Blackfoot Confederacy Displaced to Make Way for the Railroad
The railway has been seen by my family as a tool of empowerment. My grandfather and great-grandfather were employed to lay down the rails and I was taught that the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) unified Canada from coast-to-coast, a sentiment echoed in Jackdaw No. C4 and in classrooms across the country. The story of Chief Crowfoot and his pass showed the CPR as a modernizing influence that constructed a new society by marginalizing one that already existed. In 1883, when the Blackfoot retaliated against the building of an iron road across their territories, Crowfoot, or Isapo-Muxika, a spokesperson for the tribes of the Blackfoot Confederacy, negotiated with the government to ensure that the Indigenous Peoples were compensated with additional land elsewhere. In recognition of Crowfoot’s contribution, CPR Vice-President William Cornelius Van Horne presented Crowfoot with a life-time railway pass in 1887. The pass acknowledged Crowfoot’s statesmanship but was more of a symbolic gesture as Indigenous Peoples did not commonly travel by train.
The Iron Rails of Progress
Life-time pass issued to Chief Crowfoot by W.C. Van Horne, Vice-President of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Courtesy of the OISE Library.
The CPR brought settlers and the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP) to “a land rarely seen by most Canadians.” With the assistance of NWMP Commissioner James Macleod in maintaining order in the region, Crowfoot advocated for the rights of the Indigenous Peoples and ensured that Blackfoot land claims were respected. This culminated in the signing of Treaty 7 that guaranteed land, financial compensation and livestock in exchange for the vast Blackfoot homeland. Crowfoot forewarned that the buffalo “has been our food always” and must be protected from encroaching settlers. Ironically, the image of a buffalo is etched on Crowfoot’s railway pass, confirming that Canadians were aware of the importance of the buffalo to the Indigenous Peoples. Prairie fires destroyed the plains where the remaining buffalo grazed, further weakening the Blackfoot’s resource base and stripping them of their food source.
Chief Crowfoot wearing his life-time pass. Courtesy of the Provincial Archives of Alberta.
In 1879, disease and starvation forced the Blackfoot to follow the last buffalo herds to Montana. By 1881, with the last of the buffalo depleted and without NWMP protection against whiskey pedlars and inter-tribal warfare, the Blackfoot returned to Canada to face famine, abandoned treaty promises, the insensitivity of a newly-formed Department of Indian Affairs and the North-West Rebellion of 1885. Crowfoot wore the pass “around his neck on a chain for the rest of his life.” Crowfoot died in 1890 from tuberculosis, silencing a powerful voice.
Daniel Rose is a Masters of Museum Studies candidate at the University of Toronto with a special interest in museum interpretation and public programming. He is from Kingston, Ontario, and has a Bachelor of Arts (Honours), with a major in history, from Queen`s University. Daniel worked for three summers as a Fort Henry Guard in the Drums and one summer assisting the museum curator. His interests include colonial and post-colonial Canadian history and cultural history.