These Century-Old Photos Of Alberta’s Native Americans Offer A Haunting Glimpse Into The Past

In a series of black-and-white photographs, men and women long-dead stare impassively down the camera lens. Members of Alberta’s First Nations, they have been living off the Canadian land for 11,000 years. Now, their way of life is fading away – but these snapshots remain as a fascinating record of a forgotten past.

By the time that European settlers first crossed the Atlantic in the 15th century, the indigenous peoples of Canada had already established complex societies. Often matriarchal in structure, these communities used oral storytelling to pass down their knowledge and traditions through the generations.

At the time, many different tribes inhabited western Canada in the region that is now Alberta. Among them were the Blackfoot people – a loose confederacy of three groups who enjoyed a close affiliation – and the Cree, whose descendants make up the biggest population of Native Americans in the country today.

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Although the French explorer Jacques Cartier arrived in Newfoundland in 1534, it would take more than two centuries for colonization to spread further west. First, European fur traders began seeking out new opportunities in unchartered territory. Then, inevitably, the migrants followed, founding their first settlement in 1788.

When the settlers arrived in Alberta, First Nation people were flourishing in the region. As nomadic hunters, they roamed the plains in search of bison, their main source of food. Initially, tribes such as the Blackfoot would stalk and kill these beasts on foot, before learning how to use domesticated horses in the 18th century.

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Sheltering in temporary encampments that could be packed up and moved, groups such as the Blackfoot and Cree were able to follow the bison wherever they went. And the great beasts were not just used for food, either. As well as providing meat, their carcasses were a source of everything from leather to fuel.

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By 1870, weaponry from Europe and liquor from various American traders had begun to make their way west, infiltrating and wreaking havoc on the First Nation tribes. Furthermore, the settlers hunted large amounts of the region’s native bison, leaving many indigenous people on the brink of starvation.

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Further weakened by European diseases, Alberta’s First Nation tribes were unable to defend their native lands. Instead, they accepted a series of treaties that granted land rights to the settlers in return for access to reservations and governmental support. And almost 150 years later, these agreements continue to dictate the position of indigenous tribes in Canadian society today.

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Historically, the First Nation people of Alberta lived in lodges comprised of a family or group inhabiting a single dwelling – a teepee, for example. Up and down the country, these lodges continually merged with other groups, creating what was known as a band. Generally headed by a male chief, each band would hunt together and defend itself as a unit, although individual lodges and people were free to move on.

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At the same time, Alberta’s native inhabitants could be divided into different tribes – bands and lodges who shared a common culture and language. And although allegiances would form between them, there were no overall leaders in place. Instead, chiefs from various bands would meet together, using consensus decision-making to represent the interests of their own lodges.

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Over time, the problems brought by the settlers forced some bands to join forces in self-defence. Dubbed confederacies, these groups included the Blackfoot (consisting of members of the Piegan, Sikisika and Kainai Nations) and the Iron Confederacy, whose members hailed from the Stoney, Assiniboine, Saulteaux and Plains Cree people.

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Although these two confederacies started out as allies, their relationship eventually descended into all-out war. And on October 25, 1870, the Battle of the Belly River saw both factions take part in what would be the last big conflict between First Nation tribes to be fought on Canadian soil.

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Although the Blackfoot emerged victorious, both confederacies had reached a peaceful agreement within a year of the battle. And today, Alberta’s many different First Nation tribes and bands live in relative harmony across the land. However, their numbers have been decimated over the years.

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A decade after the Blackfoot and Cree fought each other in Alberta’s Cypress Hills, a boy named Harry Pollard was born over 1,000 miles away in Ontario, Canada. His father, James, had been a photographer, and Harry soon found himself following a similar path.

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In 1899 Pollard became one of many settlers to seek their fortune in the west, where he established a studio in Calgary, Alberta. There, he took photographs that captured the changing world around him. For example, he compiled an impressive collection of images of the Klondike Gold Rush, which saw some 100,000 prospectors rush to north-west Canada in search of the precious metal.

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However, some of Pollard’s most arresting photographs are those that he took of Alberta’s First Nation people throughout his career. In fact, these black-and-white images continue to provide a fascinating insight into what life used to be like in western Canada, and how much that has changed over the years.

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In his images, Pollard managed to poignantly capture the transition between the old world and the new. For example, one shows a man from the Nakoda, or Stoney, Nation sitting astride a
horse, surveying the view before him. Taken in 1910, it dates from a time when First Nation people had already signed vast tracts of their ancestral lands over to the settlers.

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By contrast, other photographs show Alberta’s First Nation people going about their daily lives, engaging in traditions that have remained the same for generations. At an Assiniboine camp, Pollard captured children relaxing in the shade of their teepee homes. Elsewhere, he snapped three Kainai Nation women – known as Takes a Gun, Heavy Face and Double Strike – carrying goods on sledges pulled by dogs.

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In one photograph, two men from an unidentified tribe are shown on top of a hillock of land, gazing into the distance. Known as Many Shot and Black Kettle, they carry weapons that would traditionally have been used for hunting bison. By the time that this photograph was taken, however, this practice could no longer be relied upon to yield food.

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In an image thought to date from about 1900, a man known as Lone Walker is shown demonstrating a traditional bow and arrow. According to Blackfoot legend, these weapons were gifted to their people by Napio, the creator. After placing man and woman on the Earth, the story goes, he populated it with buffalo for them to hunt.

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In another of Pollard’s images, five Siksika Nation men are shown gathered outside a teepee. Apparently, they were part of a council that would meet to make decisions on issues that affected the tribe. In the background, viewers can make out the skin of the temporary structure, emblazoned with elaborate designs.

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A type of tent constructed from wooden poles and animal skins, the teepee was the dwelling of choice for many First Nation people across Canada. In the summer, it provided shelter from the baking heat, while in the winter it kept families warm as temperatures dropped. Moreover, it was relatively simple to pack up and move when the tribe decided to relocate.

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Interestingly, it wasn’t just men who played vital roles in First Nation communities during Pollard’s time. And in one image, the photographer captured an unidentified woman smoking meat over a fire. Historically, this process was used to preserve food, allowing tribes to store it for extended periods of time.

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Meanwhile, another important part of First Nations society was the medicine lodge. And in one photograph dated approximately to 1910, Pollard captured a rare glimpse inside this hallowed place. Showing members of the Siksika Nation gathered inside a tent, the image hints at the solemn nature of the ceremonies carried out within.

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Elsewhere, Pollard captured many images of First Nation people on horseback. However, groups such as the Blackfoot did not start utilizing these animals until the 18th century. Before that, families would usually rely on dogs to pull their belongings on sleds as they migrated across the plains.

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In many of the photographs, men wear elaborate headdresses decorated with feathers and beads. Known as war bonnets, these adornments were seen as a mark of great respect within First Nation tribes. In fact, they could only be worn by those who had been deemed worthy of the honor.

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In one image, a man from the Nakoda Nation can be seen wearing a grand headdress decorated in the typical war bonnet fashion. Known as Walking Caribou, he likely earned this adornment through a number of brave and heroic deeds. But today, sadly, the details of these acts have been lost – and only his haunting image remains.

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Similarly, another photograph depicts a member of the Tsuu T’ina Nation known as Joe Big Plume. And just as his name suggests, his war bonnet boasts a number of tall feathers too long for the camera to capture in their entirety. Unusually, he is also shown wearing a large Victorian medallion, although again the significance of this has been lost.

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Interestingly, war bonnets were far from the only type of adornment worn by Canada’s First Nation tribes. In one image, for example, a member of the Kainai Nation can be seen wearing a simple band bearing two feathers. Unlike other headdresses, these embellishments were not earned through war and instead were used for decorative purposes.

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In other photographs, both men and women from various First Nation tribes can be seen wearing many different iterations of traditional dress. For example, one snap dating from about 1910 shows a man known as Wolfe Robe. And in place of a war bonnet or traditional hat, he boasts earrings, a necklace and a thick fur hat.

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In another, a chief of the Piikani Nation is depicted wearing a heavily beaded tunic as well as a headdress that appears to be made of felt or wool. Associated with the Blackfoot people, this tribe has often been at the forefront of the struggle for indigenous rights over the years. But back when this photograph was taken in about 1910, they could not have predicted how much their world was still to change.

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Although many of Pollard’s photographs depict First Nation people in elaborate traditional dress, some capture them in less formal moments. In one image, for example, a man from the Nakoda Nation is shown wearing a suit-style jacket with his hair in braids. But despite the more relaxed style of dress, he still cuts an imposing figure.

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In another image, Pollard captured a shot of Betty Hunter, a woman from the Nakoda Nation. Dressed in patterned clothing and with her hair in braids, she has a distinctly feminine appearance. However, women were typically expected to join in with manual tasks in the community, such as processing meat and tanning animal skins.

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According to records, one of the most important aspects of the First Nations calendar was the Sun Dance, traditionally held in spring or summer. And in one photograph dated to roughly 1910, Pollard snapped members of the Siksika Nation preparing for the festivities. In the background, poles are being raised to form the lodge where the celebrations will take place.

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Traditionally, the Sun Dance marked a time of abundance after the winter, when the buffalo gathered and food was plentiful. And although the exact ceremony varied between tribes, it generally involved a long ritual during which participants neither ate nor drank. Apparently, the goal was to achieve spiritual enlightenment by appealing to a divine power.

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In another photograph, also showcasing the Siksika Nation, a Beaver Woman can be seen smoking a pipe outside a dwelling. According to Blackfoot lore, such women and men were the keepers of Beaver Bundles – a ceremonial package associated with tobacco rituals. And as such, they were seen as important members of the tribal community.

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Interestingly, smoking was far more than just a way to pass the time for some First Nation tribes. In fact, many Blackfoot people would count ceremonial pipes among their most prized possessions. And because they believed that the smoke would help their prayers to reach the creator, the objects formed a key part of many rituals.

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Of course, another fascinating part of First Nations culture is the naming traditions of various tribes. In one photograph, for example, Pollard captured an elderly Siksika man known as Far Away Voice. And while the exact story behind this evocative name has been lost to time, it likely reflected an important story or achievement that his elders wished to mark.

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Today, there are 48 bands of First Nation peoples throughout Alberta, spread across nine distinct tribes. Among them, Kainai, or Blackfoot, is the most widely-used language, followed by Cree and Chipewyan. Additionally, Dene, Sarcee and Stoney are all spoken in modern First Nations communities.

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While roughly half of Alberta’s First Nation people live on reservations across the province, the rest have been assimilated into various communities and cities – particularly the capital of Edmonton, which is home to about 20,000 individuals of Native American descent. But with so many settling in displaced urban environments, is the world captured by Pollard doomed to disappear?

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