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The Treaty Makers - Red Crow (Mi'k ai'stowa)

Red Crow, Kainai chief

In 1877, Mi’k ai’stoowa (Red Crow) represented the Kainai people at the negotiations for Treaty 7. His role in the signing of Treaty 7 was quite significant for, as one of the most influential head chiefs of the Kainai, Red Crow spoke for a First Nation that was physically the most numerous of all the First Nations in the land that was to become southern Alberta.

Red Crow was born in 1830, a member of the Fish Eaters clan of the Kainai Nation. He was descended from a long line of Kainai leaders. His grandfather, Two Suns, his father, Kiaayi siki namm (Black Bear), and his Uncle, Piinakkoyim (Seen From Afar), all served as Kainai chiefs. As a youth, Red Crow was a fierce warrior who had won many battles for the Kainai against enemy First Nations like the Crow, the Cree, the Assiniboine, and the Shoshoni.

In 1870, when smallpox ran rampant through the plains First Nations population, Red Crow found himself thrust into a leadership role after the death of his father. More a warrior than a politician, Red Crow was initially reluctant to get involved in such things, but he had already proven himself a strong and generous member of his clan, and when approached to take clan leadership, he took on the responsibility. The leadership of the Fish Eaters Clan gave Red Crow influence over much of the Kainai tribe, as the Fish Eaters were the largest clan in the tribe. While he would not make decisions without first consulting all the Kainai clan chiefs, it was clear that Red Crow’s decisions would help shape the destiny of all the Kainai.

Red Crow statue on the Kainai reserve

Red Crow led the Kainai people through a dark chapter in their history. Like the other plains tribes at the time, the Kainai experienced great suffering through the combined afflictions of disease, diminishing bison herds, and the terrible consequences of alcohol use introduced to them through the American whiskey trade. Red Crow himself experienced the terrible effects of alcohol use, when in drunken brawls he killed one of his brothers and two other Kainai tribesmen. He was glad to be rid of the drink when the North West Mounted Police arrived in 1874 to put an end to the whiskey trade.

With the end of the whiskey trade in Kainai territory, Red Crow developed a respect for the North West Mounted Police, and for their leader, Colonel James Macleod. The friendship and respect that developed between Red Crow and Macleod was one factor in influencing Red Crow’s decision to enter into Treaty 7 negotiations in 1877. Initially, Red Crow did not want to attend the negotiations as planned. Originally the location of the meeting was Fort Macleod, which Red Crow favoured because it was a central location that all the concerned plains tribes could get to. When the Siksika chief Crowfoot opposed the negotiations at Fort Macleod, insisting instead that the talks be held at Blackfoot Crossing, deep in Siksika territory, Red Crow and many other Kainai clan chiefs opposed the change. They requested that a separate meeting with the Kainai chiefs be held at Fort Macleod, but Treaty Commissioner David Laird refused the request, stating that he wanted all the tribes together for the talks.

The negotiations for Treaty 7 were originally scheduled to begin on 17 September 1877, but when Red Crow and many other Kainai clan chiefs did not make an appearance, David Laird ordered that the talks be delayed by two days. Messengers were dispatched to find the other clan leaders and urge them to attend. When on 19 September, Red Crow and the other Kainai chiefs had still not arrived, Laird ordered the talks to begin without them. The Kainai chief Medicine Calf, who had agreed to attend the negotiations at the Blackfoot Crossing location, became the voice for the Kainai people in Red Crow’s absence.

Red Crow’s Grave on the Kainai reserve

Red Crow and other Kainai clan chiefs arrived at the talks on 20 September, 1877. At the time Red Crow felt the treaty was an agreement to share Kainai hunting lands with European settlers, and so had not invested too much importance in the process. He had not realized that the treaty had meant for the Kainai to surrender their lands to the British Crown. At first, after the signing of the Treaty, the Kainai were pleased that they would receive compensation for the use of their lands, but over time, they realized that the treaty restricted Kainai use of the land to make way for European settlement, and confined their movements in terms of the buffalo hunt. As a result, Red Crow lobbied for additional reserve lands for the Kainai in 1878 and was granted his request.

Red Crow spent the remainder of his days keeping the peace between the Kainai, other First Nations, and ever increasing numbers of European settlers. He helped guide the Kainai from a bison hunting lifestyle to a farming and ranching one, and encouraged his people to become educated in the ways of the emerging world of European settlement. He became a successful farmer and rancher himself, and even competed for supply contracts for the North West Mounted Police. He died on 28 August 1900 on the Kainai reserve.

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