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Implications and Contentions - Missionary Activity

Blood Native Women and Children with Rev. Matheson

Missionaries started appearing in southern Alberta around the signing of Treaty 7 in 1877. As outlined in “Missionaries: Precursors to Settlement,” the missionaries associated with the Nations of Treaty 7 were thought to be the first non-Native people to set foot on the southern Alberta Prairies. This is because the peoples of the Blackfoot Confederacy were not involved in the fur trade. The presence of the missionaries in the Treaty 7 area was met with ambivalence.

On one hand, missionaries such as Reverend John McDougall and Father Constantine Scollen proved to be quite useful for the Nations of Treaty 7. Both of these men were present at the signing of the Treaty and served as translators during the negotiations. John McDougall had a history of friendship with the Nakoda (Stoney) Peoples as he established the Methodist church and school at the Morley reserve, located along the highway to Banff. Some First Nations accepted the presence of missionaries on their reserves because it was believed that people like McDougall could help fight the liquor and famine problems faced by First Nations. Other Native Peoples were not so welcoming of missionaries, however.

Many missionaries were unsuccessful in their endeavors because they did not understand the culture and spirituality of the First Nations, and also because there were rivalries between churches on the reserves. High Crow Eagle, a member of the Piikani (Peigan) First Nation, explained that the presence of two different denominations encouraged a split between the people on the reserves. He says that the missionaries “created a great deal of animosity among the Indians because of the way [the people] were pitted against each other by the churches to the point where young people from each denomination would physically fight one another." (Hildebrandt and Carter, The True Spirit and Intent of Treaty Seven, Hugh Crow Eagle, p. 156; Quoted in “Missionaries: Precursors to Settlement.”)

Some other notable missionaries that were involved with the Kainai (Blood), Siksika (Blackfoot), Piikani, Tsuu T’ina (Sarcee), and Nakoda Peoples included Roman Catholic Father Albert Lacombe, who belonged to the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, and the Wesleyan Methodists. While the Native view of missionaries was ambivalent, the missionaries continued to live and work on the reserves until the twentieth century.

From a contemporary standpoint, the view of Christianity among First Nations peoples can vary greatly. There are those who embraced the new religion, and the missionaries who preached it. There are others who have rejected the missionaries and their message as agents of colonialism – one more method of extinguishing First Nations spiritual traditions that lay at the very heart of First Nations existence. Still others embraced the message, but not the messengers who brought it, noting the terrible damage done to Aboriginal society through the dark legacy of Missionary run residential schools. The Treaty 7 First Nations, and the many other First Nations who made treaty with the Canadian government, are still coming to terms with the deep changes to First Nations life and culture that came with the Christian missionaries who started living among them. As with the treaty itself, the final opinion on missionaries may be a very long time in coming.

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