The Cypress Hills hold special meaning to the First Nations, and my First Nation in particular. Our ancestors spent the winters in the shelter of the hills and spent the summers hunting on the open plains.
For centuries the Cypress Hills have been home to various First Nations; the land was owned in common, with various tribes occupying their assigned territories. The hills were a place of peace and it was shared as a safe haven.
Across Southern Saskatchewan there is a swath of land that was not glaciated during the last ice age; the Cypress hills are one such place. The hills are actually a series of high plateaus. My First Nation owns ten quarters of land to the southwest of Fort Walsh. The land on the top is the same altitude as the townsite of Banff.
Our land is among the highest points of land in the province at around 1,390 meters. The highest point of land is on the Alberta side — 1,468 metres, which is the highest point between the Rocky Mountains and the Laurentions in Quebec.
According to a park official I spoke to, the forest in the Hills is also unique. It is not the same as the northern boreal forest, nor is it like the Alpine forest of the Rocky Mountains. It contains trees and plants that are from both, forming a unique forest found only in the Cypress Hills.
For our people it was where we found certain medicines that were found nowhere else. Also, we were able to harvest the lodge pole pine, so called because it was long and strong and made excellent tipi poles.
Our ancestors’ world would change in 1873. A group of American wolf hunters accused members of a Nakota camp of stealing horses. Their accusations proved to be wrong, but fuelled by alcohol they attacked the camp and killed more than 20 men, women and children. Then they laid waste to the camp, burning tipis and killing the wounded.
It was a tragedy that shocked Canadians. By 1875, the North West Mounted Police had been formed and travelled west to build Fort Walsh upstream from Battle Creek, named after the massacre. The wolfers were found in Fort Benton, Montana, but a judge failed to extradite them to Canada to face justice.
The First Nations welcomed the presence of the NWMP and supported their efforts to put an end to the whisky trade that was rampant on the plains. Eventually the buffalo failed to return from their southern migration and there are stories of the NWMP members sharing their rations with the starving people.
In 1879, Chiefs Little Pine (Minahikosis) and Lucky Man (Papaway) signed adhesions to Treaty Six at the fort. In 1880 Chief Big Bear would also sign on behalf of his people. These were the only treaty signings that took place at the fort. The chiefs, including Chief Piapot, wanted reserves in the hills, but it was not government policy to have reserves so close to the American border.
Chief Lucky Man was a headman in Big Bear’s band, and he signed on behalf of the families that wanted assistance because of the starvation and disease that was ravaging the people. Following the treaty signing, Lucky Man left and travelled south to Montana; he died later at Great Falls.
Chief Little Pine included Lucky Man’s people in his band and along with Chief Piapot they stayed in the Hills, refusing to move and demanding a reserve. The government refused any assistance, so after two years of poverty and starvation, they left for their assigned reserves. Piapot ended up in the Qu’Appelle Valley. Our people were forced to go north and settle along the Battle River west of Battleford.
This week we returned to Fort Walsh to observe the signing of our historic treaty. It has been 140 years or seven generations since Chief Little Pine and Lucky Man decided to sign the treaty to assure the survival of future generations. In Indian country we are advised to plan ahead seven generations, so 140 years is significant.
The hills hold a special meaning to our people, and you can feel the spirits of our ancestors when we travel to this beautiful place.
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