In Langscape Magazine Articles

Piikanissini: A Piikani Collective Biocultural Heritage Approach

August 02, 2023
Biocultural community protocols can help Indigenous Peoples communicate ancestral laws and responsibilities to external actors.

Ira Provost

Piikani Nation East Entrance.

Piikani Nation East Entrance. “Niistitapi” is the Blackfoot word used to refer to us, meaning “the Real People.” The signage is our response to proposed coal mining on the eastern slopes of the Canadian Rocky Mountains. Photo: Ira Provost


Piikanissini is a Blackfoot word that means “the Piikani way of life and being.” The Piikani people are members of a confederacy of Blackfoot Nations. According to ancient stories and songs, the Piikani have existed in what is now known as central and southern Alberta, Canada, for millennia. The Piikani people’s way of life and being is rooted in an intricate and complex relationship with the land that has developed since before time began. Our Piikani ontology is governed by sacred and natural law and protocols that have ancient origins in the Piikani language — in stories and songs that are renewed every year through the communal ceremonies we still practice today.

What is often called ‘stewardship’ or ‘environmental conservation’ is our sacred custodianship of Mother Earth.

Woven into Piikani sacred and natural law is a symbiotic relationship with the environment as a living being, which we refer to as Tsahkoom (Mother Earth). As Tsahkoom is our “mother” and she protects us, we in turn protect her. Therefore, the Piikani have a sacred custodianship and responsibility to the land. What is often called “stewardship” or “environmental conservation” is our sacred custodianship of Mother Earth.


The Oldman River basin and watershed. A panoramic view of the Piikani Nation directly downstream from the Rockies. Photo: Ira Provost


In our era of a warming planet and a rapidly changing environment due to development pressures on nature, Western science has only recently begun to accept that Indigenous and local communities possess complete and complex knowledge systems that have helped them sustain themselves and can help sustain ecosystems beyond their territories and reduce the rapid environmental changes we are experiencing globally.

Like other Indigenous Nations across North America, however, the Piikani have endured generations of colonialism. Our ancestral territory has gone through multigenerational development of the land by external actors. These circumstances have left lasting scars and have had a significant impact on the Piikani’s way of life and their relationship to the environment. Despite the complexity and intricacies of a rich and diverse culture, the Piikani have experienced serious disruption in the ability they once had to connect freely to their way of life.

The Piikani are said to have been the largest and fiercest of the Blackfoot tribes at the time of early European exploration and early settlement. Gradual encroachment of European settlers first began to occur in Piikani territory with the early explorer David Thompson in 1787. Canada became a nation in 1867 and soon thereafter, in 1876, established the Indian Act, which is still in force today and governs in its original form. In 1877, the Piikani became one of the lead signatories of the Blackfoot Treaty with the Government of Canada, along with the other Blackfoot Nations. After the treaty was “signed,” reserves were established as gated communities where the Piikani would be forced to live and, for many decades, would not be allowed to freely leave.

The trauma inflicted upon Indigenous communities by Indian agents is an untold story in public education.

A department of Indian Affairs was established in 1880. In Canada, as in the United States, non-Indigenous Indian agents were the government’s representatives on reserves (called “reservations” in the United States) and, as such, held great power over Indigenous communities. Indian agents were often uneducated traders who moved into the Indian service when the fur trade collapsed. Most of them tended to be unsuited to oversee entire communities. Many, if not all, Indian agents were corrupt, taking advantage of their remote locations by unjustly taking a share of annual treaty payments made to the Indigenous Nations or by colluding with settlers to steal Indian lands. As a result of dismissals for corruption or due to ineptitude and hardship, agent turnover was high. The trauma inflicted upon Indigenous communities by Indian agents is an untold story in public education and must be a consideration in understanding the disconnect Indigenous people now experience from their natural environment. So far, the crimes of Indian agents have gone without atonement and resolution despite the damage done.

Alberta became a province in 1905, and the province — and the country more broadly — embarked upon a period of rapid development. A significant challenge, and a serious disruption in the Piikani’s ability to maintain their connection to the land, was the establishment of the Natural Resource Transfer Agreements (NRTA) of 1930. From then on, agreements were negotiated between federal and provincial governments, transferring control over land and natural resources, which had previously been held by the federal government, to the provinces. There was no consultation with Indigenous Peoples in the province during this process, so the transfers caused widespread confusion. Most of the land areas in which Indigenous communities could locate their resources were now restricted, affecting food security and accessibility for multitudes of people.

The Oldman River Dam.

The Oldman River Dam. Located 5 km upstream from the Piikani First Nation, it has a detrimental impact on the Nation’s members and their livelihoods. Photo: Ira Provost


This agreement represented a failure of both the federal and the provincial governments. The rights to hunt and access resources have been legally fought for many times in the decades following the NRTA establishment. There is no documentation to be found, however, pertaining to the rationale and argument in support of creating the legislation, nor are there any known archival records concerning such a major constitutional amendment. Records following the imposition of the NRTA report that Indigenous hunters who were fined and criminalized for breaking regulations were treated more harshly than White hunters were for similar infractions.

The list of harms and multifaceted intergenerational impacts on the people goes on and on. In short, Indigenous Peoples had no rights and did not become recognized citizens in Canada until the 1960s.

But we Piikani survived.

Our language, ceremonies, and songs are intact.

We remain complete. We know who we are.

The reality of the present is that the Piikani operate as a modern government and economic entity and are subject to provincial and Canadian laws. As Canada and the province of Alberta have grown, the Piikani’s environment has been physically affected, and their ability to be good stewards of the land has been restricted through policy and law. From 1930 to 1990, a period of sixty years, the provincial government conducted business on Indigenous lands without any regard for Indigenous perspectives, consultation, or approval. Therefore, during this time the severity of the impact to the land and the accumulation of multiple stressors on traditional resources went unchecked, without the involvement of Indigenous people. It was only in the mid-1980s that the Canadian government affirmed Aboriginal and treaty rights in Section 35 of the Constitution Act of 1985. Case law in Delgamuukw, Calder, and eventually Mikisew would begin to change the Canadian legal landscape by introducing the concept of duty to consult with Indigenous Nations when dealing with land.

The Piikani’s ability to be good stewards of the land has been restricted through policy and law.

Today, the Piikani still claim a vast area of what is referred to as central and southern Alberta as Piikani ancestral lands. This territory is traditionally understood to extend from the North Saskatchewan River to the north to the Yellowstone area to the south, and from the Rocky Mountains to the west to the Great Sand Hills to the east. As a sign of changing times in the modern era of reconciliation, these claims over “traditional” territory are symbolically acknowledged in most government and industrial settings. In practice, however, such acknowledgments serve as little more than platitudes.

The township of Brocket in the Piikani Nation.

The township of Brocket in the Piikani Nation, nestled where the foothills of the Rockies meet the prairies in southwestern Alberta. Photo: Ira Provost


Regardless of how much colonization has impacted our everyday lives, we Piikani have realized that as a nation of Indigenous people, we cannot stop raising our concerns, especially in relation to environmental conservation, and trying to make our provincial and federal governments hear and listen to our voices. We have been communicating our concerns for a very long time. The challenge is that access to Indigenous and local communities’ knowledge is regulated by customary protocols and responsibilities. To access the information, one must have the right to do so. Furthermore, the people who need to heed those concerns do not necessarily understand the protocols and responsibilities that come with accessing traditional knowledge. A common language is needed to achieve mutual understanding.

“Biocultural diversity” is not an Indigenous concept, but it shares a great deal of synergies with Indigenous ideologies, in that it emphasizes an inextricable link between the environment and the traditional knowledge of Indigenous Peoples. The idea is that wherever humans have resided, they have altered their environment, while at the same time also adapting to and being shaped by their environment. Human communities’ relationships with the environment are reflected in their value systems, beliefs, institutions, knowledge systems, languages, and practices. Locally, the people who have maintained most of their original biocultural connection are Indigenous people — the people who have had that connection since the beginning of time.

Locally, the people who have maintained most of their original biocultural connection are Indigenous people — the people who have had that connection since the beginning of time.

As the biocultural concept gains traction in Western science and in Indigenous and local communities, academics and professionals working in the field of conservation have a chance to find a common language through which they can speak to and understand the role of Indigenous Peoples as stewards of the land. To achieve mutual understanding, or the common language, the Piikani must understand what it takes to develop a framework for a biocultural approach, in which to situate and communicate their knowledge and way of life. In turn, Western scientists concerned with conservation must understand the biocultural framework and respect this perspective — one that wholesomely engages Indigenous communities in conservation.

In the Piikani context, a biocultural approach to conservation is based on the idea of conserving and restoring biodiversity in our ancestral lands, in particular those biological beings of significance to Piikani culture and ceremonies. The development of such an approach for Piikani requires drawing from multiple disciplinary roots with a common interest in understanding the relationship between biological, cultural, and linguistic diversity. That is why I suggest the development of a Piikani collective biocultural heritage approach to address the need to communicate shared values and beliefs about the land.

 Ira in front of the Piikani First Nation.

Ira standing in front of the Piikani First Nation’s Administration sign. The bison is a Piikani cultural keystone species and is vital to the Piikani way of life and being. Photo: Ruth Provost


The idea of collective biocultural heritage has a deep connection in purpose and intent with Piikanissini, our way of life and being. Collective biocultural heritage has been defined by Krystyna Swiderska of the International Institute for Environment and Development as the knowledge, innovations, and practices of Indigenous Peoples and local and mobile communities that are collectively held and inextricably linked to traditional resources and territories; local economies; biological diversity at the levels of genes, varieties, species, and ecosystems; cultural and spiritual values; and customary laws shaped within communities’ socio-ecological context. Piikanissini is the knowledge, innovations, and practices of the Piikani people. Piikani are a collective society that is inextricably linked to its ancestral lands and resources. Piikanissini is rooted in Blackfoot spirituality and abides by sacred and natural law of Blackfoot societies; it embodies an intricate relationship with Tsahkoom, or Mother Earth.

Piikanissini and collective biocultural heritage.

Piikanissini, the Piikani way of life and being, compared to the concept of collective biocultural heritage. Image: Ira Provost


The development of a Piikani collective biocultural heritage approach requires the process to be endogenous, or developed from within the Indigenous people and community. The collective Piikani culture and heritage are enshrined in oral history. At first glance, and if you are not part of the community, it will not be apparent that there are rules and responsibilities present in the community and in community processes, as there are few if any written laws. By the same circumstance, the Piikani’s traditional knowledge and practices are vulnerable to abuse and harm. The harm comes through continued exclusion of Piikani’s agency from the development of research in our community. The direction that research or other activities by non-Piikani should take cannot be prescribed in any detail prior to coming to the community. For too long the Piikani have seen settler researchers parachute into the community with preconceived and inaccurate conclusions prior to ever speaking to any community members. Such spurious conclusions are then reported in research results that misleadingly inform policy and political action.

Through the establishment of a process to define Piikani’s collective biocultural heritage, biocultural community protocols — or community-developed laws — can be formulated and communicated to external actors to let them know that these laws exist and must be abided by when working with Piikani on their ancestral lands. These protocols can be a catalyst for constructive dialogue and collaboration to support the community’s plans and priorities in locally appropriate ways. The process for developing and using a biocultural community protocol involves collective reflection and deliberation, participatory documentation and communication, legal empowerment, and social mobilization. The collective rigor of this participatory process and its acceptance by the community are the most important aspect of the process.

Biocultural research within a collective biocultural heritage framework is unfolding in the Piikani community in ways that we hope will inform a more robust set of protocols that external actors must follow.

Biocultural research within a collective biocultural heritage framework is unfolding in the Piikani community in ways that we hope will inform a more robust set of protocols that external actors must follow. The Piikani Nation has established multiple partnerships with the University of Lethbridge and the Government of Alberta’s Environment and Protected Areas that are helping mobilize our community members to participate in the biocultural approach. Piikani youth are creating pathways for intergenerational transmission of the Piikani knowledge systems through ceremonies and Piikani Elder visits and interviews. It is clear there is a lot of work to do.

Ira leading a group of university students.

Ira leading a group of University of Lethbridge students in biocultural studies. Photo: Michelle Hogue


As we prepare for a future with a rapidly changing climate and environment, the Piikani need to share their knowledge. We as practitioners of biocultural methods and methodology must ensure that the methodology protects Piikani knowledge and Knowledge Keepers for the next generations in our communities. Although there is a need for Piikani to create a communication pathway in which to express our rights to the regulating bodies that be, as Piikani our most fundamental responsibility is toward one another and toward Tsahkoom, Mother Earth. Ultimately, we all benefit from the resurgence of this biocultural relationship.

 Ira teaching his grandson Eagle Boy.

Ira teaching his grandson Eagle Boy along the Oldman River. Photo: Ruth Provost


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Ira Provost.

Ira Provost hails from the Piikani First Nation, a member of the Blackfoot Confederacy in southern Alberta, Canada. He is the manager of Piikani Nation Consultation and is a traditional Knowledge Holder. Ira has a master’s degree in Indigenous Studies from the University of Lethbridge and is also a musician who writes and records.

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