Fort Whoop Up National Historic Site
Lethbridge, Alberta

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Ksiitsikominaa: The Thunder Chief Gallery



Exhibit Summary

The Kainai derives from the word aka "many" and ninaa "chief." They were originally known as the Weasel people - Aa pai tsi tapi "Weasel" and Niitsitapi "people." In southwestern Alberta, they are also known as the Bloods.

The term "Blood" was derived from the Cree word Mih-Kwee-ye-ne-week, meaning "Blood people" or "Red People' because of the red coloring uses by the tribe for ceremonial purposes.

The Kainai are a division of the Blackfoot Confederacy that is comprised of three tribes of Southern Alberta, and one tribe of Northern Montana. The Canadian tribes include the Piikani (North Peigan) and the Siksika (Blackfoot). The international boundary, coupled with post-contact events of the 1870s, further divided the Piikani people, creating the South Piikanni (the South Piegan), known in the United States as the Blackfeet Tribe of Montana. The Kainai, with other bands of the Confederacy, signed Treaty Number Seven with the Canadian government on September 22, 1877. By virtue of proximity, the bands of the Tsuu T'ina (Sarcee) and the Stoney (Nakoda) were incorporated within the terms of Treaty Number Seven. Those terms situated the Kainai on the Blood Reserve (the largest in Canada) of what is now southwest Alberta, where members of the band live today as a modern community of over 12,000.

The Blackfoot have always been known as skilled artisans. The early traders noticed the elaborate colorful, attractive designs using natural resources on their clothing and equipment, and later the use of the most common manufactured household objects and trade beads using traditional methods combined with primitive tools as well as those traded by the white traders.

Like all First Nations, the Blackfoot adapted European made materials to use in their everyday lives in a traditional manner despite materials introduced by new cultures. Such objects even became part of ceremonial activities and in bundles. Although designs and methodologies of other bands are similar, differences in detail, give each a distinct tribal character. During the later period of the fur trade and early reservation period, tribal character became largely blurred as designs and traditions were traded to be implemented intertribal or simply taken as spoils of war or trophies. In a generation prior to this, an enemy could be identified by the style and design of attire. Even traders were cautious not to wear any design or item specific to another tribe- especially if they were an enemy of those you now wished to engage in trade with. By the mid 1870's this was no longer the case. Tradition gave way to fashion and design.

The late Leo Day Chief, an elder and a talented artist from the Weasel Tribe, is the Great-Great Grand Son of Thunder Chief. He created, in the traditional manner, a collection consisting of approximately 50 ceremonial and traditional items. Each piece is authentic and has an oral history. He felt that this collection was important in educating both his own people and those unfamiliar with the Blackfoot Culture by sharing the Day Chief (Thunder Chief) family history and other traditional and cultural knowledge using these objects as and aid. To some members of the Blackfoot community this approach could be viewed as disrespectful and braggadocio as some aspects of life long learning and societal interaction are viewed as personal, only to be truly understood by experiencing these aspects first hand. Leo was very cognizant of this but he was also well aware of the erosion of Blackfoot culture and ceremonial practice and felt there was a middle ground in which the "Blackfoot Way of Knowing" could be shared by creating the Thunder Chief Gallery.

Leo's collection represents the history of the Kainai, and describes Leo's family history, his ancestor's and spiritual path. The Blackfoot objects range from ceremonial to traditional items. The collection preserves traditional and cultural beliefs through such artifacts and oral legends.

This approach has been instrumental in securing significant additional Plains Culture Materials from both the Glenbow Museum (Calgary) the Williams Family (Kainai) as well as several smaller accessions attributed to the Blackfoot community. Many of the Glenbow items are uncertain in their origins, collected in the 1950s most likely of the Plains tribes, and certainly items that may have come into the Blackfoot community during the later part of the fur trade period through trade and warfare.

The collection resides as the Ksiitsikominaa-Thunder Chief Gallery at Fort Whoop-Up National Historic Site in Lethbridge, Alberta.

"Please keep in mind that most of these objects are replicas - although people have approached me to share their experience with this collection and how they felt a presence during a tour. From my point of view, I can honestly say that these items deliver a strong message, and yes, on occasion, I would notice and feel a presence as well. In my imagination, I connect it to Thunder Chief himself, as this story is about him and his family."

-Leo Day Chief

Acknowledgements: The Blackfoot Societies represented by this collection is significant. The Fort Whoop-Up Interpretive Society sincerely appreciates our donors and the guidance of our Blackfoot Elders and tribal members in presenting this exhibit. The presence and accumulation of this collection is based upon traditional values of the Blackfoot way of life - "siksikatsitapipaitapiiwahsini" - as communicated by various Blackfoot community elders and members to the Fort Whoop-Up Interpretive Society, particularly Executive Director Doran Degenstein (Akahtsi - Gambler) who follows "siksikatsitapipaitapiiwahsini" and the lifelong journey of learning. The acceptance of Akahtsi into Blackfoot society and family structure has resulted in the accumulation of a collection that does not subscribe to standard museum policy and is primarily subject to Blackfoot protocols of transferred rights and custody of certain objects within the collection that are considered "siksikaitsitapi." Particularly items within the collection attributed to the Thunder Chief and Williams family are considered transfers, while additional accretions from the Glenbow Museum and other sources are treated with the respect and protocols as transfers. The desire of Leo was for all to experience just enough of First Nations life by interacting with the exhibits and Blackfoot community members who are often available to interpret, and to further discussion and learning with relationship on other items in the collection with those that have the knowledge and status to do so.


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