His name is well-known in Canada, especially in southern Alberta, and his impact on the history of Canada is immense. He is Chief Crowfoot and today I am looking at his life and the legacy he left after his death.
Crowfoot was born in 1830 in Rupert’s Land to the Kainai people, called the Bloods by traders, who were a member of the Blackfoot Confederacy. His father was Packs a Knife and his mother was Attacked Towards Home and he was born with the name of Short Close.
When he was five-years-old, his father was killed during a raid on their camp by the Crow tribe.
Following the death of his father, his mother remarried to a member of the Siksika tribe called Many Names. Shot Close was adopted into the tribe and his name would become Bear Ghost.
It is with this tribe he would become known for his abilities as not only a warrior, but also a leader. By the age of ten, Crowfoot was so skilled with horses he was in charge of his stepfather’s horses. One story tells of how he advanced and hit a painted tipi in a hostile Crow camp, which would give him the name Crow Indian’s Big Foot, which would be shortened in time by interpreters to Crowfoot.
Crowfoot would first go to battle at the age of 13, and by the time Crowfoot was 20, he had been in 19 battles and was wounded six times. At one point it is said that in full view of his camp, he killed a grizzly bear himself with a spear.
When he reached manhood, Crowfoot began to leave behind the warrior path and seldom went to war. As he became leader of his people, he would focus on raising horses and leading his people. In 1865, he would become a minor chief of the Blackfoot Nation, leading 21 lodges. That same year, he would meet Father Albert Lacombe, a huge figure in Alberta’s history, and form a lifelong friendship with the man. He respected Lacombe enough to allow him to preach Christianity to his people, but Crowfoot did not convert.
His bravery and determination would gain him the respect from other Blackfoot, but it was not just that. He was also known as a voice of peace and reason and was one of the most respected Indigenous leaders as he rose to become a prominent figure of the Blackfoot. Due to his leadership qualities and his caring nature regarding his tribe, he was often called Manistokos, which means father of the people. As a leader, he was seeing more Europeans and eastern Canadians coming into the territories the Indigenous had occupied for centuries. Crowfoot would work to build relationships with the Hudson’s Bay Company and North-West Mounted Police, which sometimes his own tribe did not agree with. For Crowfoot, he saw the Europeans and Canadians as just other people. Some were good, some were bad, but just people.
Father Lacombe would relate an instance when he saw the power of Crowfoot and his abilities in war. Lacombe was visiting Blackfoot chief Old Sun in 1866 when the camp was attacked by a war-party of Assiniboines and Cree.
“In an instant, some score of bullets came crashing through the leather lodge and the wild war-whoop of the Crees broke forth through the sharp, rapid detonation of many muskets. The groans of the dying, the yelling of the warriors…the noise of dogs and horses all mingled to form a kind of hell. At the most critical moment, when the little camp was half-taken by the Crees and when scalping and butchering was going on, the voice of Crowfoot was heard. He was rushing to the rescue.”
In 1869, a smallpox epidemic would hit the Blackfoot and several of the leaders would perish. Crowfoot survived and would become one of the three head chiefs of the Blackfoot. This was also a time of change in the Prairies with the Hudson’s Bay Company selling its western territory to the Dominion of Canada. This would result in American traders coming into the Prairies and they began to trade liquor for fur, something that was not allowed when the area was controlled by the Hudson’s Bay Company.
With the arrival of the North West Mounted Police in 1874, Chief Crowfoot saw this as a good thing since the illegal alcohol trade in what would be southern Alberta had devasted many Indigenous tribes and Crowfoot saw their presence as a solution to that.
Some sources relate that he would say to Reverend John McDougall regarding the arrival of the NWMP:
“If left to ourselves we are gone. The whiskey brought among us by the traders is fast killing us off and we are powerless before the evil. Our horses, buffalo robes and other articles of trade go for whiskey, a large number of our people have killed one another and perished in various ways under the influence and now that we hear of our Great Mother sending her soldiers into our country for our good we are glad.”
In December of 1874, he would meet James Macleod, the assistant commissioner who would eventually become commissioner, of the NWMP. The two became friends and MacLeod insisted that the rights of the Blackfoot be respected, while Crowfoot encouraged his people to have friendly relations with the NWMP.
In 1876, it is related that the Sioux sent a messenger to gain the help of the Blackfoot in their fight against the Americans. Crowfoot rejected the offer, seeing that they were not strong enough to stand up against the American military and the Canadian government, but when the Sioux fled into Canada, he saw they were refugees and he would meet with Sitting Bull. Sitting Bull was so impressed upon meeting Crowfoot that he would name his own son Crowfoot.
Crowfoot would have several wives through his life and four of his children lived to adulthood. One son was showing skill as a warrior but he died in a battle against the Cree. Crowfoot then led a raid into a Cree camp to kill one Cree tribe member in retaliation. In that raid, the Blackfoot would capture a Cree man who looked like the dead son of Crowfoot. That man would grow up to become Chief Poundmaker.
Crowfoot had good relations with fur traders and had achieved peace with the Cree, while also saving Father Lacombe who was caught in a crossfire of a battle.
The Canadian government and the North West Mounted Police saw Crowfoot as the leader of all of the Blackfoot people, which was not the case. Nonetheless, Crowfoot would always speak with the other chiefs before speaking with the NWMP or government about anything.
As a chief, Crowfoot would be heavily involved in signing Treaty 7 with the Canadian government. The Canadian government was looking to gain control of Indigenous lands without antagonizing the large groups of Indigenous there. This would bring them to make the numbered treaties with the Indigenous. Under Treaty 7, Commissioner David Laird promised flour, tea, salt, sugar and beef during negotiations. Crowfoot refused these rations until all the terms of the treaty were presented to him. The terms would give the Indigenous of the region a plot of land, farm implements, cattle, potatoes, five dollars per year and ammunition, while the Indigenous would allow settlers on their land. Crowfoot did not want to give up land only to see the settlers push the Metis out and wipe out the bison. Among the Indigenous chiefs involved, one wanted to accept, but many were against it, while others were not sure which way to go. Crowfoot would meet with Red Crow of the Kainai Nation, who said he would sign if Crowfoot would sign. Crowfoot did sign at Blackfoot Crossing on the present-day Siksika Reserve, with the treaty going into effect in 1877.
It is said that Crowfoot spoke to the other chiefs, saying the following about the Treaty:
“The advice given me and my people has proved to be very good. If the police had not come to the country, where would we all be now? Bad men and whiskey were killing us so fast that very few indeed would have been left today. The police have protected us as the feathers of the bird protect it from the frosts of winter. I wish them all good and trust that all our hearts will increase in goodness from this time forward. I am satisfied. I will sign the treaty.”
As could be expected, the government soon began to go back on what it agreed upon. Government employees with the I.G. Baker Company, which was in charge of providing food to the Blackfoot, began to reduce rations, leading to starvation. Crowfoot would lead delegations to the farm instructor to get better rations, which were barely enough even when not reduced. His pleas were ignored.
In 1879, Crowfoot and his people would move south into Montana following the disappearing bison and they were faced with not only threats from the Americans, but the Lakota as well. In 1881, they returned to their reserve near Blackfoot Crossing and by this point, Crowfoot was disillusioned with the Canadian government that seemed to continually break promises. Upon arriving back in Canada, he found out that the NWMP were no longer responsible for his people in the eyes of the government, and it was now the Department of Indian Affairs. The administrators of this department were callous towards their treatment of the Indigenous. This would lead Crowfoot to openly defy the NWMP for the first time in 1882 when they attempted to arrest a minor chief of the Blackfoot. It was said that the chief had stolen a horse, when in fact he had paid for it, and Crowfoot protected him in his camp.
As the Canadian Pacific Railway was coming through what would one day be Alberta, Crowfoot would negotiate with Father Lacombe, who convinced Crowfoot to recommend to the Blackfoot Nation that it be allowed, which Crowfoot did. Crowfoot would receive a lifetime pass from the CPR for his role in getting the railway through the area.
When the North-West Rebellion took place in 1885 after a Metis Provisional Government was set up in Saskatchewan, Crowfoot removed himself and his people from the fighting. Crowfoot and his people did not participate in the Rebellion, not because they were loyal to Canada, but because Crowfoot knew that it was a losing battle, but both sides of the conflict sought support from Crowfoot and the Blackfoot Nation. His warriors had such high respect for him that Crowfoot was able to keep his people from being involved in the fighting. While Crowfoot remained out of the fighting, he did allow Cree refugees into his camp during the rebellion. The Canadian government saw his decision not to fight as his loyalty to them, and he would be celebrated in eastern Canada for it.
When the rebellion was over, Chief Poundmaker was wrongfully charged and convicted of treason despite not taking part. He would be exonerated in 2019 by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Crowfoot asked for Poundmaker to have a pardon but Lt. Governor Edgar Dewdney refused and Poundmaker was sentenced to three years in prison, but only served six months. Poundmaker then returned to Crowfoot and died shortly after he arrived at the camp because of the impact on the prison stay on his health. It was because of Crowfoot that the government did not cut the hair of Poundmaker in prison.
In 1886, Sir John A. Macdonald invited Crowfoot to come to Ottawa, which Crowfoot did, telling the government that his people were starving as the bison had disappeared. The Canadian government did not listen. While out east, he would tour Montreal and Quebec with his friend Father Lacombe.
For the last decade of his life, Crowfoot was often ill and had lost many of his children. Chief Crowfoot would die on April 25, 1890 at Blackfoot Crossing from tuberculosis. His funeral was attended by government dignitaries and over 800 members of his tribe.
The Calgary Herald would write the following in their obituary of Chief Crowfoot after his death was announced:
The obituary uses terms we no longer use to describe the Indigenous but I’m reading it as it appeared.
“Crowfoot, Chief of the Blackfoot, the most important and ablest of all Indian chiefs, died at his home on Friday, April 25, 1890….He died sitting propped up with pillows and blankets, dressed in his finest toggery with beaded tunic, buffalo skin britches and all his grandest clothing, the crow’s head of his chieftanship resting on his head, a plume in his right hand and a pipe in his mouth. Three of his wives squatted near him and around him were a dozen of the greatest medicine men of the tribe and some other 30 leading Indians. Crowfoot requested that his own war song, composed by himself after his first great battle, be sung continuously. He also wore his government hat with gold band and the gold rose.”
It goes on:
“For five days and nights the tom-toms were beating loud enough to be heard six or seven miles away and the noise and excitement attending a great chief’s death had been maintained all that time. At the telegraphed request of Minister Dewdney, Dr. Henry George remained until the end, spending from Monday until Friday on the reserve. Crowfoot died requesting his people to be good children and remain friendly with the whites. To his brother he gave three bulls and all his cows, and all his medals except one, this went to his favourite squaw, who received the Treaty medal of 1877.”
John Ware, a legend in his own right, described Chief Crowfoot as “a fine, lean physical specimen, a quiet but thoughtful man, and perhaps the greatest Indian leader of his generation.”
Senator Fred Gershaw would say of Crowfoot in 1954.
“The memory of the appearance of this great man who was one of the greatest chieftains of his race never grew dim in the minds of those who knew him. Long after he was gone, they recall seeing him walking over the plains, crushing the wild grass with his moccasins, holdings his head and shoulders erect, with his eyes on the distant hills.”
Following his death, he has been honoured in several places. Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump and the Blackfoot Crossing Historic Park commemorate him. Items from his life, including his pipe and deerskin jacket, were returned from the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in England in 2014 and are now part of the Crowfoot exhibit at the Blackfoot Historic Crossing Park.
The plaque for Crowfoot reads:
“The great warrior, orator and peacemaker who won the title manistokos “Father of his People” was born a Blood but became a leading chief of the Blackfoot among whom he was raised. Convinced that peace best served the Blackfoot interest, he promoted inter-tribal amity, adopting the Cree, Poundmaker, as his son. He persuaded the Blackfoot to sign Treaty No. 7 in 1877 and held them aloof from the rebellion of 1885, pursuing a policy of wary cooperation
In the book Heritage of the High Country, Crowfoot is described as such:
“Always generous, sincere and capable as an orator and peacemaker, Chief Crowfoot became the advisor and director of the Blackfoot nation. He expected to be heard and obeyed and commanded great respect from both Indian and white.”
His grave is at the site of where Treaty 7 was signed and a bronze marker was placed on the grave to indicate he was the Father of His People. In 1948, a stone cairn was erected in his memory.
In 1968, The Ballad of Crowfoot was released by Willie Dunn, a Mi’kmaq singer and songwriter. The song is about the inhumane and unjust treatment of the Indigenous by the government, and urges the Indigenous to be politically active. Dunn would turn it into a 10-minute film, the first National Film Board film directed by an Indigenous person, and it is considered the first Canadian music video.
In 2008, Chief Crowfoot was inducted into the North America Railway Hall of Fame and in 2009, a C-Train station in Calgary was named for him.
Near his death, he is quoted as saying “What is life? It is the flash of a firefly in the night. It is the breath of a buffalo in the winter time. It is as the little shadow that runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset.”
Information comes from Canadian Encyclopedia, North America Railway Hall of Fame, Encyclopedia of the Plains, Wikipedia, Alberta Champions, Biographic.ca, Parks Canada, Windspeaker.com, Dailyview.ca, Heritage of the High Country, Calgary Herald’s Tales Of The Old Town, John Ware’s Cow Country, Louis Riel and his people, The Pioneer West, Adventurous Albertans,