The Siksika, also known as Blackfoot, are one of the three nations that make up the Blackfoot Confederacy. In the Blackfoot language, Siksika means "Blackfoot" or "Blackfoot people." They are part of the Algonquian linguistic group and traditionally speak the same language as the Kainai and Piikani, the two other nations of the Blackfoot Confederacy. Originally nomadic, Siksika people began occupying a reserve at Blackfoot Crossing, east of Calgary, Alberta, after the signing of Treaty 7 in 1877. In 2014, there were approximately 7,000 registered members of the Siksika Nation. (See also Aboriginal People: Plains and general articles under Aboriginal People.)

Traditional Culture and Territory

Occupying territory around the Battle, North Saskatchewan and Red Deer rivers, the Siksika were the most northerly of the Blackfoot Confederacy. As a result of their proximity to the fur-bearing forests of the north, it is plausible that they were the first of the confederacy to encounter and participate in the fur trade, and it is possible that this initial interaction caused their name to be applied to the whole of the confederacy. Although the confederacy stretched as far south as the Missouri River, the Siksika were involved mostly with the British and were not usually involved in American trading or treaties.

During the nomadic period, the Siksika were buffalo hunters and warriors. Siksika and other confederacy member warrior societies had strict rules and often clashed with rivals like the Cree and Assiniboine. Relying solely on the hunt for subsistence, Siksika culture developed according to the demands and availability of the buffalo. Clans and groups moved from hunting ground to hunting grounds, using jumps and runs to trap and harvest buffalo. Like other Plains peoples, Siksika used the travois— a sled-like apparatus usually pulled by domesticated dogs — to transport their goods, including their highly mobile tipi dwellings.

The population of Siksika has been estimated to have reached approximately 18,000 in the 18th century, but was decimated by the introduction of disease from Europe.

Language

The Siksika speak Blackfoot, a distinctive language with only slight dialectic variations between members of the confederacy. Residential schools and other cultural assimilation policies partially eroded traditional language usage and cultural practices. In 2011, Statistics Canada enumerated approximately 3,250 Blackfoot speakers (including people from all Blackfoot nations) and, though the language is in danger, several language programs exist to promote its resurgence. Indeed, the Alberta Ministry of Education, through consultation with Blackfoot elders and educators, provides full curriculum support for Blackfoot language education from kindergarten to grade 12, for both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students.

European Contact

The population of Siksika reached approximately 18,000 in the 18th century, but after prolonged contact with Europeans was decimated by war and epidemics. In the 19th century, the rising influence of European settlement destroyed the buffalo herds, removing the Siksika’s traditional means of subsistence. Famine and disease spread rapidly, and necessitated a solution that would guarantee protection of land, peoples and resources.

In 1877 Crowfoot, the legendary peace-brokering leader of the Siksika, negotiated and signed Treaty 7 along with several other First Nations and established a reserve at Blackfoot Crossing, east of Calgary. Many Siksika became farmers and ranchers, while others found employment in coal mines on the reserve.

Facing pressure from the government and developers, in the 1910s the Siksika surrendered a significant portion of their reserve for sale, generating more than $2.2 million and making them, on paper, the richest First Nation in Canada. The money was held in trust by the government, who administered the construction of new homes and agricultural equipment, regular interest payments, rations, and other services. However, the agreement was not advantageous; the Siksika demonstrated in 1930 that retaining possession for economic use would be more profitable than interest payments on money held in trust. As these arrangements became obsolete, Siksika people continued to advocate for autonomy, self-determination, and fair treatment from the government.

Contemporary Life

As of 2014, the Siksika count approximately 7,000 registered members, of which approximately 4,000 live on the reserve at Blackfoot Crossing. The Siksika Nation is represented by an elected chief and council, and through the Treaty 7 Management Corporation, which advises and advocates on behalf of the signatory nations of Treaty 7.

The Siksika Nation has made several claims for land and other Aboriginal rights, like the right to self-determination and self-government, with varying degrees of success. The Siksika Nation administers traditionally focused schools and health and wellness facilities, as well as social programs and departments for land management and resource development. The Bassano Dam dispute, for instance, resulted in an agreement to award the Siksika Nation of $53.4 million in 2010 for the illegal 1910 transfer of reserve land by Canada to CP Railway for the construction of the dam . The extended nature of such cases is reflected in the as yet–unresolved Castle Mountain land claim, which began in 1960 and is still undergoing negotiations.