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Indians Of The Western Plains

By Mike Mountain Horse


The facts related in the following chapters concerning the lives of my people have, to the best of my knowledge, never been published before, at least, not from the viewpoint of the Indian himself. I feel sure that many are interested in following the development of the educational system as applied to the Indians of Western Canada, and the progress, or lack of it, made by, this picturesque people. Often, in perusing supposedly authentic historic volumes, I have read of the Indians as bloodthirsty individuals, yelling, whooping, capering and seeking to destroy. I have become increasingly aware, as I continued reading, that very few of the good points of the Redskins were chronicled. Hence it became my desire to narrate as accurately as possible some of the little-known but true facts concerning my people, without exaggeration of their virtues or glossing over of their faults.

Doubtless, many people have wondered what were the feelings of the aborigines as they put aside their native garb and customs and began to take up life as civilized beings. In the following chapters I intend to give as accurately and concisely as possible an account of my people's habits, customs, and mode of living, and, what is perhaps much less understood, some of the mental processes of the Red Race. I also wish to acquaint the reader with a few 'inside facts' which may help to establish a closer feeling of kinship between the white man and the red, and thus prevent either from experiencing that feeling of revulsion on meeting which cannot be better depicted than in the Indian expression 'Ugh!'


Police - Injuns - Missionaries - Some Results

There is no doubt that during the later years of the regime of the Northwest Mounted Police they have been considered by the Indians throughout the territory of their activities as their greatest allies and protectors. Comparatively a bare handful of brave men, this organization has gained control of the entire northwest, cleared it of its worst characters, and made life there safer than it is in many cities. Law and order have been brought out of chaos only because the men who comprised the force were men of sterling character, men who held their honor higher than the briber's gold and were willing to face quick death on the plains, or the slower finish on the trail in the frozen North, without complaint, in the upholding of a traditional principle. It may be interesting to the reader to learn how this famous force won the respect, love and fear of the original denizens of the Northwest.

Perhaps the first and hardest task of the Mounties was fighting the whiskey traders and preventing these men from providing the Indians with 'fire-water', which always resulted in brawls and killings among the drinkers.

A close second in difficulty as the abolishment of tribal wars, which meant the abolishment of the warrior - the highest calling in the eyes of the Indian male. Also, the Indians had to be discouraged in their business (for business it verily was) of stealing horses from ranchers and hereditary enemy tribes across the American line. To 'run' a herd of stolen horses across the border in early days was considered by those Indians who accomplished it as not only a profitable occupation, but a feat of gallantry and daring as well. For this reason it took much time and patience to persuade the Blackfoot Confederacy to desist from the practice and settle down to a slower and much less 'Honorable' - in the Indian's opinion - business of horse-raising and agriculture.

Colonel Macleod, beloved officer commanding the Northwest, who never broke his word to the Indians, was an aggressive and bold leader who achieved results that went a long way toward making Canada today the most law-abiding country of its size in the world. He was afraid of no one, and perhaps this was the secret of his success with the Indians, though I do not wish to give the impression that he ruled them entirely through fear. The Indians did not understand the white man's laws, did not want them, nor in many cases agree with them, but there was one quality which they did understand and appreciate to its fullest extent, and that was courage.

But even courage in itself did not win the case for the Mounties. What really made the Red Men adopt principles and laws foreign to them was that these laws were administered with such bravery, fairness and honour on the part of the administrators that the respect of the Indians was completely won. For these were qualities which the Indians loved, admired, and from their viewpoint, had always practiced.

Shortly after the Police and Missionaries arrived, the Indians settled on reserves allotted to them by treaty with the Federal Government, and it was there that the missionaries also settled and carried on their onerous tasks. Very difficult it was for them, for first they had to learn the Indian language.

Only the white reader who has struggled his way through an Indian dialect will realize the difficulty of this. Secondly, they had to combat the various barbarous practices prevalent among my people at that time. And lastly, they had to inculcate the principles of Christianity into the minds of the Indians. Three stupendous tasks! - the tedious learning of a language from persons who did not understand the questions asked of them - overcoming resentment in order to change barbarous and unsanitary customs - teaching a religion revolving entirely on the belief in one God, to prospective converts who already were supplied with more deities than they knew how to propitiate! However, the teaching of the missionaries was of a practical nature. They quickly perceived that they must improve the material living conditions of the Indians before they could hope to accomplish anything toward raising their moral and spiritual status, and it is chiefly due to this practical outlook on the part of these religious leaders that their teachings were eventually accepted.

With the idea of setting the Indians firmly on their own feet industrially, farm instructors and agents were sent to the Reserve by the Government to teach them agriculture. Day schools were established where the Indian children were taught. Boys' homes and hospitals were erected on the various reserves.

The missionaries are still working as hard as ever for the welfare of the Indians on all the reserves, and in the last two decades great moral changes have been wrought among my people. A new era has dawned, the old life is quickly passing away, and the Indians are eagerly looking forward to still further advance through the aid of those who are so nobly striving to help them. Today green fields of grain may be seen stretching for miles across the various reserves, the work under the supervision of agents appointed by the Department of Indian Affairs.

An important figure in the eyes of the Alberta Indian is Canon Middleton of St. Pauls School, Cardston, who for over thirty years has been a diligent and sincere worker in his behalf. Not only has he acted as teacher and adviser, but he has himself been an inspiration, an incentive and an example of good living - a guiding star to the high ideals which are revealed to us in the Good Book.

In the foregoing paragraphs I have paid tribute to those to whom most credit is due for the advancement of my people. Their reactions, mental and physical, to these new ideas of civilization will be dealt with in another chapter.


Civilization - the wrong kind

I sometimes wonder how long it will be before this so called civilization extinguishes my people from the face of the earth. I am not, of course, speaking of those aspects of civilization so nobly exemplified by the missionaries and the Northwest Mounted Police, but rather of the chicanery, drunkenness, greed and deception which made their appearance in conjunction with the finer phases of the white man's code, and which, as is usual with evil things, found so many more willing pupils among my people than did the good teachings.

Where are the tall, handsome, healthy, bronzed aborigines of yesterday? Most of them are in the 'Big Sands' - the Indian settlement of the Hereafter, wherein all are welcome, good or bad, their earthly sins forgiven and equal love extended to all whose time on earth has expired. Surely a generous Heaven!

Where are the numberless thousands who comparatively recently roamed the plains, valleys and mountains of this continent? Their hordes are now represented by a small and ever diminishing number of Indians.

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Copyright 2000
Mary Tollestrup