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The Treaty Makers - Crowfoot (Issapo' makkikaaw)

Crowfoot, Chief of the Siksika (Blackfoot) Indians

Issapo’ mahkikaaw, or Crowfoot, was a key leader for the First Nations of the Blackfoot Confederacy during the negotiations with the Crown over Treaty 7. He articulated the position of the Blackfoot Peoples to the Treaty Commissioners. 

Crowfoot was born at the Belly River in what is now southern Alberta around the year 1830. His father, Isttoa’ni (Carries a Knife), was Siksika (Blackfoot), and his mother, Ahkiap sai pi ya wa (Attacks Toward Home), was Kainai (Blood). Though Crowfoot was born into the Kainai, he was adopted into the Siksika Nation when he was five years old and lived among the Siksika from then on.

Crowfoot distinguished himself as a fierce warrior from a young age. He earned the name Crowfoot for being wounded in a courageous battle with the Crow Nation who were enemies of the Siksika. By the age of twenty, Crowfoot had been distinguished, and wounded, many more times in battle, and he rose to prominence as war chief of the Siksika, following in the footsteps of his predecessor and mentor, Three Suns. Crowfoot is reputed to have married several times over the course of his adult life. One of his wives was the sister of Mi’k ai’stoowa, Red Crow, who was Chief of the Kainai at the signing of Treaty 7. This familial relationship with Red Crow was a close one that lasted for many years.

Crowfoot witnessed many epidemics that ravaged the Blackfoot and other plains peoples, surviving the diphtheria epidemic of 1836, and two smallpox epidemics in 1837 and 1869. After 1869, Crowfoot rose to become one of the main chiefs of the Siksika People.

Crowfoot

As leader of the Siksika, Crowfoot was given the onerous task of steering his people through the increasingly complex relationship between the Blackfoot and the white settlers who were encroaching on Blackfoot territory. Crowfoot was a good judge of character, and chose his allies among the whites carefully as he charted the best course for the Siksika to take. In 1865, Crowfoot met the Catholic missionary Father Albert Lacombe after a battle in which Crowfoot and his men routed a band of Cree who had attacked a Blackfoot Camp Lacombe was spending time at. The two men became close, and it is believed that Lacombe’s influence on Crowfoot was one of the factors that led Crowfoot to favour treaty making with the Crown. In 1874, Crowfoot also formed a close partnership with Colonel James F. Macleod of the North West Mounted Police (NWMP), after Macleod proved himself a fair and honest man who had dealt swiftly and decisively in driving American whiskey traders out of Blackfoot territory.

Still, Crowfoot was wise enough to see that that continued presence of the NWMP in Blackfoot lands meant that more white settlers were coming. Encroaching settlement and the gradual disappearance of the buffalo on the plains heralded great changes for the Siksika and other plains peoples, and Crowfoot was prompted to meet with other Siksika, Kainai, Piikani (Peigan), and Tsuu T’ina (Sarcee) chiefs in 1875 to press for a treaty with Crown authorities.

In 1877, during Treaty 7 negotiations, Crowfoot exercised great eloquence and wisdom as a representative for the Blackfoot Confederacy First Nations. Though he was held by Crown officials as the leader of all the Nations of the Blackfoot Confederacy, Crowfoot never uttered a decision until he had consulted with all the Blackfoot chiefs, holding to traditional lines of authority. After the signing of Treaty 7, Crowfoot encouraged the Siksika to adopt a farming lifestyle. The days of hunting bison on the prairies had passed, and the Siksika would have to become more resourceful to survive. Crowfoot was hopeful that Treaty 7 would lead to better days for his people, but he was soon disillusioned by the harsh treatment of his people at the hands of Indian agents, and the restrictive policies of the Indian Act. Though angered, Crowfoot resisted Métis requests that he and his people should join the 1885 Rebellion. Instead he opted for peace, knowing that his people could not afford a major war with the more numerous Europeans.

Still, peace proved an arduous road. Crowfoot lost many of his children to disease, and endured the betrayals of the Indian agents, who at times seemed determined to sabotage every gain the Siksika tried to make in their new lives. Weakened by repeated illnesses, Crowfoot died on 25 April 1890 at the age of sixty. He had brought a measure of peace to his people, but in his heart, he knew the peace would be a troubled one.
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