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Alberta Online Encyclopedia

First Nations and Métis

Plaque comemorating the signing of Treaty 8.

Historical Overview

Further Reading

No one can be certain when the first people arrived in what would become Alberta. According to the oral traditions of Alberta's First Nations they have inhabited this region since the beginning of time. Although some groups speak of having travelled to new lands long ago, many First Nations people believe that they have always inhabited their current territories.

Depiction of glacier coverageArchaeologists, geologists and other scientists offer a different account of how people came to this region. They believe that two huge glaciers covered almost all of Alberta 13,000 years ago. As the Laurentide and Cordilleran glaciers began to retreat,they separated. This opened up land along the eastern slopes of the Rockies to human inhabitants. At present there are many theories as to when and how these people reached Alberta. What archaeology can show is that by at least 11,500 - 12,000 years ago human beings inhabited parts of what we now call Alberta.

Group of Blood PeopleMany people think of Alberta as being a new society or having little history. This is not true. The oldest inhabited sites in Alberta are more than twice as old as the oldest Egyptian pyramid and nearly five times as old as the Parthenon, the most famous temple of ancient Greek culture. This means that Alberta's First Nations have a very long and rich history in this area. Most archaeologists and historians would probably agree that a history of 12,000 years or more is much the same thing as having always been here.

The first European fur trader to reach Alberta and leave an account of the people he met was Anthony Henday in 1754 - about 250 years ago. Henday's journal and other fur trade records give us some idea of the different groups of people living in Alberta in the late 18th century. Most of the First Nations now living in Alberta can be identified in these early written records. They include the members of the Blackfoot Confederacy, the Blackfoot,the Peigan and the Bloods (or Kinai), theSarcee (or TsuuT'ina), the Plains and Woods Cree and the Assiniboine or Stoney, who are also known as the Nakoda. Further north fur traders met the Chipewyan, Dene, Beaver or Tsattine, and people known infur trade records as the Slavey but more correctly called the DeneTha. Other First Nations including the Kootenay and Sekani may also have used lands in Alberta at the time, although they have no reserves in the province today.

Horse Child, son of Cree Chief Big Bear, 1885.Throughout the late 18th and into the 19th century, most First Nations in Alberta participated in the fur trade. Some were much more involved in this business than others, so the impact of the fur trade varied form group to group. One interesting feature of the fur trade is the influence of First Nations on the traders.What fur traders wore, what they ate, how they travelled, even their ideas on marriage and families were shaped by their ties to their trading partners. It was also during this time that a new people, the Métis, began their contribution to Alberta's history.

In 1871 the First Nations of Western Canada began to sign treaties with the government. The exact legal meaning of these treaties remains an important issue. However, these treaties allowed settlement of non-Aboriginal Canadians on lands in western Canada in return for specified annual payments and other benefits.

Blackfoot WomenThe first treaty to affect what would become Alberta was signed with the Assiniboine in 1874. This treaty included a small section of south eastern Alberta near Medicine Hat. This treaty was followed in 1876 by Treaty 6 with the Cree in central Alberta. In1877 Treaty 7 was signed in southern Alberta with the Blackfoot, Peigan, Blood, Sarcee and Stoney First Nations. The last major treaty signed in Alberta was Treaty 8 in 1899 in the north. This treaty involved many different groups including the Chipewyan,Beaver, and some Cree bands.

Metis FamilySince the signing of these treaties many of Alberta's First Nations people have lived on reserves. There are well over onehundred reserves in Alberta, located in every part of the province. In the late 1930s and 1940s a number of special Métis settlements were also created by the government of Alberta. In addition to those people living in reserve and Métis settlement communities, First Nations and Métis people live in all of Alberta's major cities and many of our towns.

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