First Nations in Alberta

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First Nations in Alberta are a group of people who live in the Canadian province of Alberta. The First Nations are peoples (or nations) recognized as Indigenous peoples or Plains Indians in Canada excluding the Inuit and the Métis. According to the 2011 Census, a population of 116,670 Albertans self-identified as First Nations. Specifically there were 96,730 First Nations people with registered Indian Status[1] and 19,945 First Nations people without registered Indian Status.[2] Alberta has the third largest First Nations population among the provinces and territories (after Ontario and British Columbia).[2] From this total population, 47.3% of the population lives on an Indian reserve and the other 52.7% live in urban centres.[2] According to the 2011 Census, the First Nations population in Edmonton (the provincial capital) totalled at 31,780, which is the second highest for any city in Canada (after Winnipeg).[3] The First Nations population in Calgary, in reference to the 2011 Census, totalled at 17,040.[3] There are 48 First Nations or "bands" in Alberta (in the sense of governments made up of a council and a chief), belonging to nine different ethnic groups or "tribes" based on their ancestral languages.[4]


There are a variety of ways of classifying the various First Nations groups in Alberta. In anthropological terms there are two broad cultural groupings in Alberta based on different climatic/ecological regions and the ways of life adapted to those regions. In the northern part of the province the Subarctic peoples relied on boreal species such as moose, woodland caribou, etc. as their main prey animals,[5] extensively practised ice fishing, and utilized canoes, snowshoes, and toboggans for transportation. The Plains Indians of the south lived primarily in a prairie grasslands environment (but with access as well to the nearby Rocky Mountains) and relied on the plains bison (or "buffalo") as their major food source and used the travois for transportation. Peoples in the central, aspen parkland belt of Alberta practiced hybrid cultures with features of both the aforementioned groups.

At the time of contact with Euro-Canadian observers, all of the indigenous peoples in Alberta belonged to several overlapping groups: lodges, bands, tribes, and confederacies. The smallest unit was the lodge, which is what observers called an extended family or any other group living in the same dwelling such as a teepee or wigwam. Several lodges living together formed a band. Bands were highly mobile small groups consisting of a respected (male) leader sometimes called a chief, possibly his extended family, and other unrelated families. The band was a fundamental unit of organization, as a band was large enough to defend itself and engage in communal hunts, yet small enough to be mobile and to make decisions by consensus (leaders had only charismatic authority and no coercive power). Lodges and individuals were free to leave bands, and bands regularly split in two or merged with another, yet no one would want to be without the protection of living in a band for very long. Bands among the Peigan people in southern Alberta ranged in size from 10 to 30 lodges, or about 80 to 240 persons.[6]

By contrast, a tribe is an ethnic affiliation. A tribe is a group of people who recognize each other as compatriots due to shared language and culture. Bands from the same tribe, speaking the same language, usually relied on each other as allies against outsiders, but in Alberta tribes were not institutionalized, and decision making consisted of leaders from various bands meeting together in council to reach consensus. There are approximately nine indigenous ethnic or tribal groups in Alberta in the twenty-first century, depending on how they are counted. They are the Beaver / Daneẕaa, Blackfoot / Niitsítapi, Chipewyan / Denésoliné, Plains Cree / Paskwāwiyiniwak, Sarcee / Tsuu T'ina, Saulteaux (Plains Ojibwa) / Nakawē, Slavey / Dene Tha', Stoney / Nakoda, and the Woodland Cree / Sakāwithiniwak. Within these boundaries there is much fluidity, however, as intermarriages and bilingual bands were once very common. Scholar Neal McLeod points out that bands were loose, temporary groupings which were often polyethnic and multilingual, so that most mentions of "the Cree" by historians of previous decades actually refer to mixed Cree-Assiniboine-Saulteax groups. As well the smallpox outbreak of 1780–1781 and the whooping cough outbreak of 1819–1820 decimated many bands, forcing them to merge with neighbours.[7]

Anthropologists and others often group peoples together based on which language family their ancestral language is from, as peoples with related languages often also have cultural similarities. All of the groups presently represented in Alberta belong to one of three large language families, and are related to other languages across the continent. These are the Algonquian (Blackfoot, Cree, and Saulteaux), the Athabaskan or Dene (Beaver, Chipewyan, Slavey, and Sarcee), and the Siouan (Stoney) families.[8] The list of tribal groups in Alberta is not fixed and is based on differing interpretations of what constitutes a "tribe". The Blackfoot people consist of three dialect groups who were close allies, the Siksika, the Piikani, and the Kainai; they are sometimes considered separate tribes or nations in their own right. The largest First Nations cultural group by population in Alberta is the Cree, if the Woodlands Cree and Plains Cree are counted together. Thirty-two First Nations bands in Alberta are affiliated with Cree culture and are related to other Cree peoples across Canada as far east as Labrador. The Woodland Cree practised a Subarctic culture, and the Plains Cree a Plains culture and they spoke different but related dialects of the Cree language. Several peoples in Alberta fall under the term Dene, which is a name used by many related peoples in the Northwest Territories. In Alberta this includes the Beaver, Chipewyan, Slavey, and Sarcee. All Dene peoples share similar spiritual beliefs and social organization, but the Sarcee people are a Plains people, while the others are Subarctic. The Stoney people are related to the Assiniboine and Sioux and may be considered a branch of either of those groups. The Stoney themselves are divided into Woodlands (Paul and Alexis bands) and Plains sections (Bearspaw, Chiniki, and Welsey bands). The Saulteaux people are represented by only one band in Alberta, the O'Chiese First Nation. There many other Saulteaux bands in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, however, and the Saulteaux themselves a branch of the larger Ojibwe and Anishinaabe groups. Besides all of these groups, there are also non-Status Indians of mixed Cree-Iroquois origin living in Hinton-Grande Cache region of the Rocky Mountains and foothills. They are represented by the Aseniwuche Winewak Nation of Canada, which is a non-for-profit society and not a band under the Indian Act.[8]

Other tribes are known to have inhabited Alberta in the past. The Cluny Earthlodge Village at Blackfoot Crossing is a unique-in-Canada example of a permanent fortified village of earthlodges probably built around 1740 CE by Hidatsa or Mandan peoples.[9][10] The Assiniboine people lived in Alberta at the time of European contact, and it is thought that the Stoney people who still live in the province began as a branch of the Assiniboine.[11] Early accounts by European explorers suggest that the Eastern Shoshone are thought to have lived in Alberta before being displaced by in Blackfoot by 1787.[12] The Gros Ventres were reported living in two north-south tribal groups; one, the so-called Fall Indians (Canadian or northern group) of 260 lodges (≈2,500 population) traded with the North West Company on the Saskatchewan River and roamed between the Missouri and Bow Rivers. They were active in southern Alberta through the late 1800s, but were based near present-day Fort Belknap, Montana by 1862 when Jesuit missionaries arrived there. The U.S. and Canadian governments sought to keep nomadic peoples from crossing the border, and the Americans opened an Indian agency to supply the Gros Ventre with aid at Fort Belknap first from 1871-1876, and permanently in 1878, with a reservation there being established in 1881. The Kutenai migrated westwards out of Alberta, possibly in the early eighteenth century, but still occasionally ventured into the Bow River region to hunt bison by the time of European contact.[13] As well, people from other ethnic groups, such the Métis and Iroquois occasionally intermarried with local peoples and were adopted into existing bands or created their own new bands of mixed heritage. An example is the Michel Band from the Calahoo area, many of whom are descended from William Callihoo, an Iroquois or Métis fur trader from the east who married one or more local Cree women and founded the band.[14]

Plains peoples were able to congregate into larger communities often when following large buffalo herds and had more complex political structures than Subarctic peoples who had to remain dispersed to find enough food (even centuries later there are more First Nations band governments in the north, but the fewer southern communities are much more populous).[5] A group of bands united into a semi-permanent alliance for common defence was called a confederacy by non-Native observers. Such confederacies were often multi-ethnic in that they included bands from a number of tribes. The two key confederacies in what later became central and southern Alberta during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were the Blackfoot Confederacy (consisting of bands from the Piegan, Kainai, Sikisika nations, later joined by the Tsuu T'ina and, for a time, Gros Ventre) and the Iron Confederacy (bands of Plains Cree, Assiniboine, and Saulteaux, and Stoney). Initially on friendly terms, these two grouping eventually become long-term enemies (the Battle River was named for conflict between the two groups that happened near it approximately 1810, around the beginning of their hostilities[15]) until the Battle of the Belly River on October 25, 1870 near present-day Lethbridge.[16]

When Canada acquired a claim in what is now Alberta in 1870, a process of treaty-making began. The federal government negotiated with various chiefs and councils made up of groups of allied bands. But each band was free to sign or not sign a treaty. There are three main treaties affecting Alberta. Treaty 6 is between Canada and the Plains Cree and allied bands, with the main signings occurring from 1876 to 1879 with many later additions, and covers the area of central Alberta. Treaty 7 involves the member tribes of Blackfoot Confederacy as well as the Stoney and was signed in 1877 and covers southern Alberta. Treaty 8 involves the Woods Cree, Beaver, and Chipweyan, was signed in 1899 and covers northern Alberta. Under the terms of these treaties, more southerly bands accepted the presence of Canadian settlers on their lands in exchange for emergency and ongoing aid to deal with the starvation being experienced by the plains people due to the disappearance of the bison herds. Northern bands did not face agricultural settlement (to the same extent), but instead mining and lumber companies wanted access to their lands. In both cases Indian reserves were to be created where First Nations were expected to settle (meaning to end the nomadic hunting lifestyle) perhaps to begin farming, but certainly to be accessible to the authorities such as the Indian agents, North-West Mounted Police, and Christian missionaries. Not all bands were equally reconciled to the ideas of the treaties, however. Piapot's band signed into a treaty but refused to choose a site for a reserve, preferring to remain nomadic. The "Battle River Crees" under the leadership of Big Bear and Little Pine refused to sign altogether.[17] Under the reserve system, each band is attached to one or more reserves. The band has a list of members, part of the nationwide Indian Register, and these members are eligible to live on reserve and receive treaty benefits. The band is now considered the fundamental unit of governance under the Indian Act, first passed in 1876 and still in force with modifications. Modern band governments are the legal successors to the bands that signed the treaties. In the case of the Blackfoot Confederacy, each dialect group is considered a "band" (government) though they historically comprised many hunting bands, while in other cases band governments are direct successors to much smaller historic hunting bands, many of less than 100 people.

As of 2013 there were 48 band governments with their own councils and chiefs. For the purposes of the Indian Act, however, the federal government lists 45 separate band governments: the Saddle Lake First Nation and the Whitefish Lake (Goodfish) Nation are administered separately but considered one band,[18] likewise the Chiniki, Wesley, and Bearspaw First Nations have separate administrations but for the purposes of the Indian Act are one band government called the Stoney Nakoda Nation.[19][20] The above count also does not include bands headquartered in other provinces with reserves that are partially in Alberta, such as the Onion Lake Cree Nation of Saskatchewan. Band names and sizes, and well as reserve sizes are not static and have continued to change since the signing of the treaties. The newest First Nation band in Alberta is the Peerless Trout First Nation, which was created in 2010 as a separation from the Bigstone Cree Nation as part of a land claims agreement with the federal government.[21]

Tribal and regional organizations[edit]

Bands can pool their resources by creating regional councils (often called "Tribal Councils" though they may not represent a tribe in the usual sense) and treaty councils related to one of the three treaties dealing with Alberta. Alberta bands are members of the Athabasca Tribal Council, Confederacy of Treaty 6 First Nations, Four Nations Administration, Kee Tas Kee Now Tribal Council, Lesser Slave Lake Indian Regional Council, North Peace Tribal Council, Treaty 8 First Nations of Alberta, Treaty 7 Management Corporation, Western Cree Tribal Council, and Yellowhead Tribal Council.[8][22]

Indigenous organizations and services[edit]

Agencies are grouped by sectors, including arts and culture, business and economic development, communications and media, education, employment services, family services, friendship centres, health, healing and social services, housing services, legal services, urban organizations, women’s organizations, and youth organizations.[22]

First Nations in Alberta (2019)[edit]

Recognized First Nations band governments in Alberta
Nation Reserves Population (2019)[23]
Total On reserve On other land Off reserve
Alexander First Nation 2,264 1,062 0 1,121
Alexis Nakota Sioux First Nation 2,066 1,171 0 823
Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation 1,303 255 0 1,048
Beaver First Nation 1,147 449 38 660
Beaver Lake Cree Nation Beaver Lake 131 1,210 398 0 776
Bigstone Cree Nation 8,236 3,524 0 4,712
Blood Tribe (Kainai Nation) 12,699 8,751 0 3,948
Chipewyan Prairie First Nation 983 395 0 576
Cold Lake First Nations 2,960 1,322 1 1,637
Dene Tha' First Nation 3,149 2,161 0 988
Driftpile First Nation 2,889 963 51 1,875
Duncan's First Nation 328 144 2 182
Enoch Cree Nation 2,792 1,805 43 944
Ermineskin Cree Nation 4,879 3,290 11 1,578
Fort McKay First Nation 893 421 4 468
Fort McMurray First Nation 860 282 1 577
Frog Lake First Nation 3,391 1,850 0 1,541
Heart Lake First Nation 363 204 0 159
Horse Lake First Nation 1,238 507 0 731
Kapawe'no First Nation 393 130 10 253
Kehewin Cree Nation 2,240 1,183 0 1,057
Little Red River Cree Nation 5,942 4,614 647 681
Loon River First Nation 668 523 14 131
Louis Bull Tribe 2,391 1,638 8 745
Lubicon Lake Band
  • Still being surveyed
715 107 232 376
Mikisew Cree First Nation 3,173 172 492 2,509
Montana First Nation 1,067 725 0 342
O'Chiese First Nation 1,453 926 0 527
Paul First Nation 2,171 1,339 0 832
Peerless Trout First Nation 970 53 755 162
Piikani Nation 3,917 2,451 0 1,466
Saddle Lake Cree Nation 11,006 6,691 0 4,315
Samson Cree Nation 8,947 6,230 13 2,704
Sawridge First Nation 521 42 0 479
Siksika Nation 7,534 4,120 2 3,412
Smith's Landing First Nation 367 163 0 204
Stoney Nakoda First Nation Bearspaw 2,037 1,816 0 221
Chiniki 1,801 1,594 0 207
Wesley 1,818 1,551 2 265
Sturgeon Lake Cree Nation 3,466 1,505 43 1,918
Sucker Creek First Nation 2,930 759 38 2,133
Sunchild First Nation 1,410 819 0 591
Swan River First Nation 1,450 425 0 1,025
Tallcree Tribal Government 1,385 523 1 861
Tsuu T'ina Nation 2,427 2,089 1 337
Whitefish Lake First Nation 2,930 1,299 3 1,628
Woodland Cree First Nation 1,176 814 6 356

See also[edit]



  1. ^ "Registered or Treaty Indian status - National Household Survey (NHS) Dictionary". Retrieved 2018-10-31.
  2. ^ a b c "Table 3 Distribution of First Nations people, First Nations people with and without registered Indian status, and First Nations people with registered Indian status living on or off reserve, Canada, provinces and territories, 2011". Retrieved 2018-10-31.
  3. ^ a b "Figure 1 Ten census metropolitan areas and census agglomerations with the largest Métis populations, 2011". Retrieved 2018-10-31.
  4. ^ Aboriginal Peoples of Alberta 2013, p. 14.
  5. ^ a b Aboriginal Peoples of Alberta 2013, p. 12.
  6. ^ "Blackfoot History". Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump. Alberta Culture. May 22, 2012. Archived from the original on September 3, 2012. Retrieved December 11, 2012. The basic social unit of the Blackfoot, above the family, was the band. Bands among the Peigan varied from about 10 to 30 lodges, or about 80 to 240 persons. Such bands were large enough to defend themselves against attack and to undertake small communal hunts. The band was a residential group rather than a kin group; it consisted of a respected leader, possibly his brothers and parents, and others who need not be related. A person could leave a band and freely join another. Thus, disputes could be settled easily by simply moving to another band. As well, should a band fall upon hard times due to the loss of its leader or a failure in hunting, its members could split–up and join other bands. The system maximized flexibility and was an ideal organization for a hunting people on the Northwestern Plains. Leadership of a band was based on consensus; that is, the leader was chosen because all people recognized his qualities. Such a leader lacked coercive authority over his followers; he led only so long as his followers were willing to be led by him. A leader needed to be a good warrior, but, most importantly, he had to be generous. The Blackfoot despised a miser! Upon the death of a leader, if there was no one to replace him, the band might break up. Bands were constantly forming and breaking–up.
  7. ^ McLead, Neal. (2000), "Plains Cree Identity: Borderlands, Ambiguous Genealogies and Narrative Irony" (PDF), The Canadian Journal of Native Studies, vol. XX, no. 2, archived from the original (PDF) on 2014-10-14, retrieved 2013-04-18
  8. ^ a b c Aboriginal Peoples of Alberta 2013, pp. 18–26.
  9. ^ "Blackfoot Crossing National Historic Site of Canada". Parks Canada. Archived from the original on June 5, 2011. Retrieved October 6, 2010.
  10. ^ "Earth Lodge Village". Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park. Blackfoot Crossing. Archived from the original on July 22, 2014. Retrieved April 7, 2014.
  11. ^ The History of the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation Joseph R. McGeshick, Dennis Smith, James Shanley, Montana Historical Society., pg 14-19
  12. ^ "Beyond Borderlands: Discussion: Aftermath". Archived from the original on 2013-11-01. Retrieved 2013-12-16.
  13. ^ Armtsrong, Christopher; Evenden, Matthew; Nelles, H. V. (2009). The River Returns: An Environmental History of the Bow. Montreal: McGill UP. pp. 26–27.
  14. ^ "Michel Band: Metis Who Left Treaty". Father Lacombe wrote of the Iroquois at the Michel reserve saying their language was almost extinct, replaced by Cree or French
  15. ^ The Beaver Hills Country: A History of Land and Life, Graham A. MacDonald, 2009, Athabasca University Press, p 17.
  16. ^ "Suffering (1870s)". The Story of Treaty Six. Living Sky School Division No. 202. Archived from the original on 2014-03-06. The Blackfoot and the Cree were fighting to gain control of the Cypress Hills boundaries and in the fall of 1870 there was a battle between them called the "Battle of Belly River." Big Bear and Little Pine led the Cree's and attacked a Blood First Nations camp. The next day, well armed Peigans entered the battle and defeated the Cree, approximately 200-400 Crees died in the battle. Eventually the Cree and Blackfoot negotiated peace and access to the Cypress hills." (Dodson 14)
  17. ^ Michel Hogue, "Disputing the Medicine Line: The Plains Crees and the Canadian-American Border, 1876–1885" Archived 2014-02-23 at the Wayback Machine, Montana The Magazine of Western History, 52 (Winter 2002), Montana Historical Society, pp 2–17.
  18. ^ "First Nations in Alberta". 2010-09-15. Retrieved 2014-02-26. [Note 1] The Saddle Lake First Nation and Whitefish Lake (Goodfish) First Nation are administered separately but are consider one band under the Indian Act
  19. ^ "First Nations in Alberta". 2010-09-15. Retrieved 2014-02-26.
  20. ^ "Harper Government Continues to Invest in First Nation Education". 2013-03-23. Archived from the original on 2014-04-07. Retrieved 2014-04-01. The Stoney Tribe, located approximately 60 kilometres west of Calgary, consists of three First Nations: Bearspaw, Chiniki and Wesley.
  21. ^ "A New Beginning for Bigstone Cree & Peerless Trout First Nations". 2012-07-09. Retrieved 2014-02-26.
  22. ^ a b Guide to Aboriginal organizations and services in Alberta. First Nations and Metis Relations. Edmonton, Alberta. 2015. p. 66. ISBN 978-0-7785-9868-8. {{cite book}}: |work= ignored (help)CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  23. ^ "First Nation Profiles". Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada. 14 November 2008. Retrieved September 10, 2019.