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The first women: Southern Alberta native women before 1900 (1).

History has not been kind to women--Indian, (2) mixed-blood, or white. It has usually, followed a men's agenda of war, politics, and business. Since women's contributions to living conditions over the years have often followed different paths than men, much of women's work has been largely ignored, unless in a general way.

Although Indian, mixed-blood and Metis women in the 1800s were an integral part of the prairie way of life, one must search hard to find histories that deal with individuals. Even when you ferret out some interesting women, the history itself is sketchy, ignoring birth and death dates, sometimes even names.

Women successful in their own right

Take the part Indian women have played in the politics of their people. Old Sun was a leading Blackfoot chief in the 1870s and one of his wives became an exception to this rule. Although women were the workers they were seldom asked for advice and were not allowed to stand equally with men. However exceptional bravery was recognized. When Old Sun's wife was captured and swung up behind the Gros Ventre warrior who was taking her prisoner, she drew the scalping-knife from his belt and stabbed him to death. Although her name was not recorded she was held in such honour for this action that she was given the right to sit in the councils of the chiefs. (3)

Probably the most well known Indian woman who made the greatest difference to her people was Holy Snake Woman (Natuyitsixina), (4) commonly called Natawista or Natty. Her marriage to Alexander Culbertson, the leading fur trader at Fort Benton in the 1840s changed the fortunes of her Fish Eaters clan of the Bloods, making them the most prominent and richest group from that time forward. She was a beautiful Blood woman, the daughter of Two Suns (Stookyatosi), a chief who was also called the Father of All Children. She was the spoiled younger sister of Seen From Afar (Peenaquim) another chief of note, and the aunt of Red Crow (Mekaisto), She was probably born about 1825 in what was to become Alberta. Her tribe roamed the prairies of Alberta and Montana.

Culbertson had to wait a year after meeting her to marry her and paid a tremendous dowry of lavish gilts to her tribe. She was half Culbertson's age, just fifteen. Although there is a question as to whether she ever learned to speak English, she understood it and became a political force to be reckoned with. She was influential in trail building through the area. She presided with her husband over lavish parties and travelled with him to Illinois where they resided for a time. They had five children. In Culbertson's later life he developed gambling and drinking problems and Natawista left him in 1870 to return to the Bloods in Alberta. She then married former whisky trader Fred Kanouse for a short time and lived in Fort Macleod. During these years her dress is described as a large figured chintz just short enough to show the gorgeous stripes of a balmoral petticoat under which her small feet were clad in moccasins. (5) She lived her final years on the Blood Reserve where she died at Standoff 14 June 1893.

Another Blood Indian woman, Angry Walking Towards You, (Miksiksipoksapowowa)(6) was commonly called Revenge Walker. She also came from the Fish Eaters band. Her half brother was Red Crow, the most powerful chief of the late 1800s. She had a bitter feud with him for many reasons, one being that she had backed her brother Sheep Old Man to become chief but he was passed over in favour of Red Crow.

Revenge Walker was a force to be reckoned with. Although no picture remains of her, she is described as a manly-hearted woman who could ride and shoot like a man. At one time she had a quarrel with Red Crow and rode over to his camp to settle it. When he was not there, she started shooting his horses. This strong-minded woman ranged over the southern prairies but camped often in the Oldman River valley which was to become Coal Banks, and later the genesis of Lethbridge.

She was an enigma. Although Revenge Walker was a fierce woman she married the trader D. W. Davis, the former head of Lethbridge's Fort Whoop-Up, to protect her brother Not Real Good who was ill and in need of medical attention. She and Davis, later the head of the Baker trading interests in Fort Macleod, had five children. Once she was established there Red Crow made amends with her. The open hostility was at an end.

When white women started coming west, Davis sent Revenge Walker back to her reserve and married a white school teacher. One account says that Revenge Walker died soon after her youngest children, the twins, were born. Another says that she returned to the reserve where most of her children were raised by others. A third version is she married a man named Falling Over a Bank and had one son.

The law and Indian women's rights

Mary Brown, whose Native name was White Tailed Deer Woman (Awatoyakew), (7) is an example of how little women's rights were upheld by white society. She was the wife of Nicholas Sheran, Lethbridge's first coal miner. A full-blooded South Peigan she moved to Lethbridge with Sheran where they lived as man and wife. On 4 February 1880 their first son, Charles, was born and by 1882 Mary was expecting a second child. On 26 May 1882 Nicholas Sheran drowned at Kipp's Crossing on the Oldman River. It was not until a couple of days later that Mary learned of his death.

In November of that year she had her second son, William. Sheran's sister, Marcella McFarland, took the boys and had them baptized in the Roman Catholic faith. She then sent them to the St. Albert orphanage near Edmonton. The widow, who was given no financial support, returned to her people on the reserve.

When Nicholas Sheran's estate was settled, the rights of Mary and the boys were set aside because the judge said there was no evidence of either an Indian or a white marriage. Mary and her Sheran boys never received any share of Sheran's estate.

Indian women remembered because of male relatives

Some Indian women were notable because of their connections to a famous male, such as Red Crow. He was born in 1830 into a family of chiefs, having been preceded by both his father, Black Bear (Kyiosiksinum) and grandfather, Two Suns. Red Crow's mother, Handsome Woman, was the first female in his life. (8) She was one of Black Bear's wives and Red Crow was her only son. Not much more is known of her.

Red Crow had two full sisters and several half sisters. Revenge Walker, a half-sister has already been mentioned as has his aunt, Natawista. Red Crow had ten wives in his lifetime, not all of whom are remembered by name. He married his first two in his early twenties. The Blackfoot confederacy, which includes the Bloods, Blackfoot, and Peigans, were a polygamous people. Water Bird (Ohkipiksew), a daughter of the great warrior leader Calf Shirt, was Red Crow's first wife. They were married during the mid-1850s. It was a union of two wealthy and political families. She became his main wife or "sits beside him" woman. She was shot and mortally wounded by a relative of Red Crow during a drunken orgy.

His second wife was never named and only referred to as Sun Old Man's daughter. This is interesting because she convinced Red Crow to adopt her younger brother and he became the chief's favourite son. He was named Crop Eared Wolf.

By 1880 Red Crow had six wives: Spear Woman (Sapapistatisaki), The Shield, Many Fingers, Pretty Woman (Anaohkitsi), Longtime Pipe Woman (Misumakoyinmaki) and Lazy Woman. Later he married Singing Before Woman (Ikaenikiwaki) who was twenty-two years younger than he was. She became his favourite wife and mistress of his household. Not much is known about these women individually. Collectively they tanned hides, fed the family and the young men who were hired as herders of Red Crow's many horses, put up and took down tipis, and did all the menial work in the chief's camp. Red Crow was a stern disciplinarian, severe to his wives and children.

Red Crow had few daughters who reached maturity despite his many wives. His wife Many Fingers, who died in 1893, had three surviving daughters. Her mother, Beaver Woman, took them back to the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana but none reached adulthood. Pretty Woman had a daughter, Jane, but she died in 1886 and Pretty Woman returned to her people in Montana. Only three other daughters reached adulthood. The oldest was Shaggy Hair Woman, born in 1858, who married No Chief and became one of the tribe's holy women. Crow Woman, a daughter, married Many Mules. Ground Diving Woman was Red Crow's daughter born in 1868. She was a strong-willed child who married John MacDougall, then Jack Wagner, and eventually moved to Montana.

Another great chief, Crowfoot, (9) the famous Blackfoot leader of Treaty Seven, also had ten wives, although there were seldom more than three or four in his household at a time.

Only seven of his wives are named. Crowfoot was born a Blood about 1830 and his first female influence was his mother Attacked Toward Home (Axkyahpsaypi). Neither of his Blood parents were wealthy and when his father" was killed while Crowfoot was still a child he was raised by his grandfather, Scabby Bull.

When Crowfoot was about five his mother married again. She intended to leave him with the Bloods but when she left with her Blackfoot husband the child would not stay. He followed his mother's and stepfather's horses to Blackfoot land. Although Crowfoot had been born along the Belly River flats he spent most of his life around Blackfoot Crossing with his step-father's people.

Crowfoot's recorded wives' names were Cutting Woman (Sisoyaki), Cloth Woman (Nipistaiaki), Packs on her Back (Ayistsi), Prairie Woman (Sowkipiaki), Killed the Enemy with His Own Gun (Awatohtsinik), Going Out to Meet the Victors (Piotskini), and Paper Woman (Asinaki). The more wives a man possessed, the greater was his wealth.

At the same time a man needed to be rich to support more than one or two wives, as each additional person meant more horses to carry the belongings and more food to be secured. Crowfoot had two tipis, one of thirty skins, where he, his wives, his old mother and children lived. This structure took two horses to move. An ordinary tipi was twelve skins. We know even less about Crowfoot's wives than those of Red Crow.

Cutting Woman was a Blackfoot whom Crowfoot married as a young man. She was always his favourite wife who sat beside him in his lodge and went with him on visits to other tribes. The only other wife we know a little about is Paper Woman who married Crowfoot in 1886. She was a half-sister to Red Crow. After Crowfoot's death she asked A. G. Irvine, the Blood Indian agent, if she could be transferred back to her people, the Bloods, in 1892.

Despite his numerous wives, Crowfoot had relatively few children. Only three daughters reached maturity, Charged Ahead, Little Woman, and First Beaver. Little Woman outlived the other two by many years, dying in the early 1940s.

Mixed-blood and Metis women

One of the first mixed-blood women to reside in southern Alberta was Harriet (Leblanc) Gladstone, (10) the wife of William James Shanks Gladstone. He had married her on 4 May 1855 at Edmonton House while working for the Hudson's Bay Company. During their first years of marriage the couple lived in and around Fort Edmonton. Harriet saved Gladstone's life at least twice. Once he broke through the ice in a lake and Harriet, with a long rope around her waist, was able to rescue him. Then in 1861 an American got into an argument with Gladstone over food and was about to shoot him when Harriet used an axe to knock the pistol out of the American's hand. The family moved to Montana in 1864 and then to southern Alberta in 1871 as Gladstone became the builder of the second Fort Whoop-Up.

After working as a carpenter in the Fort Macleod area, following the whisky trading days, Gladstone moved Harriet and their children to Mountain Mill, close to Pincher Creek. He thought the Mounted Police settlement at Fort Macleod was too worldly for his family. Of their ten children, six were girls. Elizabeth, Sarah, Prudence, and Ellen all died before they were five years old. Mary grew up and married a former North-West Mounted policeman. Harriet, the other daughter, who was born in Rocky Mountain House in 1859, had five male companions at various times. The last was Slapped Face, a member of the Blood tribe. Harriet became the mother of James Gladstone who became Canada's first Indian Senator.

Another woman of native-white ancestry who came to southern Alberta about 1877 was Rosie (Smith/Healy) Davis, (11) a Blood Indian whose father Charley Smith, a Norwegian. Rosie was brought back to Alberta after being born in Montana.

Her mother, Double Gun Woman (Topitkini), married a Blood Indian named Joe Healy, the adopted Indian son of Johnny Healy. Rosie married Charlie Davis, a son of Revenge Walker and D. W. Davis. She was in southern Alberta daring the whisky trading days, dying 8 March 1983, giving her age as 109. Her actual birth date is hard to determine since conflicting ones have been given. She said in an interview with a Lethbridge paper that she was born in 1877, the year Treaty Seven was signed. Her birthday appears on local treaty lists as 1880 but these could be out as much as six years. She and her husband had five children. Charley Smith who came to Canada in 1877 married Marie Rose Delorme (12) when she was only sixteen. The Smiths eventually settled in the Pincher Creek area. Marie Rose became the mother of seventeen children but only four of them outlived her. She died in 1960, forty-six years after the death of her husband. Her daughter, Marie Helene (Smith) Parfitt, born in the Pincher Creek area in 1892, lived to the age of 105.

Another Metis girl, Olive Lyonnais, came to southern Alberta in 1878, the first wife of John George "Kootenai" Brown. He was working for the United States army in the Dakota Territory when he met this young beautiful girl whom he married on 26 September 1869. (13) The Browns lived first in the Dakotas, then moved to Montana, and then to Canada in 1878. The family, which included two daughters, settled in the Waterton Lakes area. They lived much like the Metis did except they had little company. Brown hunted in the mountains and prairie. Olive cooked, sewed, looked after the children, and helped prepare animal skins. During one of Brown's trips, Olive died following the birth of their son, Leo. Marie Rose Smith, a friend of Olive's, felt that her death was related to neglect on Brown's part. Little has been recorded about the daughters. The son grew to manhood.

Women who married whisky traders

Of the four hundred whisky traders estimated to have been in southern Alberta between 1870 and 1874, historian Hugh Dempsey reports that at least forty-eight had children by Indian wives. Not many of these females are named. The liaisons were all different and varied from a few weeks to lifetime relationships. Many of the traders took "winter wives" from the tribes to further business interests. One of these was John Jerome Healy, a partner in the most notorious whisky post, Fort Whoop-Up. In his first winter of trading, 1870, he married Many Spotted Horses' daughter or sister, although he already had a white wife in Sun River. (14) On the other hand his partner Alf Hamilton married Lucy, a South Peigan woman, a partnership which lasted long after the whisky-trading days. Dave Akers, who became the proprietor of Fort Whoop-Up after the NWMP arrived, claimed to have married thirty-one Blood Indian wives. He liked them between sixteen and eighteen years of age. He still has descendants on the Blood Reserve today. Fred Kanouse liked to brag about his marriages. He once told Cecil Denny, a former mounted policeman, that "the squaw he then had was Number 57."

George Houk, also a trader who later became a legitimate liquor merchant in Lethbridge, had a long-time relationship with his second wife, Victoria (Bruno) Houk. She is an excellent example of the cavalier way in which women's history was recorded in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Victoria was a well-known figure around Lethbridge and appears on the 1891 city census, yet almost everything we know about her is defined through her husband. George married her 19 April 1884 in Fort Benton when she was twenty-two and he was thirty-six. Houk's history says that he was devoted to her. She and Houk had four children but no names, no gender, birth, death, funeral, or burial places were recorded. Even Victoria's death date and place of burial is not recorded, only a mention that after her death, George lost his interest in living.

Much is still to be uncovered about these Indian wives. But that is another story.


(1) The information for this article is taken from a book of the same name being written by Georgia Green Fooks, planned for publication in late fall 2003.

(2) Throughout this article I will use the term "Indian" to describe native women since the people we are writing about are historical figures and that is what was used most often in things written about them at the Lime. I realize that "Indian" is not always the most popular choice. Today some of the names used more often are aboriginals, indigenous people, natives and first nations The local people are also referred to by particular tribal names such as Bloods, Blackfoot and Peigans. In the interest of uniformity I have decided to go with the historical name, hoping it will be accepted in the sense it is used.

(3) Kelly, Leroy Victor, The Range Men: The Story of the Ranchers and Indians of Alberta. (Toronto, ON: Coles Publishing Company Limited, 1980).

(4) Holterman, Jack, King of the High Missouri: The Saga of the Culbertsons. (Helena, MT: Falcon Press Publishing Co Inc., 1987). Spellings of Indian names vary in books of the period. I have used only one version and have not included the hyphens that appear in some histories,

(5) Nevitt, R. B., A Winter at Fort Macleod. (Calgary: Glenbow Museum, 1974).

(6) Goldfrank, Esther S., Changing Configurations in the Social Organization of a Blackfoot Tribe During the Reserve Period. (New York: J. J. Augustin, 1945) Although some of these women appear in more than one source, I have only used one for the article in the interest of space.

(7) Johnston, Alex, "Nicholas & Marcella Sheran: Lethbridge's First Citizens," Alberta History, Autumn 1983, vol. 31, no 4, 1-10)

(8) Dempsey, Hugh A, Red Crow, Warrior Chief (Saskatoon, Sask.: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1980).

(9) Dempsey, Hugh A, Crowfoot Chief of the Blackfeet (Edmonton: Hurtig Publishers, 1972).

(10) Dempsey, Hugh A., The Gentle Persuader. A Biography of James Gladstone, Indian Senator. (Saskatoon, Sask: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1986).

(11) The Lethbridge Herald, Saturday, 6 November 1976, 13. Jock Carpenter who wrote the history of her grandmother, Rose Marie (Desmarais) Smith, said Charley Smith, who later married the Metis woman, was also the father of Rosie.

(12) Carpenter, Jock, Fifty Dollar Bride Marie Rose Smith--A Chronicle of Metis Life, in the 19th Century. (Sidney, B. C.: Gray's Publishing Ltd., 1977).

(13) Rodney, William, Kootenai Brown: his life and times (Sidney, B. C.: Gray's Publishing Ltd., 1969).

(14) Dempsey, Hugh A., Firewater: the Impact of the Whisky Trade on the Blackfoot Nation, (Calgary: Fifth House Ltd., 2002).

Beef Rationing on the Blood Reserve

A representative of the Gazette witnessed a recent issue, and the following is the way the business is done:

The cattle are first driven into an inner corral, 30 feet square. This corral has boarded walls eight feet high, and has flooring of three inch plank. At the south-west corner is a door, through which the quarters of beef are carried to the ration house. Through a trap door, the paunches and entrails are taken out to be cleaned, the latter being given to the women for cleaning the paunch. The paunch is issued as a tidbit and the intestines are not taken into the ration house at all.

The cattle are shot in the corral and bled, the contractor's men engaging Indians to skin the animals. The beef is then placed on hand barrows, and carried to the scale in the ration house, which is a pine log building, 40 x 20 feet, with a shingled roof, and plank floor. In the centre of this house is a bench made of logs, raised about 18 inches from the floor, 18 feet long, and six feet wide. On this the beef is cut up into pieces, varying from one to five pounds. These pieces are placed on a raised counter at one end of the building, where the scales are situated, and is issued to the Indians as they present their tickets.

After the slaughtering, the corral is thoroughly swept out, and sprinkled with dry lime, in the absence of water. The ration house is also cleaned up in the same way after each issue. It is the intention of the Agent, Mr. Pocklington, to sink wells at both places, so that they can be washed after using. The work appeared to be thoroughly well done, and altogether the work at the new agency is done most systematically.

--Fort Macleod Gazette, August 29, 1884

Georgia Green Fooks taught at the Lethbridge Community College for 24 years. She has also been a newspaper reporter, public relations practitioner, business woman, and television personality. Besides numerous magazine articles, a newspaper column and television scripts, her books include:

Fort Whoop-Up: Alberta's First and Most Notorious Whisky Fort (1983); Lethbridge: Portraits of the Past (1988); Lethbridge Community College: The First 25 Years (1993); Robert Livingstone: 43 Years as Lethbridge Mine Manager. General Manager and Superintendent (1994); Dr. Charles Sherwood Noble: "Alberta's Most Famous Farmer-inventor," (1995); Pioneers by Train to Alberta Plains, ed. (1995); and Prairie Prisoners: POWs in Lethbridge During Two World Conflicts (2002 & 2003).
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Author:Fooks, Georgia Green
Publication:Alberta History
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Sep 22, 2003
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