The first Homo sapiens probably arrived in North America approximately 15,000 years ago—migrating from northeastern Asia across a land bridge spanning the Bering Strait. At the time, most of what is now western Canada was covered by an ice cap, so these first immigrants headed south along the coast and into the lower, ice-free latitudes of North America (to what is now the United States). Other waves of similar migrations followed, and eventually these ancestors of today’s Native Americans fanned out across North and South America.
Thousands of years later, the receding polar ice cap began to uncover the land north of the 49th parallel. Native hunters probably first ventured into what is now Canada approximately 11,000 years ago, in pursuit of large mammals at the edge of the melting ice mass. The people who ended up in what would become Alberta  came from the south, and in much later waves from the east, and formed several broad groups, within which many tribes formed, each with a distinct culture and language.
Most of the natives who inhabited what is now Alberta relied on bison (misnamed buffalo by early Europeans) for almost all of their needs. They ate the meat, both fresh and dried, then pounded into a powder form known as pemmican; made clothing, blankets, and tepee covers from the hides; fashioned bones into tools and ornaments; and used the dung as a source of fuel. One of their most successful ways of killing the huge beasts was by stampeding a whole herd over a cliff, at places known today as “buffalo jumps.” (The best example of such a site is Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, northwest of Fort Macleod.) They lived in tepees, which are conical-shaped tents comprising a frame of poles covered in buffalo hides. All cooking was done inside the tepee, with weapons, clothing, and food hung on the inside. During large gatherings, such as a buffalo hunt or the midsummer Sun Dance religious ceremony, thousands of tepees dotted the landscape.
The Blackfoot Confederacy was a group of traditional prairie dwellers and was the most warlike and feared of all native groups in Canada. Linguistically linked to the Algonkians, they were the “classic” Indian, depicted in story and film bedecked in costumes and headdresses and mounted on horses. (This perception is somewhat skewed, however, because the horse 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.) Before the arrival of Europeans, the Blackfoot Confederacy ruled the southern half of the province and comprised three allied bands, which hunted and camped together, intermarried, shared customs, and spoke dialects of the Algonkian language. They were the Blackfoot (best known today as Siksika), who lived along the North Saskatchewan River; the Blood, along the Red Deer River; and the Peigan, along the Bow River. As the Cree and Assiniboine to the north became armed with guns through their close links to the fur trade, the Blackfoot were pushed south, culminating in the last great intertribal battle in North America, which was fought against the Cree in 1870 within what is now Lethbridge city limits. By this time, the northernmost band of the once-powerful confederacy were the Siksika, who had been restricted to the land along the Bow River, while the Blood and Peigan lived to the south, with the Peigan territory extending well into Montana.
The Sarcee are also considered part of the Blackfoot nation but are of Athapaskan linguistic stock. This small tribe divided from the subarctic Beaver in the mid-1800s and integrated themselves with the Blackfoot in customs, lifestyle, and marriage but retained their original tongue.
Circa 1650, the mighty Sioux nation, centered on the Great Lakes, began splintering, with many thousands of its members moving north into present-day Canada, obtaining guns and metal objects from Europeans. These people became known as the Assiniboine, meaning “people who cook with stones.” (Stones would be heated in a fire and then placed in a rawhide or birchbark basket with water; meat and vegetables were added, cooking as the water heated.) Slowly, generation after generation, smaller groups pushed westward along the Saskatchewan River System, allying themselves with the Cree but keeping their own identity and pushing through Blackfoot territory of the plains to reach the foothills approximately 200 years ago. They split into bands, moving north and south along the foothills and penetrating the wide valleys where hunting was productive. A lifestyle very different to that of the plains Indians evolved. Moving with the seasons, they lived in small family-like groups, diversifying their skills, becoming excellent hunters of mountain animals and gathering berries in fall, and becoming less dependent on buffalo. They were a steadfast yet friendly people, and as Alexander Henry the Younger reported in 1811, “although [they are] the most arrant horse thieves in the world, they are at the same time the most hospitable to strangers who arrived in their camps.” They knew themselves as the Nakoda, meaning “people.” To the white man they were the Stoney, a shortening of the “Stone People,” which in turn was an English interpretation of Assiniboine.
As the great buffalo herds were decimated, the Stoney were impacted less than the plains Indians because their reliance on the buffalo was almost nonexistent. But the effect of white man’s intrusion on their lifestyle was still apparent. The missionaries of the day found that their teachings had more effect on the mountain people than those of the plains, so they intensified their efforts at converting the Stoney. The Reverend John McDougall was particularly trusted, and in 1873 he built a small mission church by the Bow River at Morleyville. When the Stoney were presented with Treaty 7 in 1877, they chose to locate their reserve around the mission church at Morleyville. Abandoning their nomadic lifestyle, they quickly learned farming. Unlike the plains Indians, they were almost self-sufficient on the reserve, not needing government rations, which the Blackfoot tribes survived on. Approximately 7,000 Stoney live on the Morley reserve today.
Before the arrival of Europeans, the Cree had inhabited most of eastern Canada for thousands of years. As the European fur traders pushed westward from Hudson Bay, the Cree followed, displacing enemies and adapting to new environments. By 1800, the Cree had moved as far west as the Peace River and to the northern slopes of the Rocky Mountains. They lived mostly in the forests fringing the prairies, acting as a middleman between Europeans and local natives, searching out furs and trading buffalo hides obtained from plains natives for European goods. Although not related, the Cree and Assiniboine mixed freely, camping, hunting, and fighting as a group.
Athapaskan (often spelled Athabascan) is the most widely spread of all North American linguistic groups, extending from the Rio Grande to Alaska. It is believed that Athapaskan-speaking people moved into what is now Alberta  approximately 7,000 years ago, following the receding ice cap and settling in forested areas throughout the subarctic. Athapaskans led a simple, nomadic life and were generally friendly toward each other and neighboring tribes. Although culturally diverse, the nature of this tribe’s lifestyle left few archaeological remains; therefore, they are the least known of the natives who once lived within the boundaries of modern-day Alberta.
The southernmost Athapaskan group inhabiting Alberta was the Beaver, who were forced westward, up the Peace River watershed, by the warlike Cree in the late 1700s (the name Peace River originated after the two groups eventually made peace). Traditionally, the Beaver hunted caribou and bison that wandered north from the plains, but they were strongly influenced by the fur trade. Another distinct band of Athapaskans who settled along the Mackenzie River watershed are known today as the Dene (DEN-ay), meaning “the people.” The Dene lived a simple life, depending on fish, birds, and game such as caribou and moose, and traveling in birchbark canoes. Further divisions within the Dene nation relate more to the area in which they lived rather than to distinct language or lifestyles. These groups include the Slave (known as the Slavey in the Northwest Territories ) and the Chipewyan, both of whose traditional home was the upper watershed of the Mackenzie River.
The exact definition of Métis varies across Canada, but the term originated in the 1700s to describe those born of a mixed racial heritage as the result of relationships between French traders and native Cree women. The Métis played an invaluable role in the fur trade because they were able to perform traditional tasks and were bilingual. By the early 1800s, a distinct Métis culture developed, mostly along major trading routes. As the fur trade ended and the great buffalo herds disappeared, many Métis found themselves drawn toward the familiarity of their own people and settled along central Canada’s Red River. Government threats to take their land along the Red River led to the 1869 Riel Rebellion and the 1885 North West Rebellion, after which the displaced Métis drifted back westward to the boreal forests, eking out food by hunting, trapping, and fishing. They were a people stuck between two cultures; they were excluded from treaties signed by full-blooded natives but were not a part of mainstream Canadian society.