Chris Pecora

Treaty People, Treaty Place

Our shared home and history.

By Kevin Van Tighem

Fall solstice, September 22: The prairie grass, gold in the sun, stretched all the way to the end of a world of birds. Long wavering skeins of snow geese and sandhill cranes, shimmering swarms of mallards, hurrying flights of shorebirds—the very air seemed alive with migrants heading home.

The cottonwoods lining the Bow River still reflected green in the late-season flow. The river’s murmur was almost inaudible against the hubbub on the grassy flats, where wall tents and teepees were arrayed, children played and people visited.

Red Crow had arrived the day before to consult with Crowfoot. By that time, negotiations had been underway for almost a week. The broad outlines had been agreed upon by the Siksika, Stoney-Nakoda and Tsuut’ina. The Piikani and Kainai, having arrived later, had to be brought up to speed.

For the Indigenous people gathered here, the river, land and sky were woven deeply into their sense of themselves. They knew this place’s storied past, its endless cycling of seasons and songs that reached to the far horizons of their world with the unbroken prairie. Every sound, scent and sensation that defined the place also defined them. But their leaders no longer recognized the future. That future would be without buffalo; unfathomable, but true. And white people were coming now in ever greater numbers. What would this place be tomorrow? Who would they be?

Almost 15 decades have passed, marked by constant change and too much forgetting. But we still live in that Treaty place; we are still all Treaty people.

None of the white people gathered here—the treaty commissioners, the policemen, the clergy—arose from this land. To most of them it was simply a vacant place, waiting to be filled. Their songs and stories didn’t come from these rivers, coulees and plains but from faraway Europe or the settled lands of upper and lower Canada. With no allegiance to this place’s past, they instead imagined its future as one of farm fields and fences, towns with church steeples, commerce: like Europe. Only better. But to build that future they would need consent.

On September 22, 1877, the chiefs of those Indigenous bands and the emissaries of the Queen of England put marks on paper and brought into being Treaty Seven. Treaty Six had been signed in a similar way, with the more northerly Cree, Assiniboine and Ojibwa bands, a year previously in what is now Saskatchewan.

With those signatures and marks, all became one Treaty people. And the lands that would one day be called Alberta became a Treaty place. It was a profound moment, its sacredness attested by the presence of spiritual leaders from all parties. The Treaty brought into being a shared future in a shared land, among sharing peoples.

We all live in that Treaty place today; we are still all Treaty people. Every single one of us.

But almost 15 decades have passed since that day, marked by constant change and too much forgetting. It doesn’t help that we live next to the US, a nation built on a very different story, where settlers took the land by murder and betrayal. The American myth of the frontier, and of strong men who fought Indians to claim land and tame it, has been amplified by western novels, cowboy movies and other cultural symbols. Canada has always imported too much of its entertainment from the south, and one unfortunate consequence is that the American myth of conquest and surrender now obscures the truth that European settlers never won this West. They entered into sharing treaties with those already here. Our modern West was founded on sacred undertakings and honour.

For their part, the descendants of Crowfoot, Red Crow, Bear’s Paw and other Indigenous leaders who signed that treaty lived up to their commitments. They settled onto reserves and made room for newcomers to occupy the land. In spite of betrayals, they worked to preserve their cultures in home places increasingly unlike anything in their songs and stories.

Most settlers, however, arrived here after the treaties, unaware of the terms of their welcome. The newcomers assumed an absolute right to exploit natural resources and turn the land into farms, towns and cities. To many, the Indigenous people seemed like anachronisms, primitive peoples whose time was past and who would eventually be assimilated into the new society or would fade away. They won’t, nor should they.

So we are all still here. And the wounded land still sings of its storied past, stories known best by the Indigenous peoples who still share their home place with a newcomer people who, too often, occupy this place like raiders rather than residents. Our Treaties were meant to create a shared home and a shared story. We Treaty people have a ways to go before we can say we have arrived there together. But we still could.

Kevin Van Tighem’s Wild Roses Are Worth It: Reimagining the Alberta Advantage, was released in spring 2021 by RMB.

 

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