Fed on modern one-sided views, many people, white as well as Indian, have come to look upon the Treaty makers as deceitful, scheming, greedy, prejudiced, malicious and cruel. In fact, this is untrue.
What about the Government that dictated the terms of the Treaties? However unwise in the light of today, those terms were dictated as much by the wish to save the Indians from extinction, as by the desire to make the Canadian plains safe for white settlers.
Not to have concluded some kind of treaty would have made the Canadian Government guilty of what we today call genocide. Men like the Hon. Grant MacEwan who wrote Tatangi Mani, and the biography of Sitting Bull, have no criticism for either the Government of the day, nor the men who actually negotiated the treaties. Although they deplore what happened as a result of the regulations of the Indian Act, their writing is an interpretation of the Indians’ viewpoint, with minimal, but deserved criticism for some of the individuals who administered the laws. Even Rev. Canon Ahenakew, himself an Indian, and in his day almost revolutionary in his thinking, says, “I am not certain that the Indian Act was unjust to the Indian as he then was ” adding only, “but times have changed.” Whatwere “the times” like when the treaties came into effect?
First of all the Indians were starving, partly through their own fault, but mostly as a result of white men’s actions. Just across the international line, the United States’ policy was to exterminate the Indian, as the prairie pioneers tried to exterminate gophers that fed on the crops. One means of doing so was alleged to be the deliberate burning of a vast strip of prairie grass across the Plains to force the buffalo to stay south, bringing starvation to the Canadian Indians along with their own American natives. Whether this was the main deterrent to buffalo migration or not, there was also the Union Pacific Railway cutting across Northern United States, fenced for the express purpose of keeping the buffalo herds from stopping the trains. Not being notable fence-jumpers, the buffalo were effectively held back, to be exterminated by characters like Buffalo Bill Cody. Within five years, tens of millions of buffaloes were reduced to scattered groups, and the Indians were faced with starvation.
Moreover, white men’s diseases, swept the prairies, wiping out whole families, and even whole bands. To add to the miseries, several unusually cold winters with deep snows, made hunting of other game for food still harder.
Accounts of many observers at the time tell of small bands of hunters dragging themselves from coulee to coulee, hoping to find straggling groups of buffalo. From time to time they would kill and eat their dogs and horses. The aged would voluntarily leave the camp to die, in order that their share might go the children. Unable to bury their dead, the band would leave the remains in a deserted tipi, or under the snow, a hitherto unheard of lack of respect.
The prairie Indians were quickly reduced to near extinction, for there was nothing to supplant the missing buffalo except coyotes and dogs and “rabbits”, (the varying hare or “jackrabbit”), which in certain years, almost died out. In summer, mice and gophers as well as birds could stave off starvation but there were fewer fruits then in the North. Skunks and porcupines were not abundant. In normal springs, sloughs were numerous in some areas, and attracted waterfowl. In 1905 the antelope were rarely seen. Very rarely wildcats and the occasional lynx might come out of the coulees. Prairies do not sustain the beaver, but muskrats could be found in the permanent potholes and sloughs. Upland birds such as the prairie chicken were not very numerous until after crops were sown by the settlers. Some fish such as suckers and Jackfish could be taken in the streams. In all very meager fare for any large numbers in an Indian band.
In the Peace River area the bison had never migrated, and there were moose, deer and bears to fall back on, as well as beaver, and the small prairie animals and birds except the gopher. Woodchuck and squirrels were small morsels for the pot. But terrible bush fires periodically swept the whole area so that some travelers reported going from Peace River to Hudson’s Hope without seeing a single living animal.
It is reported in The Canadian Indian by Fraser Symington that a report of zoologist Hornday read:
“During the winter of 1886-7 destitution and actual starvation prevailed to an alarming extent among certain tribes of the North West Territories . . . a terrible tale of suffering in the Athabasca and Peace River country has recently (1888) come to the Minister of the Interior of the Canadian Government in the form of a petition signed by the bishop of that diocesese, six clergymen and missionaries and several justices of the peace. It sets forth, ‘Owing to the destruction of game, the Indians both last winter and last summer have been in a state of starvation. They are now in a complete state of destitution, and are utterly unable to provide themselves with clothing, shelter, ammunition or food for the coming winter.’ The petition declared that on account of starvation and consequent cannibalism a party of twenty-nine Cree Indians was reduced to three in the winter of 1886 . . . Many other Indians — Crees, Beavers, Chipewyans — at almost all points where there are mission or trading posts, would certainly have starved to death but for the help given them by the traders and missionaries at those places. It is now declared by the signers of the petition that scores of families having lost their head (men) are now perfectly helpless, and during the coming winter must either starve to death or eat one another unless help comes.”
Yet they did survive, though with constantly shrinking numbers, until 1898-1899. Note that, in this case, the Indians did not petition for a treaty.
Between 1871 and 1877 seven treaties were signed, covering all of the southern part of Alberta, and Saskatchewan as well as all of Manitoba. These treaties took care of the pressure being put upon the Indians by the settlers and ranchers who were steadily pushing forward in expectation of the coming of a railway. These people were “squatting” upon land over which the Indians had traditionally roamed, hunted and raided each other for horses. The Indians themselves wanted some land “reserved” on which they could live without interference. Their idea of a “reserve” was hardly that of the Indian affairs department. The Chiefs had already realized that they must start raising cattle to replace the missing buffalo — although they disliked the taste of beef which was being sent west in much-too-small and irregular shipments. The Plains Indians – the Crees, Stoneys, Blackfoot, and others – had a well-organized political system, including chiefs whose authority was recognized. In fact, some very clever and wise men were chiefs at that time. Furthermore, all of the tribes, while at war separately, were capable of unity of purpose within the bands of the tribe, and of uniting to ask for protection. Fortunately they did not always do so, for in that case they might have been exterminated in the Rebellion of 1885.
The drama of Indian tragedy was being played against a dark and chaotic backdrop. It is amazing that at that time the Indian Affairs Department, newly responsible for the Northwest Territories, was able so quickly to bring the play to the end of a first act that was suitable to its time. Instead of moving to an inevitable and irreversible climax of doom, the Department achieved the most important objective of that day — it saved the Indian from going the way of the dinosaur, the mammoth and the mastodon. If whatever occurred afterwards was unwise or unjust, it cannot be blamed on the men who played their parts. The missionaries, like Father Lacombe, the political figures like Dr. Laird, Lieutenant Governor of the Northwest Territories, and the famous Mounted Policeman, Inspector Walsh all did their best to keep the Indians from being driven to extinction.
As complications in the plot, everything was against them. Chapter XV of W. G. Hardy’s From Sea to Sea enumerates a gloomy series of interrelated scenes: While Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island were having second thoughts about Confederation, which lead to government preoccupation with the disastrous Inter-Colonial Railway, Canada, as the book expresses it, “reached out an ignorant and arrogant hand to garner the Northwest just to keep the United States from getting it.” Some years before, Prime Minister John A. Macdonald had volunteered to be a villain in the piece, when he wrote that from any other view “the country is of no present value to Canada.” The remark, says W. G. Hard, is “typical of the stupidity that gave birth to the Red River Rebellion,” and “the 11,500 inhabitants around Fort Garry were of no mind to be bought and sold by the Hudson’s Bay Company and Canada as if they were a herd of cows.” This was especially true when the United States, just a little way south on the Red River, were anxious to annex the Canadian west, Indians and all. They even introduced a Bill into Congress to provide for the admission of Canada into the United States, and the organization of the Territories of Selkirk (Manitoba), Saskatchewan and Columbia — at a time when they were fighting the cruel and senseless Indian Wars in their own country! Leaders including John A. MacDonald regarded even the Scottish Red River settlers as savages. The first Northwest Rebellion under Riel in Manitoba did nothing to endear the West to “Canada”. To many easterners, the Metis and the Indians were all one and the same.
British Columbia was giving the government some concern also. A little-publicized event was the massacre of fourteen men and the wounding of two others of a road-building gang and mutilation of the corpses by the Chilcotins under Chief Klatsassin. Of course they had provocation. There were the usual indignities to Indian women, and the forcing of the Indians to subsist on bacon rinds, bones and tealeaves flung out of the camps in garbage. Then another fatal raid was carried out. Only seventeen Indians were involved, but a couple of thousand miles away, it might as well have been the whole Indian nation.
Then the Cariboo gold miners gave birth to a movement under Dr. J. S. Helmcken for annexation of British Columbia to U.S.A. — which had bought Alaska. The Canadian government had more than its share of serious problems to deal with already. Worse troubles were soon to come.
Against this background of turmoil the tragic figures of the starving, disease ridden Indians might have been almost invisible, yet from 1871 to 1877 seven treaties were concluded, as we have said. The Indians were given “inalienable (nontransferable) reservations”, as large an acreage per family as the average settler of the time needed. They were promised also a school on each reserve. Besides, they got an “annuity” starting with Treaty No. 1 at $3. per head, as well as blankets, cloth for clothing, twine for snares or traps . . . or cash. In later treaties, each band requesting them were given gardening tools, ploughs, harrows, carpenters’ tools, a yoke of oxen, a bull and five cows. No white settler could get anything by simply asking. The terms were generous for the times. Hardy says, “the procedure was kinder and sounder than the wars and massacres (of the Indians) across the line”. This is obviously true.
One of the terms of the Treaty was a promise of food in the case of any “general famine”. The famine came, sooner than expected, but, besides other foods, 500 head of cattle were shipped west, along with 91,000 pounds of bacon, 20,000 of pemmican and 806 sacks of flour. The meat-eating Indian was introduced to Bannock. A total of $157,572 worth of aid was sent, but “this amount, comparatively, was only a wagonload for a multitude.”
And the West got the North West Mounted Police, who not only held down that terror of the Western States, Sitting Bull, and his Sioux, but also the white whiskey-runners and outlaws.
Then the Dominion government decided to starve the Indians into settling down on their reservations by allowing only two days’ food for seven days. The directive of the Deputy Minister of the Interior, Vankoughnet, overruled the police and Indian agents. “The Indians at Fort Walsh are to be kept on starvation allowance.”
Nevertheless, when the Saskatchewan or Northwest Rebellion erupted in 1885, again under Louis Riel, the more level heads among the chiefs prevented all but a few bands of the Indians from joining the Metis who started what Hardy calls “A monument to the stupidities of government.” The chiefs realized that, as much as they disliked them, the Treaty-makers had saved them from extinction by starvation. Unknowingly those Indian chiefs in turn saved all the white setters from massacre when rebellion erupted. This in turn saved the C.P.R. and also, indirectly saved British Columbia and the post of Vancouver for Canada. Strange.
The Treaties were ad hoc decisions, and presented to the Indians to take care of an emergency. Men who did not have all the facts set them out. How could they? The “facts” were all in the future.
Who could guess that in a race near extinction there was power to regenerate itself into the fastest growing number of any ethnic group in Canada in less than a hundred years, thus outgrowing what seemed like a generous land reserve?
Who could believe that this sick, beaten race did not want to farm and “make money” and sit on chairs in houses that had wood floors and closed windows, and that couldn’t be moved when the debris and smell of living got “too much”. Who had a vision of metropolitan areas spreading for miles to encompass the Indian reserves?
Who knew enough about psychology to understand that Indians could not adapt easily to industrial requirements, especially to the clock that assumed the role of a despot over lives that had formerly responded only to weather, war, and hunger?
There were latent factors too numerous to mention which could not possibly have been foreseen at that time. The treaty-makers did the best they could at the time of crisis with the knowledge they had. They made a contract with the Indians. Thousands of other contracts between white groups have been made, and not “broken” but re-negotiated. Perhaps there lay the weakness in the Treaties — the lack of provision for re-negotiation, added to a “take-it-or-leave-it” philosophy underlying the white man’s dim perception of the peculiar values inherent to the Indians’ culture, and some of the weaknesses in his own.
Calling the Indian chiefs into conference and listening to them would have helped. The chiefs were not unintelligent — think of the one who is recorded to have made the building of a railroad into the Peace as part of his negotiations for Treaty #8.
The Indian chiefs tried to explain their position and their feelings. To discover how eloquent they were, one may read T. C. McLuhan’s book Touch the Earth, which will show that the well-known oratory of today’s Chief Dan George, and other Indian spokesmen was not learned from the white man, nor in “white schools”. It is a gift of the Indians’ heredity augmented by a millennia-long reliance on verbal communication. Unfortunately, when sifted through the often dim intelligence and vocabulary handicaps of many ordinary interpreters, the kernel of thought was probably lost on the negotiations. Besides the peculiar poetic repetitions and symbolic language common in Indian speech must have been fatiguing in the extreme to the blunt white man. We cannot as yet find any cases where the Indians’ pleadings or demands made the slightest difference in the negotiations. Everything was cut-and-dried by Federal civil servants, presented to the Indians on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. What else could the treaty-makers do at a time of extreme crises?