was sent to all the tribes that negotiations would take place at Fort Macleod, a location central to all tribes, beginning on September 17, 1877.

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