Although the Blackfoot were considered to be one of the most warlike nations on the continent, much of their time was spent at peace with one or more of their enemies. They were surrounded on all sides by those who coveted their horses, their territory, and their vast buffalo herds. At the same time, Blackfoot war parties kept the war spirit alive through their horse raids into enemy lands.
The Blackfoot were faced by the Cree and Nakoda in the north, Cree and Assiniboine in the east, the Sioux and Crow to the south, and the mountains tribes of Kootenay, Nez Perce, Pend d'Oreille, and Flathead to the west. While peace may reign with one or two tribes at the same time, the Blackfoot were seldom, if ever, at peace with all their enemies. Not only that, but the Blackfoot nation was divided into four tribes--Siksika, Blood, North and South Peigan. Any one of these may have a treaty in place that was not recognized by their fellow tribes.
There were various kinds of treaties, perhaps the most common being between bands of two opposing tribes. For example, one or two bands of Siksikas near the northern edge of Blackfoot territory may make peace with Cree bands nearby. Yet such a treaty did not necessarily extend to the entire tribe on either side. For example, in 1828, when a treaty was made between the Bloods on one side and the Stoneys and Crees on the other, a fur trader commented, "Peace is now firmly established between them and the Stone Indians and a part of the Crees." But he added, "There [is] another Party of Crees which still remain doubtful whether they will consent to Peace and these are the Strongest party." (1)
On occasions when tribe-to-tribe treaties were made, the chances of them lasting was much better. In such cases, it was often necessary to send emissaries from band to band seeking support. Among the Cree, one method was for an emissary to collect a medicine pipe from each of the bands agreeing to a peace. These were then brought together for a grand council to plan a course of action. The same type of procedure might also be taken when considering war.
For example, at the outbreak of the Riel Rebellion in 1885, an influential Siksika chief named Big Plume went to the lodge of his chief, Crowfoot, and presented him with a small bundle containing tobacco, sweetgrass, and bullets. If Crowfoot had smoked the tobacco, it would have indicated his willingness to fight. Instead, he sent the tobacco bundle to Red Crow, head chief of the Bloods, seeking his opinion. (2) Red Crow refused to smoke and sent the tobacco back, showing that he had no intention of joining the fight. In fact, many of his followers would have been more interested in fighting the Crees than joining them.
If there could be unanimity within a tribe, a treaty might last for months or years. Horse stealing might even be condoned if there was no loss of life. In 1846, the Blackfoot made peace with the Flatheads that lasted for two years, which was quite good considering the usual short term existence of such pacts.
A type of treaty for which considerable records exist were those arranged by fur traders. These took place at trading posts which for the occasion were considered to be neutral territory. One such notable event occurred at Fort Union in 1831 when the Americans arranged for peace to be made between the Blackfoot and Assiniboines after years of discord. This was committed to paper, concluding that "a treaty of peace and friendship was entered into by the said high contracting parties, and is testified by their hands and seals hereunto annexed, hereafter and forever to live as brethren of one large, united, and happy family; and may the Great Spirit who watcheth over us all approve our conduct and teach us to love one another." (3)
This was not a singular event where a treaty was committed to paper. Another such peace treaty was described in detail at Fort Edmonton in December of 1862. The factor reported that fifty Crees, led by Maskepetoon and Sweetgrass, arrived at the fort to make peace. They brought with them a letter from the other Crees trading at Fort Pitt and Fort Carlton, subscribing to the agreement. In response, the factor accepted a gift of tobacco brought by the Crees and sent it to the Blackfoot who were on their way in to trade. A large party of Blackfoot, Blood, Peigan and Sarcee Indians arrived at the fort two days later. According to the trader:
Received them in the Indian House, took all their Guns from them, and then introduced the Crees with their Chiefs to them. All passed over well and the Peace was made. A great deal of speeches made on both sides and no want of promises to keep the peace ... Took all the Blackfoot Horses into the back square of Fort, and kept a strong Guard on watch all night.
On the following day he reported:
The Peace was finally satisfied today in the mess room, the Chiefs of each of the Tribes being present; delivered a paper to each Chief confirming the Peace made, signed with the names of all the Chiefs present. Tobacco exchanged & sent to Slave [Blackfoot] Indian camps & Cree Camps. All parties saluted each other with a kiss, shook hands and the Crees went off quietly at once. Long may it last. (4)
It did not last. Eight months later the traders bewailed the fact that "the Blackfeet & Crees are again at war. This will have some effect on our Trade at Edmonton as the Blackfeet will be afraid to visit that Post on acct. of the Crees being always on the watch for them." (5)
Similarly, a treaty with the Crees and Stoneys was made near Fort Pitt in 1836 but less than a year later, the trader at Carlton House reported:
... 55 Stone Indians that went off to steal Horses about 3 months ago have had a skirmish with the Slave [Blackfoot] Indians and 7 of them got wounded. They killed a Slave Indian Woman & two Children also two Crees that were living with the Slave Indians. This Affair will create War again amongst the Plains Tribes. (6)
There were several reasons for making treaties. First and foremost, was the need to cease the blood-letting that was decimating all of those involved. The fatalities often were out of all proportion to the existing populations. For example in 1824 when Crees near Fort Edmonton attacked a Blackfoot camp, the traders reported that the men had been away hunting and "the women and children to the amount it is supposed of four Hundred were all massacred excepting about twenty whom they reserved as Slaves." (7) A year later, the Edmonton Chief Factor stated that twenty-five Blackfoot had arrived at the fort "& informs us that they had a Battle with the Beaver Hills Crees & destroyed about 16 tents of them." (8)
Even if the mortality rate was smaller, the loss of horse herds, the inability to hunt because of danger of attack, and the reluctance to visit trading posts during times of war were all causes for concern.
Another reason for making treaties was to permit access to hunting areas. Most notably, the Indians from the west side of the Rockies often wanted to enter the plains to hunt buffalo. For years, they would make temporary treaties that would permit them to hunt just east of the Rockies on the Alberta plains. Similarly, if the Peigans were hunting near the Cypress Hills and became aware of a Cree or Assiniboine camp nearby, they may try to conclude a treaty so that each could hunt in peace.
A third motive for peace was to permit Blackfoot tribes to pass through enemy territory to reach a trading post. This was particularly true in the northern hunting grounds where the Blackfoot had to cross Cree country to trade at Rocky Mountain House or Fort Edmonton. At an earlier date, visits to Fort Carlton, in central Saskatchewan, also may have required a truce before being visited.
There were a number of ways to actually conclude a treaty. If there was no trading post to act as an intermediary, someone had to make contact with the enemy tribe. This person was known as a peacemaker and had that reputation within his tribe. In fact, there is a family named Peace Maker on the Siksika Reserve today. In 1814, when a chief called The Feather died, he was remembered as always being "eminently instrumental in preserving peace between the Southward [Cree] Indians and Stone Indians, and those of his own Nation, and their Allies." (9) Similarly, among the Crees, Maskepetoon was famous as a peacemaker.
If a peace treaty was deemed necessary, the peacemaker, either alone or in a small party, may enter enemy territory undetected and make his way to an enemy camp. At night, he crept to a nearby hill, where he sat, cross legged, pipe in hand, waiting for dawn. There he was usually sighted by a scout on an early morning patrol. Here was the point of greatest danger. If the scout had a particular hatred for the enemy tribe, perhaps because of a recent loss within his own family, he might ride down upon the peacemaker and kill him. Usually, however, the scout returned to his camp and informed the chief what he had seen. The chief with a party of warriors rode to the site where he invited the peacemaker to his lodge. There, he was safe and under the protection of the chief.
In most instances the peacemaker brought a pipe and tobacco. If the idea of a treaty was acceptable, the pipe was smoked and plans made for the tribes to meet. At other times, the peacemaker might bring additional symbolic objects. In the 1870s, a Siksika messenger carried a frame of crossed sticks with tobacco, eagle plumes, and sweetgrass tied to its centre. (10) On another occasion, the Bloods sent the Crees and Stoneys "Tobacco and a little weed and a piece of Buffalo back fat tied together."(11)
Once they had agreed to a treaty, the peacemaker returned to his tribe, sometimes bringing an enemy emissary with him. At the appointed place for the peace meeting, the two tribes camped a short distance from each other, donning their finest clothes and decorating their horses. An engineer who witnessed a treaty in 1871 between the Peigans on one side and the Kootenays and Flatheads on the other, described it as follows:
Down the river the faint barbaric music made by beating Indian drums arose. Presently the head of a column of mounted troops came into sight on the crest of the northern bluff of the river. Banners were flying, drums were sounding, and the Blackfeet warriors were chanting their marching song as they slowly advanced. (12)
The Peigans set up camp, then rode in procession to the Kootenay/Flathead camp. There, speeches lasting over an hour were made by both sides. Then a pipe was produced. Said the engineer:
It was filled with tobacco, lighted, and passed from hand to hand, each warrior smoking it for an instant. A shout arose on the council ground. Quickly it was answered. Women and children began to talk and laugh. (13)
Another description was provided by two Siksika elders, One Gun and Crooked Meat Strings. (14) They stated that a Cree peacemaker approached the Blackfoot at a trading post and asked for a treaty. The chief, Many Swans, agreed and sent his wife, Many Iniskims Woman, as his emissary. When asked why a woman was chosen he said: "If we go, it would be taken as a sign of war, but they will let her go into their camp and deliver the message." (15) When she arrived at the Cree camp with tobacco she was invited to the chief's tipi. Said One Gun:
The pipe was passed from the chief to the person who was chosen to smoke and then the person would indicate his satisfaction before taking a puff. The pipe was then returned to the chief and then passed on to the next one who was chosen to smoke. By smoking the gift tobacco, they showed they would make peace. (16)
The woman then led the Crees to the meeting place near the foothills. The Cree chief carried a peace sign and presented tobacco to his fellow chief, all the time singing his own medicine song. Crooked Meat Strings stated,
All the accompanying Crees were invited in to the society tipis for feasts. The Blackfoot gave the Crees a peaceful smoke. Then the Blackfoot chiefs went round calling and told the Blackfoot each to come and choose one Cree as tsk.si [friend] to take home to sleep. (17)
According to One Gun, "This was the great treaty with the Crees, although they still had fights after that." (18)
However, not all treaties were concluded that peacefully, or even concluded at all. In 1833, for example, traders reported that three Peigans near the edge of the Rocky Mountains had smoked with the Crees and feasted with them. Afterwards, the Crees killed them all and took their horses. (19)
In another incident, Maskepetoon, the great peacemaker of the Crees, went south with a small party to treat with the Blackfoot. When he reached the outskirts of the enemy camp he raised a Union Jack flag on a nearby hill and sat with a Bible, pipe, and tobacco. When he was observed, Big Swan, the Siksika chief, rode to the hill with a party of warriors and greeted him. He told the Crees to lay their guns aside and accompany him to the camp. However, as soon as they laid down their weapons, Big Swan gave the order to attack and killed them all. (20) This was considered to be treachery by the Crees but a great war deed by the Blackfoot.
Other peace-making attempts simply ended in failure. In the autumn of 1823, the Crees and Blackfoot came together for negotiations but, said a fur trader, "after a number of fruitless Speeches on both sides, they parted no better friends than they met." (21) Eleven years later, Old Squirrel, a Cree peacemaker, arranged for a meeting between Peigans and Crees at Fort Edmonton. The chief claimed that his fellow tribesmen down fiver near Fort Carlton were the ones who wanted war, but those near Edmonton desired peace. The Peigan chief, instead of assenting to peace claimed that, "The Indians of the Piegan, Siksika, Sarcees and Blood Indian tribes were always desirous to treat a Cree well, but that they were such ungrateful dogs that kindness, instead of making them better, made them only worse; they were constantly making peace and at the same time doing everything in their power to break it." (22) Needless to say, no treaty was made.
It is apparent that although peace treaties frequently occurred, they varied in type and nature. Two hunting parties meeting on the prairie might agree to some sort of truce with little ceremony other than smoking a pipe. At other times the treaty might be filled with pomp and ceremony. But in all cases, only the most optimistic would believe that these were forever. Rather, they were short term agreements made to resolve an immediate problem, whether cessation of warfare, hunting rights, or trade relations. The existence of a written treaty in a couple of cases would have provided no additional guarantees that the situation would be any different than treaties made without white intervention..
Perhaps the situation was best expressed by a Blackfoot who, when asked to sign a treaty, said he agreed with the idea, but would not sign until he had killed a few more Crees.
(1) Carlton House Journals, entry for August 17, 1828. Hudson's Bay Company archives, Provincial Archives of Manitoba (hereinafter HBCo. archives), B.27/a117.
(2) Interview with One Gun, by the author, March 5, 1957, in author's possession.
(3) Hiram M. Chittenden, A History of the American Fur Trade of the Far West. Stanford, CA: Academic Reprints, 1954, v.1, 333-34,
(4) Edmonton House Journals, entries for December 7 to I0, 1862. HBCo. archives, B.60/a/33.
(5) Ibid., entry for August 15, 1863. HBCo. archives, B.60/a/33.
(6) Carlton House Journals, entry for April 15, 1837. HBCo. archives, B.27/a/22.
(7) Ibid, entry for October 17, 1824. HBCo. archives, B.27/a/14.
(8) Edmonton House Journals, entry for October 9, 1825. HBCo. archives, B.60/a/23.
(9) Ibid. entry for October 27, 1814. HBCo. archives, B.60/a/14.
(10) Interview with One Gun, by the author, op.cit., March 5, 1957, in author's possession.
(11) Edmonton House Journals, entry for March 25, 1827. HBCo. archives, B.60/a/24.
(12) Frank Wilkeson, "The Last of the Indian Treaties," New York Times, April 17, 1887.
(14) Interview with One Gun, by the author, op.cit., March 5, 1957, in author's possession, and with Crooked Meat Strings, July 27, 1939 by Julian and Jane Hanks. Hanks Papers, Glenbow Archives.
(15) Interview with One Gun, op.cit., March 5, 1957.
(17) Interview with Crooked Meat Strings, op.cit., July 27, 1939.
(18) Interview with One Gun, op.cit., March 5, 1957.
(19) Carlton House Journals, entry for July 19, 1833. HBCo. archives, B.:
(20) Interview with Crooked Meat Strings, op.cit., July 27, 1939.
(21) Cited in John S. Milloy, The Plains Cree: Trade, Diplomacy and War Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1988, 88.
(22) Ibid., 1988, 96.
Hugh Dempsey is editor of Alberta History. This article is based upon an address he gave at a conference of the Piegan Institute, at Browning, Montana, in August 2006.…