For more than 100 years, local First Nations have camped at the Calgary Stampede – their “Indian Village” site has always been a quieter part of the massive show on the banks of the Elbow River, with colourful tepee displays, and traditional storytelling and ceremonies.
A century ago, the camp was both a celebrated Stampede attraction and an outlet for the Dene, Stoney and Blackfoot people whose movement, language and culture was restricted by Canadian government officials. But in recent years, the tepee owners whose family histories are long linked to the spot have sometimes found themselves on the defensive, having to justify why it is still referred to by an inaccurate and outdated term.
“Personally, I’ve experienced a lot of confrontation around the name, and it’s become very hard for me to explain it in a way that people will understand,” said 2018 Indian Princess Cieran Starlight – a young mixed-media artist from the Tsuut’ina First Nation just west of Calgary – and part of a group of “princesses” who act as ambassadors for the Stampede.
Noran Calf Robe, whose grandfather Ben was a famous Blackfoot elder and interpreter who set up camp with his tepee at the Stampede in 1912, said “we’re not Indians, but we’ve been branded with that name. Christopher Columbus got lost.”
On Sunday, the tepee owners and Stampede officials made what they believe will be a welcome move, retiring the Indian Village name and rebranding the sprawling site the Elbow River Camp. The Stampede Indian Princess, too, will eventually be given a new name.
Change is sometimes difficult for an organization rooted in celebrating the history and settlement of the West. But both the tepee owners and Stampede officials said they made their decision based on broader global movements to shed the term Indian.
“The Indian Village has been a very proud component, but we all know the sensitivity around the word as the world has moved to an Indigenous space,” Stampede president David Sibbald said.
Many of the early Indigenous names for the place that would one day become Calgary refer to the sharp bend of the river that would be given the “Elbow” name. It was a landmark understood by First Nations in the area who spoke three distinct languages, says Violet Meguinis, also of the Tsuut’ina Nation.
“When we made a reference to where you were going, people would point to the elbow. And everyone knew what that meant,” said Ms. Meguinis, whose family also traces its tepee ownership back to 1912.
The announcement, which came on the final day of the western-themed 10-day rodeo, exhibition and festival, takes effect as the “Indian Village” holds a final closing ceremony on Sunday afternoon. Next year, Elbow River Camp will stand − with exactly the same look − in its place.
The name change has been discussed several times in decades past by the tepee owners, many of them descendants of the families that originally set up camp there. In the Stampede’s earliest days, showman Guy Weadick, the founder of the exhibition, pressed federal officials to allow First Nations to attend. The Stampede’s website says First Nations peoples were not allowed to celebrate their cultures on their own reserves because of Indian Act laws and regulations, and “the Stampede was one of the only places where First Nations peoples were welcomed to participate and celebrate their traditions publicly.”
The decision to rename the site is not one as clear-cut as it might seem on the surface − there is still a strong familial and historical attachment to the village name. But the issue became more pressing after a desire for renewal that came with moving to a new location two years ago, and increasing resistance to the term Indian.
“Coming from a tepee-owning family, we know the name Indian Village – and that’s something that’s really hard for us to let go of,” Ms. Starlight said.
“But I believe in the future, especially for the young girls that come into the role next.”
Ms. Meguinis says the name change helps the camp focus on more pressing issues. For her, those include helping people deal with the fallout of residential schools. Several years ago, Ms. Meguinis was approached at her family’s tepee by a woman who had been a Sixties Scoop child, and was looking for information on Dene culture.
“She didn’t find her family in time − they passed. But she found her roots,” Ms. Meguinis said. “That’s what I want the camp to be known as.”