Robin Esrock explores the roots of aboriginal involvement at the Calgary Stampede.

“Whenever we think of indigenous people and landscape, we either invoke Rousseau and the old canard of the “noble savage,” which is an idea racist in its simplicity, or alternatively, we invoke Thoreau and say these people are closer to the Earth than we are. Well, indigenous people are neither sentimental nor weakened by nostalgia.”
– Wade Davis, National Geographic Explorer in Residence, at TED

MANY A STORY of discovery begins with the writer hoping to dismiss his or her confusion. With a white hat on my head and boots on my feet, I’m as confused as ever, especially as I walk into the Indian Village on the Calgary Stampede grounds.

Hang on, isn’t it politically incorrect to call aboriginals in Canada Indian? They’re not from India, or anywhere near it. “Indian Tribes” are called First Nations in Canada, the first nations to live in this land, respect its beauty and live off its resources. The first nations, it must be said, to be conquered by foreign aggressors, disease, politics and forced education. Like much of North America, the tragic past sits like a scab on the Canadian sub-conscious, and the challenges of the future are all too often swept under the rug.

Yet here I am, at the world’s biggest rodeo – a carnival for cowboys – entering The Indian Village, where 24 traditional tipis pierce the sky, and tourists interact with Blackfoot tribes people dressed in leathers and feathers. The Politically Correct Meter on my Journalism Dashboard spirals out of control, as I take the first step forward to finding some answers.

Nathan Meguinis - Tsuu T'ina Nation

The First Nations have been an integral part of the Calgary Stampede since its inception in 1912. Stampede founder Guy Weadick recognized at the start that any celebration of cowboy and ranch culture in Alberta must include the native bands that formed such a large part of it. Although he received considerable resistance from a federal government determined to wipe out native culture, Weadick fought for the Treaty 7 Nations (bands that signed one of 11 numbered treaties with the British from 1871 to 1921) to be part of the Stampede. Weadick’s ultimate success saw 1800 members of Treaty 7 tribes lead the inaugural parade, and the establishment of what is now an important one hundred year relationship.

The fastest growing demographic in Calgary, the First Nations practice their traditions and festivals on reservations throughout Southern Alberta. For tourists and foreign visitors, a visit to the Indian Village might be the sole contact they have with this culture. The chance to personally interact, to witness drumming, dancing and singing, has made it one of the most popular attractions at the Stampede.

Myth # 1: Cowboys and Indians
Despite Hollywood’s best intentions to distort reality, armed conflict between cowboys transporting cattle and First Nations was rare: cowboys typically paid off Chiefs to transport cattle across their land.

Myth # 2: Cowboys were White
Many cowboys were Mexican, African-American, and most importantly, First Nation. This might explain why the winner of the most coveted prize at the Calgary Stampede was “Indian” Tom Three Persons.

Inside a tipi, I chat with an elder about her experience setting up the Village over the decades, learning the village’s importance in bringing tribes and families together. She explains how much value she places on sharing her culture with anyone who walks through the tipi flap.

I wander over and meet the 2012 Indian Princess, crowned for her knowledge of native language and culture. On the stage, as a Blackfoot tale unfolds through song and dance, Amelia Crowshoe talks about her relationship with the Village, how generations of her family have participated in the annual event, building their tipi amongst the other tribes. “We’re not there as subjects, we’re there as partners. And we’re really proud of that,” she says.

There have been some issues over the years, warranted discomfort and distrust in the politics of both tribes and organizers. Some villages expressed concern that the First Nations, the native, aboriginal people of Canada, are represented in The “Indian” Village. Others tell me they’re proud to be called Indian, to own the name that was given to them. Perhaps the village name will change when the village relocates to bigger premises in a few years, perhaps not.

It will take generations, for the scabs of the past to finally heal, for North Americans to embrace the aboriginal beyond the stereotype, beyond Rousseau and Thoreau. There’s no progress unless there is dialogue, no dialogue unless you interact, and no interaction unless there is a space for it. You’ll find such a place alongside the Elbow River at the south end of Stampede Park.