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The eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains form the western border of Alberta; they sweep down and become flat plains. A single culture is thought to have first inhabited this area, reaching all the way to modern day St. Louis, Missouri, USA. This was the site of a large city with extensive trade to the west. It is thought that these people were the ancestors of today’s Blackfoot tribe. Into the 1600s, cultures became more diversified. Although the lifestyles were much the same, there were differences in religion and culture among the tribes. As was common among all North American native people, groups would migrate and often force other groups into a different area.
Bison roamed the open plains, migrating south in the winter and north in the spring. These animals were essential to the lifestyle of the native tribes. They were incorrectly called “buffalo” by the first Europeans, who thought they might be similar to the water buffalo in India. However, they are a distinct line and the proper name is bison. The millions of animals provided meat, clothing, cooking utensils, medication, soap, rope, mocassins, knives, pipes, arrowheads, war clubs, glue, thread, bow strings, coverings for the tipi poles, and much more.
Horses reached the plains in the 1730s. Firearms also became available in the 1780s. Life became easier and more complicated at the same time. Horses extended how far they could travel, especially war parties. Guns extended the number of bison they could kill and store. Guns also enhanced their ability to expand their territory, at least until all the tribes had guns and access (through trading) to ammunition.
Queen Victoria of England had consigned “Rupert’s Land” (western Canada) to the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Northwest Company (the two eventually merged). The Dominion of Canada, confederated in 1867, purchased title of the land from the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1870. This event signaled a major shift in relations between the native people and the Europeans. The Hudson’s Bay Company had been primarily interested in the fur trade, which had a fairly minimal effect on the indigenous cultures compared to what was to come.
In 1877, the victor of the Battle of the Little Big Horn, Chief Sitting Bull, having been relentlessly pursued by the U S military, led his people across the border into what would become the province of Alberta. He enjoyed a brief time of peace while there, although ultimately he would return to the United States with his people.
Anthony Henday was sent in 1754 by the Hudson’s Bay Company. He was the first English speaking European to visit Alberta. He found that the natives there had already acquired many items of European origin through extensive trade networks. He had made the trip to establish the fur trade with the Blackfoot, but the answer was uncertain and he returned without an agreement. Since the company wanted to trade for fur, they began to establish trading posts. An excellent description of the fur trade and trading posts in Alberta is found at http://www.royalalbertamuseum.ca/human/archaeo/aspects/furtrade.htm .
By the 1870s, Canada was actively trying to suppress the practice of native religions. The thinking of the time was that Indians should be assimilated into Canadian society. This practice would result in not only loss of much of the aboriginal spiritual practice, but also endangerment of the language in which these practices could be adequately conveyed to succeeding generations. In recent years, there has been an effort to preserve the language and spirituality of the First Nations – although much has been successful, much has been forever lost.
Another effort to assimilate the Indians into Canadian culture was to send, sometimes by force, the children as young as four years old to residential schools, often far from their homes. They were to be taught a trade, the Christian religion, etc. This effort, which went on for many years, turned out to be disastrous in many instances.
In recent decades, the First Nations (the preferred term for the indigenous or aboriginal peoples of Canada), have experienced a renewed pride in their traditional culture and heritage. Many issues surround the treaties (many of which were made by Great Britain before Canada became a country) and the relations between First Nations and the Canadian government.
Tribes and Bands (First Nations) of Alberta
A list of contact information for tribes in Alberta can be found at Indian Tribes of Alberta, Canada
Indian Registers, 1951-1984 , Department of Indian and Northern Affairs, are maintained at the Library and Archives in Ottawa. Access to these records is restricted. Inquiries must be directed to the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs
Important Web Sites
A good resource for records is found at Library and Archives of Canada
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