The confluence: As long as the rivers flow
Revisiting Calgary’s early history — and our present.
This story is the last piece in The Sprawl's edition on Calgary's shifting civic identity. We're asking: What is authentic about this place? What is contrived? Where is the line between the two?
JEREMY KLASZUS (HOST): You’re listening to Sprawlcast. My name is Jeremy Klaszus and I’m the editor-in-chief of The Sprawl. Sprawlcast is a show made in collaboration with CJSW 90.9 FM in Calgary. And we are broadcasting / podcasting from Treaty 7 territory. This is the home of the Blackfoot Confederacy—the Piikani, Siksika and Kainai Nations—along with the Tsuut’ina Nation and Stoney Nakoda Nations. This place is also home to Métis Nation of Alberta Region 3.
…wait, hold on. What does this mean exactly?
TONY SNOW: Calgary is a blip in our story. Calgary is a particular scar on the landscape and on our relationship with the land.
HAL EAGLETAIL: The responsibility of our Nations was to protect the environment. It wasn't ownership.
SIKAPINAKII LOW HORN: Initially what Crowfoot had understood is that it was a peace treaty.
KLASZUS: Land acknowledgements are fairly common these days. They’re often spoken as a ritual at the beginning of events, or podcasts like this one. But I’m often struck by how thin they can be when I hear them, or when I say them. It can easily become just another piece of the script. A list of Nations to be read. A token nod. And then the program moves on.
I often have a sense of hurrying past something important. Of smoothing it over. And I wonder: What might it look like to slow down and dig a little deeper?
In a city obsessed with the shiny and new, I wonder if we can really set a direction for the future without better understanding this specific place and its history. And in Calgary, I keep thinking about the confluence of the Bow and Elbow rivers.
It’s a spot that is often cited in land acknowledgements as a place of gathering for local First Nations. And it’s the birthplace of the city as we know it today. It’s where the North-West Mounted Police established Fort Calgary in 1875 to pave the way for white settlement in what we now call Southern Alberta. But even that story is more textured than it seems, as we’ll hear.
Think of this episode as an invitation. An invitation to go beyond polished words. To linger awhile at the confluence. And that’s where we’ll start—at the place where two rivers meet.
Blackfoot metaphysics includes notions of flux. Everything is always in motion.
Calgary is 'a blip in our story'
KLASZUS: There’s something restorative about walking beside the river. I often find that when I’m down here, I regain perspective. It reorients me somehow. It brings me back to the flow. And I hear the same thing from many Calgarians: that the river reconnects them.
SIKAPINAKII LOW HORN: The Bow River goes right through Siksika, and so I grew up around the river.
KLASZUS: This is Sikapinakii Low Horn, a visual artist from the Siksika Nation.
LOW HORN: And I think just specifically coming to this location, or just going on the walk on the paths, it has that calming feeling. Because I know that—and it's really weird, but I'm like, oh, you know, the river's going to be going down to the reserve.
KLASZUS: Low Horn is casting fresh light on the Fort Calgary site with an outdoor exhibit on the signing of Treaty 7. We’ll get to that in a bit.
But I want to linger on the river for a little longer. The waves of the river make me think of something that Blackfoot Elder and scholar Leroy Little Bear said in 2022. He was addressing Calgary city council about the city’s climate strategy, and he was talking about the difference between Western ways of knowing and Blackfoot ways of knowing. The tools we use for understanding reality.
And Little Bear talked about how Western ways of knowing are rigid, but Blackfoot ways of knowing are more fluid.
LEROY LITTLE BEAR: Blackfoot metaphysics includes notions of flux. Everything is always in motion. Existence consists of energy waves, not matter. It's about energy waves. Everything is animate. In other words, in Blackfoot, there is no such thing as inanimate. Everything is animate. So we talk about "all my relations." So when we're talking about "all my relations," we're talking about all those other beings, those trees, those rocks, all those other animals. Existence is a web of relationships. What you do to the land, to the animals, to the water, you do to yourself.
KLASZUS: When we think about Calgary, it’s easy to view the city through a rigid, Western lens, heavily biased by what we see in front of us. The built city, with all its fixed lines.
But what if we view the city with more of that lens of flux? Even the stories of the different Treaty 7 Nations are stories of flux—of coming and going, of movement on the land, unlike the fixed city of today.
The responsibility of our nations was to protect the environment. It wasn’t ownership. It wasn’t anything of that material sort.
EAGLETAIL: My name is Hal Eagletail. I'm a member of the Tsuut’ina Nation, part of the Dene language group.
When we came onto the prairie, we came onto the territory of the Blackfoot Confederacy. Now, "territory" wasn't ownership. The territory boundaries of traditional lands for the Blackfoot was to North Saskatchewan, to the Yellowstone River and the Rocky Mountains to the Cypress Hills in Saskatchewan. Mind you, everyone had title to Cypress because that was the only place on the prairie at the time that had an abundance of pine tree for our tipi and travois poles and for our travel. It was all prairie right up to the mountains.
Now, when we had the migration into the Great Plains, the responsibility of our nations was to protect the environment. It wasn't ownership. It wasn't anything of that material sort. It was to protect the environment from over-hunting, over-harvesting, making sure everything is in its pristine condition. That's the responsibility of our Indigenous Nations' traditional territories.
SNOW: I come from the Stoney Nakota First Nation west of Calgary. Grew up there.
KLASZUS: This is Rev. Tony Snow. He’s an Indigenous minister for the United Church of Canada.
SNOW: I think a necessary part of if we're living in a space, is to be able to recall the names of those places and those connections that have been there historically. But we have to remember that there are many Nations that have different words and different names in these spaces, and we have to learn to respect those histories.
And so we can't come at it as a binary, thinking that there's a right way and a wrong way, or that there's one name for the Fort Calgary area. For us, Wichispa Oyade is our name for Calgary. We also have the Blackfoot name Mohkinstsis. We also have the Tsuut'ina name, Guts’ists’i. All of these names are referring to the same phenomenon, referring to the same idea.
We have to remember that there are many Nations that have different words and different names in these spaces.
KLASZUS: Again we encounter that notion of flux.
SNOW: And the more that we can understand that there's a greater diversity happening around us, the more I think that we can understand that there may be a Hindu name, there may be an Islamic/Muslim name or something that may be from a different culture they may call this place—identify it in a way that is meaningful to them.
And so we have to begin to understand that these things are never set in stone, but they're frozen in a time space. And unless we can sort of thaw that out and start to see the change and the diversity, the newness that is emerging because of our interaction—that's where we start to see the potential of growth and the potential of ways of belonging that are meaningful to all those that are here.
KLASZUS: When thinking about Calgary and its past and present, Snow brings up a line he’s frequently heard from his sister, who is a lawyer.
SNOW: What she would say often is that, “We're not part of Canada's story. Canada is part of our story.” And I think that fits very well for the idea of Calgary. Calgary is a blip in our story. Calgary is a particular scar on the landscape and on our relationship with the land. There was longstanding traditions of places in Calgary that have since been obliterated by development.
And so I talked to one of the pastors at one of the churches and she was asking about the some of the stories of the area and some significant sites within a particular neighborhood. And I had to tell her that well, a lot of them have been disrupted, a lot of them have been erased, dismantled, taken out of the way. And what we have left are the names. We have particular names of areas. And so Paskapoo—Paskapoo Slopes, Paskapoo area—Paskapoo is a Stoney word, and it means the place of the skull...
And there's a story around each one of these things, but in our environment, we haven't had a lot of connection to tell those stories. There hasn't been any interest. And so we have a lot of our Elders who have passed away who have taken those stories with them. We also have that tradition being handed down to younger people who have knowledge of these areas.
Calgary is a blip in our story. Calgary is a particular scar on the landscape and on our relationship with the land.
The layered history of the confluence
KLASZUS: Fort Calgary is one such area, where younger Indigenous people are telling the story of the place. And this site has changed a lot over the years. For most of the 20th century this was a railyard. In the early 1960s, there was talk of it being cleared to make way for a freeway. Then there were worries about it being built over with apartments. In the 1970s, it became Fort Calgary as we know it today, thanks largely to the efforts of local historian Hugh Dempsey and city councillor John Ayer, among others.
THOMPSON: One thing that I really like about how this place has been described to me by both past and present users and employees and all people who feel connected to this space is that it's a very layered history.
KLASZUS: This is Jennifer Thompson, the president of Fort Calgary.
THOMPSON: And so what does that mean in the sense of today? It means we're trying to unpack and uncover all of those different layers and explore them. And I think we're really primed for that conversation right now. The Northwest Mounted Police established this site, and it was really only here for about 35 years. And again, when you think about the people who had been moving through this space for thousands of years, that's such a small window of history.
KLASZUS: I didn’t grow up in Calgary, so I have no childhood memories of going to Fort Calgary. No field trips or anything like that. But many people who grew up here have these memories.
We’re trying to unpack and uncover all of those different layers and explore them. And I think we’re really primed for that conversation right now.
LOW HORN: I totally remember being in this room and being a kid in elementary and being yelled at because I did not listen at all in school. [laughs]
KLASZUS: After spending their early childhood on the Siksika reserve, Low Horn moved to Calgary when they were about 10 years old. But those field trips to Fort Calgary were memorable for another reason too.
LOW HORN: I remember being really excited when they would mention Natives and Blackfoot people. And I just was so drawn in when they would mention that type of stuff. But it was few and far between, I remember.
KLASZUS: On those trips, Low Horn would hear snippets of history they already knew from their mom—like the story of Crowfoot, the revered Siksika chief.
LOW HORN: Yeah, my mom was like, "This is Crowfoot and he is really, really important." When I think back, she definitely talked to me more so as an adult than a child when it comes to our culture and our histories. And so—I would have child questions, and she'd have that patience and answer them. And so I remember her saying, Crowfoot was the leader of our Nation. He was really significant, somebody that was a high rank in our Nation and very well respected.
KLASZUS: Crowfoot was a key figure in the signing of Treaty 7 in 1877. He was a peacemaker, which was contentious in his day. There were younger Blackfoot warriors and other chiefs that wanted to fight the white colonizers. Crowfoot wanted peace because he believed it would be best for his people.
And, of course, the Canadian government wanted control of the land for colonization.
A lot was hanging in the balance in the 1870s, when Treaty 7 was signed. In Montana, the Lakota Chief Sitting Bull had defeated Custer and his army in the Battle of the Little Bighorn. After that, Sitting Bull came north into the Cypress Hills. And Canadian authorities were fearful of an alliance between Sitting Bull and local First Nations.
My mom was like, ‘This is Crowfoot and he is really, really important.’
EAGLETAIL: So, they came up after this great victory and they sought refuge amongst the Treaty 7 nations. Well, it wasn't Treaty 7 nations at the time, as we haven't signed the treaty yet. It wasn't until a year later in 1877. Sitting Bull gathered our leadership and said, "There's enough warrior power here to push all the settlers back east." And our people at the time, like I had mentioned, were foretold of a peace coming from the east, the queen, "the great mother," "the white mother" that we referred to, was making peace, and that peace was on its way to this territory. So we had no reason to fight...
The Commission brought forth the delegation to start negotiating Treaty No. 7. So all the Nations gathered in what is now Blackfoot Crossing in Siksika Nation, about 60 miles east of Calgary. And there it was decided to sign this peace treaty with the Treaty 7 Nations of the Blackfoot Confederacy, Tsuut'ina Nation/Dene, and the Stoney Nakoda.
SNOW: When the treaty was first negotiated, we have a lot of words from our Elders who, through oral history, have passed down their understandings of the treaty and what it should have been, and then you have the text that was brought in from Ottawa and laid down and say, "Sign here. Put your X here." They didn't even understand what was on the text of the document. And with some of them, like the Stoney people, it was being translated from English into Cree and then into Stoney. And so there's all this gap that you find in translation.
Sitting Bull gathered our leadership and said, ‘There’s enough warrior power here to push all the settlers back east.’
LOW HORN: Initially what Crowfoot had understood is that it was a peace treaty. And the government officials and the North-West Mounted Police really played it off as, "Well, if you sign the treaty, then you will get to keep everything that you have right now—but you just have to sign it." … And so a lot of the people, they did think that we would be protected and we would be able to keep our culture, our language. That's what we thought, right?
KLASZUS: Shortly after the signing of Treaty 7, the First Nations suffered starvation, disease and the decimation of the buffalo.
LOW HORN: Things didn't get better, and that's the unfortunate thing about the treaty signing.
SNOW: Today there's a little better awareness and heart to bring us back to these conversations, which we've never had—like the ratification of the treaty was never had, we've never implemented over this timeframe. We merely had government officials, bureaucrats and people who are imposing the will of Canada onto this agreement and saying "this has to be." And so the forced starvation of people, forced assimilation and education within the residential school system, the facts of incarceration and the loss of status, the loss of rights, was all part of this implementation on a one-sided basis that we were never involved in.
And even until the 1950s, we couldn't retain a lawyer to address any of these, otherwise the lawyer would be imprisoned and we would be imprisoned. So it wasn't until Canada started to enter into the United Nations that now we have a situation where some of those wrongs had to be addressed. So in the 1950s, you had the Inuit right to vote, you have the first senator from the Kainai Nation, James Gladstone. All of these effects have changed the trajectory of where we are going and why.
KLASZUS: Low Horn’s exhibit at Fort Calgary revisits the treaty signing and Crowfoot’s desire for peace. The outdoor exhibit is a series of three illustrated panels that surround the statue of Colonel Macleod, the North-West Mounted Police commissioner who gave the city of Calgary its name—and was also a key figure in the signing of Treaty 7. (Low Horn's exhibit is easy to find—it’s just west of the Fort Calgary building, off 9th Avenue S.E.).
What Crowfoot had understood is that it was a peace treaty.
LOW HORN: "Innai'tsiyiyaawa," it technically means "they make peace," but when I talk to my family members, they think about "peace" as the treaty, and so I guess in the English word, I switched it from "peace" to "treaty." They made treaty. And although there are some negative things that surround the city of Calgary and the surrounding Nations, I think there also needs to be the idea of, well, we signed this treaty in hopes of peace.
KLASZUS: The first panel of Low Horn’s exhibit is a portrait of Chief Crowfoot.
LOW HORN: There's a photo I used and then redrew it in my style. And then I also used a lot of imagery from our own Blackfoot tipis, and so at the bottom of it, it's little pictographs or imagery of people. We use those on tipis to signify unity.
And then on the top, you'll see more images or symbols that pertain to a tipi when it comes down from a dream. And so I want to signify that Crowfoot had all these dreams. I wanted to be sure that those symbols were in there for the Blackfoot people specifically, just so that they did know that he had all those dreams that pertained to the Treaty 7 signing.
And then the second panel is Colonel Macleod and Crowfoot, and in that really iconic image where Crowfoot is standing and everyone else is sitting—I found that to be super, super powerful. I love it. He's standing and it looks like he is ordering people and really telling others about what he was thinking of the treaty signing. And I really wanted to use that old imagery of having the halo around his head just because I feel like he was much more enlightened than anyone else, and so I wanted to symbolize that.
And then to the left of the panel it has Macleod, and he's sitting in a chair and his colours are very muted. And if you look at Crowfoot, his are very vibrant. And there's this aura around him that shows how important he is.
KLASZUS: The third panel in Low Horn’s exhibit shows the confluence of the Bow and Elbow rivers.
LOW HORN: It has the river. It has the grass. And it has the city skyline with tipis and the symbols of the Nations. And then, across the river, we have the Hunt house or the Métis house.
I want to signify that Crowfoot had all these dreams.
Early Calgary: A Métis settlement
KLASZUS: You can go and see the Hunt House and the Métis Cabin for yourself, right by the Deane House in Inglewood. These tiny buildings are easy to miss, but they're some of the oldest buildings in the city. And you might be surprised by what you learn there about the early Calgary townsfolk.
This is Matt Hiltermann. He’s a regional historian with the Métis Nation of Alberta.
A lot of sources will say that early Calgary was a predominantly French and Catholic settlement, and that narrative is quite widespread.
MATT HILTERMANN: The first issue, I think, is that most tellings of Calgary's history before the railroad are basically—the Mounties were here, Sam Livingston was here, John Glenn was here, and they just leave it at that. A lot of sources will say that early Calgary was a predominantly French and Catholic settlement, and that narrative is quite widespread. And it's not technically wrong from a certain point of view, question mark?
KLASZUS: Hiltermann has worked for Fort Calgary previously, and in his work has looked more closely at who these early Calgary townsfolk were in the 1870s and '80s.
HILTERMANN: A lot of action going on in the Calgary area. But not until, I would say, the early '70s do we actually see people in what would now be defined as the city limits. When the Mounties arrive and have Fort Calgary built, we see a lot of the Métis who are wintering at Dunbow or at Jumping Pond or the Elbow site or even as far as Morleyville move to the confluence.
KLASZUS: So you have the early city taking shape. But when we think of that early townsite in the 1880s, we don’t think of it as an Indigenous settlement. But according to Hiltermann, it was.
HILTERMANN: So I did a project a couple years back where I went through the 1881 census for the Bow River district and transcribed all the names and then crosschecked everyone born in Manitoba or the Territories before 1870 or anyone with a parent born in Manitoba or the Territories before 1870 with the Métis scrip archive. And this was really interesting, because when looking through Calgary settlement, particularly the portion of the Elbow valley from roughly the Stampede grounds to the confluence, you find that the community on the 1881 census mostly identifies as French, and they are mostly Roman Catholic.
Here's the thing, though. Only three of those Frenchmen are from Quebec or France. Most of them are born in Manitoba or the Northwest Territories. And so crosschecking with the scrip archive, I found that it was something like all but five of these supposed Frenchmen were Métis.
KLASZUS: And that’s what you’ll learn if you go see these cabins: that in the 1881 census, about two-thirds of enumerated citizens in Calgary were Métis. These were families that already knew this area because of trade routes. This was news to me—and has only recently been brought to the foreground in Calgary, thanks to Hiltermann’s work.
Crosschecking with the scrip archive, I found that it was something like all but five of these supposed Frenchmen were Métis.
HILTERMANN: I think another issue comes also down to how the word "settler" is employed, because it has experienced what's called "semantic drift" since the 1870s. So in the 1870s, "settler" was most often used to refer to someone who was settled in a settlement. And most people who were settled in settlements on the prairies in the 1860s and '70s were Indigenous, Métis, Saulteaux, to a lesser extent, Cree. And also there was a band of Iroquois in Jasper that had farms. Iroquois in Jasper. I'll just give you a moment to sit on that. That's not where they're usually from. [laughs]
But anyways, yeah, most of these agricultural settlements where people were settled were Indigenous. And this subtext of Indigeneity among so-called old settlers in Manitoba and the Territories was such that early immigrants to Manitoba from Ontario actively distanced themselves from the word "settler" in terms of self-identification in the 1870s because they didn't want to be associated with the half-breeds.
It's very bizarre, when we think of the modern meaning of "settler," which is non-Indigenous or colonial. And how that affects the erasure of Métis from Calgary's historiography is the fact that most literature about that early settlement period will talk about the "settlers" without any qualification.
And what people do is they impose the modern understanding of the word—that is, non-Indigenous and colonial—on to the people who were settled in early Calgary settlement. The problem is that the people settled in early Calgary settlement who called themselves "settlers" in the 1870s would not be considered "settlers" today.
Most literature about that early settlement period will talk about the “settlers” without any qualification, and what people do is they impose the modern understanding of the word.
What does it mean to acknowledge the land?
KLASZUS: Okay, so we’ve covered a lot of ground here—from Calgary’s little-known Métis history to the signing of Treaty 7. And I want to return to the question I asked at the beginning. What does this mean today? What does it mean to acknowledge the land?
SNOW: For us, when we talk about the land, we talk about the influence of our naming. Every explorer and everybody that came through—from Henry Kelsey, who was the very first explorer, to the rest of that came by—they would always be running to Assiniboine people.
So as you see across the prairies, there's all these Assiniboine names. And when we talk about minne-wanka, which is Lake Minnewanka—"minne" means "water" and "wanka" means "spirit." That's sort of one boundary of the territory, all the way over to minne-sota. So "minne" is "water," "sota" is "blue." So "land of blue water," Minnesota.
When we hear the land acknowledgement, that’s what we’re hearing, is that this land has been taken over by someone else.
It's kind of this whole entire idea of the prairie portion being under our purview. That these are the areas that we travelled in and among. And there are within them significant sites like the Cypress Hills, which is kind of like our Jerusalem. It's a place of worship. It's a place where we were pushed out of, and it was given over to the settlers and the farmers, but we still have connection there. When Sitting Bull came to Canada after the Battle of the Little Bighorn to seek refuge, that's where he went, and that's our place of power.
And so because we are displaced from that, because we are displaced from places here in the city that we can't go into, or farmers' lands outside the city, there's this loss of connection. And when we hear the land acknowledgement, that's what we're hearing, is that this land has been taken over by someone else. And now we have to find a different way to be in a relationship with that land, because we can't shirk our responsibilities as stewards of the land and as people who are affected by what goes on in these lands. A lot of these lands are where our ancestors are buried, and so it feels like we are part of that land.
KLASZUS: If land acknowledgements often seem thin, there’s a reason for that, says Snow.
I don’t think we’ve made the back end of that play out, because we haven’t had the deeper connections. Those are coming.
SNOW: It's newly formed. It is a newly formed protocol that we're trying to engage with, and when we think about it, what really are we saying? Who really are we making a relationship with, and how is this being made meaningful to those that are receiving this information?
And I don't think we've made the back end of that play out, because we haven't had the deeper connections. Those are coming. Those are continually being worked through, and a lot of that—we have things like the Kamloops 215, we have the Port Alberni school. We have other places, others that have found the bodies of children, and so this is an anomaly in the story of Canada because it should not have happened. But now as we look at it, we can understand the atrocity, the genocide, the things that we are covering over as we make these sort of nice words to an acknowledgement. We have to then contend with the history and the truth about what happened.
KLASZUS: Low Horn is hoping people want to dig deeper after seeing their exhibit at Fort Calgary.
I hope that they take away even more questions for themselves, wanting to know more about the Indigenous history.
LOW HORN: I hope that they take away even more questions for themselves, wanting to know more about the Indigenous history. I feel grateful that Fort Calgary asked me to do this, just because we need more of that representation in our history, and we need to provoke people to learn that Indigenous history instead of what is taught in high school or schools. Because personally, I was only taught things that pertained to the colonial history, right? And the only way I was getting the Indigenous history was from my grandparents,
And so I think from the panels themselves, I want people to really just be like, "Oh wow, I didn't even know that. I want to know more."
Jeremy Klaszus is editor-in-chief of The Sprawl.
Support in-depth Calgary journalism.Sign Me Up!
The Sprawl connects Calgarians with their city through in-depth, curiosity-driven journalism—but we can only keep doing this with community support. Join us by becoming a Sprawl member today!