Sunday, June 21st is National Aboriginal Day in Canada.
It is an annual event, designated by the federal government to, “Celebrate the unique heritage, diverse cultures and the outstanding achievements of the nation’s three aboriginal peoples – the First Nations, the Inuit and Metis.”
This year, National Aboriginal Day will take on particular significance with the recent release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report and such initiatives as the Walking With Our Sisters exhibit and related special activities at the Red Deer Museum + Art Gallery.
No one knows for sure when the first aboriginal peoples arrived in Central Alberta.
We can only guess that the arrival occurred near the end of the last Great Ice Age when the continental glaciers had melted back sufficiently to allow human habitation along the edge of those huge ice sheets.
However, there are those who insist that these Old Ones have always been here, well back into time immemorial.
There are no written records. There is only rather spotty archaeologic evidence, usually involving the stone tools used by these ancient hunters and gatherers.
One of the best archaeological sites for determining the length of human habitation in Red Deer is located at the top of Piper’s Mountain in Rotary Park.
In 1984, archaeologists found evidence of campsites and animal butcher sites that were several millennia years old at the top of the hillock. However, erosion and modern disturbances made a thorough investigation of the site very difficult.
Some of the earliest written records can be found in the journals of Anthony Henday, an English explorer and fur trader who worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company and visited this area in 1754.
He found a First Nations’ culture that was at the height of its wealth and power.
Central Alberta was the part of North America where the horse and the gun were first combined. Guns and horses provided a huge boost in the hunting of animals, particularly the prairie bison. Consequently food, shelter and clothing became very plentiful.
Moreover, guns and horses provided enormous superiority in times of war.
Hence, the First Nations found by Henday in Central Alberta – members of the Blackfoot confederacy who collectively called themselves ‘Soyi-Tapix’ or ‘the Prairie People’ – were very rich, very powerful and widely feared.
Henday described a large Blackfoot encampment on what is believed to be the west side of Pine Lake.
He stated the teepees extended in two long rows, nearly one kilometre in length.
The chiefs’ tent was large enough to comfortably accommodate more than 50 people. In the centre of that tent, was a very large white buffalo robe on which the elders sat.
Unfortunately, the wonderful world that Henday discovered did not last much longer.
By the early 1880s, almost continuous warfare had broken out amongst the First Nations, particularly the Cree and the Blackfoot.
By the later part of the 19th century, the bison literally vanished. Destitution and disease replaced what had once been a rich way of life.
In the early 1890s, the Red Deer Indian Industrial School was built west of the City, northwest of the old Red Deer Crossing settlement site.
The school was a terrible place. At one point, it had the worst mortality rate of any First Nations residential school in Canada.
The school closed in 1920.
However, the lives of many the aboriginal peoples of Central Alberta remain ones of discrimination, as well as economic and social challenge.
Therefore, National Aboriginal Day gives us a chance to reflect back on the great aboriginal culture that was the hallmark of Central Alberta and all the terrible events and experiences which have followed, once those aboriginal peoples were largely displaced from their homelands from time immemorial.