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Historical Overview - The People of Treaty 7

Blackfoot Chiefs, 1875

The First Nations People living on the land that was to become southern Alberta were no strangers to treaty making. At one time or another, the First Nations of the Blackfoot Confederacy (Siksika, Kainai, and Piikani), the Tsuu T’ina, and the Nakoda had negotiated treaties with one another and with other First Nations they encountered. From negotiating peaceful solutions to establishing systems of trade between peoples, treaties helped maintain clearly established boundaries between the various First Nations.

The First Nations were eager to sign Treaty 7 in 1877 with the British Crown because disease, reduction of bison herd sizes, and increasing encroachments on traditional lands had dramatically changed life on the plains of the northwest. In 1870, smallpox swept across the plains, devastating the populations of plains people as an earlier epidemic in 1837 had done. Thousands died, and in such a weakened state the Blackfoot, Nakoda, and Tsuu T’ina felt particularly vulnerable.

The worries of the southern plains First Nations were exacerbated by the devastating effect that over hunting had on the plains bison populations. In the north, the value of pemmican, dried bison meat mixed with berries or fat, was quite high, and Cree and Métis hunters encroached on southern plains First Nations’ territories to hunt, either for themselves or for the traders. In the south, American buffalo-hide traders were also slaughtering bison in great numbers, so that their northern migration to the British-held territories brought dwindling numbers of bison with each spring. The source of the southern First Nations’ food, clothing, and shelter was running out. 

The American presence in southern First Nations’ territory brought other miseries as well. American whiskey traders established forts in southern First Nations territories and introduced liquor to First Nations populations. The effects were destructive, resulting in disunity and social breakdown both within and between the southern First Nations Peoples. The presence of American whiskey traders opened up the land to others from the United States, like wolf poisoners. These men would poison buffalo carcasses to kill the wolves that would scavenge on them. The poisoners would then take the wolf hides for sale. Dogs that traveled with First Nations bands would often fall victim to the poisons, inciting the dogs’ masters to violence against the wolf poisoners. The already tragic interplay between whiskey traders, wolf poisoners, and the southern plains First Nations reached its zenith in May of 1873, when a group of drunken wolf poisoners invaded an Assiniboine camp in an incident called the Cypress Hills Massacre. The public outcry that followed prompted Prime Minister John A. McDonald to create and mobilize the North West Mounted Police (NWMP) and send them west to drive out the whiskey traders.   

The arrival of the North West Mounted Police in 1874 was initially welcomed by the plains First Nations. The NWMP drove out the American whiskey traders and wolf poisoners and established a rule of law in the west. The arrival of settlers in First Nations territories in the months and years that followed, however, made the First Nations People aware that the NWMP were as much about protecting the settlers from the Native Peoples as they were about protecting the First Nations from the whiskey traders. Fears of encroaching settlement, combined with concerns about diminishing bison herds made the First Nations anxious to find ways to preserve their traditional ways of life. Hope lay in establishing a treaty with the Crown.

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