Born in 1830 near the Belly River in southern Alberta, his infant name was Shot Close. His parents, Istowun-eh’pata (Packs a Knife) and Axkahp-say-pi (Attacked Towards Home) were Kainai or Blood, of the Blackfoot Confederacy, which also included the Blackfoot and Piegan peoples. If their names were any indication, the times were troubled and warring factions, prevalent.
When he was five-years-old, his father was killed by rivalling Crow, and a year later his mother remarried a man (Many Names) from the neighbouring Siksika Nation. Determined not to be left behind, the young boy trailed his departing mother and her new husband as they left the Kanai to travel back to Siksika. He followed the two on foot for several hours, eventually inducing them to turn around and bring both the youngster and his grandfather, Scabby Bull, back to become members of the Blackfoot Tribe. He was then given the name Bear Ghost, and would later inherit his father’s name Istowun-eh’pata or Packs a Knife.
As a youth he proved himself a formidable opponent and a respected warrior. He earned the name “Crow Indian’s big foot,” after getting wounded during a raid for horses on a Crow camp. That name was later shorted to Crowfoot by interpreters.
He was in 19 battles before the age of 20, and his most serious wound occurred after being shot in the back during a Shoshoni winter raid. The lead ball was never removed and in his later years, he would be limited in his riding ability and travels. With that constant reminder, his resolve turned to raising horses and addressing tribal affairs, and with the death of Three Suns, his band chief, Crowfoot became a minor chief of the Blackfoot tribe, although neither Blackfoot, nor from a family of chiefs.
His bravery and determination earned him respect among the Blackfoot people, however, it was his skill as a diplomat and a voice of peace that raised his profile with the local white population. In 1865, he rescued an Oblate missionary, Father Albert Lacombe, while Fr. Lacombe was visiting a Blackfoot camp east of Hobbema, Alberta. It was attacked by Crees and after several hours, Father Lacombe tried to intervene and call a truce, but the Cree did not recognize him and he was shot by a ricocheting bullet. Crowfoot arrived with a legion of warriors and the outcome of battle was dramatically altered.
His peace keeping missions were many. He established relationships with fur-traders, missionaries and Hudson’s Bay personnel. In 1866 he intervened between the Blackfoot and HBCo. and prevented the deaths of the Metis drivers during an attempted looting of their caravan. Then despite outrage on the part of other warrior chiefs, he escorted the Metis back to Fort Edmonton.
He was one of the surviving Head Chiefs after the smallpox epidemic of 1869-70, but in 1873, his eldest son was killed in a raid on a Cree camp and he vowed vengeance on the camp. He personally led a raid against the Cree and killed a tribe member. During the raid, a young man was captured who bore a startling resemblance to Crowfoot’s deceased son. Crowfoot adopted him, took him for his own son and gave him his son’s name. In a twist of irony, that young man would later return to his own people and become the Chief Poundmaker, who would be arrested during the Northwest Rebellion of 1885. He too, would leave a legacy as a peacemaker, despite charges of treason and imprisonment during the rebellion, and he too, would die at Blackfoot Crossing, Alberta.
During the Rebellion, Crowfoot tried to remove himself and his people from the battle, remaining neutral for as long as possible, despite the fact that his adopted son, Poundmaker, was in the midst of the conflict. During the fighting, agents from both sides tried to gain his support, and that of the Blackfoot nation, but Crowfoot was aware they would be limited in their success. It was primarily due to respect for Crowfoot that the warriors refrained from engaging in the conflict.
Chief Crowfoot worked hard to maintain peace and build relationships for the safety and security of his people. He quelled uprisings imminent with the arrival of the Canadian Pacific Railroad. He established friendships with Sam Steel and the North-West Mounted Police in an effort to curtail and contain the illegal activities of American wolfers and whiskey traders.
In 1876, when the Plains Indians and US cavalry were fighting, Crowfoot’s support was summoned once again, when a Sioux messenger was sent to ask the Blackfeet to join the fight. The request was made such that, once the Sioux had defeated the Americans, they would then help the Blackfeet to overcome the NWMP. Crowfoot’s reaction was staunch. Not only did he reject the offer but counselled the Sioux that he would stand by his commitment to the NWMP north of the border and would join the police to fight the Sioux if they came north. When they eventually did, as refugees after the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Crowfoot extended his hand in friendship to Chief Sitting Bull while he was in exile in Canada. Sitting Bull was so impressed with Crowfoot that he named his own son Crow Foot.
Chief Crowfoot was invited, along with members of the Blackfoot, Blood, Piegan, Sarcee, and Stony tribes to negotiate Treaty #7 with the Canadian government. He was mistakenly considered to be the leader and head spokesman of the entire Blackfoot Confederation, which created friction between the leaders. However, with his usual diplomacy, he consulted with the other nations and refused all offers of rations or money until the terms of the treaty were complete. The treaty was signed September 22, 1877.
In 2008, Chief Crowfoot was inducted into the North American Railway Hall of Fame for his contribution in helping the Government of Canada to facilitate completion of the railway in western Canada. Canadian CPR President William Van Horne had given him a lifetime pass to travel on the Canadian Pacific Railway. He was further remembered in 2009, when a Calgary light rail transit station was named in his honour.
Chief Crowfoot left a cultural legacy of influence unrivalled by any other in western Canada. He was a soldier; a visionary; a diplomat; a leader; a policeman; a politician and a perpetrator of peace. His legacy is memorialized at the Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park in Siksika, and Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump Highway #785, Fort Macleod, Alberta.
His influence endures as he is also considered as one of the eight nominees short-listed by the Bank of Canada on November 10, 2020, to be the face of the new $5 bill.
- By Debbie MacRae