March 24, 2021

Indigenous artist maps Calgary Stampede history through a First Nations lens

Collaboration between Adrian Stimson and UCalgary’s Calgary Atlas Project unveiled March 26 at Glenbow Museum
A closeup of Adrian Stimson's art on the hide of a bison.
A closeup of Adrian Stimson's art on the hide of a bison. Dave Brown

The history of the Calgary Stampede — so central to Calgary’s own history — is a story that has been told and retold for decades as the famed 10-day rodeo and exhibition kicks off every year in July. But the Stampede story most commonly shared is one steeped in traditions of colonialism, rife with racism, inequality and marginalized voices, says Governor General’s Award-winning Siksika Nation artist Adrian Stimson.

Stimson’s latest art project, on display as of March 26 at the Glenbow Museum — created in a collaboration with the Calgary Atlas Project, an initiative of the University of Calgary’s Calgary Institute for the Humanities (CIH) — addresses this notion and challenges it, revisiting the history of the Calgary Stampede from the long overlooked First Nations perspective, as interpreted by Stimson.

From left to right: Jim Ellis, George Colpitts, Adrian Stimson, Nancy Janovicek.

Members of the Calgary Institute of the Humanities and artist Adrian Stimson pose with Stimson's latest work, set to be unveiled at the Glenbow Museum March 26. From left: Jim Ellis, George Colpitts, Adrian Stimson, Nancy Janovicek.

Sean Lindsay

Stimson’s strikingly detailed work — a map painted and burned upon the hide of a bison in a pictographic style — is inspired by the Blackfoot tradition of the bison robe winter count. It is Stimson’s artistic attempt at decolonizing the history of the Calgary Stampede. Bison robe winter counts were used by the Blackfoot to record important events in time, including battles, warrior exploits, and visions, which were arranged in spiral, linear or snake-like patterns.

Good, bad, and ugly — every story must be told

With that tradition in mind, Stimson first drew a contemporary Stampede map upon the bison hide, one which captures the Bow and Elbow Rivers, as they frame Calgary Stampede Park. Overtop of that map he then painted and burned pictographics depicting key Indigenous figures and events throughout Stampede history, which highlight historically documented details of the First Nations experience of the annual event. This work, which includes written stories to accompany each of the pictographics, was done in collaboration with researchers and designers from the CIH. The ambitious project was made possible thanks to a Calgary Foundation Grant.

The fact that the map is “ghosted,” with the colonial map slightly visible beneath Stimson’s take on the Indigenous history, is an intentional and important part of the map’s central message.

“The maps we are most familiar with today are a symbol and a tenet of colonialism,” Stimson says. “I set out to decolonize the map inspired by Blackfoot ways of knowing. The map highlights stories of the Calgary Stampede that are not often heard: stories that focus on a history which has sometimes been controversial. But if we’re to truly understand and appreciate history, we have to tell all of the stories — be they the good, the bad, or the ugly.”

The map shows that First Nations peoples have been a central part of the Calgary Stampede from its inception. Largely, the relationship between First Nations and the Stampede organizers has been positive, with Indigenous groups eager to participate in the event. That’s not to say the relationship hasn’t had considerable tensions, however. As Stimson sees it, Indigenous participants have been made to feel, at many points, exploited, degraded, excluded and of lesser importance to the overall production.

A closeup of Adrian Stimson's art on the hide of a bison.

A closeup of Adrian Stimson's art on the hide of a bison. Stimson's work, portraying the history of a the Calgary Stampede through a First Nations lens will be unveiled March 26 at the Glenbow Museum.

Dave Brown

We see this in the very first Calgary Stampede in 1912 when founder Guy Weadick encountered resistance from the federal government when he advocated for a strong First Nations presence in the event. The federal government was initially hesitant to allow First Nations people to leave their reserves. Using his political connections, Weadick was able to turn the government around on the issue and roughly 1,800 First Nations Peoples participated in the inaugural event.

Uneasy incidents share space with notable First Nations Stampede figures

Then there was the staged raid of City Hall in 1923, orchestrated by Stampede organizers, wherein First Nations actors “captured” Mayor George Webster and paraded him through downtown Calgary. This spectacle ended with the First Nations troupe declaring it was all a lark and a gesture of friendship, adding that they approved of non-First Nations peoples’ appropriation of their land.

In 1975, representatives from the American Indian Movement and members of the Calgary Urban Treaty Alliance planned a protest at one of the Grandstand shows on the grounds that the Stampede only used First Nations Peoples as spectacles for the tourists, while never granting them full-partnership status. Ultimately, an agreement with Stampede officials made behind closed doors quelled the planned protest. 

Such uneasy incidences occur again and again throughout the Calgary Stampede’s history. The map also shines the spotlight on a number of notable First Nations Stampede figures, including rodeo stars, beauty queens, artists, performers and dignitaries.

Atlas Project investigates alternative histories

Jim Ellis, longtime director of the CIH (currently on hiatus from the role), served as editor of the map, which is the second of five maps to be released as part of the Calgary Atlas Project. The Calgary Atlas Project was conceived as a way of investigating alternative and overlooked histories of Calgary. The first map, released last year, was A Queer Map: A Guide to the LGBTQ+ History of Calgary. That map viewed Calgary history through the marginalized lens of the LGBTQ2S+ community.

“This map of the history of the Calgary Stampede from the perspective of a celebrated First Nations artist is in keeping with the Calgary Atlas Project’s general goal of looking at history and space differently,” says Ellis. “There are different ways of mapping space and I think it’s incredibly important to take this interventionist approach to mapping.

Maps aren’t innocent. They have been instruments of power. To create alternative maps can be one way of resisting that power, and, in this case, that colonial dominance.

Stimson agrees. “We’re in a time of reconciliation and a part of that is the unpacking of our histories,” he says. “Colonialism is a big part of that, to the detriment of First Nations. I think for a lot of Indigenous communities there is a process of discovering what was suppressed and destroyed. This is a way of bringing us closer to our own culture, but also a way of sharing our culture and illuminating that history.”

Join Adrian Stimson and the CIH via livestream on March 26 at 7 p.m. as they unveil the map at the Glenbow Museum. Watch the livestream livestream here.