A Slow Death
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A Native Tragedy
A Slow Death
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A Slow Death
Starvation seizes the once-might prairies tribes and forces them to turn to Ottawa for food.
Near the end of the century, natives were starving on the prairies and the Canadian government showed little compassion for their plight.
During the winter of 1883-84, an estimated one in ten of the plains Indians died of malnutrition and disease. Near one reserve the bodies of more than 50 dead were strung up in trees, following the native custom in the area. (As portrayed in Canada: A Peo
During the winter of 1883-84, an estimated one in ten of the plains Indians died of malnutrition and disease. Near one reserve the bodies of more than 50 dead were strung up in trees, following the native custom in the area. (As portrayed in Canada: A People's History)

During the winter of 1883-84, an estimated 10% of the plains Indians died of malnutrition and disease.

The slaughter of millions of buffalo by fur traders, hunters and natives in the preceding years had robbed the tribes of their lifeblood.

"Our big game is no more," said Cree chief Big Bear. "You now own millions of acres - and we have no food. ...We cannot work. We are tired. Feed us until we recoup our wasted bodies ... We are hungry."

A Winnipeg reporter described the death toll near one reserve during this period:

"The bodies of the dead were strung up in trees as is the Indian custom. Spring found some fifty or more ghastly corpses dangling from limbs of trees surrounding the tepees of the remaining members of the band"

Augustus Jukes, a North West Mounted Police doctor, toured their encampments and described the conditions.

"The disappearance of the buffalo has left them not only without food, but also without robes, moccasins and adequate tents or 'tepees' to shield them from the inclemency of the impending winter. Few of their lodges are of buffalo hide, the majority being of cotton only, and many of these in the most rotten and dilapidated condition... Their clothing for the most part was miserable and scanty in the extreme... It would indeed be difficult to exaggerate their extreme wretchedness and need, or the urgent necessity which exists from some prompt and sufficient provision being made for them by the government."

With the buffalo gone, the plains Indians depended on government rations. Many natives had agreed to sign the plains treaties in the 1870s believing the government would take care of the them in times famine.
Some plains natives tried farming the land but with no tools and little government support, the ventures failed. (Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada)
Some plains natives tried farming the land but with no tools and little government support, the ventures failed. (Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada)

But federal help proved inconsistent especially if the government had other problems at hand.

In the early 1880s, John A. Macdonald was looking for ways to cut back on expenditures during an economic downturn. The deputy-superintendent of Indian Affairs, Lawrence Vankoughnet, toured the western reserves and wrote to Macdonald, "Careful consideration after personally visiting localities convinced me that there has been much needless expenditure."

Vankoughnet proposed cutting rations. The local Indians agents (non-native government representative) and NWMP argued against such a disastrous policy, but soon their discretionary power was reduced and centralized in Ottawa.

Some natives tried farming the land but with no tools and little of the support promised in the treaties, the ventures failed.

"We try to do what the farm instructor has told us and we are doing the best we can but we need farm implements," said Cree chief Crowfoot. "I speak for my children and grandchildren who will starve if they do not receive the help that they so much need."


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Treaties Signal End

Current Topic:
A Slow Death

The Whiskey Trade
Liquor comes to the native world and brings addiction and death.
read more ...

Buffalo Slaughter
Greed kills the magnificent prairie beast and changes native life forever
read more ...

Treaties Signal End
Natives sign over the land and watch a way of life slip away.
read more ...

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