Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The Sarcees (Sarsis) are an Athapaskan-speaking people living along the eastern foothills of the Rocky Mountains in southwestern Alberta. In 1983 they formally adopted the name Tsuu T'inas, which means "Many People" in their own language.

According to Tsuu T'ina legend, all of the Athapaskan-speaking people once lived together in northwestern Canada and Alaska. One winter, when the people were crossing a frozen lake, a young boy asked his grandmother to get him a stick that was protruding from the ice. When she tried to pick it up, she found the stick to be frozen fast in the ice. As the old lady continued to pull and twist the stick, the water was stirred up and the turbulence angered the Underwater Creature. As he rose, a great fissure split the ice. Terrified, the people ran for shore. Those who headed north became the Dines of Canada and Alaska. Others moved southward, becoming the Tsuu T'inas, Apaches, and Navajos.

Once in the south, the Tsuu T'inas may have first occupied the upper drainages of the Saskatchewan and Athabasca Rivers. By the early nineteenth century they had moved farther south and into a close alliance with the Siksikas (Blackfoot proper). They lived primarily along the central portion of the Bow River and at sites along Wolf Creek (now called Fish Creek), the Weasel Head section of the Elbow River, and at Moose Mountain which assumed sacred significance.

Through their close association, the Tsuu T'inas adopted much of the material and sacred culture of the Blackfoot. Methods and tools for bison hunting and hide preparation, as well as styles of tipis and clothing, all resemble those of the Blackfoot. Because many sacred objects were left with their northern relatives, the Tsuu T'inas incorporated Blackfoot ceremonies into their own belief system. Today, the people are very private about their beliefs and are reluctant to discuss them publicly.

The Tsuu T'inas lived in kin-based groups, which they referred to as clans. The leader of the clan was acknowledged for his good judgment and ability to bring about a consensus. Individuals were free to move from clan to clan, as they saw fit. The Tsuu T'inas presently recognize five clans, although there may have been more before the epidemics and starvation of the late 1800s.

In 1877 Treaty Number 7 was signed between the government of Canada and the Siksikas, Piegans, Kainahs (Bloods), Stoneys, and Tsuu T'inas. At that time, the population of the Tsuu T'inas was estimated to be only 672 persons, and the government suggested that the Tsuu T'inas be included on a large reserve to be set aside for all of the Blackfoot. Bull Head, an influential Tsuu T'ina leader, recognized the importance of having their own place to preserve their language and culture. He argued successfully for a distinct reserve, and a place was eventually set aside along the Elbow River, near the North-West Mounted Police post at Fort Calgary. By 1881, when the Tsuu T'inas were settled on the reserve, the population had dropped to about 450 persons; it continued to decline over the ensuing years.

In 2001 a population of about 1,100 lives on the reserve. The city of Calgary abuts two of its boundaries, while expanding rural subdivisions encroach on the other edges. An elected council of one chief and eleven council members manage the affairs and revenues from resort and golf course developments, oil and gas exploration, and, until recently, rental for land used as a military base. A large office complex houses several federal government offices, whose rent contributes to the tribal revenue.

The Tsuu T'inas have a cultural research program that is actively collecting oral histories. This information is housed at the Tsuu T'ina Peoples Museum.

Jeanette Starlight

Tsuu T'ina Peoples Museum

Gerald T. Conaty

Glenbow Museum

Jenness, Diamond. The Sarcee Indians of Alberta. Bulletin no. 90, Anthropological Series no. 23. Ottawa: National Museums of Canada, 1938.

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