The history beneath our feet

Calgary Herald, June 30, 2018: We throw the street names around every day while navigating the roads in Calgary.

Shaganappi, the one that’s fun to watch visitors say, is a Cree word for the strips of bison hide used to hold together different parts of an ox cart.

The legend behind the name Blackfoot, the English translation of Siksika, is that once upon a time a traveller noticed that another man’s moccasins were blackened from walking over the ashes of a prairie fire.

In 1866, a Siksika athlete who nailed an endurance race — running 84 miles (135 kilometres) in 16 hours — was given the name Deerfoot. He was, incidentally, a nephew of Crowfoot, a respected Siksika chief who died of tuberculosis in 1890 (more on him in a minute).

Sarcee is what the Tsuut’ina people were once called. The word Sarcee may have come from a Siksika word meaning boldness or hardiness. Tsuut’ina means “many people” or “every one.” Tsuut’ina Chief David Crowchild loved horses, competed at rodeos and chuckwagon races and was pleased to have a Calgary freeway named after him. He died in 1982 and hoped Crowchild Trail would be “a symbol of cutting all barriers between all peoples for all times to come.”

Perhaps drivers frustrated with the construction over the bridge can try to remember to cut off barriers and not each other. Or maybe we could all use a break from road construction season and just get outta dodge. Maybe think about heading east for a little road trip and a big history lesson. That’s right, go east. Leave the mountains to the tourists this long weekend and point the other way for a change. I know, I know — many of you think the prairies are dull and boring. You’re wrong and I will argue with you forever about this. The sky is ever-changing and the fields are like that Richard Scarry book I used to read to the kids with busy farmers and big tractors working the land under a big yellow sun.

After an eastward hour or so soaking up the big blue sky you’ll dip south, come around a bend and the prairie will suddenly give way to a gorgeous valley. This is Blackfoot Crossing, a place where Indigenous peoples have been meeting for thousands of years. It’s also the spot where Crowfoot, Deerfoot’s uncle, signed Treaty 7 on Sept. 22, 1877. Five First Nations were represented that fall day — the Siksika, Kainai (Blood), Piikani (Peigan), Stoney-Nakoda and Tsuut’ina. Blackfoot Crossing wasn’t the first choice for the days-long negotiations 141 years ago. The two commissioners representing the brand new Dominion of Canada wanted everyone to meet at Fort Macleod because it was in the middle of the land under discussion and well, it was convenient for the white guys.

But Crowfoot kiboshed that idea. The chief didn’t want to meet at a white man’s fort. He suggested Blackfoot Crossing instead. The commissioners agreed, reluctantly. One of them was Crowfoot’s friend James Macleod (who got his name on that fort south of town and a major thoroughfare in Calgary. Crowfoot got a library, an LRT station and a mall designed for cars and hazardous for pedestrians). Crowfoot, a respected chief among the other nations, was actually called “Crow big foot,” but somewhere along the way, an interpreter shortened it. Interpreters messed up during the treaty talks at Blackfoot Crossing, too. That is, they sucked. Not only did the chiefs have a very different idea about what a treaty was — they saw it more as a short-term fix and a sign of friendship than a long-term land transfer — they likely missed a big chunk of the terms being thrown out by the government guys.

You will learn all this and much more at the gorgeous interpretive centre built into the landscape at Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park Interpretive Centre. The paved walk into the building is reminiscent of the way hunters used to send bison over a jump. You enter and go over a cliff of hard history — reading blown-up pages of the Indian Act that line the curved walls and gazing at black and white images of Crowfoot and other leaders of a proud people forced into generations of poverty, and worse. You’ll also double down on respect for a tremendous resilience and gentle humour. You may even chuckle along with a guide who reminds us the term Indian came from explorers who landed in North America hoping they had found India: “Good thing they weren’t looking for Turkey,” he says with a grin.

As you leave the interpretative centre at Blackfoot Crossing, the big yellow sun shines down through a canopy of canoe-sized, colourful glass eagle feathers. As you walk out under the red and blue shadows you start to see Canada in a little different light.

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