The End of an Era
Long before Europeans entered what is now Alberta, native populations felt their influence initially through the horse, which was a relatively modern addition to the plains, having been first introduced to North America by the Spanish in the mid-1600s and appearing north of the 49th parallel in the mid-1700s. Horses were followed by Europeans themselves, with their guns, alcohol, and diseases. From this time on, native lifestyle and the boundaries of the various tribes changed dramatically. For centuries, the buffalo population of the prairies had remained relatively constant. The Indians slaughtered many buffalo, but not enough to make a significant impact on total numbers. As beaver populations dwindled, however, traders turned to buffalo hides. Within 10 years, the once-prolific herds were practically eradicated. Without their traditional food source, the Indians of the plains were weakened and left susceptible to European-borne diseases such as smallpox and scarlet fever. The whiskey trade also took its toll on native populations. Living conditions among the Indians were pitiful, and frequent uprisings took place.
On June 6, 1874, a band of North West Mounted Police left Toronto under the command of Colonel James F. Macleod. Their task was to curb the whiskey trade and restore peace on the western prairies. They built a post on the Oldman River, and within one year three other posts had been established in what is now southern Alberta.
Facing starvation, the chiefs had no choice but to sign treaties, relegating the tribes to reserves, which consisted of land set aside by the government for specific native bands, and changing their nomadic lifestyles forever. The chief of all chiefs, Crowfoot, of the powerful Blackfoot Confederacy, signed the first major treaty on September 22, 1877, followed by the chiefs of the Peigans, Stoneys, Sarcees, and Bloods. Their self-sufficiency taken away, the tribes were forced to accept what they were given. They were no longer free, they no longer hunted or fought, their medicine men could do nothing to stop the spread of the white man’s diseases, and they slowly lost their pride.
© Andrew Hempstead, from Moon Western Canada, 3rd Edition