Snapshots of Canada’s Past: History is more than just words on a screen or from a textbook; this series is a thematic look back at Canadian history through visual imagery.
Did you know studio photography was all the rage back in the 1880s? Yup, the above photo is authentic and not a historical recreation. The photographer, Alexander J. Ross (1851-1894), captured many different First Nations men and women on film between 1884-1891. This post takes a look at Ross’ photographic career and the history of the Siksika Nation at large, as he took the most photos of them.
The Siksika Nation are located in southern Alberta. They are one third of the Blackfoot Confederacy. Historically, their territory stretched across modern-day Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Montana. Prior to the 1800s, Siksika was made up of thirty-six clans and their population was around 18,000. They were buffalo hunters and warriors and often found themselves at odds with other Nations like Cree and Assiniboine.
Many changes brought about by European settlement negatively affected the Siksika over the course of the 19th century: raids, wars, diseases, famine, the introduction of the the first Indian Act (1876), the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway right through one of their reserves, the list goes on. In addition, ongoing conflicts with neighbouring First Nations like the Cree added to the hardships the Blackfoot Confederacy faced. Fortunately, the warfare ended following the Battle of Belly River (1870), the last First Nations battle to occur on Canadian soil. Spoiler: The Blackfoot Confederacy won. Afterwards, Chief Crowfoot, the leader of the Siksika, finalized a peace deal with the Cree. Later, he also signed Treaty 7 along with other First Nations leaders and the Crown. This established a reserve to the east of Calgary called Blackfoot Crossing. As of 2014, their population sits at 7,000.
As for Alexander J. Ross, he is best known for his 1885 picture, Last Spike of the Canadian Pacific Railway (shown above). Unfortunately, not too much is known about the life of Ross. Originally a Winnipeg-based photographer, he moved to Calgary and created his own photography studio in his early 30s. Studio photography was becoming big business around this time as it negated the risks of outdoor photography and enabled people to take family pictures. While in Calgary, Ross became interested in nearby First Nations and began to take many pictures of them. Aside from Siksika, he also took pictures of the Sacree Nation (now known as the Tsuu T’ina).
His biggest competition at the time was fellow photographer, William Hanson Borne, who also took prolific pictures of First Nations men and women near Calgary. According to historians, both men were aware that they were “recording a significant transitional period in history” and so both of their pictures “captured the forceful dignity of their First Nations subjects.” (Cavell, p. 34). Sadly, Ross’ career and life were short though. In 1891, Ross suddenly shut down his photography studio for undisclosed reasons and he died three years later at the age of 43.
The Glenbow Museum, Archives Photographs.
Anorak, “Vintage Photos Of Canada’s First Nations People (1880s)” Flashbak, Alum Media Ltd. 2016. Accessed from: http://flashbak.com/vintage-photos-of-canadas-first-nations-people-1880s-50475/ (Please note, all the above photos can be seen in HD here).
Cavell, Edward, Classic Images of Canada’s First Nations: 1850-1920, Heritage House Publishing Co, 2009.
Gallagher, Paul, “Stunning Vintage Portraits of Canada’s First Nation People,” Dangerous Minds. Accessed from here.
Dempsey, Hugh A and Parrott, Zach, “Siksika (Blackfoot)” The Canadian Encyclopedia. Accessed from: http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/blackfoot-siksika/
Wolf Leg, Clarence, “History of Siksika Nation,” Siksika Nation Administration. 2014. Accessed from: http://siksikanation.com/wp/history/