Tuesday, 21 June 2016

The Signing of Treaty Eight

In my last post  I wrote about the early history of the Lesser Slave Lake area leading up to the signing of Treaty Eight. 

A hundred and seventeen years ago on this date, Treaty Eight was signed at Willow Point on the shores of Lesser Slave Lake.

For weeks people had gathered at Willow Point. They had come from near and far, some travelling for weeks, to arrive at this spot where Treaty was to be made. But the Treaty Commission was not there. They were supposed to arrive on June 8 but they were delayed by bad weather.

Moostos, headman of Sucker Creek
Luckily Treaty Commissioner Ross had gone ahead on horseback. He assured the people at Willow Point that the treaty party was still coming. He told them each band would need to select a representative.They did not have chiefs so each group met to select a leader. 

Kinoosayo "the Fish" of Driftpile was chosen as chief of all the bands. He also went by the name Arthur Willier and his descendants live throughout the area. He was a wise man and an excellent, passionate speaker. 

His older brother Moostoos “the Bull" was also an excellent orator. He was a healer and medicine man and had a reputation as a great hunter and trapper. He was selected as headman of Sucker Creek. 

Felix Giroux and Kinoosayo
Astatchikun, also called Felix Giroux, was the adopted brother of Kinoosayoo and Moostoos. He was selected as headman of Swan River. In later years, Felix was known for protecting his band's reserve lands from being given up to white settlers.  Weecheewaysis was selected as headman of Driftpile, and Charles Neesuetasis "the Twin" was named headman of Sawridge (modern day Slave Lake).  An elder known as “the Captain” came from Sturgeon Lake to observe.

The Treaty Commission and the Metis Scrip Commission, a party of 28 men and women including commissioners, secretaries, missionaries, interpreters, translators, cooks and others came from the south. They left Edmonton and travelled by cart to Athabasca. They waited for the promised crew of boatmen to arrive but they didn't show up. It rained incessantly.

Trackers at work
Eventually the Northwest Mounted Police agreed to act as trackers. They were ill-prepared for this work that required brute strength and agility but Peokus, an old Blackfoot man who had been captured and adopted by the Cree in his youth, agreed to train them. The "trackers" would pull the York Boats, heavily laden with tents and typewriters and food and treaty provisions, up the Athabasca River to the Lesser Slave River. This involved walking along the shore in the water or on paths along the high river banks. It was a brutal task because the path was wet and covered by "prostrate trunks and "fire-blasted rampikes" as diarist Charles Mair reported. Rain continued to slow the journey. From time to time they would see dejected Klondike prospectors coming the other way, having failed to make their fortunes in the Yukon.

Eventually they arrived at the lake at which point sails were rigged to the York boats and they sailed to Dog Island. Then a storm hit and they headed straight to the south shore of the lake where Charles Mair reported seeing the most spectacular sunset of his life.  The treaty commission was impressed with the land they saw.

The whole country has a fresh and attractive look, and one could not desire a finer location than can be had almost anywhere along its streams and within its delightful and healthy borders.
Eventually the commission reached Willow Point, 26 days after setting out from Edmonton. The minute their boats touched land, they were greeted with enthusiasm. They set to work setting up their huge white canvas tents and a tent village sprung up around them with cooking tents, craft vendors and the like. Mair and the other commissioners reported being very surprised at how modern the people of the area seemed. They must have been expecting a poor and backwards place but that is not what they found.
The place, in fact, surprised me. No end of buggies, buckboards and saddles, and brightly dressed women, after a not altogether antique fashion; the men, too, orderly, civil, and obliging. Infants were generally tucked into the comfortable moss-bag, babies fat and generally good-looking. The whole community seemed well fed, and were certainly well clad ~ some girls extravagantly so, the love of finery being the ruling trait here as elsewhere. One lost, indeed, all sense of remoteness, there was such a well-to-do, familiar air about the scene, and such a bustle of clean-looking people.
Races for the kids
There were running races for the kids and enormous tents. I imagine a North Country Fair type atmosphere and indeed, it was the time of the solstice when the treaty negotiations began. The local paper reported “Everything is in a whirl out here, excitement and fun galore. This is the first and perhaps the biggest blowout this section will see in our time.”

On June 20 a canvas awning was set up with a massive Union Jack behind the commissioners. The large police presence frightened many children according to stories told afterwards. Tobacco was given to the men. The crowd sat at the feet of the commission. 

Treaty Commissioner David Laird spoke  for an hour.

Unrolling a large document with fancy handwriting, he pointed to the great red seal.
Red Brothers! we have come here today, sent by the Great Mother to treat with you. This is the paper she has given to us, and is her Commission to us signed with her Seal, to show we have authority to treat with you. 
Some of you were told that if you make treaty, you will become slaves but you will be just as free as you are now. The treaty is a free offer; take it or not, just as you please… Indians across the country have already benefited from treaty.
The white men are coming in to settle the country. The Queen wishes the Indians to have lands of their own, so we will give one square mile, or 640 acres, to each family of five; but we will not force you to go onto a reserve. That is your choice. We will give schools to teach your children to read and write. And you will be free to hunt and fish as you now are. 
In return for this the Government expects you will not interfere with any miner, traveller or settler. We expect you to be good friends with every-one, and shake hands with all you meet. If any whites do you harm, shoot your dogs or horses, or cause you trouble, report the matter to the police, and they will see that justice is done. 
Commissioners are here for the half-breeds, who may be entitled to scrip. Half-breeds have Indian blood in their veins, and have claims on that account. The Government does not make treaty with them, it gives them scrip to settle their claims. Half-breeds living like Indians have the chance to take the treaty instead. If there is no treaty made, scrip cannot be given. After the treaty is signed, the Commissioners will take up half-breed claims.
Kinoosayo then spoke and everyone listened attentively. His speech was long and passionate and the interpreter could only grasp part of what he said.  
From Provincial Archives of Alberta
You say we are brothers. I cannot understand how. I live differently from you. I can only understand that Indians will benefit in a very small degree from your offer. You have told us you come in the Queen's name. We surely have also a right to say what we want. Do you not allow the Indians to make their own conditions, so that they may benefit as much as possible? The Indian loves his way of living and his free life. Up to the present I have never seen the time when I could not work for the Queen, and also make my own living.
Moostoos then spoke, ““Our country is getting broken up. I see the White man coming in, and I want to be friends. I see what he does, but it is best that we should be friends.”

Weecheewaysis added “I want to tell the Commissioners there are two ways, the long and the short. I want to take the way that will last longest.”

Laird told them that the white man was coming and they needed to make an agreement. He told them they had lived until now with no help from the white man and that they would do even better when more white men came to buy their furs and hire them as boatmen and bring in better cattle. He told them they were not being forced to accept the terms but it was a good deal and if they signed the treaty it would be forever and the white men would keep their promises.

“Indians are fond of a free life, and we do not wish to interfere with it,” he concluded.

Then Father Lacombe, who was known and respected by the people, spoke “Knowing you as I do, I have been officially attached to the Commission as adviser. To-day is a great day for you, a day of long remembrance, and your children hereafter will learn from your lips the events of to-day. I am here because I think it is a good thing for you to take the Treaty. Your forest and river life will not be changed by the Treaty, and you will have your annuities, as long as the sun shines and the earth remains. Accept!"

Kinoosayo spoke again to his people, “Have you all heard? Do you wish to accept? All who wish to accept, stand up! Are the terms good forever? As long as the sun shines on us? We want a written treaty, one copy to be given to us, so we shall know what we sign for.” The crowd stood in agreement.

Treaty Commission
On the evening of June 20 there was celebrating and visiting. People gathered to discuss the pros and cons of the treaty. Concern for their children and the generations to come was foremost on their minds and they wanted to be sure the treaty was in their best interests.The treaty commissioners met in their tent to write up the treaty.

On June 21  the commission gathered again. Laird presented the written treaty. Kinoosayo and Moostos stand to accept the treaty. Suddenly there was grumbling from the crowd. The chiefs talked urgently with their people. They were concerned that they would not be free to hunt, fish and trap as they had done for generations. They were worried that they would be forced to stay on the reserve lands.  They were assured that they had been promised they could live their way of life as long as the sun shines and the rivers flow. Kinoosayo stood. They agreed to the terms. They signed the treaty with their mark, and medals were handed out.

The treaty commission moved forward from one community to the next for the remainder of the summer.  By the end of September, over 2000 people had signed Treaty and more than 1200 had taken Metis scrip. Again the next summer a similar process played out and the headmen of each of the following communities signed adhesions: Peace River Landing, Fort Vermilion, Fort Chipewyan, Dunvegan, Smith’s Landing, Fond du Lac,  Fort MacMurray, Wabasca, Fort St John, Lesser Slave Lake, and Fort Resolution. Most of the north had been given up in exchange for treaty rights, an area larger than France and Great Britain combined. All but Lubicon Lake which was somehow forgotten in the proceedings and is unceded to this day.

Thanks to the following sources:

Treaty 8 Centennial
The Making of Treaty Eight  Alberta Online Encyclopedia
The Diaries of Charles Mair, Reproduced online by Albert Burger of Faust
A History of Slave Lake by Geoff Sawyer, Provincial Museum and Archives of Alberta
Treaty 8  Archived by Library and Archives Canada
Interview with Frederick Prince whose father Albert Prince acted as translator at signing
The people of Sucker Creek for help with photo identification
Glenbow Museum