Non-Native visitors to the prairies had reported on the decline of the bison as early as the 1840s, and the Plains Cree in 1859 held a conference to discuss restriction of the hunt in order to preserve the animal. Pressures on the bison included the fur trade, for which the bison were the chief source of food; the movement of the Métis west from Red River in response to the declining herds on the eastern prairies; and the massive expansion in the hide trade, facilitated by American participation, which exploded in the 1870s. The bison was a central element of life to the Natives of the prairie West, providing the necessities of life and playing a major cultural role as well. Fears of starvation and the loss of a way of life, linked directly to the dwindling buffalo herds, prompted the Plains Cree to seek treaties with the dominion government in the 1870s, and the Blackfoot Confederacy proved receptive to treaty overtures for the same reasons.

The Canadian government paid little attention to worries about the bison and in treaty negotiations encouraged the Natives to continue to hunt as their major means of subsistence. The single limited preservation measure addressing the question was adopted by the Northwest Council, not Parliament, in 1877, but repealed the following year because of its ineffectiveness and unpopularity. By the late 1870s, the species had faded across the prairies. This development prompted the food crisis the Natives had feared and forced the government to scramble for a response to a problem it had hitherto ignored. The disappearance of the bison was the first test of the new relationship between Natives and the government forged in the treaties, and the official response did not bode well for future relations.

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Chinook Multimedia

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