Beyond the rodeo and the chuckwagon races, the Calgary Stampede is one of the country’s longestrunning public celebrations of Indigenous cultures
Beyond the rodeo and the chuckwagon races, the Calgary Stampede is one of the country’s longest-running public celebrations of Indigenous cultures
Over years ago, the Blackfoot Confederacy, the Tsuut’ina Nation and the Stoney-nakoda Nation all came together in confluence at Blackfoot Crossing. They made a treaty that was designed to permeate and penetrate generations … from here to the end of time.” Blackfoot filmmaker Cowboy Smithx’s voice booms from a video screen showing a sprawling aerial view of southern Alberta’s Blackfoot Crossing at the Calgary Stampede’s Transalta Grandstand Show. Smithx was a key part of the creative team for the 2017 show, an elaborate 75-minute stage performance held each night during the Stampede. One of his roles was to ensure Indigenous acts were properly represented. Aptly titled “Together: A Show 150 Years in the Making,” the Grandstand Show incorporated the most Indigenous acts in Stampede history, including three-time world champion hoop dancer Dallas Arcand and a call to ceremony spoken entirely in Blackfoot by Elder Peter Weasel Moccasin before Smithx’s video. “I’m here to remind all of you, Treaty People of number 7,” Smithx’s voice continues, “that we are here to renew our relationship with Iiniistsi, the Blackfoot word for treaty. Peace, harmony and moving forward, creating new bridges, new beginnings and a future ... It’s time to move forward and it’s time to build this country together.” Billed as the greatest outdoor show on Earth, the Calgary Stampede is renowned for its high-stakes rodeo competitions, exciting chuckwagon races and extravagant stage performances enjoyed by more than a million people for 10 days each July. But beyond its large-scale productions, the Stampede has become one of Canada’s largest public showcases of First Nations cultures.
promoter Guy Weadick founded the Calgary Stampede in 1912 with the dream of hosting a large frontier celebration and cowboy championship contest that i ncluded the
participation of Indigenous Peoples. Under the federal government’s Indian Act, introduced in 1876, it was illegal for Indigenous Peoples to leave their reserves without a permit, let alone display their cultures in front of an audience. So Weadick turned to politicians, Senator James Alexander Lougheed and R.B. Bennett, who later became Canada’s 11th prime minister, to exert pressure on the government for an exemption — and he got it. During the very first Stampede, some 1,800 people from the First Nations of Treaty 7 led the parade and competed in rodeo events. That tradition lives on today, as families from the Treaty 7 First Nations set up camp in 26 teepees at Indian Village in Enmax Park, a 6.4-hectare green space along the Elbow River in Stampede Park. For centuries, the area was an essential gathering place for Plains Peoples. Now, camping at Indian Village has become an annual pilgrimage for many, dating back to the first Stampede, and kept alive from one generation to the next. Teepees represent each of the five Treaty 7 First Nations and are open to the public, as teepee owners tell stories and answer visitors’ questions. This tradition isn’t without criticism, however. For some, the Stampede’s inclusion of Indigenous Peoples hasn’t always felt genuine. In particular, Indian Village, both in name and concept, is a work in progress. “I think the Stampede is moving in the right direction, in regard to authentic inclusion of Indigenous voices,” says Smithx. “I still think the Indian Village concept is highly problematic. It perpetuates antiquated notions and stereotypes we, as contemporary Indigenous artists, attempt to dismantle through our creative works. But I can see an evolution of the Indian Village coming within the next few years.” While the Indian Village name remains — teepee owners opted to keep it for its historical significance — that could change in the future, and a dialogue between teepee owners and the Stampede remains open on all aspects of the pavilion. Elsewhere in the 83-hectare Stampede Park, Indigenous cultures and traditions are more prominent than ever. For t he first ti me i n Stampede history, seven chiefs from the Treaty 7 First Nations opened the 2017 celebrations as parade marshals. “I think that [asking us to marshal the parade] was a really good first step. For the longest time, the Stampede was 10 days of cowboy-indian mentality,” says Xakiji (Chief) Lee Crowchild of the Tsuut’ina Nation. “It’s about getting more First Nations people involved in other parts of the Stampede. Be visual, be up in the Grandstand, be in the midway working, be the head of some of these crews, not just reduced to Indian Village.” Indigenous youth also kicked off the 2017 Stampede rodeo competition, showcasing their horsemanship skills in exciting displays of speed, agility and precision
WE ARE HERE TO RENEW our relationship with Iiniistsi, the Blackfoot word for treaty ... It’s time to move forward and it’s time to build this country together.’
as they raced around the track during the official grand entry. Later in the competition, the audience was treated to a new Indigenous relay race demonstration. This high-adrenalin competition on horseback saw four teams — Lone Wolf of the Piikani Nation, Okan Warriors of the Siksika Nation, and Young Money and the Carlson Team of the Blackfoot Confederacy — race around the track three times, ending each lap with the riders leaping off their bareback horses onto others in a lightningfast exchange. “I’ve really enjoyed the relay racing,” says Gerald Sitting Eagle, an Elder from Siksika Nation and the former chair of the Stampede’s Indian Events committee. “It’s a race our people used to do in the past — a messenger would go from one camp to another and jump from one horse to another so they’d have fresh horses all the time. Now, it has become competitive. This year at the Stampede was a trial. I hope the crowd tells the Stampede to keep it!”
THE RHYTHM of a steady drumbeat resonates throughout the park. A chorus of male voices rises in a collective chant as young women in fringed shawls hop, kick and twirl in the Women’s Fancy Dance competition at the Indian Village stage. The audience, clad in cowboy boots and hats fresh from the rodeo, is captivated by the traditional event. The smell of cooking bannock from a nearby booth fills the air. Close by, a couple of teenage boys emerge from a teepee in feathered bustles and intricate beadwork designs, ready to participate in the Prairie Chicken dance competition. Prairie chickens are believed to have healing powers, and dancers imitate their movements in feathered outfits, using bells to capture healing medicines. The boys are among more than 300 dancers from all over North America who come to participate in the Stampede’s annual Indian Village Pow Wow competition. Song and drum are paramount to these events. “Drums are sacred to us,” says Gerald Sitting Eagle. “Drummers treat their drums well because the skin comes from an animal — from the Creator’s creation. When you hit it, everyone gets up and dances and it’s alive. Your heart beats harder when you hear that drum.” Back at t he Grandstand stage, Smithx’s video ends with the Stampede’s slogan, “We’re greatest together.” The stage goes dark, and the audience erupts in cheers and applause. Following musical performances by Adam James and Jann Arden, Smithx’s video was a powerful reminder of the intent of Treaty 7: peace and moving forward. “Inclusion and celebration of First Nations cultures has never been more important,” says Smithx later. “In the wake of Canada 150, I’ve witnessed a national identity crisis from coast to coast. This is an exciting time to be alive. The new generation of diverse voices have the beautiful task of setting a new standard for our collective identity as a nation. The time is now.” See more photos of the 2017 Calgary Stampede at cangeo.ca/ja18/stampede.
DRUMMERS TREAT THEIR drums well because the skin comes from an animal — from the Creator’s creation. Your heart beats harder when you hear that drum.’
Xakiji (Chief ) Lee Crowchild ( left) of the Tsuut’ina Nation. Family heirlooms ( right) on display at Indian Village.
Clockwise from top left: The midway; Caius Bullbear (right) and Sheldon Scalplock dance at the Indian Village Pow Wow; spectators wait for a chuckwagon race to begin.