Canada’s first (nation) statesman

 by Chris McNaught 

Blackfoot chief Crowfoot

It was -50 the night I arrived in Ottawa in January 1992, having shelved two decades of criminal law practice in Toronto to enter the federal civil service. Three weeks later, I was seated in a community hall on the equally frigid, windswept land of the Siksika, the Blackfoot First Nation, that graces a large swath of Alberta’s Bow River valley.

Instead of pleading the liberty of some yuppie miscreant before a cranky Superior Court judge, I now found myself an emissary of “aboriginal self-government,” the object of bemused though respectful scrutiny by the Chief and councillors waiting patiently for the band elders’ entry. Apparently, 9 a.m. sharp meant somewhere closer to 10 a.m. “native time” – a cultural deference and notion of punctuality we might all beneficially assimilate.

In retrospect, the only person “late” to the table was Canada, late in unearthing and confronting its institutionalized abuse of peoples whose elemental connection with our country is so profound and educational. With the “highway of tears” and political soul-searching today (rightly) absorbing the media, however, my thoughts have been pulled back to my time with the Siksika as it was for me a positive emotional eye-opener.

My memory scans the council table on that first morning. The earnest and eager participants of all ages, the array of cultural and political aspirations, the customs and dignity admonish me as to how unique, how dramatic, and how privileged was my experience along their river banks and coulees. Siksika, the word for “black foot,” pronounced with an almost whispered sibilance, evokes, as their elders would say, the wind in the buffalo grass. And those colourful names! Jim Shot Both Sides, Leonard Cut Hand… There were scheduled health breaks to permit dashing into the snow for a quick smoke; I tossed a frozen football with some kids. And the lunch prepped by Siksika women was, frankly, the most delicious thick soup and mountain of sandwiches stuffed with local wild meat I’ve ever consumed.

At that juncture, these proud standard- bearers of the old Blackfoot Confederacy were busy advancing a viable commercially and politically astute society, attracting German hunting tourists to the reserve, establishing their own police force and developing solid data and statistics to support future initiatives. I treasure a Siksika Nation pin sporting a buffalo on a bright yellow background. There was unspoken tension around the Siksika wishing to style autonomy negotiations as “nation-to-nation,” prompting specious federal paranoia. When it appeared I’d developed an empathy and rapport with various individuals, I was moved off the file, but that’s another, tiresome tale. What I’d be thrilled the reader took away here is a recognition of the humanity and example of the great Blackfoot chief Crowfoot, whose spirit, I truly feel, brushed my better senses back in 1992.

How did I encounter him? Through the unsolicited courtesy of one Walter Poor Eagle, a lanky older man with legs as bowed as the valley he inhabited. A huge silver belt buckle flashed as he quietly approached me after lunch one day and asked if I’d like to see his fine horses, and perhaps become educated (said amiably) about the great Crowfoot; we’d head out at day’s end in his pick-up. The buckle, I later learned, was an all-round rodeo medal he’d won, back in the 40s or early 50s.

Crowfoot was born in 1830 into the Blood, but became a Blackfoot when his mother remarried. Though youthful bravery won him the name ‘Isapo-muxika’ (Crow-foot), by early manhood he’d abandoned raiding parties in favour of raising horses and grew wealthy. By 1865, he was demonstrating a perspective that marked the evolution of a compassionate leader and prairie diplomat. He acted as interlocutor with missionaries and traders, intervened to prevent native looting of HBC goods trains, then lent protection for the returning Metis drivers.

He rose above pride in 1874 to embrace the North West Mounted Police and their assistant commissioner James Macleod, with whom he worked to ensure safe white settlement and the expulsion of U.S. whisky traders and their near-genocidal greed. In the same passage, Sitting Bull offered to come north and help drive out the Mounties. Crowfoot declined, yet two years later, with the Sioux seeking northern sanctuary after the Little Big Horn – talk about refugees – Crowfoot welcomed Sitting Bull. They became firm friends, peace reigned between their peoples, and Sitting Bull actually praised the NWMP for their solicitude during his sojourn in Canada.

On a personal level, Crowfoot traversed the 1873 killing of his eldest son by the Cree by adopting a Cree brave whom he considered the spitting image of his son. The Cree doppelgänger was Poundmaker, himself later a chief who became famous in other annals including the Riel Rebellion. Crowfoot pledged loyalty to the Crown during the events climaxing at Batoche while Poundmaker wasted in prison for his minimal role, but their bond stood lifelong. Both John A. Macdonald and Queen Victoria honoured Crowfoot’s intercessions and fidelity; feted in England, Montreal and Quebec City, Crowfoot in turn gave Sir John A. the Blackfoot name for brother-in-law. When Treaty No.7, the last great accord with the original people, was concluded, Crowfoot found it in his increasingly conflicted heart – the buffalo evaporating, the “iron road” populating ancient lands and promised agricultural transition not materializing – to respond on behalf of the entire Blackfoot nation: “The police have protected us as the feathers of the bird protect it from the frost of the winter. I wish them all good, and trust that all our hearts will increase in goodness from this time forward…I will sign.”

“Here we are, friend.” Walter stopped the pick-up on a ridge and we got out to survey the sun setting beyond the rolling fields and distant, soft blue of the foothills – one of those moments and vistas that pull viewers together, yet outward into reflection too often neglected. “This is Crowfoot’s last tipi,” and at our feet stood a small white cairn with “Chief Crowfoot” on a small plaque, with the date 1890. “He died here of tuberculosis.” His grave lay on a rise just off to the right. Walter said nothing further. I could do no better than to nose the extraordinary peace in the presence of a greater man than I, and muse on the quality of trust, and to what degree our federal hearts had increased in goodness since 1890.

“Why don’t you bring your kids out here this summer and they can ride my Arabians?” And listen for the wind in the buffalo grass…

As it happened, I didn’t; I wish I had. Maybe this summer.

Chris McNaught is a former lawyer and university lecturer, and is author of three novels, the most recent being The Linnet (Pegasus/Vanguard, U.K.).

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