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Bison: A Way of Life

Bison: A Way of Life

Published: 01/15/2009 by Kate Schutz

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Imagine all the people that live in Calgary today. Imagine if all of those people turned into bison! That gives you an idea of how many bison lived in Calgary’s past!

North American Bison once numbered between 30 to 70 million across the plains of North America. Some migration paths are so deeply worn into the prairie that they are still visible from the air.

In Calgary’s history, First Nations groups who populated the area were the Soyi-tapix (Blackfoot) Nation, consisting of the Pikani (Peigan), Siksika (Blackfoot) and Kainai (Blood) tribes, along with their allies the T’suu T’ina (Sarcee) Nation.

They relied on the natural resources around them, particularly the bison (which they called inni), to meet their basic needs and for their spiritual and cultural life. Bison counts remained constant for over eight thousand years,  despite elaborate and effective hunting methods such as bison jumps  and inconsistent weather. By 1890, however, just over one thousand bison remained, representing the largest and quickest slaughter of any animal species in human history. What happened?

No single factor brought about the demise of the bison. Rather, it was a combination of many factors, including habitat loss, naturally occurring disease cycles, over hunting made possible by the arrival of the railway, the introduction of the horse & gun, deliberate  political policies aimed at moving Aboriginal people onto reservations and advertising free land to encourage  European settlement in the West.

At the beginning of the 1870’s, the political situation in America was so dire with an illegal whiskey trade and bloody battles among American settlers and Aboriginals, that the whiskey traders began to move their business  into Canada. Whiskey traders negotiated for buffalo robes with Canadian Aboriginal tribes at a high and fast rate, introducing tainted whiskey (with ingredients such as strychnine and red ink) guns, alcoholism and domestic violence into a previously amicable culture. This trading also proved a threat to the Hudson’s Bay Company who had established themselves on the prairies.

After the Cypress Hills massacre (and at the urging of Missionaries in the area), the Canadian government formed the North West Mounted Police in 1973. By 1875 the Mounties had built Fort Calgary, the whiskey traders had left and the Mounties began to establish law and order in the area. They became agents of change for government policies including the Indian Act, the “free-land” advertising campaign to Europe and the development of the Canadian Pacific Railway. These policies meant trouble for the buffalo and, consequently, a new way of life for the First Nations people.

First Nations people were devastated by the loss of their traditional hunting grounds and the introduction of laws that encouraged commercial bison hunting in order to clear land for the railway. Inspector Ephram Brisebois, first commanding officer at Fort Calgary, wrote a letter requesting the commercial bison hunt be stopped, as “the buffalo will disappear in less than 10 years. Indians will then be in a starving condition and entirely dependant on the Canadian government for subsistence.” Brisebois’ prediction came true within five years.

Today bison no longer roam the plains, but remain an important part of First Nations culture. The bison is a symbol of strength and is honored today in First Nations art, oral histories and the buffalo dance. 


Buffalo: A Way of Life Resource Kit:

Bison Association

Canadian Protected Areas
Wood Buffalo National Park
Mackenzie Bison Sanctuary

Hinterland Who’s Who: North American Bison