The Siksika Nation - Historical Overview
Like all the Blackfoot Peoples of the plains, the Siksika trace a very long and complex history on their traditional lands. Siksika custom and tradition is rooted deeply in the land, and historically the Siksika have shared this land with some tribes, while defending it – successfully or unsuccessfully – from the aggressive encroachments of others, such as enemy First Nations or the federal government.
As one of the First Nations of the Blackfoot Confederacy, the Siksika enjoyed relatively close ties with fellow Blackfoot neighbours and allies including the Kainai, whose traditional lands lie to the south of the Siksika, and the Piikani, whose ancestral lands stretched along the western edge of Blackfoot held territory. The bonds with the Kainai and Piikani were strong in a general sense due to a common language and culture shared among the three First Nations. These bonds were reinforced through frequent intermarriage and trade among the Siksika, Kainai, and Piikani and also through an allied defense of their traditional lands against those First Nations who aimed to take them.
The history of the Siksika mirrors that of the entire Blackfoot Nation. Prior to the eighteenth century, the Siksika travelled on foot alongside canine companions that helped with the pulling of loads across the plains. Because dogs and humans could only pull so much, Siksika camps and possessions had to be small and limited. With the introduction of the horse to the various Blackfoot tribes around 1790, the Siksika witnessed tremendous change in their society. Horses could travel farther and pull bigger loads than dogs. They could also keep pace with plains bison during a hunt, making hunting more efficient, if not more dangerous. The combined advantages of the horse in hunting, travel, and warfare led to an accumulation of wealth and strength for the Siksika and their neighbour Blackfoot tribes.
Like the Kainai and Piikani, the Siksika engaged in frequent trade with other plains peoples, and saw their world change as a result of the trade. First Nations like the Cree had been acting as middlemen between European traders and various First Nations Peoples. As a result of this trade the Siksika acquired firearms. Guns also carried a significant impact on Siksika life because it changed the nature of warfare and, eventually, bison hunting.
As the northernmost of the tribes of the Blackfoot Confederacy, the Siksika were perhaps most affected by the incursions of European trade forts along the North Saskatchewan River. Initially, the Siksika were not interested in trade with the Europeans, preferring instead to deal with intermediaries such as the Cree and Assiniboine. As hunters of buffalo, the Siksika eventually came to trade with the Europeans in goods such as buffalo robes and pemmican. The fur trade, however, brought its share of misery to the Siksika. The Cree and Assiniboine became more aggressive, and pushed the Siksika further south into territory held by the Piikani. Because buffalo had become a valued trade commodity, they were slaughtered in much larger numbers by Europeans and by the First Nations Peoples trading them. As a result, the buffalo became scarce and the Siksika faced a serious threat to their survival. Increasing European settlement was another pressure, as European settlers continued to push the Siksika and other Blackfoot tribes off of their traditional territories. Along with the detrimental social and intertribal upheaval brought on by the American whiskey trade, diseases like smallpox, brought on by contact with Europeans, decimated the Siksika population. With the various Blackfoot First Nations facing disintegration and starvation, it was the Siksika leader Crowfoot who counselled Siksika, Kainai, and Piikani leaders to accept Treaty 7 with the Canadian authorities. The Treaty was signed in 1877 on Siksika territory, at a place called Blackfoot Crossing.
As a result of signing Treaty 7, the Siksika settled on reserve land in 1881 near the Bow River, about seventy kilometres east of Calgary. Reserve life, however, was not the peace the Siksika had hoped for. The Siksika adapted to farming and ranching life on the land they had once hunted on, but life under the control of federally appointed Indian Agents meant that the Siksika would not gain much financially from farming, even when they proved successful at it. In 1912, under pressure to sell off their reserve land to outside interests, the Siksika sold 61,000 acres of land for just under one million dollars, and in 1918 they sold another 55,000 acres for just over one million dollars. With the funds generated from the sales, the Siksika built up infrastructure on the reserve. The funds for such projects ran out by the end of the Second World War, but the Siksika remained determined to continue the work they had started.
Economic and administrative self-sufficiency has been the goal of the Siksika Nation since the late 1950s. The reserve is administered by an elected body consisting of a chief and twelve counsellors, and with this administrative body in place, the Siksika Nation has undertaken several initiatives towards achieving independence from the 1876 Indian Act. In 1995, the Siksika Nation established the Siksika Energy Resources Corporation (SERC) with the aim of gaining control over mineral rights on Siksika reserve land. This led to corporate development of Siksika Resource Developments Limited (SRDL) in 1997. Both these organizations have helped generate revenue for the Siksika Nation through resource development and marketing. In 2003, the Nation successfully settled with the Government of Canada for $82 million in damages for land that was wrongfully included in the land sale made from the reserve in 1910. The money from the sale was placed in trust to ensure long term benefits for members of the Siksika Nation. A joint training program with the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology in Calgary is yet another initiative undertaken by the Siksika Nation, with the goal of helping community members take full advantage of the economic and employment developments that the Nation is undergoing. As it has been throughout Siksika history, knowledge is seen as the key to a successful future.