Before contact with Europeans and before horses arrived on the plains from the south, the First Nations people of what is now the prairies of western Canada lived primarily semi-sedentary lives, depending on the wealth of native plant foods available and on hunting seasonally the vast, but now vanished, herds of plains bison. Many people today imagine erroneously that the First Nations of the prairie were nomadic horse-people who followed the bison herds. So it may be quite surprising that the remains of a pre-contact fortified village are located on the bank of the Bow River east and a little south of the modern Canadian city of Calgary.
The Cluny Earthlodge Village archaeological site is situated in a slightly wooded area of the Blackfoot Reservation, south of the small Alberta town of Cluny. The village was built near to a major ford of the Bow river now known as Si-oh-pi-qui, the Ridge Under Water, and, to non-natives, Blackfoot Crossing. This was the site of the signing of Treaty Number 7 in 1873 between the British Crown and the First Nations of the future province of Alberta. Today there is a cairn on the bluff above the crossing and the earthlodge village. The cairn has a plaque commemorating the signing of Treaty Number 7, but there is nothing to indicate the presence of the archaeological site.
The earliest European description of a visit to the earthlodge village was recorded in the 1920s by Sir Cecil Denny who, at the time, was the archivist for the Alberta government. He described his visit to Si-oh-pi-qui in 1875 during which Running Rabbit, a Blackfoot, told him of the remains of ancient houses nearby.
The Indians... brought me to a place among a dense growth of brush with trees growing on it where at one time extensive earthworks once stood. The bank of this work was in the form of an oval with well defined openings. The main earth work faced the ford on the river. [It] might at one time quite understandably have been an extensive... fortress commanding the river ford, with earth or sod dwellings inside.
The Marquis of Lorne, Governor General of Canada, came to Si-oh-pi-qui on a western tour in 1881 and sketched the remains. His sketch was described in the Illustrated London News of Saturday 10 December, 1881, as showing:
... an old earthwork, with a circular fosse, and with jutting bastions, at intervals, to the side of the ditch. This may be viewed, we suppose, as the relic of some fortification erected in pre-historic warfare.
Also in 1881, the geologist George M Dawson saw the site and remarked that it:
... does not bear marks of any great antiquity. It is a shallow [trench] of semi-circular outline, 400 feet in greatest diameter, and with 10 well defined hollows along its inner margin.
Dawson also mentions that the part of the site nearest the river has been eroded away.
In 1911, Edmund Morris published a description of the site in The Canadian Magazine along with a legend that it had been the site of the last stand of the Crow Nation against the Blackfoot. Morris also suggests the possibility that it:
... is possible that the fort had been made by an earlier race, and used later on by the Crows.
In 1960, the Blackfoot elder One Gun called the people, who lived in the village, the 'Tsawkoyee', and said they were unrelated to the Crow. One Gun said the Tsawkoyee made peace with the Blackfoot, and that they used dogs, but not horses.
They came here from the south and they returned in the same direction. ... When the Earth Lodge people returned to their own country, two of our people, Eagle Ribs and Big Road, went with them. They never came back.
One Gun said that the Tsawkoyee only spent one winter at Cluny and that they spent five other winters at other locations nearby: Axe Flat, Many Shots Flat, Blood Sand Hills, Sun Dance Flat, and Big Tobacco Flat1.
Forbis' Archaeological Investigation
In 1960, Richard Forbis led an archaeological team made up principally of local Blackfoot men to investigate the site. The methods used were the standard methods used by archaeologists all over the world. Forbis found that the village consisted of a number of 'pit-houses' arranged in a circle within a roughly circular earthen fortification. Originally there would have been approximately 20 houses, but due to the erosion of the river bank, the exact number can never be known. This type of village structure is similar to the design of villages known from the Middle Missouri River area to the south-east. The builders of Cluny were pottery users and the pottery found by Forbis' team is similar to that used by the Middle Missouri River peoples.
Who Lived in the Cluny Earthlodge Village
Forbis tentatively concludes that the builders of the earthlodge village were refugees from the Middle Missouri who had fled the outbreak of pestilence in their homeland. Whenever Europeans moved in North America, disease outbreaks always followed. While at Cluny they would have pursued a largely settled life, probably cultivating corn, beans and squash as their Mandan and Hidatsa cousins continued to do in their homeland. In the 1730s there was a series of smallpox epidemics in the area north-west of the Missouri River Valley. Forbis suggests that the Cluny people finally succumbed to the disease at that time. Perhaps, in keeping with Lone Gun's tradition, some of the builders of the earthlodge village returned home in the hope that the epidemic had ended.
What Will Become of the Site?
Unlike the more famous Head Smashed-In Buffalo Jump farther to the west, which is a UNESCO2 world heritage site, the Cluny Earthlodge Village is virtually unknown and unmarked. The site is designated as a National Historic Site, along with Si-oh-pi-qui (Blackfoot Crossing). The Siksika Nation (Blackfoot) has established Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park.