Exploring the Unique Culture at Siksika Nation
Before Europeans landed on North America, the continent was filled with a plethora of different native groups, with one of these being the Blackfoot Confederacy. The Confederacy consists of three First Nations bands in Canada, as well as one Native American tribe in the United States. Historically, the Blackfoot roamed across the Northern Plains, between British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Montana. Originally the Blackfoot were an extremely nomadic people, hunting bison across the prairies and living off the land. After the arrival of Europeans to the North American continent, bison were hunted to near extinction, which forced the Blackfoot to change and adapt their living style, now becoming ranchers and farmers amongst other professions. After signing treaties in the 1870’s in order to gain knowledge and protection from the governments of United States and Canada, the Blackfoot were subject to harsh assimilation policies, from which they are still recovering today.
After the signing of Treaty 7, the Siksika Nation was created, located east of Calgary in the province of Alberta. Gleichen is the administrative center of the area, and is the closest town to Siksika. The northernmost of all Blackfoot settlements, Siksika Nation is populated by around 6800 people, with around half living on the reserve, and the other half spread throughout Alberta, Canada and the rest of the world. Today, if you are interested in the culture of Canada’s First Nations people, Siksika Nation is the ideal place to visit, with an interesting network of historical sites presented to tourists and locals alike in a wonderful visitor’s centre called Blackfoot Crossing.
Blackfoot Crossing is the site where the historic Treaty 7 was signed, and was designed by the Blackfoot people in order to create a unique cultural experience that teaches visitors about the history of both the Siksika tribe, as well as the Blackfoot people as a whole. Located on land belonging to Siksika Nation, Blackfoot Crossing has quickly become a world renowned experience. Originally the area was used as an important river crossing for the Blackfoot people as they followed and hunted bison throughout the Great Plains; later, the spot became significant enough to become a central meeting place for all the different factions of the Blackfoot Confederacy. The visitor’s centre at Blackfoot Crossing prides itself on its connection to the original culture through architectural symbolism, as well as its sustainable approach towards the environment.
Located directly west of Blackfoot Crossing is an important archeological site, believed to have been constructed by Native American tribes from North Dakota. The village consists of earth lodges, which is extremely rare in the Great Plains due to the nomadic nature of the peoples that populated the area. The exact nature of the earth lodge village is still a puzzle, but it was inhabited around 1740. When members of the Blackfoot Crossing Historical Committee decided to research the origins of the village, they travelled to North Dakota and met with different native tribes there. After meeting with a variety of different people, the committee learned from elders at the Three Affiliated Tribes (the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara) of legends of a group of Mandan and Hidatsa that travelled north and returned speaking a completely different language, with influences of another culture. There is currently more excavations taking place, directed by the University of Calgary, which will hopefully reveal more answers about the archeological site and people who inhabited it.
Crowfoot’s grave is another historically significant site at Blackfoot crossing. Born in 1830, Crowfoot prided himself as both a leader in battle, and later, the leader of the Siksika tribe. He was known for trying to achieve peace rather than conflict, and for his influential role in the negotiations of Treaty 7. Crowfoot was recognized by both Canadian and British authorities as an essential attendee to the negotiations. After he refused to meet at a settled fort, Blackfoot Crossing was chosen as the negotiation site instead. Crowfoot negotiated on behalf of the entire Blackfoot Confederacy, and it was decided that in exchange for allowing white settlers to live on their land, they would be given a permanent plot of land, rations, farming tools, and an annual allowance, amongst other things. Crowfoot is one of the most famous residents of the Siksika Nation, and is known for his legacy of successful negotiations. Chief Crowfoot is honoured at other monuments throughout Canada, including Head Smashed in Buffalo Jump. In 1890, Chief Crowfoot passed away from tuberculosis, with over 800 Blackfoot and Canadian government officials attending his funeral. Today, at Blackfoot Crossing, visitors can see Crowfoot’s grave, and learn about the huge achievements he made throughout his life.
Overall, at Blackfoot Crossing, visitors can learn about the culture of the Siksika Nation, as well as the Blackfoot Confederacy. If you are looking to visit the area, it can easily be reached from the city of Calgary in under 2 hours. If you are looking to stay in the area, there is accommodation available in Gleichen, a nearby town or in some places throughout the reserve. One interesting experience is staying in the Tipi Village at Blackfoot Crossing. Here you can sleep in a tipi, a cone shaped tent with a smoke flap at the top. The material for the tipi is traditionally made of buffalo hides, but nowadays may be made of canvas. This style of home was extremely suitable for the nomadic lifestyle of the Blackfoot Tribe. Staying in a tipi at Blackfoot Crossing costs $35/person, and includes full access to all of Blackfoot Crossing’s amenities. There may also be interesting demonstrations about how the Siksika Nation people traditionally lived and used the land.
Enjoy your trip to the Siksika Nation and Blackfoot Crossing, and make sure to learn about all the Blackfoot tribe’s culture, and how you can implement aspects of First Nations culture in your own life.
Sam Treacy is a current business student at the University of Victoria, who loves the thrill of exploring a destination’s culture, traditions and environment. After completing an exchange year in Austria in 2016, Sam is now interested in continuing her German studies, as well as studying other languages. When she’s not writing or studying, Sam enjoys travelling to both new and old destinations, as well as skiing, hiking and playing rugby.