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The Tsuu T'ina Nation - Historical Overview

Sarcee (Tsuu T’ina) woman on horseback

Although closely allied with the Blackfoot Confederacy, which includes the Piikani (Peigan), Kainai (Blood), and Siksika (Blackfoot), the Tsuu T’ina (Sarcee) Nation’s ancestry is linked to the Dene speaking peoples of the Northern Boreal Forest in Alberta, which includes the Beaver, Sekani, and Chipewyan Nations. While the Tsuu T’ina reside in the plains of southern Alberta, early explorers who interacted with them, such as Alexander Mackenzie, documented the similarity in language between the Tsuu T’ina and the Native tribes of the North.

The origin of the Tsuu T’ina is preserved in various myths, one of which explains that in the distant past the Tsuu T’ina split from their Northern allies because of an intense quarrel between tribal members. Tradition explains that a Beaver chief shot a brave’s dog with an arrow. The dog’s owner was infuriated and sought revenge against his adversary. An inter-tribal war ensued in which eighty men were killed. The tribal disharmony lead to the subsequent separation of the tribes: the Tsuu T’ina migrated to southern Alberta leaving behind the other Dene-speaking peoples.

By the time the first Europeans arrived in present-day Alberta, the Tsuu T’ina – along with other members of the Blackfoot Confederacy – had demarcated their territory in southern Alberta. Their territory spanned from the Rocky Mountains in the west to the current Alberta-Saskatchewan border in the east, and from the North Saskatchewan River in the north to the Missouri River in the south, which is in the United States. The Tsuu T’ina did not limit themselves to one specific location because their nomadic lifestyle focused on hunting the roaming buffalo.   

Like the wandering buffalo, the Tsuu T’ina sought freedom on the Plains. At the time of the signing of Treaty 7 the Tsuu T’ina had no intentions of settling down. Moose Mountain, Tsuu T’ina Nation/Husky Oil, Traditional Native Cultural Properties Study explains that most Tsuu T’ina members were under the impression that they were signing a peace treaty rather than surrendering land. Peter Weseley’s mother was present at the negotiations, and her statement summarizes the Native’s understanding of the treaty: “[it was meant] to make peace between us. We will have friendship when and where ever we meet.” She continues to explain that the Natives were told: “I am not going to take over your land, but I am willing to pay you money if you put down your rifle and make peace with me.”

At the signing of this Treaty, the Tsuu T’ina was divided into bands that included several closely-related families. The Treaty recognized one major chief, which at the time was Chief Bull Head, and four minor chiefs. The Tsuu T’ina was also relegated to a communal reserve at Blackfoot Crossing, and they shared it with the Kainai and Siksika. Initially, however, the Tsuu T’ina refused to live on the reserve and opted to hunt the almost diminished buffalo. The Nation faced starvation because of the lack of buffalo, and thus was forced to live on the reserves and farm.

The reserve was four miles in width and was located near Gleichen, fifty-eight miles east of Calgary. Eventually, due to Chief Bull Head’s steadfast persistence, the Tsuu T’ina Nation was relocated to a larger reserve, south-west of Calgary. Named the Fish Creek Reserve, it covered 108 square-miles and was nestled in the precipitous mountain terrain. It was appropriate for the Tsuu T’ina Peoples to be located in the mountains, and especially Moose Mountain, because the mountains were where people went to cultivate spiritual powers, commune with the Creator, and gather alpine plants for spiritual and medicinal uses.

The change in reserves marks one of the Nation’s many victories, yet they endured many struggles as well. The Tsuu T’ina suffered a decrease in population due to several epidemics between the 1730s and 1835. The latter epidemic decimated half of the Nation’s population. In the early 1880s the Canadian government implemented a mandatory farming program as a means to deal with the lack of bison for hunting. Farming agents were introduced to the reserves and taught the Natives how to farm, while monitoring their every move. The Tsuu T’ina was successful in their farming endeavors, however. Reports document that in 1883, the second year of farming, they successfully cultivated oats, barely, peas, potatoes, turnips, carrots, and onions.

While they adapted to the different economic way of life, the Tsuu T’ina maintained their spiritual traditions. As author Grant MacEwan explains in Portraits from the Plains: “The great Bull Head died in 1911, still adhering to his native religion. Pious missionaries had warned him about the impending hell-fire if he did not accept their prejudiced teachings. But his Indian concept of a Great Spirit stood the test of reason… He could see no reason for changing.”

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