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Indians Rule at the Calgary Stampede

The Calgary Stampede, which bills itself as the “Largest Outdoor Show in the World,” deserves many accolades, but none more than for being Canada’s biggest and best showcase for aboriginal culture—especially its Indian Village.

The Stampede started 105 years ago on a positive note. In 1912, the five Treaty 7 First Nations in southern Alberta received special permission to leave their reserves and attend the first Calgary Stampede. About 1,800 Natives seized the opportunity, traveled to Calgary and took part in the festivities. They rode horses and walked in the parade. They established the Indian Village. And Tom Three Persons of the Kainai Nation rode the much feared bronco, Cyclone, to a standstill, capturing the title of World Champion Cowboy.

Since then the Stampede has grown enormously, and today it draws more than one million visitors annually with its world-class rodeo, agricultural fair and huge midway. And First Nations are a key part of the Stampede. The focus is at the 26-tipi, 16-acre Indian Village where Native programs and demonstrations take place nonstop throughout the ten-day extravaganza.

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This year’s Stampede kicked off on Friday July 7 with a mammoth parade of floats, bands, clowns, horses and Natives in full regalia through downtown Calgary. The parade was led by the Stampede Queen and three Princesses, one of which is the Indian Princess, Savanna Sparvier, representing the Siksika Nation. The chiefs of the five Treaty 7 Nations were parade marshals.

Indian princesses led the parade at the Calgary Stampede.

Indian princesses led the parade at the Calgary Stampede.

At the Indian Village, the tribes of Treaty 7, represented by the Nakoda (Stoney), Kainai (Blood), Siksika (Blackfoot), Piikani (Peigan) and Tsuu T’ina (Sarcee), live life as it once was in tipis, dressing in traditional garb and conducting numerous daily performances, including powwow dance competitions. But the Village is far more than a cultural display; it is a pilgrimage of sorts for families who have been coming to the Village since its inception, as traditional values are passed down from generation to generation. Elders who have been participating since they were babies bring their children and grandchildren to live in the Village. The families all know each other, and camaraderie pervades.

The interior of an Indian Village tipi at the Calgary Stampede.

The interior of an Indian Village tipi at the Calgary Stampede.

“I’ve been to every Stampede all ten days for the past twenty-three years and am so proud to be a ‘Village rat,’ ” said Katie Lefthand, describing her experience with a nod to the tongue-in-cheek nickname for kids who virtually grew up there. “I’ve got friends I’ve known since birth, everybody in the village is like family. I love dancing and sharing our culture with the world. I encourage all visitors to come down to the village. The people are nice and always happy to share the culture.”

Princess Savanna Sparvier said her regalia was inspired by her grandmother.

Princess Savanna Sparvier said her regalia was inspired by her grandmother.

Indian Princess Sparvier, also a long-time participant, said her stunning Stampede regalia was inspired by her grandmother, Emily Duck Chief, whose traditional dress was featured on the 1939 Calgary Stampede Poster.

Native interpreters guide visitors though the village and explain and demonstrate making bannock, pemmican and berry soup, raising tipis and much more. For example, they explain the importance of tipi designs and how they are determined by dreams and transferred by ceremony. Several of the designs have been present for all 105 years of the Village. There is a daily tipi-raising contest.

One of the most popular Village attractions is the Stampede Powwow, an enormous dance competition attracting the best Native dancers, who compete for tens of thousands of dollars in prize money. The stage is a flurry of colorful feathers, buckskin and beads as the contestants perform the Grand Entry, the Hoop Dance, All Round, men’s Prairie Chicken, ladies Jingle and traditional dances. The furious beat of drums echoes through the Village. The dancers’ regalia—all handmade—is splendid, a moving kaleidoscope on the dance floor.

The Junior Ladies Dance at the Calgary Stampede's Indian Village.

The Junior Ladies Dance at the Calgary Stampede's Indian Village.

Hungry visitors head to the Bannock Booth, which serves up delicacies like bannock hot dogs, Indian tacos, bannock breakfast sandwiches, bannock burgers and bannock moose ears. The Arts and Crafts Booth offers a wide array of Native handicrafts such as jewelry, moccasins and beadwork.

Making bannock at the Indian Village during the Calgary Stampede.

Making bannock at the Indian Village during the Calgary Stampede.

Perhaps influenced by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and its far-reaching report, Indian presence at the Stampede expanded this year and now forms part of virtually every program, from the parade to the rodeo to the grandstand show. The Indian Village moved to a new location with nearly triple the space. In particular, the Indian Relay Race was introduced and immediately became a rodeo crowd favorite. Four top teams raced bareback around the track. One rider per team rode three loops, each time on a different horse. At the exchanges each rider hopped off and then onto a powerful horse with no saddle and galloped off at breakneck speed.

Back at the Indian Village, the sun shone on tall tipis, happy crowds watched dancers bedecked in colorful regalia, and elders proudly showed their traditions to the world.

The old is juxtaposed against a backdrop of the new in the Indian Village at the Calgary Stampede.

The old is juxtaposed against a backdrop of the new in the Indian Village at the Calgary Stampede.

Native riders compete in the Calgary Stampede.

Native riders compete in the Calgary Stampede.

Three lady dancers warm up before the pow wow at the Calgary Stampede's Indian Village.

Three lady dancers warm up before the pow wow at the Calgary Stampede's Indian Village.

Junior dancers crowd the floor at the pow wow in the Indian Village during Calgary Stampede.

Junior dancers crowd the floor at the pow wow in the Indian Village during Calgary Stampede.

Drumming and singing for the ladies jingle dance at the Indian Village pow wow during the Calgary Stampede.

Drumming and singing for the ladies jingle dance at the Indian Village pow wow during the Calgary Stampede.

Dancer Clayton Cardinal, Cree Nation, at the Calgary Stampede.

Dancer Clayton Cardinal, Cree Nation, at the Calgary Stampede.

Junior dancer Jason Young at the Calgary Stampede.

Junior dancer Jason Young at the Calgary Stampede.