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The Piikani Nation - Historical Overview

Peigan Natives

The Blackfoot Confederacy is comprised of the Piikani, Kainai, and Siksika Nations, all of which can trace their ancestry on the plains for many generations. While they are the largest of the three tribal groups in the Blackfoot Confederacy, the Piikani are the smallest group located north of the Alberta / Montana border.

Traditionally, the Piikani lived a nomadic lifestyle, following plains bison herds across a territory that covered a vast expanse of land ranging along the foothills of the Rocky Mountains from the area now known as Rocky Mountain House, Alberta, south to Heart Butte in Montana, and eastward into the great plains. Because the Piikani were a large First Nation, they eventually divided into two tribes. One tribe pushed further south into the area that is now northern Montana, while the other—smaller—tribe remained in the north, the area of present day southwestern Alberta.

The Piikani signed a Treaty with the Americans in 1855, but by 1877, that year that Treaty 7 was to be signed with the Canadian government, only the northern tribe signed on. Though the Piikani were the largest single First Nation in the Blackfoot Confederacy in terms of population, the northern Piikani were the smallest First Nation to sign on to Treaty 7.

After the signing of the Treaty in 1877, the northern Piikani moved to reserve land along the Oldman River and close to the Porcupine Hills. Settlement on the reserve took place in 1879, and the Piikani made a transition from a nomadic hunting existence to a settled agricultural lifestyle. Despite experiencing the shock of cultural and lifestyle changes, the Piikani proved able and successful farmers, at least for the first few years.

In the 1880s and 1890s, the Piikani endured many difficult challenges as a First Nation. Diseases such as smallpox ravaged the Piikani population; by 1898 only 536 Piikani that lived on the reserve survived. Starting in 1886, a severe drought heralded what would be a fifteen year period of repeated crop failures. Again, the Piikani made a change by turning to ranching cattle instead of producing grain. As a result they sold about 11,000 hectares of their reserve land to outside agricultural producers in 1909. In 1918, the influenza epidemic once again threatened to wipe out the Piikani. Only 250 Piikani would survive the outbreak.

Improvements in healthcare led to a steady increase in population, while Piikani efforts to administer and develop their reserve lead to slow improvements in educational and economic opportunities. The Piikani were among the first to create an administrative body for their First Nation and to vote in provincial elections. While the current population of the Piikani First Nation is increasing, it continues to remain small due to movement of band members seeking employment off the reserve.

Reserve development for the Piikani has proven controversial at times. In the late 1980s, the Alberta Government proposed the building of the Oldman River Dam to encourage increased water distribution and hyrdroelectric power to several southern Alberta communities. The dam, however, was not something that the Piikani embraced, as it affected their traditional land and posed a potential flooding risk to their reserve communities. When the dam was built in 1992, protest groups, such as the Peigan Lonefighters Society that was led by Milton Born With a Tooth, formed within the Piikani reserve to fight the project. Eventually, the Piikani band settled for an allocation of water from the Oldman reservoir for crop irrigation, along with a share in the hydroelectric power development. Though active resistance has cooled since the early 1990s, the claim for the traditional use of the land still remains.

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