Updated: Mar 17
A short reflection from our Executive Director and Resident Settler, Neil Fleming.
I decided to start writing this blog to share with my friends in the non-Indigenous community, some of the things I have learned in my time working with Making Treaty 7. I know that the “algorithms” that control our newsfeeds will generally omit anything Indigenous unless you specifically show some interest. Here’s me taking a step toward garnering some of that interest from you…
(Mis)Treaty 7 – a bit of truth and context
I have been working with Making Treaty 7 off and on since the summer of 2016. I have learned a ton about Indigenous people, especially the Blackfoot (or Niitsitapii), but also about the plight of all Indigenous people in North America. It was hard to find a place to start. For this, my first post, I thought I’d start with Treaty 7 itself.
How many of you, my settler friends, have taken the time to read the treaty under which our society now thrives? Well here is the text, easily found via google search if you’d like to follow along. I’ll make a few notes to give a bit of context around how some of the items played out.
The Treaty itself is written Victorian-era legalese, so it is somewhat difficult to digest for a modern citizen. So you can imagine how it might have been tricky to the Blackfoot, who couldn’t yet speak even simple English, for them understand what they were agreeing to. Especially since the translators that were hired for the proceedings only spoke a smattering of Blackfoot, and were often witnessed to be drunk.
The language barrier has since been overcome as almost all the Indigenous peoples of Treaty 7 can now speak English! There are Elders today who heard of the making of Treaty 7 from their actual grandparents, who were there and passed the story along to them. In fact, Making Treaty 7 began with the study of a book called The True Spirit and Intent of Treaty 7, which consisted of transcribed Elders accounts of the oral history of their families. This is where the truth began to appear for those first MT7 artists.
“The Blackfeet, Blood, Piegan, Sarcee, Stony and other Indians inhabiting the district hereinafter more fully described and defined, do hereby cede, release, surrender, and yield up to the Government of Canada for Her Majesty the Queen and her successors for ever, all their rights, titles, and privileges whatsoever to the lands included within the following limits…”
There was no Blackfoot word for “cede” or “surrender” especially in terms of land. Land was just a part of the world around them or “that which sustains us”, along with air, water, plants and animals. They came from the land, and would return to it. It was not theirs to give. The Elders’ accounts describe that they understood they were being asked to “share” the land with the coming settlers. Some say they only agreed to share the top six inches – for farming.
“And Her Majesty the Queen hereby agrees with her said Indians, that they shall have right to pursue their vocations of hunting throughout the Tract surrendered as heretofore described, subject to such regulations as may, from time to time, be made by the Government of the country, acting under the authority of Her Majesty and saving and excepting such Tracts as may be required or taken up from time to time for settlement, mining, trading or other purposes by Her Government of Canada; or by any of Her Majesty’s subjects duly authorized therefor by the said Government.”
What a mouthful of exceptions! So they were told they could continue to hunt and practice their traditional ways of following the buffalo herds. It was not explained to them that the Indian Act had been passed the year before and they would soon be restricted to their reservations.
“It is also agreed between Her Majesty and Her said Indians that Reserves shall be assigned them of sufficient area to allow one square mile for each family of five persons, or in that proportion for larger and smaller families, and that said Reserves shall be located as follows…”
How could a group of people who spent their years travelling all over this territory be expected to understand the concept of one square mile?
“In view of the satisfaction of Her Majesty with the recent general good conduct of her said Indians, and in extinguishment of all their past claims, she hereby, through her Commissioners, agrees to make them a present payment of twelve dollars each in cash to each man, woman, and child of the families here represented.”
There are stories of Metis traders collecting all these paper bills that were discarded by those that received them but didn’t understand their value. The camp at Blackfoot Crossing was reported to be littered with five dollar bills.
“Her Majesty also agrees that next year, and annually afterwards forever, she will cause to be paid to the said Indians, in cash, at suitable places and dates, of which the said Indians shall be duly notified, to each Chief, twenty-five dollars, each minor Chief or Councillor (not exceeding fifteen minor Chiefs to the Blackfeet and Blood Indians, and four to the Piegan and Sarcee Bands, and five Councillors to the Stony Indian Bands), fifteen dollars, and to every other Indian of whatever age, five dollars; the same, unless there be some exceptional reason, to be paid to the heads of families for those belonging thereto.”
These annuity payments continue to this day. They are still five dollars. Some older treaties pay out only four. Registered Indians must go in person to the reserve they are registered with to collect it (with valid ID). There is no interest or allowances for inflation.
Further, Her Majesty agrees that each Head Chief and Minor Chief, and each Chief and Councillor duly recognized as such, shall, once in every three years, during the term of their office, receive a suitable suit of clothing, and each Head Chief and Stony Chief, in recognition of the closing of the Treaty, a suitable medal and flag, and next year, or as soon as convenient, each Head Chief, and Minor Chief, and Stony Chief shall receive a Winchester rifle.
I’d be curious to know if these Winchester rifles that were distributed back in 1877 are still kicking around, I’m sure they would have stories to tell. Not sure if the new suit every three years is still a thing for Chief and council…
Further, Her Majesty agrees to pay the salary of such teachers to instruct the children of said Indians as to Her Government of Canada may seem advisable, when said Indians are settled on their Reserves and shall desire teachers.
This turned out to be Residential Schools. The last one closed in the 1996.
“Further, Her Majesty agrees to supply each Head and Minor Chief, and each Stony Chief, for the use of their Bands, ten axes, five handsaws, five augers, one grindstone, and the necessary files and whetstones.”
I wonder if any of these tools are collecting dust in old sheds or barns or sitting on the shelves of antique stores in Nanton…
“For every family of five persons, and under, two cows; for every family of more than five persons, and less than ten persons, three cows, for every family of over ten persons, four cows; and every Head and Minor Chief, and every Stony Chief, for the use of their Bands, one bull.”
Fun fact: I’ve been told that the Piikani Nation was so good at raising cattle that Alberta started to garner a reputation for the quality of its beef. And thus “Alberta Beef” became a thing. Until white ranchers complained that they couldn’t compete and so the Indian Department made Piikani switch to corn instead. This was typical Indian Act tactics, but I’ll save that for another day…
The biggest difference between the two sides of the treaty are rooted in the language. In English a treaty is:
“a contract in writing between two or more political authorities formally signed by representatives duly authorized and usually ratified by the lawmaking authority of the state”
In Blackfoot, the word “innaihtsiiyi” means to make peace. It is a sacred ceremony that involves smoking the pipe, and it lasts, “as long as the sun shines, the grass grows, and the river flows”.
From my understanding, the Indigenous people took the process very seriously and a have honoured their word and followed all of the rules. The same cannot be said for those who were operating on behalf of Canada or the Crown.
PS – There is a great document by Alberta historian Hugh Dempsey that provides wonderful context to the importance of Treaty 7 from both the Indigenous and government perspective. Click here to read it.