BLOOD RESERVE - Cemeteries tell the silent history of a people.
Walks through treed and manicured cemeteries, like Lethbridge's Mountain View, Cardston or Champion, reveal the story of those who settled southern Alberta.
But on the Blood Reserve, where native culture was centuries old before the first pioneers arrived, the six cemeteries barely turn the last few pages of Blackfoot history.
The present reserve site wasn't established until 1883, six years after the signing of Treaty 7 in 1877. The Blackfoot people did have sacred burial grounds, mainly in wooded areas and river valleys. However the word burial is a misnomer. The bodies of the dead were most often placed on hand-made or tree platforms, and sometimes in abandoned tepees and left to nature.
Neil Mirau, assistant professor of archaeology at the University of Lethbridge, says North American cultures, 3,000 to 5,000 years ago, sometimes buried their dead in the ground.
"We do know of some smaller burial sites from that era around southern Alberta in the Oldman and Milk River valleys." says Mirau. "Some of the burial sites are one or two centuries old, but these weren't really burials. More likely they might have laid the body on the surface and covered it with rocks."
Peenaquim Park in the Oldman River valley is one of the last known tree burial sites in the valley near Lethbridge.
The cemeteries on the Blood Reserve are located at Old Agency, an original settlement on the vast reserve near the northern limits; St. Catherine's along Highway 2 at Stand Off, St. Mary's School, an abandoned area with knee-high grass in back of the old residential buildings; the Band out two kilometres south of St. Mary's School; Levern, on the western edge of the reserve along Highway 505; and St. Paul's, about two km west of the old residential school on the southwest section of the reserve.
Wayne Plume, 67, is one of few Blood people dedicated to the upkeep and preservation of the cemeteries.
Generally speaking, the grave sites date back to the first central location at Old Agency, about the mid- I 880s, coinciding with the coming of the Anglican and Catholic missionaries. Many of those early graves are unmarked simply due to the overwhelming rash of deaths from flu and other European diseases during the late 1800s. Before the epidemics there were 10,000 Bloods. At the conclusion only about 2,000 remained.
While many tribal people respect the place where bodies may lay they seldom, if ever, visit them simply because the spirit is no longer there. Most sites are unmarked and overgrown with thistle and prairie grasses.
Plume is responsible for creating dozens of grave markers simple white crosses about a metre high, carrying the names, pertinent dates and occasionally a silhouette symbol relevant to the deceased.
One story the sparse markers tell however, is a tragic one of young people, from infants to early teens, dying from accidents and suicides. If a cemetery is a sad place, these markers make it even sadder.
Plume has been caring for the St. Catherine's site since the late 1960s, and has actually moved the original fences, on the advice of Pat Eagle Child who foresaw the need for making the cemetery a much larger area. Plume and wife Diane also built the two large gates and white board fence along the front of the St. Catherine's site.
I can't understand why the cemeteries are not looked after," says Plume.
"I have been after councilors for years to level up the area and put crosses on all the graves. It doesn't matter we don't know exactly where graves are, as long as they are close by the marker. Some of the people fix their graves, some others ... well, they don't."
His family graves are marked - parents, uncles, sisters, brothers, a son and great-granddaughter. His mother Minnie, who died at age 80, was a Steel. She is a descendant of Steel, born in 1850 and dying April 7, 1940. The great Blood warrior-chief is buried near the Belly Buttes, Plume says but his medicine wheel, the most recent and only totally understandable one, is found on the southeast corner of the reserve. Near Plume's mother's grave site is jockey Mike Steel, another relative, who died in 1992.
Plume's father-in-law, Harry Big Smoke, was a minor chief and a lifetime councilor before his death.
Plume is also recording grave sites of Blood war veterans, so all their markers can have official service headstones. Many veterans' graves are marked, but some are not.
"There are no records I know that tell how many people are buried here at St. Catherine's, or any of the cemeteries," Plume says. "The cemeteries have been used for a long time, back before Charcoal's time. I know Father Levern used to keep records of grave sites, but I do not know where those records are today. "
Charcoal was a young Blood who ran afoul of the RCMP and was hanged March 15, 1895 in Fort Macleod. His body was brought to St. Catherine's by a priest and buried. Plume doesn't know exactly where Charcoal rests, but he thinks it could be down in the northwest area, where the old fence boundary once stood.
Also unmarked are the graves of two great Blood Chiefs, Red Crow and Crop Eared Wolf. But Plume does know their location.
He finds a marked grave in St. Catherine's, paces off a distance to the west and comes upon two sunken areas. The upper site he says in Red Crow, at his feet is Crop Eared Wolf.
"If it wasn't for Jim Big Throat I would never have known where these graves would be. Jim told me at the start that since I was working in the cemetery I'd better get Jim Red Crow to show me exactly where these graves are."
He says the older boys from St. Mary's Residential School came to St. Catherine's to dig the graves for the two chiefs when they died. Red Crow lived from 1830-1900, Crop Eared Wolf from 1846-1913.
Dominating the cemetery's front is a large white concrete marker, acknowledging the presence of the two chiefs in the cemetery. Red Crow signed Treaty 7 and Crop Eared Wolf followed him as chief. However, their exact burial location is known to few.
"I have told these new councilors we have to try to have headstones or something like that for these two great chiefs," says Plume.
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