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The Siksika Nation Profiles - Deerfoot

Deerfoot, Blackfoot runner, 1886

The Siksika (Blackfoot) man known as Deerfoot was one of the fastest long-distance runners of his generation, and although his personal story came to a tragic end, he would be immortalized for his extraordinary accomplishments.

Deerfoot was born around 1864, at a time when the Siksika had not yet signed Treaty 7 with the British Crown. He was the son of Natowes-tsitsi (Medicine Fire) and the nephew of Siksika Chief Issapo’ makkikaaw (Crowfoot). His true name was Api-kai-ees.

Deerfoot demonstrated at a young age a remarkable skill in long distance running. This talent earned him a commission as a messenger who couriered messages on foot between forts in southern Alberta and northern Montana. In the years following the signing of Treaty 7, Deerfoot’s reputation as a long-distance runner began to reach beyond the confines of the Siksika reserve. In 1884, when he was around the age of twenty, representatives of a Calgary professional running syndicate approached him and set him on the path of a professional running career. At the time, professional running was a popular pastime, with some interested spectators wagering on the outcome of the races which could pit local runners against runners from across Canada and even those in Great Britain.

For the first two years of his career, Deerfoot ran in minor local races at an indoor track in Calgary. In 1886, Deerfoot defeated Little Plume, another runner from the Siksika First Nation, and a North West Mounted Police (NWMP) constable named James Green in an endurance race that took place for four hours a day over the course of four days. The object of the competition was to complete as many laps as possible in sixteen hours. Deerfoot completed the race in dramatic fashion, achieving eighty-four miles and six laps in the allotted time. It was after this race that Deerfoot started using the name Deerfoot. Originally, this name had been used by a Seneca First Nations man named Ha-ga-sa-do-ni, who ran world record times in England during the 1860s.

In months leading to the summer of 1886, Deerfoot cemented his reputation as a superior long distance runner, defeating opponents and setting, or coming just shy of, long distance running records at the time. His success led to his involvement in a ten-mile race in Calgary against runners from Winnipeg and Great Britain. The race had to be repeated due to complaints from the British running camp about miscounted laps. Despite this, Deerfoot won both times.

That race, which took place in the autumn of 1886, took place a little under a year before troubles came to Deerfoot’s life. In 1887, lacking supplies on the reserve, Deerfoot broke into a settler’s house (other sources say it was a Hudson’s Bay Company trading post in Calgary) and made off with two blankets. When the NWMP caught up with him, he allegedly defended himself with an axe and escaped capture.

The story caused a sensation among local papers, with some journalists predicting a war with the Siksika over the incident. Local settlers were panicked both by the notion of a First Nations fugitive at large, and at the overblown implications the subject was given in the press,  prompting Northwest Territories Lieutenant-Governor Edgar Dewdney to appeal to Siksika chief Crowfoot for help in apprehending the long distance runner.

Deerfoot roamed Siksika reserve territory for two years, evading a one-hundred man North West Mounted Police force dispatched on the Siksika reserve to capture him. He finally turned himself in at the behest of his uncle Crowfoot and was sentenced to forty-five days hard labour in prison. This seemed to mark a turning point in Deerfoot’s life. He never raced professionally again, and spent the rest of his life in and out of jail. The jail never left him it seemed, for it was in prison where he contracted the tuberculosis that ended his life on 24 February, 1897 at a North West Mounted Police guardhouse in Calgary.

It is not for his failures that Deerfoot is remembered, for a highway, a school, an industrial park, and a shopping mall in Calgary were all named to honour his accomplishments as an athlete. If his spirit was broken in life, it found swift new wings after his death.

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