Chief Crowfoot by Gabriel Dumont
If you want to read a good biography of Crowfoot, read Hugh Dempsey's summary
in the Dictionary
of Canadian Biography and Dempsey's book Crowfoot:
Chief of the Blackfeet (Civilization of the American Indian Series)
In 1877, Crowfoot was the leader of the Blackfoot
--- the most feared native tribe in western North America. For centuries, for
millennia, the Blackfoot barely survived --- for food they killed buffalo ---
millions galloped across the prairies --- but the fast, one-ton beasts
were hard to kill --- the Blackfoot had no weapons but dogs and spears and
bows and arrows. The Blackfoot could only try to stampede them over cliffs and, covered
with buffalo dung, sneak up on them and fight them hand to hand. Many Blackfeet
starved to death. In the words of Thomas
Hobbes life was "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short". About
1700 horses and guns appeared on the Western prairies --- For thousands of years
no horses existed in the Western Hemisphere. The Spanish brought them into Mexico
and used them to defeat the Aztec Empire of Montezuma. The Blackfoot's
enemy, the Shoshone, brought horses unto the western prairie. The Blackfoot
soon stole some of them and mastered horseback riding and calvary warfare. Another
enemy, the Cree, brought guns and the Blackfoot soon carried them. Before guns
and horses, the Blackfeet had had to hunt 365 days a year. After about 1720,
they only had to hunt but five. They became the wealthiest nation on Earth.
What did they do with their leisure time ---they stole horses and fought wars
--- for the fun of it.
Crowfoot was born in 1830 at the height of the Blackfoot prosperity. Eventually,
because of his heroics, he took on the name Isapo-Muxika -- the whites called
him Crowfoot. He always wore a bonnet into which a dead baby owl was woven.
I sidled up to him yesterday at the Long Bar at the Alberta Hotel. Isapo-Muxika
was guzzling a huge glass of Calgary Stock Ale.
"Tell me how you came to lead your people," I asked him.
"When I had seen only 13 winters, the great warriors of our band took
me along on a war party . I was lucky, I sneaked into a Shoshone camp, smashed
in the head of a sleeping Shoshone with my tomahawk --- stole his horse. Before
I had seen 20 winters I had fought in 19 battles and my body bore six wounds.
Then a Shoshone fired a lead musket ball into my spine and I could never again ride
a horse in battle. So I turned to horse trading. and made a fortune.
The people elected me a minor and then a major chief."
"But then the whites came? And you signed a treaty with them."
"You're talking about the so-called 'signing' of Treaty #7 at Blackfoot
Crossing in 1877 --- I never signed it --- I was illiterate -- I couldn't write
my own name --- the whites forged my mark on the treaty --- we'd had a bad year
--- the whites had killed most of our buffalo --- we were starving ---- the
Mounted Police brought food and the Lieutenant Governor of the Northwest
had drawn up a treaty in Regina and he brought it to Blackfoot Crossing and
it was already written up in English ---and the whites wouldn't tolerate any
changes in the treaty. They told us that they wouldn't feed our starving people
until I signed the treaty --- I didn't know what was in the treaty I couldn't
read or speak English --- the Red Coats brought along a so-called interpreter,
a Metis called Jerry Potts --- but he couldn't speak Blackfoot --- and he was
drunk all the time. And, at Blackfoot Crossing, the whites bullied us unmercifully.
I pretended to put my mark on it. When, after they'd fed my people, the whites
discovered my deception, they forged my mark on it. In Blackfoot law the treaty
wouldn't be binding on us because it was forced on us and we didn't know what
it said. And, anyway, once the treaty had been 'signed' the whites broke it
many times. The whites told us the treaty said we were a sovereign nation ---
but it didn't say that at all --- afterwards the whites treated us like slaves not
as an independent nation --- the whites promised to educate us in our own language
--- afterwards the whites forced our children into residential schools and beat
them if they spoke the Blackfoot language --- the whites promised us proper
medicine and food 'as long as the sun shines and the rivers flow' --- they never
provided it freely. Under our
laws, for these reasons, we Blackfoot could tear up the "treaty" --- our ancient
lands are still ours. I'm told the whites' laws say the same thing. The
treaty is not binding on us, so under our law and under the whites' law, the
prairies and the mountains covered by the treaty are still ours. Worse than
all that was what I, myself, failed to do. When we met the whites at Blackfoot
Crossing, our young men (who were always a problem as they are everywhere) wanted
either food or war --- if the whites wouldn't feed them, they wanted to massacre
them --- I thought the whites were unbeatable --- they would destroy us in the
end if we fought them. . horse trading had made me a practical businessman.
I was much impressed by the whites. They were so clever. They were so practical.
And their works were so powerful ... their weapons ... their lodges ... the
discipline of their soldiers --- and I'd heard of their iron horse. I liked
them very much ... they were my kind of people ... and ... I feared them. And
I came to believe that they were unbeatable. So I believed that all we could
do was to suck up to them --- to appease them."
"As Neville Chamberlain appeased
Hitler in 1938 at Munich and caused the Second World War."
"I was a Chamberlain type negotiator, yes. Chamberlain was a businessman
--- a good one --- so was I. Businessmen should stay out of politics. We are
prejudiced against war --- wars are bad for business. But, if I had known what
would happen to my people. If I had know what would happen to my children and
my children's children. Reduced to begging, addicted to alcohol, abused by white
trash, without leadership --- if I had known I would fought them in 1877. I
was a Chamberlain true enough. I was no Winston Churchill."
"Are you saying that you didn't know the nature of the whites --- their true nature was
staring you in the face. Even if their leaders wanted to treat your people decently
- as King George III did when he issued the Royal
Proclamation of 1763 - he agreed that whites would not cross the Appalachian
Mountains -- all of the lands west of the Appalachians, the infamous king declared,
belonged to the native tribes --- and as President George Washington did when
he invited Alexander McGillivray, the Grand Chief of the Creeks, to New York
and feted him and signed a Treaty (the Treaty of New York of 1790 - best described
in Joseph J. Ellis's American
Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies in the Founding of the Republic).
The Treaty of New York declared that the Creeks were a sovereign nation --- its borders enclosed all of western Georgia, eastern Tennessee, northern
Florida, all of the present State of Alabama, and eastern Mississippi --- those
lands all belonged to the Creek state --- and the treaty prohibited whites from
setting foot there. But neither George III nor George Washington nor any other
leader could stop the masses of whites fleeing the class systems of Europe and
the American east coast --- they simply ignored the treaties and flooded into
the native lands. You must have known how outright dishonest politicians like
U.S. President Thomas Jefferson (whose antics were best described in American
claim-jumped native lands all the way west to, then over, the Mississippi River.
And you must have known of the malicious ones like President Andrew Jackson
who drove the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee-Creek, and Seminole out
of their national homelands in the Eastern U.S. to reservations in the Oklahoma
Territory far to the West. The Choctaws called it The
Trail of Tears.. The beast showed its true nature before you were born,
Isapo-Muxika. You stared right into the face of the beast and you ignored it.
In 1940, the British replaced Chamberlain with Winston Churchill. In 1877, the
Blackfoot should have replaced you with your stepson Poundmaker
who knew the whites for what they were and fought them and beat them at the
Battle of Cut Knife
"After Treaty #7," I stormed on. "I'll use the the words
of Winston Churchill, the Blackfoot became a '... shattered ... and bludgeoned
race ... a long night of barbarism descended, unbroken even by a star of hope.'
And then, after all this --- after eight years of many broken promises later,
in 1885, when I asked you to join us in our war against the whites --- the whites
called it the "Riel
Rebellion" - to the Metis it was a war of national liberation - you
stalled and then refused.. You and I, together, we could have beaten the white
army. We would have set up an aboriginal state here in Western Canada based
on our laws and customs --- and it would have become a modern country like Vietnam
or Cuba or, for that matter, the United States. We would have preserved our
cultures and our languages --- our children and our grandchildren would have
been proud --- we could have taken the whites' technology and used it for our
own purposes. Why did you not join me?"
"If I had known what would happen to my people. If I had known I would
have joined you. But there was still much of Chamberlain in me, Gabriel. I was
still no Winston Churchill."
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