January 24th, 2021

Remembering great battle of 1870

By Lethbridge Herald Opinon on October 1, 2020.

Historical site offers tourism potential

for Lethbridge

David B. Carpenter


Oct. 25 of this year will mark the sesquicentennial of the “The Battle of Belly River,” the last great inter-tribal battle to be fought in the world. To put this in perspective, this was only three years after Canadian confederation and a full 15 years before Lethbridge was inhabited, although Nicholas Sheran was just starting to prospect for gold in this area.

When a Cree and Assiniboine war party launched a surprise attack upon tribes of the Blackfoot confederacy, a major battle erupted in the area now known as North Bull Trail Park in the City of Lethbridge. The area where this battle was fought is recognized provincially as an Alberta Historical Resource and federally as a National Historic Event under the Historic Sites and Monuments Act.

I have reviewed “The Last Indian Battle” by the Archaeological Society of Alberta, Lethbridge Centre; excerpts from “The Battle at Belly River” by the late Dr. Alexander Johnston, Lethbridge’s pre-eminent historian; “The Battle of Belly River in the Great White North” by Hammerson Peters as well as a tracing by Henry R. Anderson from the Archaeological Society of Alberta of a map drawn by my father which indicates the flow of the warring factions, the location on the southern rim of Indian Battle Coulee of recovered shells and casings as well as cairns constructed to mark where some of the Blackfoot warriors had fallen.

Approximately 680 hours were spent detailing these five small sites almost 45 years ago but resources did not exist at that time to investigate the balance of the war zone to the north. Over the past several decades I have gone out to the identified cairn sites every few years to ensure that they had not been disturbed or taken as souvenirs and I am happy to report as of June 6, no looting or vandalism has taken place on the sites of which I am aware.

The story itself is fascinating, including ravages of a smallpox epidemic; a supernatural warning given to a venerated Cree chieftain; the avarice and opportunism of the youth leading up to the attack; the courage of a small boy whose entire family had just been killed; the power and fury of a threatened Blackfoot woman who took out four enemy warriors using only a hand weapon; the acumen of a legendary scout; the military skill of the leadership on both sides; and, most importantly, the ability to eventually smoke the pipe of peace to forever end this war of wars, something which our society has been unable to accomplish. For many years, to encourage the preservation of the area, the City of Lethbridge has restricted vehicular access to the site, including mountain bicycles, which might damage remaining artifacts.

Documentation indicates that the Cree took up their positions in Indian Battle Coulee in the area designated this year as the Deer Trail mountain biking trail by Lethbridge City Council. The Bloods were advancing toward the Belly River (now called the Oldman) in the coulee to the north which was also designated this year as the Track II mountain biking trail by Lethbridge City Council. Because the Blood flank would be open to Cree attack, they eventually worked their way around to the south and joined the Peigan. With superior weaponry (repeating rifles) obtained from American traders as surplus from their civil war, the Blackfoot confederacy admirably defended their territory.

While the tracing indicates the location of the cairns where some of the Blackfoot warriors likely fell, it does not mark the location of cairns to the north where the Bloods would have fallen and are now used as mountain biking trails. My wife has witnessed mountain bikers excavating on these trails to enhance their pleasure and I am wondering if Lethbridge City Council has done any review to ensure that no civic, provincial, national or aboriginal historical resource will be harmed by their decision to allow mountain biking in this area.

Finally, I am aware that Lethbridge has been searching for a natural advantage to promote tourism and economic development in our city, something which might give us an advantage over anywhere else on the continent. Additionally, I have also noticed that there has been a strong movement to respect and acknowledge the heritage of the Blackfoot First Nation who preceeded us. There was even a flag-raising at city hall recently. The possibilities of this site, properly preserved, are limitless. I see graduate students closely examining the sites, possibly an interpretive centre providing native employment and carefully guided tours. I leave it to our elected representatives to ascertain whether now is the time to capitalize on the opportunity and to commence the process of healing and respect. If now is not that time, so be it. But please do not continue to allow the sites and the opportunities to be destroyed.

My father was a lifelong policeman and a shrewd judge of character. He once told me that if a person said one thing, but actually did something contradictory, that I should believe what they did and not believe what they said. Raising a flag is a wonderful way for city council to say something. I have personally provided this information to every member of city council months ago and now I am wondering what they will actually do.

David Carpenter served as mayor of Lethbridge from 1986 to 2001. He received the Blackfoot name Piita Poot-Ta (Flying Eagle) in a special ceremony in June 2001.

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