Date of this Version
Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 27, No. 1, Winter 2007, pp. 25-37.
In December 2005, a Canadian federal court justice dismissed a six-hundred-million-dollar claim by the Samson Cree related to alleged mismanagement of its energy royalties. In newspaper interviews, a lawyer for the Samson Cree expressed disbelief and stated that the justice "discounted the testimony of our elders" and "followed essentially the word of the white man and the written word of the white man."
He continued: "It's as if the white man cannot be biased, but the Indians might be biased in their recounting of history." Interestingly, 120 years before the justice dismissed the Samson Cree case, the Canadian Department of Indian Affairs actively sought Indian testimony, believing that the oral accounts were more accurate than its own written records.
In the mid-1880s, the Department of Indian Affairs launched an investigation into claims by Indian signatories to Treaty Six that the government was not honoring its treaty commitments. Because its own records were flawed, the department instructed its employees to gather Indian recollections and oral testimonies and relied on this information when it concluded that some treaty obligations did remain unfilled. However, when Indian signatories in the same period claimed that the text of Treaty Six did not accurately reflect the spirit and intent of the negotiations and did not record all the obligations that they had extracted from the government, the department did not seek Indian testimony to verify or refute the charges; rather, it relied solely upon its written records and it rejected the claims outright. Analyses of the spirit and intent of Treaty Six must recognize that the Department of Indian Affairs' selective use of Indian recollections and oral testimonies in the late nineteenth century reinforced both contemporary and current divergent understandings and perspectives about the spirit and intent of that document.
NEGOTIATION OF TREATY SIX: DICHOTOMY OF INTENT
Events leading up to the negotiation of Treaty Six, and the negotiation itself, show that a dichotomy existed between the goals that the Canadian government and the Indian peoples hoped to achieve with the treaty. The Canadian government wanted to use the treaty process to facilitate peaceful Euro-Canadian settlement of western Canada by extinguishing Indian title to the land and establishing a reserve system. It also believed that reserve agriculture and Euro-Canadian academic and religious instruction would mitigate the impact that disappearing bu(falo herds and advancing Euro-Canadian settlement would have on the Indian peoples of the prairies as well as hasten their absorption into Euro-Canadian society.
Although land pressures were the primary motivators behind the Canadian government's decision to treat with various bands, its limited annual budget and the national preoccupation with constructing a transcontinental railway limited its ability to act. The government therefore entered into treaty negotiations only when it deemed it necessary. Indeed, in 1871, when several of the bands that eventually signed Treaty Six expressed "feeling[s] of discontent and uneasiness" about their changing social and economic conditions and requested a treaty, the government declined. The government entered into discussions several years later, only after separate groups of Cree threatened to disrupt survey and telegraph crews. The text of Treaty Six was determined during negotiations at Fort Carlton and was agreed to on August 23, 1876: all subsequent adhesions required that signatories agree to the original text and the original obligations.