One version of the history of the Blackfoot people begins in the 1700s, with the first arrival of the fur traders onto the western prairies. It tells of the subsequent encroachment of settlers from the east and whiskey traders from the south, and the disappearance of the buffalo upon whom they relied for food and life. It describes how, in the wake these events, the Blackfoot accepted a deal with the Canadian government offering peace and support in exchange for all their territorial lands, less a few reserves. This deal, Treaty 7, was signed by the great chiefs Crowfoot of the Siksika and Red Crow of the Kainaiwa, among others, at Blackfoot Crossing in 1877.
This is the version of Blackfoot history you’ll find in most textbooks. But it is not the version a Blackfoot aboriginal will tell you.
Sandra Crazy Bull is an interpreter for Nitsitapiisinni (Blackfoot for ‘Our Way of Life’), a permanent gallery at the Glenbow Museum. Ask Sandra about the history of her people, and she will tell you stories. Like the story of makoi-yohsokoyi—how one winter, wolves took pity on a starving Blackfoot family and brought them fresh meat, while teaching them how to hunt animals with hooves and horns, but not with paws and claws. The wolves left in the spring, but can still be seen as the Wolf Trail, the band of stars non-aboriginals call the Milky Way. The stars remind the Blackfoot of the need to live together in balance with others.
Sandra will also tell you of Ihtsi-pai-tapi-yopa, the Creator who made all things, including Natosi, the sun, and his wife Kokomi kisomm, the moon—and how the Creator teaches that all living things are equal and must be respected. And she will tell you stories of Napi, the Old Man whose short temper and impatience often got him in trouble, providing sharp lessons on the need to live life with calmness and restraint.
“The image portrayed of us is of beads and feathers,” says Sandra of her aboriginal heritage, “We’re more than beads and feathers.” Through her work at Nitsitapiisinni she combats this stereotype by approaching history in the traditional manner of First Nations peoples: through stories that entertain and inform, illuminate and elevate. Though some of the stories have the appearance of mythology, they are true to the Blackfoot—for they teach values and traditions that were deeply intertwined with how they lived their everyday lives. More than an exhibition of artifacts captioned by dates and events could, these stories reveal who the Blackfoot as a people truly are.
The value of such revelation is that it can help those outside of aboriginal communities gain a better understanding of First Nations culture—the first step in removing barriers of alienation and discrimination. But even more important to Sandra is the chance for her to speak to her own people—to help teach Blackfoot youth to begin to value their own history and beliefs. It wasn’t that long ago that the celebration of aboriginal culture was not only absent, but actively repressed. Up until the 1970s, the government actively ran a program of residential schools which took children away from their families and often taught them to despise their own heritage. Sandra, who is 35 years old, remembers her own experience with Indian residential schools.
“Everyone thinks it was years and years ago, but we’re still healing from it,” she says. For her, the memories are painful and fresh. “We were called by a number. I still remember my number—number 19. They took away my connection to family, to culture, to language. They put it in your brain that your people are demonic, that if you dance or speak your language, you’re evil.”
The lingering damage to the self-esteem and identity of generations of aboriginal people cannot be measured. They can, to some degree, explain the fragmentation of families, the problems with addiction, unemployment and resentment affecting many present-day aboriginal communities. Which explains why Sandra takes such pride in her work—to her, the stories and traditions of the past are a potent tool in bringing healing, strength and meaning to the present.
There is, for example, the story of the iinisskimm, or buffalo calling stones. These were a gift from the iinnii, or buffalo, who took pity on the hardships of the Blackfoot. When used in ceremonies, the iinisskimm would call the buffalo towards a pis-skan (buffalo jump). For their benefaction, the calling stones came to be regarded as sacred symbols of sustenance and life. Today, young Blackfoot will carry them, using them for prayer and thankfulness, and to find strength in trying times.
For Sandra there is also the story of her famous great grandfather who was shot twice, once during a raid of the Crows, and once during a misunderstanding with the North West Mounted Police. Through courage and prayer, he survived both incidents, earning the name Iskimaatsis, or Man of Steel. In the Blackfoot tradition of naming, Sandra has given her son Lorenzo the same native name, Iskimaatis, and he now has the honour and duty of living up to his great, great grandfather’s legacy. And so the proud stories of the past are reborn in a new generation.
As a teacher, Sandra uses these stories to instill pride, discipline and values among Blackfoot children, and understanding and acceptance among non-aboriginals. Notes Sandra, “That’s why my job is so beautiful—because every day I can make a difference for my people.”
There are signs that this kind of affirmation and effort is making a difference. Sandra has observed in recent years a new spirit of equality and partnership between aboriginals and non-aboriginals. “There is collaboration,” she says, “Others are coming to us first hand [for knowledge]—not assuming we’re a certain way.” The Nitsitapiisinni Gallery itself is an example of this, for the gallery was created as a full partnership between the Glenbow and a council of Blackfoot elders. Yet if the acceptance and understanding of others is the starting point, Sandra points out that “It’s our job what we do with that.” In her office, she proudly points to a poster highlighting members of the Kainai reserve who have gone on to become doctors, lawyers, sports stars and psychologists. She notes that this was something not heard of just a few years ago. It is evidence that her people are beginning to embrace the future now that they are being allowed to rediscover their past. And of these new Blackfoot stories, both modest and remarkable, Sandra simply nods and says, “We’re quietly going about our own business.”—Andrew Mah