Cypress Hills

Between a Good Story & Hard Facts

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from R.B. Nevitt’s A Winter at Fort Macleod

While I’m writing my book about our long western walks, sometimes I find myself caught between a good story and a set of hard facts. I’m writing about our treks through ranches on the edge of Cypress Hills in 2015. Remembering the cattle, the horses, and the land there, I’d like to tell the story I found in Peter Erasmus’s Buffalo Days and Nights. Erasmus was a Métis interpreter, guide (for the Palliser expedition, among others), hunter, trader, and diplomat (his account of the Treaty Six signing is invaluable, since he was actually hired by the Indigenous parties to the Treaty). He could speak four or five prairie languages, as well as English and French, and could read ancient Greek. Discussing the extinction of the bison/buffalo, and the problem of poaching, Erasmus notes: “True, I ate buffalo meat at Big Bear’s camp in the Cypress Hills…but it tasted a great deal like beef – so much so that I didn’t consider it polite to inquire too closely as to its source.”[i] The problem is, the story makes it sound as if the Cree were habitually enjoying food at the expense of white settlers – but the opposite was the case. 1881-82 was the time of the “hunger winter” (see Candace Savage’s A Geography of Blood). Cree, Saulteaux and Assiniboine, facing a brutal Saskatchewan cold in tents made only of thin cotton (the hides being sold or converted to food), dressed in rags, were dying, by the hundreds, of starvation and starvation-linked diseases. Meanwhile, the government in Ottawa kept cutting its relief budget. Dewdney, closer, used the famine as a tactic to try to empty the Hills of its Indigenous population. The first ranchers in the area offered their animals at cost to relieve the famine. Dewdney refused. No one knows why, but it remains a fact that he had financial links to the American company that provided meat to the Canadian government, and accepting the offer would have undercut their – and his – profits. [ii] Plus ça change…the more things change…  There’s no simple story in remembering Settlement.

[i] Peter Erasmus, Buffalo Days and Nights. Ed. Henry Thompson. Calgary: Fifth House Ltd, reprint 1999, 301.

[ii] James Daschuk, Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life. Regina: University of Regina Press, 2013, 115.

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