Treffrey Deerfoot, Indigenous elder. Illustration: Sam Hester

Treffrey Deerfoot: A Blackfoot elder who sees the big picture

We’ve been through pandemics before.’

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To close out 2020, we're bringing you 20 stories from an extraordinary year. Doctors. Teachers. Entrepreneurs. Activists. These are the stories of ordinary Albertans who were changed by circumstances beyond their control—and what they did to make their worlds, and ours, a little better.



Somehow, at the end of 2020, Treffrey Deerfoot sounds optimistic.

As a Blackfoot elder and ceremonialist who also works as a consultant, Deerfoot has seen both his livelihood and cultural activities curtailed due to the pandemic.

"It's been difficult," he said, speaking on the phone from his home in Lethbridge. "A lot of my work in tourism has been gone. My normal busy summer was not there. Every family's feeling the same crunch."

Aside from the economic hit, Deerfoot has also lost several family members this year to causes unrelated to the pandemic.

And he has seen how the coronavirus has affected the Blackfoot and wider Indigenous communities, including outbreaks at Siksika Nation and the Blood reserve.

It’s been difficult… My normal busy summer was not there. Every family’s feeling the same crunch.

Treffrey Deerfoot

But there's a calmness in his voice, a quiet sense of steadiness in keeping with Deerfoot's nature: it's not that he doesn't see all the tragic and trying things, just that Tref Deerfoot can't help but see the larger picture.

"We've been through pandemics before as Indigenous people," he said, pointing to the waves of smallpox and other diseases brought by European settlers that killed an estimated 90% of the Indigenous population of the Americas. That's not to compare this pandemic with those disasters, nor to make light of our current situation—only to put it in context.

As a cultural leader, Deerfoot acknowledged how important social traditions like powwows and ceremonies are to the Blackfoot and other Indigenous peoples, and how difficult their absence has been.

But in his reminders of the incredibly rich and long history of the Blackfoot—who were here for millennia before settler colonialism, smallpox and Treaty 7—there's a sense of a marathon runner looking at the miles still ahead and finding resolve by remembering all the miles behind.

We’ve got to restart and have a new beginning. I’m excited for it.

Treffrey Deerfoot

As the great-great-grandson of Deerfoot, the legendary Siksika runner whose name was unironically appropriated by settlers for a freeway, Treffrey Deerfoot can draw on his own family history for inspiration—and, in fact, that history now gives him something to look forward to in the new year.

In 1993, after belatedly honoring his ancestor with a ceremony to make amends, Deerfoot said city officials reneged on their commitments. Now he's been approached by Deerfoot Inn and Casino for the same reason.

At Deerfoot's request, they will fund four academic scholarships to be administered by the Blackfoot Confederacy. A ceremony is planned for the first half of 2021.

But like everyone else, what he most eagerly anticipates is the retreat of the pandemic, and what it will mean for his people.

"We've got to restart and have a new beginning. I'm excited for it," he said. "People have been penned up in their homes."

"We have our powwows, we have our sundances. it's all about community and family. it's going to be nice to see the regalias coming out of closets and dusting them off."

Taylor Lambert is the Alberta politics reporter for The Sprawl.

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