Reflections of Ponoka: Saluting our proud, colourful native heritage

The Fort Ostell Museum has just completed a delightful display depicting the proud and longstanding culture and history of the

The Fort Ostell Museum has just completed a delightful display depicting the proud and longstanding culture and history of the colourful and rugged Indian tribes who have made all areas of Alberta and Western Canada their home since the early 1700s.

Among the outstanding artifacts are original native dancing costumes, colourful head dresses, ornaments and war bonnets, ceremonial drums, and so much more. These artifacts of native history were fashioned by hand, with feathers, horns, hides, porcupine quills, beads, and whatever else nature would provide over the years.

The early taming of the prairies

As far back as the pages of history are written on the settlement of the Canadian west, there is absolutely no doubt the Indians were the first inhabitants of a lush and rolling region blessed with ample lakes and rivers, teaming with wildlife, and framed among magnificent mountains, rolling hills, prairies and pristine valleys.

It was the roving explorer Anthony Henday who ventured into this wilderness in 1794, the first white man to travel through what is now Alberta, who would be greeted by roaming tribes of Indians and was in total awe by the presence of millions buffalo.

Who were the first natives to dwell near the wooded banks of the wandering Battle River? There is really no way of knowing, for to find such an answer the historians would have to go back many hundreds, even thousands of years. It is likely some of those tough and adventurous people from Asia who migrated across the Bering Straits eventually found their way into Alberta, following an old trail that over the centuries would become the great migration route through north and Central America. The first definite record of the native tribes inhabiting the Battle River country was in the 1730s, when the Shoshone or Snake Indians were said to control the area, while the Blackfeet lived to the northeast in Saskatchewan, and the Crees just beyond that.

In the latter part of the century the Peigan branch of the Blackfoot Nation became powerful, driving the Snakes southward by 1781, and taking possession of all the land between the North Saskatchewan and Red Deer Rivers. Seven years later the Snakes were struck down by a devastating smallpox epidemic, with what was left of the tribe fleeing south beyond the Bow River, and by 1800 their remaining descendants were found living on reserves in Idaho and Nevada.

The powerful Blackfoot tribe enjoyed a rather carefree life, content to kill the buffalo for food, clothing, and implements, as well as taking advantage of the bountiful wildlife to secure an ample supply of furs to trade at the Hudson’s Bay posts. It wasn’t long however that they began their slow exodus from the parklands of Alberta, preferring the open prairies to the south and controlling a vast area in Missouri and Montana, while by 1839 the Crees were pleased to move in and take over the rich and forested Battle River area.

The tribes continued their seasonal treks throughout the prairies in search of food, lodging, and the vital wildlife that would provide them with furs for trading in the spring. Large camps near the buffalo herds were established in the valley of the North Saskatchewan River, on the Kootenay Plains, into Montana, north to St. Paul, and at a massive settlement around the Buffalo Lake area. In the summer of 1870 hundreds of men, women, and children were hopelessly struck down by a devastating smallpox epidemic, and the survivors fled into the Bear Hills west of Hobbema to seek refuge and survive on the plentiful game. Meanwhile, the Stonys remained in their camps near Pigeon Lake and Wolf Creek, and were under the chieftainship of Che-poos-ste quah or Sharphead, a peaceful man who had made friends with the Methodist missionaries. Of the original four chiefs who settled at the Hobbema agency after the Riel Rebellion and the Treaty of 1877, two of them, Bobtail and Erminskin were brothers, Muddy Bull was a close relative, but Samson stood alone with his own band.

Treaty ceremonies were held at Fort Edmonton in 1876, but it was not until the fall of 1877 that the Bear Hills bands joined the Blackfoot, Sarcees, and Stonies to sign a treaty with David Laird, the Governor of the North West Territories, including all the regions of Western Canada. The same year on Sept. 25 Kis-kay-im or Bobtail would sign as the head chief of a tribe of 432 Indians, and received a reserve that extended from the ridge of Bear Hills southwest to the Battle River. Following the treaty payments the bands wintered in the foothills, but with most of the buffalo and other game having been slaughtered by ravaging trophy hunters, and the government not making adequate arrangements for rations, the years of 1881 to 1883 were plagued with horrific starvation and disease. With the assistance of the missionaries lobbying the federal government and the arrival of Sam B. Lucas, a farm instructor, the area lands would later be tilled and planted, homes were built, and reserves were established throughout the central regions where the tribes could live in peace, raise their families, and maintain their proud traditions.

There were always many hardships along the way, but by the turn of the century the Indian tribes of the Hobbema agency became good neighbours to the people of Ponoka, enjoying many visits and powwows in the community to buy, barter, and entertain, while also becoming successful farmers, trappers, craftsman, and participants in countless friendly activities. These long-standing traditions carry on to this day, including their colourful performances at the annual Ponoka Stampedes of native dancing and attire, which has become an international cultural attraction.

We will always salute and admire our native bands for their for their ongoing contributions and colourful heritage, as well as for always being such great neighbours of our town and districts.