Plains Aboriginal culture was based primarily on the immense herds of BISON or buffalo which roamed over and fed upon these grasslands until the early 1880s. Bison herds shared these resources with pronghorn, elk, mule deer, jack rabbits, prairie dogs and a range of small herbivores, grouse, geese, ducks and cranes. This wildlife was preyed upon by wolves, coyotes, grizzly bear, cougar, eagles, other BIRDS OF PREY and humans.
Major Language Groups
The languages spoken by the various Plains Aboriginal people belong to six linguistic families, of which three were represented on the Canadian Plains. Algonquian languages were spoken by the BLACKFOOT, Gros Ventre (Atsina), Plains CREE and Plains OJIBWA; Siouan languages were those of the ASSINIBOINE, STONEY and DAKOTA Sioux. Athapaskan was spoken by the SARCEE. Languages from two families were as divergent as German is from Chinese, and within each family languages were as different as English from Dutch. This linguistic diversity and the high mobility of the nomadic population on the Plains encouraged the development of communication by means of hand gestures or sign language (see NATIVE PEOPLE, LANGUAGES).
Before epidemics in the early 1800s reduced the population, the northern Plains Aboriginal people numbered an estimated 33 000. Tribal populations in that region ranged from about 700 for the Sarcee to about 15 000 for the three Blackfoot Nations.
Small bands of nomadic hunters roamed the Plains some 10 000 years ago (see PREHISTORY). Most of these people, however, slowly drifted southward to be succeeded by other migrants. About 200 AD a horticultural population from the Mississippi Valley spread northwestward, ultimately reaching, temporarily, the southern parts of Saskatchewan and Alberta (see CLUNY ARCHAEOLOGICAL SITE). They settled in semipermanent villages near their gardens along the rivers. Through their contacts with more elaborate cultures in southeastern North America, these gardeners played an important role in the northwestern expansion of certain religious ideas and rituals. The prehistoric hunters and gardeners established the general cultural patterns basic to the Plains Aboriginal culture of the historic period.
Spanish colonists from Mexico introduced horses to the southern Plains in the 16th century. By intertribal trade and raiding, the animals spread northward, reaching the Canadian Plains by the 1730s. The use of horses altered hunting techniques and enabled the people to transport larger and more comfortably furnished dwellings. Their obvious improvement of the life of the nomadic hunters caused the development of HORSE raiding as the most common form of intertribal warfare. Warfare was a dangerous game, as ritualized as medieval knighthood in Europe, with social prestige and wealth as its goals. Small war parties would raid enemy territory, run off the horses and sometimes kill a few people.
At approximately the same period that horses were moving north, fur traders arriving from the East introduced firearms. From 1730 to 1870 the Plains Aboriginal people played an important role in the FUR TRADE, which in turn profoundly changed their way of life. Adjusting their hunting to the demands of the traders, the Aboriginal people gradually gave up their original independence for the amenities offered by the fur trade.
Women gathered edible roots and berries whenever they were available but the main source of food came from hunting by the men, especially buffalo hunting. The Plains Cree and Plains Ojibwa added fish to the diet, but fish was unimportant elsewhere on the Plains. Animal-skin disguises were used to get close enough to the game for the effective use of bows and arrows. Buffalo herds were driven into pounds or corrals and killed, or were stampeded over steep cliffs (see BUFFALO HUNT). While acquisition of the horse greatly facilitated buffalo hunting, muzzle-loading guns proved inferior to bow and arrows, which were given up only after shorter breechloaders were introduced by the 1860s.
When men hunted, women were busy processing the results of this activity, particularly in preserving (through drying) foods. Some meat was cooked and eaten immediately, but most was sliced and sun-dried for the winter, or ground and mixed with fat and berries to make PEMMICAN. Buffalo hides were used for robes, tent covers, MOCCASINS and shields; tools and utensils were made of the bison's horns, hooves, hair, tail, bones and sinew; buffalo dung was used as a fuel on the treeless plains. Skins of antelope and elk were preferred in the manufacture of clothing: breechcloth, leggings and shirts for men, long dresses and leggings for women.
The family property was transported on a TRAVOIS (a triangular frame of poles) dragged along by dogs. Travois also provided the framework of the conical dwelling called TIPI, which was covered with buffalo skins sewn together. After the introduction of the horse, larger travois and tipi were constructed. SNOWSHOES were used during the winter by some tribes on the northern Plains.
Many utilitarian articles manifested the rich yet tribally distinct artistic temperament of the Plains Aboriginal people. They ranged from skin tattoos, clothing painted or embroidered with dyed porcupine quills, paintings on tipi covers, shields and rawhide containers, carvings on wooden bowls, horn spoons and stone pipes, the extensive use of feathers in ceremonial regalia, to large boulder monuments laid out on the ground (see NATIVE ART). Certain individuals were known and approached for their exceptional ability in a specific craft, but, even for them, craft production was not an exclusive occupation. Most of the colourfully decorated Plains Aboriginal artifacts seen in museums were made by women. Men produced equipment for the hunt, war and ceremonies.
The adjustment of the Aboriginal way of life to the natural environment, and in particular to the movements of the buffalo herds, was reflected in their social organization. Most tribes consisted of loosely organized and independent bands. Band chiefs had the respect and support of their followers as long as they were successful in the quest for food and in defence against enemy attacks. Chiefs were advisers rather than rulers; their decisions were based on unanimous approval reached in the council of elders. Public shame and ridicule were the principal means of social discipline. Most of the year the bands moved around independently of each other. In lean periods even the band might have to split up into smaller groups that would have a better chance of finding sufficient food.
Only in midsummer, when the buffalo were concentrated in large herds, would the bands come together for a few weeks in one large tribal encampment. Then the people joined in the celebrations of their ceremonial and military societies, which were the principal means of tribal cohesion. After the performance of the SUN DANCE and possibly a tribal buffalo drive, the bands separated again; in the fall they moved to well-protected campsites in river valleys, foothills and parklands, where they spent the winter.
Religious ideas and practices permeated all aspects of daily life. Fundamental to Plains Aboriginal religion was the belief that animals and other natural phenomena possessed spiritual power that could, under proper circumstances, be manipulated to personal advantage. The individual seeking such power went to a lonely spot where he fasted and prayed until a spiritual guardian appeared to him in a dream (vision quest). The difference between ordinary men and ritual leaders was a gradually developing one, primarily based upon the amount of spiritual power acquired either by personal visions or by ritualized purchase from other individuals. Mystical experiences gave rise to cults that either disappeared when the initiator died, or became increasingly popular. All tribal rituals had their origins in such cults.
The normally slow and gradual rate of societal change accelerated rapidly for the Plains Aboriginal people after they came into contact with European civilization. Though distinctly Aboriginal in character, historic Plains Aboriginal culture would have been impossible without the European horse and the European trader. The introduction of metalwares made Aboriginal pottery, stone chisels and arrowheads obsolete in the mid-18th century; glass beads gradually replaced quillwork after 1830; cloth became as common as skin for clothing after 1850. For more than a century the fur trade was the sole medium of contact between Euro-Canadian society and the northern Plains Aboriginal people.
During this period the Aboriginal people were generally free to accept or reject whatever the European had to offer, and as such the fur trade provided a measure of adjustment that prepared the Aboriginal people for the more intensive culture change later forced upon them. The MÉTIS, descendants of European-Aboriginal parents, trace their origins to the early trading period. However, the fur trade did not bring only greater material wealth; epidemic diseases of European origin swept the northern Plains in 1781, 1819, 1837, 1845, 1864 and 1869 (see NATIVE PEOPLE, HEALTH). Each time thousands of Aboriginal people died, and the survivors were left with their world views and beliefs undermined.
During this period the consumption of alcohol became widespread, particularly after the arrival of American whisky traders in the 1860s (see NATIVE PEOPLE, SOCIAL CONDITIONS). In these years also, the depletion of the buffalo herds became noticeable, owing to indiscriminate overhunting for profit, especially after the completion of a transcontinental railway in the US.
In response to the increasing violence in the region, the newly formed North-West Mounted Police came west in 1874 and enforced law and order within a short time. However, they could neither halt the disappearance of the buffalo herds nor stop the settlers from establishing farms and villages all over the plains. In 1870 the federal government purchased the North-West from the HUDSON'S BAY CO, and, in a series of treaties between 1871 and 1877, the government secured land cessions from the Aboriginal people (see INDIAN TREATIES). In 1880 the total population of the Canadian plains reached 120 000, in which the approximately 30 000 Aboriginal people had become a minority. Most Aboriginal people were then living on reserves (see INDIAN RESERVE), where government agents tried to introduce them to new means of subsistence, primarily agriculture. Years of scarcity and starvation followed, in which the people depended upon the frequently inadequate rations of the government. Throughout this difficult period of social and economic adjustment, missions of various Christian denominations played a major role in providing a new education system, frequently acting as mediators between the Aboriginal people and European society.
Some of these churches initially supported Aboriginal leaders in their efforts to create provincial Aboriginal organizations through which they could articulate their social and economic needs. Starting in the 1920s, these organizations struggled against government harassment and native apathy, slowly lifting the oppressive paternalism of government policy. After WWII the activities of native organizations increased, forcing the federal government to take its responsibilities more seriously. On the reserves, various economic programs have been initiated and government agents have increasingly transferred their administrative responsibilities to elected chiefs and tribal councils. Accurate population numbers are hard to obtain, but in 1986 there were at least 65 000 Aboriginal people living on the Canadian plains: about 16 000 in southern Alberta, about 20 000 in southern Saskatchewan; and about 28 000 in southern Manitoba.
Author TED J. BRASSER
Links to Other Sites
The website for the Historica-Dominion Institute, parent organization of The Canadian Encyclopedia and the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada. Check out their extensive online feature about the War of 1812, the "Heritage Minutes" video collection, and many other interactive resources concerning Canadian history, culture, and heritage.
Canadian Aboriginal Writing and Arts Challenge
The website for the Canadian Aboriginal Writing and Arts Challenge, which features Canada's largest essay writing competition for Aboriginal youth (ages 14-29) and a companion program for those who prefer to work through painting, drawing and photography. See their guidelines, teacher resources, profiles of winners, and more. From the Historica-Dominion Institute.
Luxton Museum of the Plains Indian
This site is devoted to the Luxton Museum of the Plains Indian. From Library and Archives Canada.
The First Nations of the New France Era
This Canadian Museum of Civilization provides an overview of the First Nations peoples that lived in New France territory that extended, at its peak, from Hudson’s Bay to Louisiana. Good historical maps of that region.
Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump
An illustrated information guide for one of the world's best preserved buffalo jumps and a Unesco World Heritage Site located near Fort Macleod in Alberta. Produced by the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump interpretive centre.
Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples
The website for the "Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples." Click on the links for feature articles about Canada's many multicultural communities, access to their extensive digital archives collection, learning modules, and much more. From "Multicultural Canada."
Languages of Canada
A comprehensive online database of languages currently in use in Canada. Also provides details about extinct languages. Check out the "language maps" for more information. Based on "Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Fifteenth edition." From SIL International, a US website.
FirstVoices Language Archive
A website devoted to Canada's indigenous languages. Features program information, multimedia dictionaries, and related resources. Produced by The First Peoples' Cultural Foundation.
Aboriginal Faces of Saskatchewan
This site highlights Aboriginal people in Saskatchewan who have used their talent and skills in their pursuit of personal excellence. A Library and Archives Canada website.
Four Directions Teachings
Elders and traditional teachers representing the Blackfoot, Cree, Ojibwe, Mohawk, and Mi’kmaq share teachings about their history and culture. Animated graphics visualize each of the oral teachings. This website also provides biographies of participants, transcripts, and an extensive array of learning resources for students and their teachers. In English with French subtitles.
Wanuskewin Heritage Park
Take a virtual tour of historic Wanuskewin Heritage Park, ancient home of the Northern Plains First Nations people in Saskatchewan.
Niitsitapiisini: Our Way of Life
This website presents the culture and history of the Blackfoot-speaking people as they know and understand it. It has been developed through a unique collaboration among the people of the Blackfoot First Nations and Glenbow Museum.
Canada’s First Nations
This extensive multimedia website profiles the history, culture, and language of Canada's First Nations peoples. Also examines the impact of European contact on First Nations communities. A joint project of the University of Calgary and Red Deer College.
What is a Medicine Wheel?
An illustrated description of Alberta's mysterious medicine wheels, each of which consists of a stone circle connected by spokes to a central cairn. From the Royal Alberta Museum.
See an image of a Blackfoot design that appears in the Quilt of Belonging art project.
Canadian First Peoples
View portraits of First Nations historical figures at this Royal Ontario Museum website.
Stoney Tribal Administration
The website for the Stoney Tribal Administration. Click on "Read More" to see a history of the Stoney Nakoda people and early contact with European fur traders and Christian missionaries.
The Dakota Documents
A brief survey of research into the relationship between various factions of the Dakota Nation. From Canadian Heritage and the Prince Albert Grand Council.