This gala picture was taken at an early 19th century pow-wow in Ponoka

This gala picture was taken at an early 19th century pow-wow in Ponoka

Reflections of Ponoka: Indians played a big role in our early settlement

Who were the first Indian tribes to dwell near the wooded banks of the Battle River?

Who were the first Indian tribes to dwell near the wooded banks of the Battle River? It was likely the Shoshoni or Snake Indians in the 1730s, but in the years that followed, it didn’t take long for the Blackfeet to take over possession of this vast central area, while the Crees settled to the north and east, and the Stonies were located in the Pembina area. In the early 1880s, the Blackfeet began a slow exodus from the parklands of Alberta onto the open prairies of the south and into the United States.

As the Crees moved into the Battle River area, they took over the rolling hills, forests, and streams that were plentiful fish, wildlife, and vegetation. While the various tribes wandered throughout the area in search of food and shelter, the Men of Prayer (missionaries) would come west in 1842, arriving at Fort Edmonton in July, and then organizing various trips  into the Battle River region in search of the native camps for the purpose of organizing settlements. In April of 1881, the priests arranged to have materials and supplies shipped into the area, and by 1884 had established the first mission at Bear Hills. The centre of the section 1-44-25-W5 near the Battle River was the sight they eventually expected to become the joint borders of the Bobtail and Ermineskin Reserves, but after the survey of August 1885 put this area in the Samson Reserve, the decision was made to situate the Bobtail and Ermineskin Reserves seven miles to the north. Of the original four chiefs who settled at the Hobbema agency after the treaty of 1877, two of them, Bob Tail and Ermineskin were brothers, while Muddy Bull was a close relative.

Memories of the Indians

Over the years that followed, pioneer families would arrive in great numbers, and the Indians would play a major role in the settlement of the central area throughout the Blind Man River Valley and into the lush fields and forests surrounding the Bluffton, Rimbey, and Gull Lake region, and east along the Battle River. Marvin L. Becker vividly recalls in the Tributaries of the Blind Man History Book that the friendly Indian families would help the settlers to clear and plant the rigged land on their newfound homesteads, with the women and smaller children piling the limbs and brush, while the men did the axe work.

Nearly every farmer, big or small, milked a few cows in those days, and the precious milk would become one of the main items on the menu for the Indian tribes, along with lard, tea, flour and sugar. Some of the native families that they all got to know and enjoy were the Strawberries, Yellowfaces, Yellowfishes, Josephs, Swans, Bremners, and there would be many others over those memorable years. The residents of the growing farming districts always watched the colorful ceremonial dances at the Pow-wows, which were held on a flat, bare and well grassed piece of land, and attracted Indian families from miles around. They would build a large teepee using full length trees about 40 feet long, which stood on end, then were leaned to the centre, tied together at the top, and then covered with hides. The diameter of the floor of the room was 35 feet, on which a big fire was built, with the only opening being one at the top to let out the smoke.

Most of the ceremonies and rituals were of a sacred or religious nature, including the rain dance to ask for rain after a prolonged dry spell, or the sun dance to ask for sunshine after a long wet spell. There was also a dance of endurance to select the next ruling chief of the tribe, with all the candidates entered into a specific dance, to which there was no let up until only one man was left, some lasting 2 or three days until their new leader was honoured. During all of these gatherings the Indians were dressed very well in their beaded moccasins, vests, gloves of buckskin and other trinkets, all of which were offered for sale at a very nominal price. Many or most of the native families could not speak a word of English, but there were always a few they would call on to translate their hearty business.

● Buffalo ranged by the thousands in the entire area over a century ago,  but they would eventually be nearly wiped out by white hunters, and many of their skulls can still be found on the low ground. Remnants of the old Indian trails can still be located in this area, as well as rare treasures such as arrow heads, stone hammers, and skinning knives.

● The settlement of Indians on the northwest shore of Medicine Lake dissolved in the early 1930s after an epidemic struck the people, killing many of the families. The cabins were later destroyed by fire, but many mounds and grave sites can still be seen.

● Joe Bremner Sr., at the age of 70 in 1932, claimed that he was a full-blooded Scotsman,  who married an Indian lady, and had been with the tribe most of his lifetime. A very interesting gentleman, he claimed to know Buffalo Bill, and saw him in action in his famous wild west show many times, including leaping from the back of his galloping  horse onto the back of a buffalo.

● Indians in the area took regular steam baths in a very adequate and simple manner. A small size room made of green willow was built, stones were heated to the desired temperature, the fire put out, and water poured on the hot rocks to produce the soothing and healthful steam.

● As late as 1939 Indians travelling by team and wagon were a fairly common sight on most roads, and included the whole family, several extra horses, and lots of dogs trailing behind. Although some of the original Indian culture and natural ways of living may have faded out, the great and colorful stories, heritage, and traditions have proudly remained, and will always be seen, shared, and enjoyed by countless generations throughout our community, province, and beyond.