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The Kainai Nation - Historical Overview

Kainai Sun Dance

The Kainai (Blood) People are among the oldest human residents of the land now known as the Province of Alberta. Archeological evidence suggests that the Kainai’s ancestors were living on the southern plains at least 12,000 years ago, and that they came to the plains at the end of the last Ice Age. Like their ancestors, the Kainai lived a nomadic lifestyle centred on the hunting of bison, and supplemented by trade with other Aboriginal Peoples.

The Kainai are one of three main tribes that share the Blackfoot language and culture. The other two tribes are the Siksika, or Blackfoot, and the Piikani, or Peigan. While the traditional territory held by the Blackfoot Peoples covered southern Alberta, southern Saskatchewan, and Northern Montana, the Kainai’s terrain spanned from the Red Deer River in Alberta south to the Yellowstone River in the State of Montana. The Kainai enjoyed a close trading, hunting, and political alliance with the Piikani and Siksika, and intermarriage between the Kainai and the other tribes was a common practice that helped strengthen familial ties between the Nations. Along with the Piikani and Siksika, the Kainai would defend Blackfoot traditional lands from incursions by tribes like the Plains Cree in the north, or establish trade with friendlier tribes for various goods. For many generations, the Kainai and the other Blackfoot tribes lived in this fashion.

Starting in the mid 1700s, European fur traders and explorers began making contact with the various Blackfoot Nations. Establishing trade with the Europeans proved beneficial for the Kainai, as it introduced horses to the tribe which greatly improved the overall efficiency of breaking and moving camp, and the hunting of the bison. These advantages were not to last, however. Increased European presence in the region led to a subsequent decline in the plains bison population. Also, by the early 1800s, the focus of the Blackfoot’s trade shifted from the European fur trade companies to American trading forts. At first the Kainai divided their trading time between the British and American trading forts, but by the mid-to-late-1800s, American forts were created further north into territories already established by the British. The American forts introduced whiskey and repeating rifles as items of trade. The combination of alcohol and more efficient weaponry had a devastating effect on the Blackfoot populations, leading to breakdowns in tribal unity and cohesion. The Kainai were among the tribes that suffered this fate.

Suffering from the decline of the bison and the tribal disharmony created by the whiskey trade, Kainai leaders were initially amenable to establishing a peace treaty with the federal government, and were willing to negotiate terms in 1877. When the meeting place for the treaty talks was changed from Fort MacLeod to the Site at Blackfoot Crossing, Kainai leaders almost did not show up as the change made travel into Siksika territory difficult. When the treaty representatives refused to change the location, Chief Medicine Calf of the Kainai had to wait two days before other Kainai representatives joined him at the talks. The Kainai leaders signed the Treaty, making the Kainai the largest single First Nation in Alberta to do so.

After the signing of Treaty 7 on 22 Spetember 1877, certain lands were reserved for the Kainai. The Kainai, however, renegotiated the size of the reserve lands in 1883 to include traditional winter camping areas along the Belly River. The addition of these areas to the Kainai reserve made the reserve the largest in all of Canada.

Post Treaty 7 life for the Kainai saw a relatively successful shift from a nomadic hunting lifestyle to a settled agricultural one; this was much to the surprise of federal government officials, who were intent on strict control of the monies earned by the Kainai farmers through the sales of agricultural produce. This period also saw the Kainai retaining hold of many of their traditions, such as the Sun Dance. In the early 1900s and right up to the Second World War, hard times once again fell on the Kainai, as they were unable to keep up with the technological changes in farming practices and saw a decline in their communities. Improvements in health and education on the Kainai reserve helped to slow the decline.

The years leading up to the present day have witnessed a dramatic shift in the fortunes of the Kainai people. Kainai people have continued the process of development on the Kainaiwa reserve, which is located about 200 kilometres south of Calgary, Alberta, near the town of Stand Off. The 9,500 people who live on the reserve are presently governed by an elected chief and a council of twelve. The Nation’s administration is made up of 29 departments that see to such areas as education, health, policing, social and economic development, and public relations. With progressive leadership and a strong workforce, the Kainai First Nation boasts a reserve that has become a leader in self governance and sound economic development.
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