Blackfoot Peace Treaties

By Dempsey, Hugh A. | Alberta History, Autumn 2006 | Go to article overview
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Blackfoot Peace Treaties

Dempsey, Hugh A., Alberta History

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.

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