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Early History and Stories,
Del Bonita Prehistory

Heritage of the High Country
A History of Del Bontia and
surrounding Districts Page 35 - 40
Excerpts from article written by
Andreas Graspointner, B.A., M.A.

During the historic period, that is the period when written records of peoples first appeared in Southern Alberta, there were numerous Indian groups competing for control of Southern Alberta.

Early identifiable Indian groups consisted of the Shoshoni, Blackfeet (Peigan, Blood, North Blackfoot), Kutenai, Pendent d' Oreille. In later historic times Cree and Assiniboine peoples were in the southern areas of Alberta.

Some of the first ethnic recognized peoples were the Shoshoni, who at one time prior to 1750 were throughout Southern Alberta. Eventually they were displaced to the south by the stronger Blackfeet. Their present homeland is in the Great Basin region of the United States.

The Kutenai Indians, who now reside in the Rocky Mountain Trench area, were in part a plains-adapted people. They consistently hunted in the southern Alberta area throughout the historic period. This range probably included the good hunting grounds of the Milk River Ridge. As a result of mid-1700's Blackfoot dominance, the Kutenai frequented the Plains less often, and when they did, it was always in great numbers for protection.

The Blackfoot Confederacy became the most powerful and dominant ethnic group by 1800. Their control of the hunting grounds ranged from Central Alberta, Southern Alberta into Nortern Montana. Historical records indicate that the Blackfeet, especially the Peigan, camped extensively and hunted along the Milk River Ridge. Some of these camps are represented by seasonal utilization. The Ridge area, for example Woman's Point, and areas north of the Milk River, were fall hunting grounds. The animals exploited were the bison and the fat prairie antelope. The Ridge area was an integral part of the south Peigans' annual 500 mile round.

The Twin Rivers Bison Jump

The Twin Rivers Bison Jump is on the west side of the South Fork of the Milk River. The site was recorded by L. Halmrast and A. Bair. No professional excavations have been completed. In talking with some local people, much of the site has slumped and eroded into the Milk River.

In an archaeological sense, bison jumps are unique to North America, and in fact are common to Southern Alberta. Most bison jumps were used by native people in the fall, as a secure and grand way of acquiring future protein for the long prairie winters. Generally, jump areas had a gathering basin in which animals were gathered. Once the animals were gathered, they were funneled to an area with a steep enough drop to either kill or maim all the unfortunate beasts that fell.

The Twin Rivers Jump probably fits into this mold. The gathering basin would have been back from the present day farm house. Bison were then herded to the precipice in a controlled manner, and forced to jump. In addition to this jump area, I suspect a large butchering camp ought to be near by.

The Twin Rivers Jump gives us an example of some of the first abattoirs used in North America.

Stone Circle Site

Stone circles, or what are commonly known as Tipi rings represent the ancient remains of skin lodge structures. Stones were placed in a circle as lodge cover weights for securing circular tipis. Some of these circles were also ceremonial and not used as functional lodge cover weights.

It is commonly believed that small circles represent pre-horse lodge structures, that is, dog days. With the introduction of the horse to North America, the Indian people could transport larger lodge poles, etcetera. Their material wealth increased and this wealth increase is also represented by larger lodges, thus larger circles.

The stone circles that I have seen while flying the Del Bonita area, are distributed in different locations than others east of Milk River. It appears as though many of the circles are a distance from the river. The hundreds of circles in the Del Bonita area certainly do indicate a heavy use of the ridge area.

It is with some feelings of nostalgia that we search the plains for evidences of another race. Our sketchy histories do not satisfy our needs to know about the "silent people" who walked before us.

The tipi circles we see on the banks of the Milk River, and other rivers, and in the valleys, could be the sites of any of the bands who roamed this area and camped there. In our mind's eye we can see the tipis scattered along the sheltered areas with always a few sentinels at the tops of the hills.

We see the women and children setting up the camps, busily gathering wood and kindling fires, setting up tripods and hanging kettles. The hunters have gone for game and will soon be back.

Other braves are unrolling and setting up tipis. Some of the tipis are elaborately decorated. Each one has been painted with the special pictographic characters developed and adopted by a family. Their histories are written here. Stories are recorded on the sides of the buffalo hide walls of their homes.

Their leather dresses and shirts are uniquely designed by individuals whose tastes vary slightly, from family to family, but always retain the tribal characteristics. Their festive outfits are hung carefully in the tipis, ready for the next feast and dance, of which there are many.

Indians love to dance and almost every evening the tom toms signal the setting of the Great Sun and the "silent people" dress for the dance.

The children are noisy as they play the games they are taught. They are adult activities in miniature. The girls have small clay pots, and frames for weaving. The boys are warriors with small bows and arrows and hunting knives.

The women prepare the evening meal with scarcely a word spoken. This is the way of the prairie people. There is no need for chatter. They have spent a life time disciplining their emotions. Feelings are kept hidden. Their eyes and bodies relay messages, sometimes emphasized with a touch.

The camps are small and include only one or two families, but neighboring camps of friends are close by, and soon braves and maidens gather around the campfire for the Pow Wow. Men and women dance opposite each other without touching. Their bodies swing and sway like the graceful willow in the wind, as their feet thump the rhythm on the prairie sod.

The fire light glistens on the braves' bronze shoulders and backs, the smooth muscles ripple. The black braided hair swings to the rhythm of the dance, and the joyful eyes shine in the smooth brown faces. The braves wear sweat bands of various bright colors, around their foreheads. Some have a few rare eagles' feathers attached to the bands. Each feather signifies a young warrior's "coups" or achievements. To qualify for marriage a brave must earn many feathers to prove himself worthy of a maiden's love.

Romance and love blossom as the beautiful Indian maiden watches and admires the intricate dance steps her brave is making. Some of the older relatives and friends are watching with much interest; others are dancing.

The Indian Brave, with his proposal of marriage, must wait outside of the maiden's lodge until her father invites him in. He stands respectfully beside the doorway while all senior adults leave. A young man never passes through a lodge opening before an older man.

If his marriage proposal is accepted, the father of the bride exacts a price for her; the brave brings the dowry of the number of robes or horses or "wampum" agreed upon. The bride's family must then give a feast and gifts are given to everyone. A tipi, erected beside her father's lodge, is provided for the young couple. The couple enter into a trial marriage and must spend a few days in the smoke filled lodge to see how well they can relate to each other under adverse conditions. After this time they receive the blessing of the Medicine man and relatives. An old and respected, wise relative gives them advice for the success of their marriage. The brave must then serve the father of his bride for at least one year before he is allowed to accumulate wealth of his own.

When a child is born the father must not sleep with the mother until the child is weaned. A child is nursed until it is three or four years old. This was the way of the Plains Indian in the early days-1700's.

During the summer months the tribe moved freely within the Blackfoot territory. The boundaries extended from the Rocky Mountains in the west, North Saskatchewan River to the north, Missouri River to the south, and to the Cypress Hills to the east. The three tribes Blackfoot, Bloods, and Peigans have always been friendly, held Pow Wows together, made treaties, inter-married, and defended each other against their enemies the fierce Crees and Assiniboines to the north and the warring Sioux to the south. Sometimes the Gros Ventures from the southeast made a raid on a small camp or the Crows invaded their territory.

The band in the Blackfoot nation believe they have always been here. An unwritten law established their boundaries. Just as the grizzly bear establishes his territory, the enemy knows where the boundaries are.

The tribes have always followed the buffalo herds which meant life to them. An incredible number of articles were made from the buffalo, believed to be sacred-a gift from the Great Spirit-numbering some 50 million at one time.

The Indians totally consumed and used the animal. Even the contents of the stomach and intestines, full of partly digested vegetable matter and vitamins, were slightly roasted over the- fire and eaten. Meat was smoked and cured for winter. Fat and marrow was made into a paste and pounded with berries to make pemmican. A handful of highly nutritious pemmican provided a day's nourishment. The hides made tipis, robes, beds, blankets, caps, moccasins, jackets, shirts, skirts, pants, saddle pads, boats, lassoes, hackamores, thongs and parfleches (luggage). Sinews were used for thread, stomach for cooking pots, bladder for water bags, horns for head dresses, spoons and cups. Skulls were painted for the centre of the Sun Dance altar. Ribs became sleds. Bones made hoes, shovels, needles, scrapers, and knives. The brain was made into paste for tanning. Hooves were boiled for glue. Dried dung, buffalo chips, provided fuel for fire.

With the arrival of the horse in the 1700's, through trading with tribes from Mexico, a new life opened for the nomadic Plains Indian. The native hunter became an excellent horseman and formidable foe as he maneuvered his fleet-footed mount into battle or thundered across the Plains in pursuit of man or beast.

Hunting the buffalo became a great sport. A group of warriors would surround the shaggy beasts and drive them over rocky cliffs where a circle of Indians would fall upon the terrified, crippled beasts and kill them. Several buffalo jumps can be seen in this area- Writing on Stone in Rocky Coulee on the Milk River, and Twin River Grazing also on the Milk River.

The Indian warriors were always anxious for action and challenged each other to dangerous deeds. They rode into stampeding buffalo herds and killed huge bulls at close range, or stole horses or wives from an enemy camp, and sometimes collected a few scalps. Young scouts were challenged to race through enemy 'fire' to touch an enemy lodge. These feats of bravery, called 'coups', were counted at the feasts and dances where the whole tribe celebrated and honoured the young warriors' daring raids.

Very seldom did the lndians meet in total combat between tribes. Small skirmishes involving six or eight warriors made raids on enemy camps. They would take all of the horses and possessions, and leave a family destitute and on foot, or massacre everyone to the smallest child. Sometimes children were taken and raised as their own. Many squaws were taken.

A warrior could have as many wives as he could care for; more wives and horses meant more wealth, but it also meant more food and lodging for families. Consequently, these were sometimes traded away.

Indians were great gamblers and often feats of physical superiority were used to win bargains.

Indians lived in relative peace until the coming of the white man. Their favorite wintering areas were along the Old Man River for the Bloods and Peigans, and along the Bow River at Blackfoot crossing and the Red Deer River for the Blackfeet. In the spring or early summer the tribes would gather for the Sun Dance, held in the Standoff area. At this feast and dance families would pay tribute to dead ancestors and witness the display of the young warriors' bravery in their efforts toward becoming men. Skewers would be pushed through the muscles of the chest or back and tied to ropes attached to a tall pole in the centre of the camp. The young braves would then fling themselves in a wild frenzy to tear out the skewers. Sometimes buffalo heads were tied to their waists to give the body more weight. Today the young natives dance around the pole chanting and counting their achievements as they strike the pole.

After the Sun Dance all of the tribes would move out over the prairie to the feeding grounds of the buffalo. A favorite area was Writing on Stone, where the Nez Perce Indians camped and carved their hieroglyphics many centuries ago.

Writing on Stone and the Sweet Grass Hills were sacred areas to the tribes. Feed, water and buffalo were always plentiful there. Animals loved the sweet grass legume growing around the sloughs. Indians used it for tea and burned it for incense. Sweet grass became the natural name for the area-a place of peace and plenty.

The coming of the white traders, bootleggers, buffalo hunters, and homesteaders brought many changes to the Indian's nomadic way of life. Civilization was beginning to press in on him and was demanding transition and conformation. The Indian was not prepared to transform, and his resistance to the change caused many massacres and ambushes between the whites and the red men. The Riel Rebellion, organized by a French Indian, was organized to drive the white man out of the west, but the Crees (where it all started) could not get the support of the Blackfoot nation, and it ended in failure.

Although distrustful of the white trader, the Indian recognized the convenience of his goods. The guns, knives, axes, metal scrapers, buckets, and kettles were all pleasant improvements. Traders made huge profits in the exchange of buffalo hides and leather articles for baubles and beads, weapons, tools, and whiskey.

With prohibition in the United States, unprincipled white traders moved into Canada, and set up trading posts as near to the Indian encampments as they dared. Trading posts dotted the Blackfoot territory. One of the first forts, in the south, was built near the present city of Lethbridge. Fort Whoop-up. Others followed; Standoff; Slideout, Elbow River, Farewells Post, Robbers Roost, and Milk River Ridge.

Liquor, brought by whiskey traders, rolled across the border, through several unpatrolled gaps. The "free traders" sold their evil product, often laced with wood alcohol and other poisonous additives, taking the Indians' horses and buffalo robes in trade. A quart of whiskey worth five cents a glass, was traded for a horse. Whiskey left its devastation on all the tribes. Conflicts and quarrels caused murders and beatings. Women and children were often the objects of wild whiskey induced emotions. Often, when the tribe was celebrating, women and children would hide in the trees until the braves sobered up.

The coming of the white man brought diseases to which the Indians had no immunity. Measles, whooping cough, and mumps took a terrible toll and thousands died as smallpox, tuberculosis, and diphtheria swept through the tribes. In 1837 smallpox wiped out two thirds of the Blackfoot nation.

It became necessary to establish the North West Mounted Police in the west, to try to bring justice and prevent more lawlessness and bloodshed. Many forts were established as outposts from the main Police Fort, under Colonel John Macleod, at Fort Macleod. He was a man of great integrity, generosity, and kindness and was the "great chief" of all the posts. A fort was established at Police Coulee and young recruits would head for the bars at Gold Butte on a day off, and since it took a day to ride there, they were A.W.O.L. before they arrived! Therefore they would decide a day or two more would make no difference in court! Colonel Macleod would ride to Fort Benton to round up the deserters and take them back.

The Milk River detachment, established at the fork of the Milk River and South Fork, was an all tent fort.

A great Chief was almost the only hope of the Blackfoot nation. A young Blood, raised as a Blackfoot warrior, endowed with many honours and achievements, had advanced through a series of names and earned the name of Crowfoot after a deceased great chief. Always generous, sincere, and capable as an orator and peacemaker, Chief Crowfoot became the adviser and director of the Blackfoot nation. He expected to be heard and obeyed and commanded great respect from both Indian and white. A man of foresight and intuition, he forecasted the defeat of the Indians long before it happened. He perceived that Indian uprisings would only bring more battles as the whites had recruits without number. He was a great influence in the enemy tribes of the Sioux, with Chief Sitting Bull; and the Crees, with Chief Poundmaker who was Crowfoot's adopted son. He persuaded Chief Red Crow of the Bloods, Eagle Tail of the Peigans, and the many minor chiefs to sign Treaty 7. He was not satisfied with the treaty but he felt that the Indian had no choice. The Indians could not conceive of land areas and five persons to a square mile meant nothing to them. Five dollars treaty money per person seemed like a lot of money, and since they had gone through a time of starvation after the buflalo were destroyed, rations and clothing offers were welcome.

Chief Crowfoot was impressed with the honesty and sincerity of Colonel Macleod and a trust and respect grew between them. It was this friendship that was to command the decision of Chief Crowfoot to stay out of conflicts with the whites, and was to sustain him through difficult situations with many evil white men some in positions of administration.

Colonel Macleod invited all of the chiefs to a council and promised them that the Queen's Law would be enforced, that there would be equal justice for Indian and white man, and Chief Crowfoot believed him.

The transition to reservations has not been successful. Filled with self-pity, many Indians look backward to a life style that could not have existed in this ever changing world.

One concept of the Indians still symbolizes the nomadic plains pattern, the scanty leather costume, the horses, the tipis, the swift rides across the Plains; and some Indians wish they could resume this life style. It is not possible. The encumbrance of population and variation of life style restricts our dreams of living freely in a beautiful valley with no neighbors. To resume a daily life in a log cabin with a packed earth floor, and wood burning fireplace, spinning the yarn for clothing, eking out a living from the sod, living in fear of being attacked, is something most of us could only endure for a weekend. Our links with our ancestors must be carried proudly with us, only in a nostalgic reverie.

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Copyright 2000
Mary Tollestrup