During the time when I was a student in archaeology at the University of Calgary, I did a lot of reading for course work and the many papers that I had to write. It was a part of my academic life that I always enjoyed. Archaeology students can focus on an area of the world that interests them in terms of prehistory and I focused on North America because of my First Nations background—being northern Alberta Cree. Many classes reviewed the ethno-history of regions, on how people lived at the time of Contact and through the centuries that followed and what their cultures and their material worlds were like. The mantra is that the present is a key to the past. You will derive insight on how to understand the materials from excavations by studying the remnants of lifeways accounts and histories acquired before more modern times. Most of the literature has been written by non-Indigenous scholars who studied Indigenous peoples and their ways of life. That is beginning to change. Slowly, through the latter half of the 20th century and now into the 21st century, there has been an increase in the number of educated and self-aware Indigenous people throughout the world and they are writing about their colonial experiences.
Canada made treaties with the Indigenous people in the west as Europeans and other peoples came from all over the world to take possession of landscapes rich in resources. It was a relatively peaceful process and in Saskatchewan, Treaties 2, 4, 5, 6, 8 and 10 were completed in the latter half of the 19th century. The treaties included promises of reserve lands, education, agricultural supplies and provision of medicines. In his book, Treaty Promises, Indian Reality: Life On A Reserve, Harold LeRat gives us his perspective of the history and experiences of the people who eventually ended up on the Cowessess Reserve with the signing of Treaty Four. Harold spent nearly ten years in the Crooked Lake Residential school—not a pleasant experience. Canadians are just beginning to get a glimpse of the impact that residential schools have had on Canada’s Indigenous peoples. Harold went on from his residential school experience to do many different kinds of jobs, though farming, ranching and working with horses were a large part of his working life.
Harold recognized that his recording of the history of Cowessess would require some help, which he got from Linda Ungar, who did the writing with him. The account is a complex one. It involves the history of the Indigenous peoples who lived on and around the Cypress Hills and how the treaty-making process affected them all. The Cypress Hills is an area with unique resources within the plains region and it played a role in the seasonal lifeways of a number of Indian bands. Chief Little Child (Cowessess means “Little Child”) and other Chiefs of other bands at the time of treaty-signing, tried desperately to preserve the Cypress Hills as part of their traditional territories. It was not to be and only the Neekaneet First Nation has remained in the lands around the Cypress Hills. Harold recounts part of the history from the oral perspective that he has acquired—the accounts of his ancestors who lived through the hard times that came with the settlement of western Canada and the demise of their major resource, the mighty herds of bison. Instead of staying in or around the Cypress Hills, Chief Little Child’s band ended up being moved far to the east, close to the Manitoba border. Reserve life was not easy and the Indian agents were not always nice men. Nevertheless, Harold reflects on the success of the Cowessess Band in its farming endeavours. There is a positive perspective to their transition to reserve life. Harold places himself within the history and how it unfolded for his family through time. Importantly, this is not just an anecdotal account of Harold’s life and times—it is a researched historical account, written from an Indigenous perspective. It is another one of my recommended ‘reads’.