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Historical Overview - The Signing

pen and ink

As far as official historical documentation is concerned, Treaty 7 was signed by the representatives of Her Majesty Queen Victoria of England and the leaders of the Siksika (Blackfoot), Kainai (Blood), Piikani (Peigan), Tsuu T’ina (Sarcee) and Nakoda (Stoney) First Nations on Saturday, 22 September 1877. Upon the signing of the Treaty 7 document, the First Nations occupying land in what is now southern Alberta had officially relinquished their title to that land, surrendering those rights to the interests of the British Crown and the expanding Dominion of Canada. To the present day, however, the events surrounding the signing of Treaty 7 generate a great deal of controversy, both in the events leading up to the signing and in the act of signing.

The Treaty 7 negotiations between the treaty commission and the First Nations took place at Blackfoot Crossing in Siksika Territory from Monday, 17 September to Friday, 21 September. Technically, very little by way of negotiation took place on either the Monday or Tuesday of that week. This is because both the treaty commissioners and the First Nations leaders agreed that the negotiations should be put off until Wednesday to allow absent chiefs, particularly those of the Kainai and Piikani Nations, time to join the proceedings. On the afternoon of Wednesday, 19 September, treaty commissioner David Laird decided to proceed with the talks despite that fact that many Kainai and Piikani chiefs had not yet made an appearance.

A large open tent was set up for the commissioners and their aides to sit under. The chiefs who were present at the talks, including Siksika chief Crowfoot, gathered in front of the tent. Several hundred feet behind the chiefs, about four thousand First Nations men, women, and children had gathered and formed a semi-circle around the central location. It was on this first day of talks that Laird expressed the terms of the treaty, summarizing what the First Nations could expect in exchange for the title to their lands. Treaty payments, reserve lands, education, and farm implements were to be provided by the government to the First Nations. The First Nations were to surrender their land, live at peace with the Cree and Métis buffalo hunters and European settlers, and keep the Queen’s laws. The First Nations did not speak on this day, but withdrew to consider what the government was offering them.

From the above description of events, it would seem as if the First Nations leaders were given a clear idea as to what they were getting into, but First Nations Elders have shared oral history accounts of the events that challenge this notion. Interpretation was definitely an issue at the treaty talks. Jerry Potts, a North West Mounted Police scout who was translating for the government, had to be replaced because of his tendency to over-summarize what was said, which could have led to key points being missed. He was replaced by James Bird, who was old and blind and may not have been able to make his voice carry so that terms were clearly heard. Aside from the translators, there were other problems with translation. For instance, certain words in English were not easily translated into the Blackfoot languages. None of the First Nations languages had a word equivalent for surrender, reserve, or even title when referring to the land. It is a critical point of understanding that these terms were key to the central agreement. It is not clear if the First Nations Peoples really understood what they were agreeing to, as they may not have had a clear explanation of it.

On Thursday, 20 September, two significant events occurred. The Nakoda chiefs had already decided to accept the terms of the treaty, which was already indicated. The Siksika and the few Kainai lea ders present were not so quick to take on the terms of the treaty, however. Kainai chief Medicine Calf made a speech where he demanded high treaty payments and full compensation for any wood used by those on Blackfoot lands. Laird dismissed this demand, stating that the First Nations should be happy with the fact that the whiskey traders were dealt with. Later in the evening, Kainai chief Red Crow and a number of other Kainai and Piikani chiefs arrived. They conferred all through the night with Crowfoot. The following day, the chiefs announced that they would accept the terms of the treaty with no revisions.

On Saturday, 22 September, the chiefs were presented with the treaty document to sign. But did any of the chiefs sign the treaty? The names of all chiefs are written down, although in many cases these names are poorly translated versions. Next to each chief’s name is an X indicating his signature, but allegedly the chiefs did not write the X’s either. According to the testimonies of First Nations Elders, the chiefs merely touched the pen to indicate that they had signed the document. Interestingly, this process was overseen by Jean-Baptiste L’Heureux, a translator who had helped the Blackfoot chiefs petition for a treaty two years before.

Another point made by some present day First Nations leaders is that the Treaty 7 document presented to the chiefs in 1877 did not carry any language reflecting anything the chiefs had mentioned or said during the negotiations. While the terms of the treaty were laid out and discussed, the written terms do not reflect this. This also raises the cultural point of written versus oral histories. European culture placed its faith on the legal validity of written testimony, while in First Nations culture, oral history is equally as valid. This difference in understanding has led to ongoing debate over what was promised during the negotiations for Treaty 7.

Treaty 7 is still considered a legal document in the present day, yet there are many puzzling aspects surrounding the negotiation signing of this historic document that have inspired First Nations Elders, scholars, and leaders to question the validity of the document.

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