There are six cultural areas contained in what is now Canada, unrestricted by international boundaries. The Plains cultural area is a vast territory that extends from southern Manitoba and the Mississippi River westward to the Rocky Mountains, and from the North Saskatchewan River south into Texas. The term “Plains peoples” describes a number of different and unique groups, including the Blackfoot, Cree, Ojibwa, Assiniboine, Nakota, and Dakota.
Land and Resources
The Plains cultural area has a continental climate — hot and dry summers and very cold winters. High grass covers the rolling prairies in the east; short grasses, sage and cacti the arid high plains to the west. Flat land and rolling hills extend in all directions. Flowing eastward, rivers have cut deeply into the land, and provide practically all the scarce available water. Tree growth on the high plains is restricted to these valleys, becoming rapidly more noticeable toward the margins of the area.
Plains Aboriginal culture was based primarily on the immense herds of bison, or buffalo, that roamed over and fed upon these grasslands until the early 1880s. Bison herds shared these resources with pronghorn, elk, mule deer, jack rabbits, prairie dogs and a range of small herbivores, grouse, geese, ducks and cranes. This wildlife was preyed upon by wolves, coyotes, grizzly bear, cougar, eagles, other birds of prey and humans.
Major Language Groups and Peoples
The languages spoken by the indigenous people of the Plains in what is now Canada belong to three linguistic families. Algonquian languages were spoken by the Blackfoot, Plains Cree (Nêhiyawak), Gros Ventre (Atsina) and Plains Ojibwa; Siouan languages were those of the Nakota (
Assiniboine), Stoney Nakoda and Dakota. Dene was spoken by the TsuuT’ina (Sarcee). Languages from separate families are completely divergent, and within each family languages may be similar but largely divergent. This linguistic diversity and the high mobility of the nomadic population on the Plains encouraged the development of communication by means of hand gestures or sign language. Aboriginal people in this area still speak a number of indigenous languages. In 2011, significant populations reported fluency in Blackfoot, Ojibwa, and Cree. (see Aboriginal People, Languages).
After sustained contact with Europeans, many indigenous women, largely Plains Cree, intermarried with these newcomers, giving birth to the Métis — a culturally distinct Aboriginal people. Though intermarriage was not uncommon in other areas of Canada and significant Métis communities exist elsewhere, many cite the Plains as the physical, cultural and political home of the Métis people. The Métis language, Michif, evolved from a mixture of French and Plains Cree, while a now virtually extinct variant called Bungee comprised a mixture of English, Scottish Gaelic, Ojibwe and Cree. In 2011, 645 people reported an ability to speak Michif, making it an endangered language, while 451,795 people in Canada reported a Métis identity.
Before epidemics in the early 1800s drastically reduced the population, Plains Aboriginal people in what is now Canada numbered an estimated 33,000. Tribal populations in the region ranged from about 700 for the Tsuu T’ina to about 15,000 for the three Blackfoot Nations. In the 2011 census, the three prairie provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba—an area not exclusively the domain of the Plains cultural area as it contains portions of the Subarctic and Eastern Woodlands regions — reported a total Aboriginal population of 574,335.
Small bands of nomadic hunters roamed the Plains beginning at least 10,000 years ago (see Prehistory). For several thousand years, buffalo hunting was conducted primarily with the use of spears and atlatls, but around 200 C.E. a group of unknown origin which specialized in bow hunting arrived on the plains of southern Alberta and Saskatchewan. They are thought to have lived in small portable tipis and by 1000 C.E. they engaged in some agriculture, but continued to rely primarily on nomadic buffalo hunting.
Spanish conquistadors moving north from Mexico introduced horses to the southern Plains in the 16th century. The animals spread north through intertribal trade and raiding, reaching the Canadian Plains by the 1730s. The use of horses altered hunting techniques and enabled the people to transport larger and more comfortably furnished dwellings. The use of horses also led to the rise of horse raiding as the most common form of intertribal warfare. Typically, small war parties would raid enemy territory, run off the horses and sometimes kill a few people.
The arrival of Europeans around this time brought the Plains peoples into contact with settlements to the east, and from 1730 to 1870, Plains Aboriginal peoples played an important role in the fur trade, which in turn profoundly altered their way of life. Adjusting hunting patterns to meet the demands of the traders, Plains people gradually moved away from a subsistence lifestyle towards one of trade and interdependence.
In 1870, the vast swathe of western land formerly claimed by the Hudson’s Bay Company was sold to the Canadian government, which made efforts to clear the plains for white settlement. Plains Aboriginal people by this time were already suffering profoundly from outbreaks of smallpox, and throughout the late 19th century their numbers were decimated by famine, denial of provisions, forced relocation, and antagonistic policy decisions.
Traditionally Plains people relied on seasonal fruits, vegetables, and game for subsistence. Nuts, roots, berries, squash, and corn were especially prevalent staples of the Plains diet. The Plains Cree and Plains Ojibwa also ate fish when hunting was poor. While women gathered and cultivated, hunting — a predominantly male activity — provided the bulk of food. Plains hunters used animal-skin disguises to get close enough to make effective use of bows and arrows. Hunters also drove buffalo herds into pounds or corrals to be more easily killed, or directed them to stampede over steep cliffs and fall to their death. While the horse greatly facilitated buffalo hunting, muzzle-loading guns proved inferior to bow and arrows; Plains hunters switched away from bows and arrows only after more convenient breech loading rifles were introduced by the 1860s.
Women were primarily responsible for processing the spoils of the hunt. Some meat was cooked and eaten immediately, but most was sliced and sun-dried for the winter or ground and mixed with fat and berries to make pemmican. Buffalo hides were used for robes, tent covers, moccasins and shields; tools and utensils were made of the bison's horns, hooves, hair, tail, bones and sinew; buffalo dung was used as a fuel for fires on the treeless plains. Skins of antelope and elk were preferred in the manufacture of clothing: breechcloth, leggings and shirts for men, long dresses and leggings for women.
When moving to a new camp, family property was transported on a travois, a triangular frame of poles, dragged by dogs. Dogs were domesticated independently by indigenous peoples of North America, though were quickly replaced by European breeds after contact. The travois also provided the framework of the dwelling called a tipi, a cone of poles covered with buffalo skins. After the introduction of the horse, the increased carrying capacity made the construction and transport of larger travois and tipis possible. Snowshoes were used during the winter by some tribes on the northern Plains.
A rich yet tribally distinct artistic temperament is manifested in much of the Plains peoples’ craftwork. Artistic expression ranged from skin tattoos, clothing painted or embroidered with dyed porcupine quills, painted tipi covers, shields and rawhide containers, carvings on wooden bowls, horn spoons and stone pipes, the extensive use of feathers in ceremonial regalia, to large boulder monuments laid out on the ground. (See Aboriginal Art)
The adaptability of the Plains people to their natural environment, and in particular to the movements of the buffalo herds, is reflected in their social organization. Most nations consisted of loosely organized and independent bands. Chiefs held the respect and support of the band as long as they were successful in the quest for food and in defence against enemy attacks. Chiefs were advisers rather than rulers and decisions were based on unanimous approval reached in the council of elders. Bands moved around independently of each other, while in lean periods smaller groups formed and split off to increase the likelihood of finding sufficient food.
Only in midsummer, when the buffalo were concentrated in large herds more conducive to large group hunting, would the bands come together for a few weeks in one large tribal encampment. There the Plains people joined together in the large celebrations that were the principal means of tribal cohesion. After the performance of the Sun Dance and possibly a buffalo drive, the bands separated again; in the fall they moved to well-protected campsites in river valleys, foothills and parklands, where they spent the winter.
Religious ideas and practices permeated all aspects of daily life. Fundamental to Plains religion was the belief that animals and other natural phenomena possessed spiritual power that could, under proper circumstances, be manipulated to personal advantage. An individual seeking such power went to a lonely spot where he or she would fast and pray until a spiritual guardian appeared in a dream, or vision quest. Mystical experiences sometimes gave rise to cults that either disappeared when the initiator died, or became increasingly popular.
In the late nineteenth century, for instance, a practice called the Ghost Dance rose among the Plains people in both Canada and the United States. In its earliest forms, the ritual prophesied the return of the dead and the restoration of animals then becoming scarce on the Plains. Some Sioux practitioners also believed the garbs worn during the Ghost Dance would protect them from white settlers’ bullets. Although there is nothing to indicate that the Ghost Dance had any warlike connotations, it was nonetheless suppressed violently by U.S. authorities, who forbade its practice on the reservations of South Dakota.
Contact between Plains peoples and European fur traders and settlers rapidly accelerated societal change, which had traditionally moved much more gradually. The introduction of metal wares made pottery, stone chisels and arrowheads obsolete in the mid-18th century; glass beads gradually replaced quillwork and by the mid-19th century cloth became as common as animal skins for clothing.
For more than a century the fur trade was the sole method of contact between Europeans and the Plains people in what is now Canada. These early encounters led to the spread of European diseases among the Plains people—in particular smallpox, which broke out several times on the Plains beginning in the mid-1700s and sometimes wiped out entire bands. (see Aboriginal People, Health) Survivors were left with shaken world views and undermined or entirely compromised support systems. As external support was largely provided by European missionaries — often seen as both cause and cure for disease — sick and malnourished Plains peoples were not just vulnerable to illness and death, but to cultural and spiritual transformation as well.
Political and Social Upheaval
In 1870 the federal government purchased Rupert’s Land from the Hudson's Bay Company, and in a series of treaties between 1871 and 1877 secured a number of land cessions from various indigenous nations. By this time, the buffalo herds had been virtually eliminated, and the integrity of many Plains communities had been severely compromised by white traders’ introduction of hard liquor. According to one estimate, as much as 25 per cent of the Blackfoot tribe died as a result of alcohol poisoning and drunken brawls between 1868 and 1873. As disease and hunger ravaged indigenous populations on the Plains, government-sponsored settlers arrived from the east in numbers that overwhelmed underprepared provincial authorities. The resulting settlement produced much tension and violence, which precipitated the arrival of the newly formed North-West Mounted Police in 1874.
The Canadian government, led by Prime Minister John A. MACDONALD, held white settlement and development of the Plains as a top priority, and regularly used aid and rations as bargaining chips with sick and starving indigenous peoples. By 1891 nearly 250,000 white settlers had arrived on the Canadian prairies, and their numbers were rising exponentially.
The Red River and North-West Resistances of 1870 and 1885, respectively, were uprisings against the Canadian government aimed at protecting indigenous ways of life, but both were ultimately defeated and in November 1885 Métis leader Louis Riel was hanged for treason.
By this time most Aboriginal people had been forcibly relocated to reserves, where government agents tried to introduce them to new means of subsistence, primarily agriculture. By 1880, over 11,000 Plains Aboriginals had settled on reserves. Though some bands managed to subsist successfully, most faced a severe food crisis. Those who did not enter the reserves pursued the remaining herds of buffalo in Montana; in 1879 Indian commissioner Edgar Dewdney estimated that between seven and eight thousand people had left for the United States. Years of scarcity and starvation followed, in which the people depended upon frequently inadequate government rations, which were only allotted to bands that had signed treaties with the Crown.
Throughout this difficult period of social and economic transformation, missions of various Christian denominations played a major role in providing a new education system, frequently acting as mediators between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples. With the Indian Act, first passed in 1876, the government promoted assimilation, and used joint government and Christian missionary programs like residential schools to further those aims. By 1899 over 70 per cent of Aboriginal people in Canada were associated with some church denomination.
Aboriginal leaders made efforts to establish provincial organizations through which they could articulate their social and economic needs. Starting in the 1920s, organizations like the League of Indians of Western Canada — founded on the Thunderchild Reserve in Saskatchewan in 1921 — struggled against government harassment and apathy among their own people, slowly beginning to lift the oppressive paternalism of government policy.
After the Second World War the activities of such indigenous-led organizations began to increase, forcing the federal government to take notice. On reserves, various economic programs have been initiated and the government has increasingly transferred administrative responsibilities to elected chiefs and tribal councils. The Indian Act was partially amended in 1951 and later in 1985 to remove some outdated and discriminatory practices, and indigenous people were granted the right to vote in federal elections in 1960.
Indigenous activism for the rights to self-determination has steadily grown on the Plains, with movements achieving increasing levels of success. Organizations like the Saskatchewan Indian Cultural Centre (1972), the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (1988), the First Nations University of Canada (1976), and many other organizations continue to advocate for the revitalization of indigenous rights, culture and education. In addition, many nations are exercising political and economic self-determination, like the Dakota Whitecap First Nation near Saskatoon, which owns and operates a golf course, a casino and many other profitable businesses on its territory.