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The Making of Treaty 7 - Historical Overview

And whereas the said Commissioners have proceeded to negotiate a Treaty with the said Indians; and the same has been finally agreed upon and concluded as follows, that is to say : the Blackfeet, Blood, Piegan, Sarcee, Stony and other Indians inhabiting the district hereinafter more fully described and defined, do hereby cede, release, surrender, and yield up to the Government of Canada for Her Majesty the Queen and her successors for ever, all their rights, titles, and privileges whatsoever to the lands included within the following limits…
From the text of Treaty Number 7 between Her Majesty the Queen and the Blackfeet and Other Indian Tribes at the Blackfoot Crossing of Bow River and Fort Macleod, 22 September, 1877

What is Treaty 7? This question still persists in the present day, even though the Treaty 7 document was created generations ago, in the year 1877.

Sir John A. Macdonald

Succinctly put, as far is historical and archival documentation is concerned, Treaty 7 was, and is, an agreement signed by the representatives of the Dominion of Canada in the name of Her Majesty Queen Victoria of England and the Siksika (Blackfoot), Kainai (Blood), Piikani (Peigan), Tsuu T’ina (Sarcee), and Nakoda (Stoney) First Nations. The agreement made, according to the written document, is that the First Nations, which at the time were occupying land in what is now southern Alberta, were to surrender the title of ownership to that land. In exchange, the government would provide the First Nations people with regular treaty payments, education, reserve land to live and hunt on, and farming and ranching supplies, livestock, and advice, among other provisions. The First Nations were to live in peace with the European settlers who were arriving to homestead on the ceded land and with the Cree and Métis who were also pressing into the territory to hunt what remained of the plains bison herds. The government was to provide the security of the Queen’s Law over all.

On paper, these terms were straightforward, almost simple in their presentation, but in practice for all the years since the passing of 1877, they have been anything but. The story of Treaty 7 is the story of two ways of life suddenly tangled together over the rights of homeland and settlement. It is about a new Dominion of Canada struggling to be born in North America, with precious little time to secure the infrastructure needed to lay claim to the lands north of the 49th parallel. Land was needed for this new nation, and needed quickly, but the land was not free to seize. There were others who had for a long time lived as part of the land for countless generations before the first European explorers set foot on their territories. The Dominion would have to negotiate for the rights to First Nations land, for government policy and precedent demanded it. The Royal Proclamation of 1763 stated in no uncertain terms that no settlement was to take place on the lands occupied by First Nations peoples unless that land had been ceded by the First Nations after negotiations with the British Crown. This laid the groundwork for treaties, particularly the numbered treaties that, starting in 1871, secured much of the land known as the Northwest Territories and paved the way for settlement and the building of a transcontinental railroad that united the eastern provinces of the Dominion with the new province of British Columbia on the west coast. Treaty 7 was set to secure some 50,000 square miles of plains land occupied by the powerful Blackfoot Confederacy, their allies the Tsuu T’ina, and their traditional enemies the Nakoda.

Crowfoot, Chief of the Siksika (Blackfoot) Indians, 1886

For the Treaty 7 First Nations, as they would later be called, traditional ways were in a state of rapid and unavoidable change brought on either directly or indirectly from the ever increasing presence of European explorers, traders, missionaries, and settlers. Trade and the presence of missionaries had sparked social, political, and in some cases, spiritual changes in daily life for the First Nations peoples. Disease and the vices brought on by the American whiskey trade would ravage these Nations with devastating effects. The traditional source of food, clothing, and shelter for the Plains peoples, the plains bison, was running out. The herds were shrinking in size, and harder to find. For First Nations leaders who lived to see the changes come, the times surrounding the signing of Treaty 7 would be a supreme test of their abilities to guide their peoples safely through the coming social and political storm. Desiring peace and an end to what they saw as unwanted invasion of their territory, the First Nations desired change, and thought such change could be secured through peace talks with the Europeans.

The talks did come in September 1877, but what the Europeans brought to the table was not exactly what the Treaty 7 First Nations were hoping for. Words were spoken, and a treaty was made, but everything about it, from the negotiations that led to it to the act of signing the document remains steeped in controversy. By examining the events leading up to and including the signing of the treaty, the individuals and organizations involved, and the subsequent attempts to understand all that took place, many more questions are raised about Treaty 7 than answers.  But the questions raised are important ones if there is ever to be any understanding between those who once knew the land, and those who now occupy it.

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