At the first meeting Commissioner David Laird outlined the hard facts: “In a very few years, the buffalo will probably be all destroyed, and for this reason the queen wishes to help you to live in the future in some other way." He offered to help show the First Nations how to raise cattle and grain and to give them financial assistance. In return he expected that the First Nations would relinquish their claim to most of their land.
Some chiefs were for the government’s terms and others against. As the discussion heated up, all eyes turned to one chief, Crowfoot.
Crowfoot was born a Blood in 1830 along the Belly River. As a child he was given the name Shot Close. Names among First Nations were considered living things, to be passed on to those who proved worthy of them. After his father was killed, Shot Close was adopted by the Blackfoot, who gave him the name Bear Ghost. He earned his most prestigious name Isapo-muxika (Crow Indian’s Big Foot, or Crowfoot) from an act of bravery during an attack on a Crow camp.
After a deadly outbreak of smallpox decimated his people in 1869 he became chief. During his years as chief Crowfoot became an influential peacemaker. He kept his young men from making raids and showed leniency when dealing with enemies. He formed a close friendship with the missionary Albert Lacombe, whom he once rescued from a Cree attack. Early in the 1870s he made peace with the Cree and he adopted a young Cree, Poundmaker, as his son.
Crowfoot had a keen intelligence and even while buffalo were still plentiful he foresaw a bleak future for his people. “We all see that the day is coming when the buffalo will all be killed, and we shall have nothing more to live on."
It was this awareness that brought Crowfoot to that treaty meeting. Although the commissioners thought mistakenly that Crowfoot was chief of all the Blackfoot, he knew that he could not take a decision without the agreement of the other chiefs. After discussing the terms with Red Crow, chief of the Blood, Crowfoot visited an old medicine man named Pemmican to seek advice. Pemmican warned him that if he accepted the treaty “You will be tied down, you will not wander the plains; the whites will take your land and fill it." Crowfoot was disturbed by the prophetic words.
Red Crow and the others told Crowfoot that they would sign if Crowfoot would. On September 21, Crowfoot rose to speak. He thanked the Mounted Police for saving so many of his people from the whiskey traders. “The Police have protected us as the feathers of the bird protect it from the frosts of winter… I am satisfied and I will sign the treaty." One by one the others followed and on September 22 the chiefs gathered to sign the landmark Treaty Number 7.
The question was asked then and it is still asked today. Did the Blackfoot understand the treaty? Did they comprehend that they would be confined to a small parcel of their former dominion? Likely Crowfoot did. To him the treaty was simply an act of faith. He knew that nothing could stop the white invasion and whatever future his people had would have to accommodate them.
In the years after the treaty Crowfoot had cause to regret his good opinion of the white men, as his people suffered starvation and disease, as settlers encroached on the land and as the government failed to live up to the terms of the treaty. Nevertheless, Crowfoot continued to believe that violence would only make things worse. He rejected Louis Riel’s entreaties to join in the rebellion.
Despite his illness and personal sorrow, Crowfoot remained a man of great dignity and compassion. He captured the imagination of almost everyone who ever met him. After 8 of his 12 children had died he heard that his beloved adopted son Poundmaker had been convicted of treason. “I have such a feeling of lonesomeness," he wrote to Poundmaker, “of seeing my children dying every year and if I hear you are dead, I will have no more reason for living." When Crowfoot died on April 5, 1890, he was mourned all over the world. He had been a warrior, peacemaker, orator and diplomat. He had brought great honour to his name.
James H. Marsh is editor in chief of The Canadian Encyclopedia.