The Tsuut’ina (Tsuu T'ina) or Sarcee are an Athabaskan (or Dene) nation whose reserve adjoins the southwestern city limits of Calgary, Alberta. The name "Sarcee" is believed to have originated from a Siksika (Blackfoot) word meaning boldness and hardiness. The Sarcee people call themselves Tsuut’ina (also Tsúùt'ínà), translated literally as "many people" or "every one (in the Nation)."
According to oral tradition, the Tsuut’ina split from a northern nation, probably the Dane-zaa, and moved to the Plains, where they have maintained close contact with the Siksika, Cree and Stoney. Their acculturation to the Plains culture distinguishes them from other northern Dene people, but they have retained their Athabaskan language, Tsuut’ina (Sarcee).
Tsuut’ina (Sarcee) is an Athabaskan language of northern Canada (see Indigenous Languages in Canada). It is considered an endangered language. According to the 2011 Statistics Canada census, only about 170 people identify Sarcee as their mother tongue.In that year, the University of Calgary developed a program in association with the Tsuu T'ina Gunaha Institute to help preserve and revive the language. This program aims to educate teachers about Tsuut’ina (Sarcee) and how to integrate the language into the education system.
Explorer Captain John Palliser estimated the Tsuut’ina population at 1,400 during his scientific expedition of western Canada from 1857 to 1860. Epidemics of smallpox (1837), scarlet fever (1864) and other diseases, as well as wars, reduced their population to 450 by the time they settled on the reserve in 1881. By 1924, the Tsuut’ina population had decreased to about 160.
According to Statistics Canada, between the years 1996 and 2006, the Aboriginal population in Canada grew by approximately 45 per cent. This higher growth rate can be contributed to higher fertility rates and an increasing tendency for people to identify as Aboriginal. In 1996, 1,509 identified as Tsuut’ina. Nearly a decade later in 2015, Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada reported 2,259 registered Tsuut’ina in Canada.
Culture and Beliefs
Historically, the Tsuut’ina believed in supernatural power that could be obtained through a vision or dream and was enshrined in a tipi painting or medicine object, such as a beaver bundle or pipe bundle (see Medicine Bundle). The quest for supernatural power and the attainment of certain character traits, such as bravery for men and chastity for women, were highly valued. In traditional Tsuut’ina culture, the family usually arranged marriages and the gifts exchanged reflected family status.
In recent years, many Tsuut’ina are Anglican or Catholic, but they observe traditional cultural ceremonies and feasts, such as the Beaver Bundle ceremony and the Medicine Pipe ceremony, the Rock Pile Feast and the Christmas Powwow in the winter. Their annual bull riding event on National Aboriginal Day draws people from across the continent, and their participation has become an integral part of the Calgary Stampede.
Prior to life on the reserve, the Tsuut’ina camped in tipis and hunted along the edge of the forest during the winter. During the summer, all bands met in the open prairie to hunt buffalo, collect berries and engage in ceremonies, dances and festivals (see Buffalo Hunt; Sun Dance).
Today, the Tsuut’ina are active in modern economic sectors, such as cattle raising and real estate, but efforts are being made to revive the traditional culture and lifestyle. The Sarcee Culture Program records historical, folkloric and linguistic material.
In 1877, well-known leader Chief Bull Head reluctantly signed Treaty No. 7, which created the 280 km2 reserve on which the Tsuut’ina now live. When anthropologist Diamond Jenness visited the reserve in 1921, the Nation consisted of five bands: Big Plumes, Crow Childs, Crow Chiefs, Old Sarcees and Many Horses. Before they were confined to the reserve, each band was led by a chief. Today, the band is governed by an elected chief and counsellors.
A distinguished contemporary leader of the Tsuut’ina was Chief David Crowchild (born on 12 April 1899; died on 10 April 1982). Crowchild became chief in 1946, and established a school and band farm on the reserve. Today, there are two band-operated schools on the reserve which most children attend, while some still go to public or separate schools in Calgary.