The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth…a Testament to Our Western Heritage 

By James-Clarke Lister

The lingering smells of the midway filling the air with temptation, the vibrant entertainment, the parade, the rides, extraordinary fireworks, daring rides, Pow Wow dances, chuck wagon racing and the world’s largest outdoor Rodeo…what comes to mind when YOU think of The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth? In the heart of downtown, hundreds of thousands of guests visit from all over the world each July to experience the ‘10 Days of Madness’ or what Calgarians proudly call the Stampede. It’s an annual presence spanning two world wars, the Great Depression and the 2013 flood. It was cancelled only once due to the 2020 pandemic. Returning this year, the 2021 Stampede will bring a slightly different on-Park experience. Either way, Calgary’s most famous celebration continues, recognising our western heritage, culture and community spirit, while significantly contributing to the city’s economic development.

From its inauguration over a century ago, the Stampede one experiences today is vastly different. In light of Canada’s recent National Aboriginal Awareness campaign and reconciliation process, it’s even more important to acknowledge and celebrate the distinct, diverse cultures, languages, and traditions that significantly contributed to its success. The First Nations people play a key role in the legacy of the Calgary Stampede.

First Nation traditional aboriginal culture and heritage was the primary driving force of tourist attraction from the Stampede’s inception. Our colonial past, filled with government legislation, church leaders and discrimination, often restricted or contested the role of First Nations participation in the Stampede. History explains that unjust blatant discrimination was often demonstrated under the guise of agricultural and harvest concerns. The “education and reform” mandates of the Indian Affairs department and various churches strictly opposed the showcasing of the culture and customs for entertainment. Fortunately, it wasn’t a one-sided argument. Despite the tensions that have taken place throughout Stampede’s history, many people in both politics and religious circles were against such discriminatory perspectives. These groups fought for First Nations Peoples to be seen as equals, and directly and indirectly for their inclusion in the Stampede

In 1886 an event called the Agricultural Exhibition commenced, one that would serve as the primary stepping-stone to what would later be called the Calgary Stampede & Exhibition. With just 500 people in attendance, the Exhibition was formed courtesy of the Calgary District and Agricultural Society. Calgary was becoming recognized as an up-and-coming agricultural hub and agricultural growth was a key industry here at the time. The Exhibition was a way to establish a growing network for sharing and discussing agricultural knowledge. It was the Exhibition that laid roots in the marketing of Calgary’s growing agricultural sector.

A man from New York City would soon change things.

Guy Weadick had a dream. He wanted to create the best showcase of Western heritage on Earth with the largest gathering of cowboys, First Nations and prospectors that had ever taken place. This visionary’s goal was to create a Western-Canadian experience in defiance of the US model, which Guy believed simply romanticized Western culture. Guy fought for the inclusion of the First Nations people to participate, banned by new laws to participate in any festivals. Guy wanted to educate tourists and locals alike about the unique knowledge, traditions and customs of the First Nations. He insisted they be included and featured in his upcoming show. With the help of prominent individuals known as the Big Four: Patrick Burns, George Lane, Archibald J. McLean, and A.E. Cross, Weadick acquired the initial investment and began building this dream. 

In 1912 his fair came to life. It was held in September that year over the course of 6 days. This was officially the very first show and the very first parade. The parade drew in over 80,000 spectators, notably significant considering Calgary’s population itself at the time was only 50,000. This huge success was the direct result of the participation of the First Nations people in the parade. The Parade of 1912 had over 1800 Indigenous participants from six Alberta tribes, wearing their finest traditional regalia, creating a very powerful and popular presence to onlookers. Members of the Royal Family were present, part of the basis for permission granted for the tribes to attend the event. Dozens of native men and women brought their finest costumes and horse gear for the parade and put on a delightful show. It was described as a “gorgeous display of paint, beads and colored blankets, made by the six tribes who formed the bulk of the parade, lending a historic picturesque-ness to the modern city street with its thousands of thronging spectators.”

Locals and visitors alike would visit the encamp-mints on the city limits in the evenings, curious about the way of life and culture so different from their own. It served as a social event for the First Nations tribes, giving them the opportunity to meet with other tribes, visit, trade and celebrate. The City of Calgary took notice of the huge success and their partnership augmented soon afterwards. 

The success of the extravagant parade brought even more attention to the federal government. In an attempt to prevent future participation, they modified the Indian Act in 1914, making it ‘illegal’ for Indigenous peoples to participate in fairs or parades without permission from the local Indian Agent. The new law temporarily ended their participation until Weadick returned to Calgary. In 1919 after a brief hiatus, Weadick successfully fought for their return. He created the Victory Stampede, an event to mark and honor the end of the Second World War. It was another major success. However, succumbing to political pressure, the Calgary Exhibition decided to abide by the government regulations and not to press for First Nation participation in the following fairs of 1920, 1921, and 1922, which resulted in a very poor turnout with few visitors. By 1923, and with an obvious lack of interest in the event, Weadick knew he had to do something. He once again insisted on the First Nations people being in attendance. Inside the grounds some sixty tipis were pitched beside the replica of a Hudson’s Bay Company store. More than 700 First Nations people were part of the show, dressed in full regalia and posing for photographs. On parade day, “members of the Stoney, Sarcees, Peigans and Blackfoot tribes sang their wonderful songs”. This is the same year where the addition of cowboys, rodeo events and buffalo barbeque began. It was once again an enormous success. 

The following year and onwards, First Nations presence and participation was upheld. 1924 officially became the first Calgary Exhibition and Stampede. The yearly event quickly grew exponentially and in popularity. By the 1930’s and 1940’s, despite owning automobiles, the preferred method of travelling for many years was still by horse and wagon. In 1953 many tribes would still make the yearly trip over many miles by horse. Showmanship was at the heart of Weadicks vision and over the years, various activities came and went – tipi raising, children’s races, hand games, demonstrations of cooking, tanning, and beading, flag raising with honouring songs, and many more activities.  

The mid-’50s to ’60s represented a buoyant decade of growth and affair for the Stampede courtesy of Hollywood’s ‘Wild West’ boom, which inevitably made its way into the festival and transformed it. The Canadian-Western frontier shifted, and agriculture was no longer the forerunner. This Wild West surge played a momentous role in attracting enormous amounts of attention. The ’50s brought in many prominent faces like Roy Rogers and Walt Disney. Calgary’s population nearly doubled with the baby boom, adding to the rapidly growing number of Stampeders. In 1976, attendance broke one million participants, and by 2019, attendance sat at 1,275,465 – quite the growth relative to 1884 where the original pioneers of the Calgary and District Agricultural Society amounted to 500.

As the years go on, the First Nations peoples remain a central part of the Calgary Stampede. The relationship with the Blackfoot: Siksika, the Piikani, the Kainai, the Tsuut’ina, Stoney Nakoda: Bearspaw, Chiniki and Wesley First Nations Largely and Stampede organizers is mostly positive, with Indigenous groups eager to participate in the event. That’s not to say the relationship has not had considerable tension. Issues such as the original location of the Elbow River Camp have been resolved. Originally situated on low-lying ground and frequently flooded in Calgary’s notorious summer downpours, it was moved back to its original location in 1974. Grievances about low fees paid to tipi owners, lack of input related to their participation and accusations of exploitations were rampant.

Today, the Elbow River Camp, formerly known as the Indian Village and renamed in 2018, remains one of the most favourable exhibits. It includes sporting events, traditional dance, tipi raising, children’s races, hand games, demonstrations of cooking, tanning, beading and more. All of the nations of the Treaty 7 – the Tsuu T’ina, Piikani, Stoney, Kainai and Siksika run the Elbow River Camp and work together to erect tipis, organize pow wows, re-enact elements of their traditional lifestyle and offer arts and crafts. The tipi owners have been long-term participants, many are third or fourth generation, the Stampede helping them to preserve and display their First Nations cultures to the public.

With record-breaking numbers of participants from all over the world, the Stampede’s public interest has only continued to grow year-by-year. Despite areas of controversy that have risen during the Stampede’s transformations over the last century, one could agree that this yearly festive ritual should continue to bare roots in fun, unity, education, and inclusion for all. These 10 days are an opportunity to get outside, enjoy some sun, and spend time with our loved ones. It’s also a time to be curious about Western-Canadian history, to learn and to observe with emphasis the cultural roots and heritage of First Nations Peoples – the bearers of the land. The First Nations culture is a key element in the success of the Stampede, and it should be honoured this way. It is unlikely without this culture and mystique that it could have ever become the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth. 

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