By Doug Cuthand, The Starphoenix
For many Canadians, the history of the West begins with the signing of the treaties. The fur trade, and the southwestward expansion of the woodland tribes that precipitated the treaties seem to be lost in the mists of time.
The early 1800s was a time of rapid western expansion of the Cree and Saulteaux nations. Armed with guns provided by the fur trade in combination with the horses introduced centuries earlier by the Spanish, the plains First Nations were able to hunt more efficiently and travel wide distances.
By adapting European technologies, the First Nations enhanced and evolved their traditional way of life. Without the horse and modern weapons, the plains were a formidable place populated with the huge herds of buffalo, and the wolves and plains grizzlies that preyed on them. A hunter on foot armed with traditional weapons was extremely vulnerable.
All this changed as the horse culture took root.
The Cree moved to the southern plains and shared the hunting grounds with the Blackfoot people. This relationship continued until the great herds started to dwindle. Over-hunting in Canada was only part of the problem. In the United States, buffalo hunting was conducted on an industrial scale and the prairie was burnt to prevent herds from moving north.
The increased competition for food resulted in the Cree versus Blackfoot war, which lasted about a decade. Some historians and storytellers have pursued the false narrative that Cree and Blackfoot were traditional enemies. In fact, they had a long period of friendship and shared the land. It was when the buffalo failed to return that the two nations fought over the prime hunting land.
Many Cree and Blackfoot today can trace their genealogy back to each other's blood lines. For example, my great-great grandfather was Blackfoot, and my grandfather, a Cree, lived among the Blackfoot and spoke their language. In the 1930s he and a man from the Blackfoot Nation adopted each other as brothers.
The Blackfoot were part of a confederacy that included the Blood, Peigan and Blackfoot nations. They all spoke the same language and had the same belief system.
The battle of the Belly River in 1870, which took place at the present site of Lethbridge, would be the last battle between the two nations. The Cree, under the leadership of Big Bear, Kawakatoose, Little Pine and Lucky Man, attacked the Blood Indian camp in the early morning while it was still dark. Chief Piapot was originally part of the war party, but he had a dream that the battle would end badly so he refused to allow his warriors to take part.
Piapot's dream was prophetic and the result was a rout for the Cree. The North Peigans were camped nearby and a scout from the Blood camp raised the alarm. The Peigans had recently traded for repeater rifles at Fort Benton in Montana and, when they arrived, they held the high ground and shot downward at the Cree warriors. The result was about 300 Cree warriors died and the Bloods suffered only about 30 casualties.
Both Nations realized this would have to be their last battle. The Blackfoot knew that the Cree would eventually get repeater rifles and seek revenge. The Cree knew that any battle in the future would result in more carnage.
Over the next year emissaries were sent to the two nations, and in 1871 the Cree and Blackfoot met at the Bear Hills at a site known in Cree as Muskwachese, located near the present Alberta city of Wektaskiwin. The chiefs sat together and negotiated a fair peace treaty. They smoked the pipe to share the prayers with the Creator.
This was a sacred act, and a promise made on the pipe must be obeyed. They agreed that the Red Deer River would be the dividing line between the two nations, and they would never war against each other. To cement the treaty, families exchanged children and adopted them. In this manner the warriors would never attack a camp for fear that their children would be living there.
It was the ultimate act of sacrifice for a parent, but it would ensure that the treaty would last. In the future Cree and Blackfoot families would visit each other's camps to spend time with their children. My greatgrandfather was a warrior and headman to Chief Little Pine, so this story has been handed down within our family.
In a final act, the warriors and their leaders formed two long lines across the prairie. The two lines were about a half mile apart, and the warriors were mounted on their warhorses. It must have been a magnificent sight. Someone shouted the war whoop and the two lines proceeded toward each other at a full gallop. When they met in the middle they put down their weapons and shook hands.
The two nations would never take up arms again, and peace came to the prairies. Both nations would sign a treaty later with the Crown, and once again they would enter into a sacred covenant.