Little Hunter, Blue Quills and the Plains Cree experience

Editor’s note: This post is part two of the previous weeks’ article.

Written by: Judy Half

Studying Indigeneity

Treaty Six territory in Alberta hosts diverse Indigenous communities; however their histories are still relatively unknown. In the 1980s, Indigenous Studies looked more at the Indian politics (Treaty), and government relations and women were often left out of the patriarchal and hegemonic discourses.

Anthropology is where I found I could apply a study of Plains Cree culture.  Eurocentrism and ethnocentric discourse in Alberta have entrenched a cultural lens that is built on exclusion and homogeneity of Indigenous groups. Anthropologists such as David Mandelbaum (who studied the Plains Cree in Saskatchewan) and Clark Wissler (who studied Blackfoot culture) used a selective process that was resonant of the cultural centres and cultural diffusion approaches, and that would in turn be used to interpret and influence a way of understanding the Indigenous life western Canada.

In 2008, I began work with the Royal Alberta Museum (RAM) as the Aboriginal Liaison Officer, handling repatriation applications for the Blackfoot. Within this time frame, I also began to care for Cree collections and researched sacred objects in the context of Little Hunter’s Band. While completing my Masters of Arts in Integrated Studies (MAIS) that laddered the Heritage Resource Management Program through Athabasca University, I began exploring the oppression and subjugation of the Plains Cree within the context of Heritage and Cultural Management. My research is informed by Linda Tuhiwia Smith, author of Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, as well as Paulette Steeves’ work on decolonizing education, culture and heritage, both of whom illustrate ways to approach tangled histories often seen in places where oppression and subjugation of Indigenous peoples occurs.

In my work I began to vocalize these issues of oppression and subjugation at museum conferences, and through dew claw bag research with the University of Alberta History Department. The study of the dew claw bag requires more unravelling, because I found similar bags at the Glenbow Museum recently.

Both the RAM and Glenbow Museum collected Indigenous ceremonial objects—objects that First Nations had been banned from using, as ceremony had been outlaws since the 1880s. Both museums continued to collect ceremonial materials from Plains Cree communities in Treaty Six Alberta through the 1960s and 70s. Though repatriation discussions between the Province and the Blackfoot Nation began in 1980, and have resulted in the return of several sacred and ceremonial objects to their home Nations, similarily-significant collections belonging to Treaty Six communities have not yet been returned.

Cree Cultural Resiliency

My dad’s eldest sister, and her mother (my kokom, or grandmother) sold items to the RAM and to the Glenbow Musuem during different time periods. The Glenbow obtained Little Hunter’s items in 1960s under museum staff Doug Light and Hugh Dempsey, while the RAM collected up until the 1970s.

Aunty held onto a buffalo headdress that my kokom wore in the cellars of the log cabin, performing the Plains Cree ceremonies that involve the matriarchal practices of females involved in Chicken Dance ceremonies. After the signing of Treaty, Treaty Six bands were charged two hundred percent for a bank loan, so many families would build their own log cabins, similar to those captured in Allen Sapp’s paintings of Plains Cree life on the reserve. My mother told us a story once about how my dad encountered his mother in the cellar of her home. Cellars, though used to store garden crops, also provided a space to conduct ceremony when they were outlawed. Interviews conducted with older first cousins suggest that their trips with the old people were actually trips to ceremonial events, held in secret in the 1930s and 40s. In this same period, many communities participated in Wild West Shows to practice ceremony, while others, including my dads late eldest sister, who performed in Germany in the 1930s.

Gonor Collection, Allen Sapp Gallery.

In the 1970s, many of my mom’s generation were recovering from their experiences at residential school as well as other Indian policies, such as the outlaw of ceremony and other policies meant to assimilate. In addition, the social space on the reserve was heavily skewed toward Christianity; within the community there was a Catholic Church, A Protestant Church, a corner Evangelist Church, and other forms of religious education in day schools and residential schools. Between the Christian education, Indian Agents and the North West Mounted Police,  assimilation seemed inevitable. There were, however, a strong resilient people that maintained spiritual practice through ceremonial practices underground.

Little Hunter’s Band was a part of  a greater Plains Cree autonomous society. As a single Band, Chief Little Hunter maintained his own Chicken Dance Society: a ceremonial practice that is today danced in pow-wow and in ceremonial Chicken Dance structures. Little Hunter had two daughters with his wife. He died several years after signing Treaty (this is apparent in the Treaty Payment record 1876).

My Aunty, who became the head woman, worked alongside her sisters to continue traditional practices resonating from Little Hunter’s Band. A dew claw bag has been transferred through three generations, via the eldest daughter. Practices like this illustrate the importance of women within traditional governance systems. My Chapan (great-grandmother) was a part of the women’s smoking pipe, which participated in the Chicken Dance Society’s ceremonies, which often preceded the Sundance. Similar illustrations of this practice are seen in the Okipa ceremonies held within Mandan culture.

Our Plains Nehiyaw Cree histories are untouched. European anthropologists implemented a system of study on Indigenous people that would resonate in cultural heritage institutions and policies in Alberta, but it does not tell the full story. While working at the RAM, I looked carefully at how the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Canada’s Ninety-Four Calls to Actions support Indigenous identity and  human rights, and worked to implement inclusion.

Diverse Indigenous Peoples make up the fabric and history of Alberta. Part of decolonizing those Eurocentric and ethnocentric histories is to invite all these groups to share their perspectives of the palaeontological, archaeological and anthropological landscape. In sharing multiple stories, we are enriching Alberta’s history. Archaeology and heritage is billion-dollar industry and it should not suffice to exclude other Indigenous Peoples within the social sciences.

The last story I want to share here involves the Crow and the Crow-Cree peoples of southern Montana. Prior to the treaties, the Crow Indians who lived in what is now Alberta moved south. They recognized the building tension in the west, and anticipated the demise of the Cree as a result of Indian policy. The Crow took a group of Cree with the family name Half with them in their relocation to southern Montana.  I stumbled on this Nehiyaw memory as I would watch Crow dancers at the Saddle Lake pow-wow. Years later they stopped coming to the pow-wow; the last time that I saw them dance was in the early 1980s. I asked why they stopped dancing. I realized that the hardship and cost to travel, and the pressures at the border crossing, likely deterred Crow communities from participating in the Saddle Lake pow-wow.

I visited the Crow Agency years later after finding out that there were Half families still living there. Curious as to how they got there, I contacted an anthropologist, as well as Crow College and community. The younger generation have recollections and narratives tied to this historical pre-treaty event. The anthropologist and Crow Peoples stated that they saw the Cree’s hardships and took the best beaders and bannock makers. This cultural group today are known as the Crow Cree. Again, more research is required to study the relationships between groups on the plains from an Indigenous perspective, by applying Nehiyaw terms which reflections of Nehiyaw laws, such as Wahkohtowin (meaning ‘all my relations’).

Today, my quest in the PhD program of the University of Calgary has provided a research space to study my culture, using the practices of anthropology, archaeology and tribal histories which are embedded within Nehiyawiwin.

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