Early Ranching

Wild Man Dan (left) and son (centre), Nakoda
Morley, Alberta, September 1908
Provincial Archives of Manitoba EMN 555

In Canada and the United States, the treaties negotiated with First Nations communities on the Plains and Plateau generally included provisions for the establishment of farms and ranches. However, despite their policies to set up an agricultural economy among Native people, the governments frequently fell short of meeting their commitment to provide instructors, oxen, workhorses to pull the ploughs and wagons, grain, and farming implements. In some communities, the government took so long to deliver livestock that people began trading their horses to non-Native ranchers in the area for cattle. In many communities, people began working as cowboys on neighbouring ranches and on cattle drives.

By the early twentieth century, a few Native communities had managed to develop herds of livestock, some of them numbering several hundred head of cattle or horses. A community's economic success, like that of its non-Native neighbours, depended on market prices, the severity of the winter, and the availability and cost of feed. Communities also depended on the goodwill of their Indian agent, who had the power to control almost every aspect of their lives, including the financial activities of the farming and ranch operations, and even travel off the reserve.

Times were often difficult, and many men worked as cowboys on nearby ranches, as previous generations had done. On large ranches that had extensive herds of cattle and horses, the employees were often from nearby Native communities. The men worked as cowboys and the women as camp cooks or domestics in the ranch house. The children, who were usually sent away to residential schools, laboured on the school's farm after classes. Such work was considered part of their education.

Millie Tonasket with chickens
O'Keefe Ranch and Interior Heritage Society F7-12

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Introduction | Early Ranching | Ranching Life | Contemporary Ranching Life | Community Stories | Transition to Rodeo