8 October 1886
During the late nineteenth century, the most influential indigenous leader in Canada was Crowfoot (Isapo-muxika), Chief of the Blackfoot First Nation (Siksika) whose ancestral territory encompassed much of southern Alberta and northern Montana in the United States. A fierce warrior in his youth, he was highly respected by both the Plains First Nations and white settlers. He recognized that the arrival of the white man heralded the end of his people’s traditional way of life. But when many sought war, he counselled peace. When the Riel Rebellion broke, he refused to join the rebels, believing that conflict would be disastrous for his people. In 1886, Crowfoot and other Plains chiefs came east on the invitation of Sir John A. Macdonald to attend the dedication of a statue in Brantford of Joseph Brant (Thayendanegea), the Mohawk leader who fought alongside the British during the American Revolution. Before going to Brantford, the chiefs passed through Ottawa where they were greeted by Sir John and Lady Macdonald, and Ottawa’s Mayor McDougal.
Crowfoot was born into the Blood First Nation (Kainai) in about 1830. The Bloods, while distinct from the Blackfoot, were part of the Blackfoot Confederacy (Niitsitapi), meaning the “Real People.” They, along with the Piegans (Piikani), shared a common Algonquian language, and were close allies. Initially known as Short Close (Astexomi), Crowfoot, at age five, joined the Blackfoot Nation when his widowed mother married a Blackfoot warrior. At this time, the Blackfoot civilization was at its peak. On horseback, the Real People followed the massive herds of buffalo (bison) that roamed freely over the North American Plains. The buffalo, essential to their way of life, provided them with most of their needs. The Blackfoot protected their hunting grounds from incursions from the Cree Nation to the north and east and the Crow Nation to the south.
As was common practice, Short Close received a new Blackfoot name Bear Ghost (Kyiah-sta-ah), when he became a Blackfoot. Following his first raid, he took a man’s name, Packs A Knife (Istowun-eh’pata), the name of his dead father. Following many acts of valour, he later took the name Crow Indian’s Big Foot, which was later shortened to Crowfoot by interpreters. By his early twenties, Crowfoot had been in nineteen battles, and had been wounded many times.
Even before Crowfoot had become a man, the Blackfoot way of life was under threat. Although few white men, other than a handful of traders, had reached their territory by mid-century, the diseases that they carried spread before them. Smallpox devastated the Real People. Without any immunity, an outbreak in the late 1830s killed two thirds of the Blackfoot people.
By the mid-1860s, Crowfoot had become recognized as one of the important up and coming leaders of the Blackfoot. About this time, he met the Oblate priest Albert Lacombe who had been sent to bring Christianity to the Cree and Blackfoot Nations. Saved by Crowfoot during a Cree raid on a Blackfoot camp, the two became close friends. Lacombe’s accounts of Crowfoot are the reason why we know so much of his life. In 1869, another serious smallpox outbreak stuck killing thousands, including Three Suns, the chief of the Blackfoot Nation. Crowfoot took his place as chief.
In 1870, the new Dominion of Canada took over control (at least in white men’s eyes) of Prince Rupert’s Land, which extended from northern Quebec to southern Alberta, from the Hudson Bay Company (HBC). When the HBC administered the territory, it also policed it, enforcing laws against the selling of alcohol. However, when the Dominion ostensibly assumed control of the territory, now called the North-West Territories, it had no boots on the ground. Into this vacuum moved unscrupulous American traders who set up illegal settlements from which they sold whisky to the Plains First Nations in exchange for buffalo pelts. The most notorious of such “whisky forts” was “Fort Whoop-Up,” built near present-day Lethbridge. Concerned about maintaining Canadian sovereignty over the territory and re-establishing law and order in the west, the government created the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP) in 1873.
The arrival of the NWMP was welcomed by Crowfoot who had witnessed the impoverishment and degradation of the Blackfoot Nation as a result of whisky brought in by the American traders. He also was encouraged that the police applied the law equally to white settlers and indigenous peoples. This was in stark contrast with law enforcement practices south of the international border. A strong bond of trust consequently developed between the Blackfoot chief and Colonel Macleod, the commander of the NWMP. Crowfoot willingly co-operated with the police, and discouraged younger warriors from raiding camps of rival tribes. For a time, harmony on the plains was restored, and the Blackfoot Nation began to recover.
The trust that developed between the police and Crowfoot made Treaty 7 possible in 1877. This treaty was the seventh of its kind between the Plains First Nations and the government following its takeover of Prince Rupert’s Land. Recognizing that the buffalo had all but disappeared, and that white settlers in the south and Métis and Cree in the east were encroaching on Blackfoot territory, Crowfoot sought protection for his people and a sustainable livelihood. For its part, the government wanted land for settlers and for the construction of a trans-Canadian railway.
The Real People who lived in the south and had witnessed the U.S. government break newly-signed treaties were reluctant to sign a treaty with the Canadian government. But Crowfoot was persuasive. Putting his faith in his friend Colonel Macleod, he signed. The other chiefs followed suit. Along with Colonel Macleod, David Laird, the Lieutenant Governor of the North-West Territories, signed for the government. While retaining their hunting rights, the Blackfoot surrendered much of their territory for “as long as the sun shines and the rivers run” in exchange for a reserve of one square mile of land for each family of five. The government also promised certain cash payments, cattle for live-stock rearing, farming implements, money to buy ammunition each year, and funds to pay for education.
Things did not work out as Crowfoot had wanted. The Blackfoot chiefs, who had a very different sense of land ownership than white settlers, most likely didn’t fully appreciate what they had signed. The buffalo disappeared quicker than expected, and the few that remained were only to be found deep inside U.S. territory. The Blackfoot Nation headed south into Montana in search of the herds, only to find starvation. They also encountered worried white settlers who feared the reputation of the Blackfoot and the possibility that they might join up with Sioux who had just defeated General Custer at the Battle of Little Big Horn. Sick and starving, the Blackfoot returned to Canada to find new, uncaring administrators in charge of the Indian Department who cheated and humiliated them. Discontentment grew. But Crowfoot’s diplomatic skills combined with the appointment of new territorial leaders who had a better understanding of the Blackfoot’s plight prevented outright conflict.
In 1885, Crowfoot’s diplomatic skills were tested again when representatives of the Métis and Cree peoples of Manitoba sought Blackfoot aid in the Riel Rebellion. Crowfoot, who knew Riel, was sympathetic, but was wary about joining the rebellion as he could perceive no benefit for his people—his first priority—from going to war. After seeking the counsel of other Blackfoot chiefs, and speaking with white leaders whom Crowfoot considered friends, he stayed out of the conflict. From Blackfoot Crossing near Gleichen, Alberta, he sent a message to Sir John A. Macdonald. It read:
On behalf of myself and people, I wish to send through you to the Great Mother the words I have given to the Governor [of the North West Territories]at a council held at which all my minor chiefs and young men were present. We are agreed and determined to remain loyal to the Queen… Should any Indian come to our reserve and ask us to join them in war we shall turn them away.
With the Riel Rebellion quickly supressed, Crowfoot’s decision undoubtedly saved many lives.
In July 1886, the Blackfoot leader met Sir John and Lady Macdonald at the Gleichen rail stop in present-day southern Alberta, when the couple crossed the country on the newly completed Canadian Pacific Railway. During the short meeting, Crowfoot expressed an interest in visiting the Premier in Ottawa. Just two months later, Crowfoot along with his foster brother, Three Bulls, were invited east by the government, accompanied by Father Lacombe. Red Crow of the Bloods, and North Axe of the Piegans followed later with the interpreter Jean L’Heureux. A group of Cree chiefs also travelled east. The ostensible reason for the visits was the dedication of the memorial to Joseph Brant in Brantford. Another unspoken reason was to impress upon the First Nations’ chiefs the power of the Canadian government.
After stops in Montreal and Quebec City, Crowfoot, Three Bulls and Father Lacombe arrived at noon in Ottawa on 8 October 1886 where they met up with the other Blackfoot chiefs. They were lodged in comfortable rooms on the second floor of the Grand Union Hotel. That afternoon, they met a reporter from the Ottawa Evening Journal. Father Lacombe acted as interpreter. The reporter described Crowfoot as being of medium height, with a “stolid dignity of his race.” He wore “gaudy” flannel pants covered with a fringe, a blue shirt with a vest, and colourful blanket around his waist. Covering his iron-grey, shoulder-length hair was a stiff white hat with gold lace and “gorgeous white plumes.” Around his neck was a silver Treaty medal. Through Father Lacombe, Crowfoot commented that he was delighted to visit the home of kristamonion, his brother-in-law, Sir John A. Macdonald. He also expressed pleasure on how he was being treated.
Unfortunately, the journalist couldn’t resist reporting that Crowfoot and Three Bulls received him with a “series of ughs,” a stereotypical expression that he repeated in subsequent stories. Indeed, the general tone of the news coverage of the Blackfoot leaders was often condescending; their trip appears to have been seen by many as an exotic, carnival sideshow.
The next morning, after reportedly sleeping on the floor instead of a comfortable spring bed, Crowfoot and Three Bulls had a “hearty breakfast,” after which the chiefs returned to Crowfoot’s room pulled out tobacco pipes and settled down for a smoke surrounded by curious on-lookers. At 10am, they were driven in barouches through Lower Town, with a stop in the market. The chiefs were suitably impressed by the commerce underway; a market was something that that Crowfoot wanted established back home.
Afterwards, Crowfoot and the other chiefs headed for Earnscliffe, the home of Sir John and Lady Macdonald. (Earnscliffe is now the home of the British High Commissioner.) Lady Macdonald, who Crowfoot called Asaskit-sipappi, the “good-hearted woman,” came outside to greet the chiefs as they pulled up to the front of the house. They were then taken to the parlour where they met Sir John. With Father Lacombe acting as interpreter, Crowfoot asked for the Premier’s help in starting farms and establishing a market since the buffalo had all gone with the coming of the white man.
Sir John gave each chief $25 and promised to send more presents and clothing to the Blackfoot people. He urged the chiefs to remain peaceful and to be patient if “time elapsed before all their demands were granted.” He added that Edgar Dewdney, the then Lieutenant-Governor of the North-West Territories, would take care of them, and promised to find a market for their surplus production. Sir John also granted Crowfoot’s request to return home right away instead of going to Brantford for the unveiling of the Joseph Brant memorial. The Blackfoot leader was unwell and was pining for his people. After the interview, the chiefs were conducted outside for a photograph in the garden.
The following day, the chiefs attended high mass in the Basilica, occupying seats where they would be seen by the entire congregation while Father Lacombe conducted the service. Later, Father Lacombe gave a lecture at the Ottawa College on “The North-West Indians.” Mr F.R.E. Campeau of the Institut Canadien chaired the meeting. During Father Lacombe’s address, the Blackfoot chiefs smoked tobacco, passing a long pipe from one the other. Afterwards, Campeau presented a purse to Crowfoot, who in turn gave the money to his compatriots.
On their final day in Ottawa, the Blackfoot chiefs met with officials of the Indian Department. At the Department, they met up with the Cree chiefs who were also to attend the unveiling of the Joseph Brant memorial. Later in the afternoon, Crowfoot and the other Blackfoot chiefs visited City Hall. Escorted into the Council Chamber by Mayor McDougal, Crowfoot sat in the Mayor’s chair, while City Clerk W.P. Lett read out a letter of welcome. The City presented the chiefs “with the wampum belt of friendship,” offered “the pipe of peace” and gave them money that Crowfoot distributed to the other chiefs.
Exhausted, Crowfoot returned immediately by train to Blackfoot Crossing. He died four years later on 25 April 1890, surrounded by his friends, including Father Lacombe. His grave, marked by a cross, is located near Blackfoot Crossing National Park.
Treaty Seven never lived up to Crowfoot’s expectations. Promised payments and support were not provided. The First Nations that signed the treaty are now represented by the Treaty 7 Management Corporation and are involved in negotiations with the federal government over various aspects of the Treaty.
In 2020, Crowfoot was one of eight deserving Canadians whose portraits were shortlisted to be appear on the new $5 bill to be released in a few years’ time.
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