Etymology and Language
The Siksika, also known as Blackfoot (or Blackfeet in the United States), are one of the three nations that make up the Blackfoot Confederacy. In the Blackfoot language, Siksika means "Blackfoot." They are part of the Algonquian linguistic group and traditionally speak the same language as the Kainai and Piikani, the two other nations of the Blackfoot Confederacy (see Indigenous Languages in Canada; Blackfoot Confederacy: Language).
Occupying territory around the Battle, North Saskatchewan and Red Deer rivers, the Siksika were the most northerly members of the Blackfoot Confederacy. During the fur trade, their territory also stretched as far south as the Missouri River, Montana.
During the pre-colonial era, the Siksika were buffalo hunters and warriors. Siksika and other confederacy member warrior societies had strict rules and often clashed with rivals like the Cree and Assiniboine. Relying solely on the hunt for subsistence, Siksika culture developed according to the demands and availability of the buffalo. Clans and groups moved from hunting ground to hunting ground, using jumps and runs to trap and harvest buffalo. Like other Plains peoples, Siksika used the travois—a sled-like apparatus usually pulled by domesticated dogs and horses—to transport their goods, including their highly mobile tipi dwellings. The population of Siksika has been estimated to have reached approximately 18,000 in the 18th century, but was decimated by the introduction of disease from Europe.
Religion and Culture
The Siksika had a strong religious and spiritual culture that was passed on through oral histories. This culture includes participating in sweat lodges, the Sun Dance, using medicine bundles, and other means of purifying the body and soul. Sacred places include Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump, Writing-On-Stone and Badger-Two Medicine (below Glacier National Park).
The arrival of Christian missionaries in the late 19th century introduced significant changes to the Siksika lifestyle. However, oral traditions keep many of the traditional beliefs alive today.
The Blackfoot creation story takes place at Badger-Two Medicine in present-day Montana. Although versions of the story differ according to the tribe, the Siksika generally believe that N’api (also known as Old Man or the Creator) created and is eternally part of all living people, creatures and life forms. N’api was believed to be light personified, and was therefore also considered to be the beginning of the day, the beginning of life. As in other Indigenous religions, the Creator is non-human and non-gendered. Since the early 1980s, the Blackfeet people of Montana have been trying to protect Badger-Two Medicine from a controversial oil and gas lease that threatened this sacred site and its natural resources; in March 2016, the US government cancelled the lease.
As a result of their proximity to the fur-bearing forests of the North, it is plausible that the Siksika were the first of the confederacy to encounter and participate in the fur trade. It is possible that this initial interaction caused their name to be applied to the whole of the confederacy. The Siksika were mostly involved with British traders, but because their group stretched as far south as the Missouri River, they were also involved in American trading.
The population of Siksika reached approximately 18,000 in the 18th century, but was decimated by war and epidemics after prolonged contact with Europeans. In the 19th century, the rising influence of European settlement destroyed the buffalo herds, removing the Siksika’s traditional means of subsistence. Famine and disease spread rapidly, and necessitated a solution — making treaties and establishing reserves — that would guarantee protection of land, peoples and resources (see Indigenous Peoples: Treaties).
Treaty-Making and Its Impacts
In 1877, Crowfoot, the legendary peace-brokering leader of the Siksika, signed Treaty 7 along with several other First Nations (see Numbered Treaties). They were forced to occupy a reserve at Blackfoot Crossing, east of Calgary. Many Siksika became farmers and ranchers, while others found employment in coal mines on the reserve.
Reserves put an end to intertribal warfare and traditional ways of life. The Blackfoot Confederacy struggled to survive on reserves without the ability to hunt buffalo. Historians commonly refer to the winter of 1883–84 as the “starvation winter” because of the widespread hunger that plagued the confederacy that season.
Facing pressure from the federal government and developers, in 1910 the Siksika surrendered a significant portion of their reserve for sale. The money they received in return was held in trust by the government, who administered the construction of new homes and agricultural equipment, regular interest payments, rations and other services. However, the agreement was not advantageous for the Siksika. They demonstrated in 1930 that retaining possession for economic use would be more profitable than interest payments on money held in trust. As these arrangements became obsolete, the Siksika continued to advocate for autonomy, self-determination and fair treatment from the government (see Rights of Indigenous Peoples; Self-Government: Indigenous Peoples).
As of 2016, the Siksika count approximately 7,320 registered members, many of which live on reserve. The Siksika Nation is represented by an elected chief and council, and through the Treaty 7 Management Corporation, which advises and advocates on behalf of the signatory nations of Treaty 7.
The Siksika Nation has made several claims for land and other Aboriginal rights, including the right to self-determination and self-government, with varying degrees of success. The Siksika Nation administers traditionally focused schools and health and wellness facilities, as well as social programs and departments for land management and resource development. The Bassano Dam dispute, for instance, resulted in an agreement to award the Siksika Nation $53.4 million in 2010 for the illegal 1910 transfer of reserve land by Canada to CP Railway for the construction of the dam. The extended nature of such cases is reflected in the Castle Mountain land claim, which began in 1960; in 2016, the Siksika voted in favour of a deal to give up claims to Castle Mountain for $123 million.
In 2014, the Siksika Nation joined other First Nations in signing the Iinii Treaty or Buffalo Treaty, including: the Blackfeet Nation, Kainai Nation, Piikani Nation, Assiniboine and Gros Ventre Tribes of Fort Belknap Reservation, Assiniboine and Dakota (Oyate, Sioux) Tribes of Fort Peck Reservation, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (see Coast and Interior Salish), and the Tsuut’ina Nation. In 2015, the Stoney Nakoda Nation and the Samson Cree Nation also signed this “open treaty,” which is open to other First Nations from Canada and the US. Among other issues, the signatories agreed to unite the political power of Northern Plains Indigenous nations, work towards bison conservation and strengthen traditional relationships to the land.