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Cultural Anthropology

Cultural Anthropology


Treaty Number One Medals at the Manitoba Museum tell a First Nations Story

Maureen Matthews
Curator of Cultural Anthropology

For the commemoration of the 150th Anniversary of Treaty Number One, three Treaty medals from the Manitoba Museum will be on display at Lower Fort Garry.  Although these medals were used by Canada to acknowledge promises made by the Crown to First Nations people in Treaty negotiations, they also reveal a history of First Nations protocols, diplomacy, and political advocacy at a difficult time.[1] 

The gift of medals to honour mutual obligations in Manitoba began with the fur trade.  The first HBC Chief’s medal was created in 1776 by Thomas Hutchins, Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) Chief Factor at Albany who found that among the Ininiwak who lived on the edge of Hudson’s Bay, there was an expectation that medals would be offered.  Hutchins told the Governor of the company that “ … medals also are

 much esteemed amongst them if large, and if presented with ceremony when the Calimut [Calument or Pipe] is smoaked[sic], will be not only deemed a mark of distinction but perhaps be a means of binding the Leaders more securely in your Interest.”   (quoted in Carter 2004).  During and after the war of 1812, many First Nations leaders in Canada and the US were presented with medals featuring

 King George III in thanks for fighting with the British against the United States.  By the time negotiations for the Numbered Treaties were initiated, medals were part of a 200 year long First Nations history of Treaty making and had been used to secure a range of mutual understandings, alliances, and friendships. 

When we talk about Treaty Number One, the image which comes to mind is the famous handshake medal shown here, but in fact this is not the medal that was offered in August 1871 when Treaty Number One was finalized. If you look carefully, you will see that this medal is dated 1873. 


The Treaty Commissioners who arrived from Ottawa in 1871 to negotiate Treaty Number One seem to have underestimated the importance of the gift of medals as a gesture of good faith and reassurance to First Nations leaders because the first medal they presented to the chiefs in 1871 was a smallish silver medal with an oak leaf wreath on one side and a standard image of the young Queen Victoria on the other.  The medal was chosen from the existing stock of generic medals made by J.S. & A.B. Wyon of London, England. It was small, thin, and made no overt reference to the momentous nature of the Treaties it was meant to signify.  The Chiefs who participated in the negotiations that year thought it looked a little too much like a prize at an agricultural fair, and after seven days of negotiations and months of preparation on the part of First Nations leaders, this non-descript Treaty medal seemed to the Chiefs to be an inadequate gesture.  As an expression of intent, this generic medal must have worried the Chiefs because it left a feeling that Canada was not taking to heart the enormous implications of the Treaties.

The Treaty Commissioners, having registered the rebuff, returned to negotiations in 1872 with a much more dramatic medal.  It was very large, 95 millimeters (almost 4 inches) in diameter, and was based on the medal struck to celebrate Canadian Confederation. The center circle has an image of Imperial Britannia as a Roman matron with a lion resting his chin on her lap and the four founding provinces, as Roman maidens, each hold a shovel, axe, paddle or scythe illustrating their province’s economic possibilities.  Surrounding this Confederation image, the medal maker, a Canadian silversmith Robert Hendry of Montreal, added an 11-millimeter band which declared, on one side, “INDIANS OF THE NORTH WEST TERRITORIES,” and on the other – the side with the image of a slightly older Queen Victoria – “DOMINION OF CANADA / CHIEFS MEDAL 1872.” This medal was initially welcomed by the chiefs until it became apparent that it had been struck in copper and merely electroplated with a thin coat of silver.  The Anishinaabemowin word for silver is zhooniyaawaabik, literally ‘money metal,’ and it matters if it is pure. When the silver began to peel and rub off, the Chiefs judged this medal a very shallow gesture on behalf of the Crown.


By the summer of 1873, the chiefs were restive, most particularly because oral promises made at the time of the first signing were not being written down on the Treaty documents, but also in protest that the 1872 medal had been yet another inadequate signifier of the sincerity of Canada’s promises.  So it was in the summer of 1873 that the now famous 99 per cent pure silver medal with the handshake was commissioned.  Like the first medal, this one was made in London, England, by J.S. & A.B. Wyon. The front features a bust of Queen Victoria and the inscription “VICTORIA REGINA.”  The inscription on the reverse side reads:

“INDIAN TREATY N°. –  and the date 187- .” The spaces were deliberately left blank and were incised with the Treaty number and date at the moment of concluding each successive Treaty.  The handshake medal was used until Queen Victoria’s death, by which time relationships had taken such a negative turn that a hollow bronze medal with Edward VII on the back was accepted with little comment.

The handshake medal has come to resonate powerfully with First Nations peoples for the promise it holds, for the idea that a respectful relationship with the Crown will be restored.  But the handshake medal is still a product of the 1870s, designed in London by an engraver who had never been to Canada and had certainly never met a Treaty Chief.



The fully clothed figure on the left side of the medal, a representative of the Queen, resembles no one more than the Prince of Wales, later King George V, although the uniform is controversial.  But with Queen Victoria on the back and someone who looks like the Prince on the front, the medal is a graphic confirmation that the Treaty relationship is between the Crown of England and First Nations. The bare-chested, feather-skirted Chief, on the other hand, is problematic.  Photographs of Treaty events in 1873 show crowds of men dressed in suits and it is actually quite hard to pick out the Treaty Commissioner and his party unless they are up on a dias or have a chair to sit on, because everyone present is dressed the same.  The chief on the medal does not seem to bear any relation to the First Nations leaders who made Treaty Number One.  The adjacent photo is of Chief Gaagige Binesi, Forever Thunderbird, also known as William Mann Sr. who negotiated Treaty Number One on behalf of Sagkeeng First Nation.  The large photo, taken and printed in the 1870s, shows Chief Gaagige Binesi wearing the original Treaty Number One Chief’s coat he received in 1871.  Five generations of the Mann family looked after this photo.  In 2012, 140 years after it had been taken, Ted Mann brought the photo to the Manitoba Museum asking that it be used to tell the story of his famous ancestor and his role in the making of Treaty Number One. The image actively foregrounds a strong, confident Treaty Chief and provides a corrective to colonial imagery that patronizingly romanticises Indigenous peoples and undermines their authority. 

And where did this strange Indigenous imagery come from? It is probable that the engraver at Wyon in London was using as a model, an American Peace medal from the American Revolutionary War when George Washington was President.  There were many iterations of this American medal over the years, but the feather skirt and strange feathers persist. 

The handshake Treaty Medal is a part of First Nations Treaty history and the gesture of the tentative handshake suggesting equity alludes to a British way of making a promise.   First Nations people have a long history of holding the Crown to account for these promises. And if the inescapable implication of the Treaty Chiefs is that First Nations participants in Treaty-making were “noble” but naïve, and probably incapable of understanding Treaties or their implications, the photo of Chief Forever Thunderbird provides a strong counter narrative to the racist image of primitive naiveté; the portrait shows that the chiefs negotiating the treaty were wise and thoughtful political figures. The handshake medals, as signifiers of the Treaty relationship, like the Treaties themselves, hold both the promise of sincere reciprocity and the dangers of racist condescension.


Photo credit: George V. Camera Press/Globe Photos


[1] Others argue that the fact of the changes were made as the negotiations proceeded through each of the early numbered treaties – as new provisions for hunting rights, rights of occupation, and a medicine chest clause were added – is evidence that there was some significant degree of First Nations agency in the negotiations taking place. In an article looking at the change in view on Treaty No, 1, Hall cites the following historians: John Leonard Taylor (1975, 1979), Richard Price (1979), John Foster (1979), Hugh Dempsey (1978), and Chief John Snow (1977). See Hall who talks about the treaty negotiation during Treaty One HERE


Cowessess First Nation

Our hearts are heavy to hear the news from Saskatchewan locating more Indigenous children’s burials associated with a Residential School. We send our deepest condolences to Cowessess First Nation, the survivors who attended this school, and the families whose children never returned home. We grieve with you.

These recent findings are not isolated cases; similar erasures have occurred across Canada, including right here in Manitoba. The Manitoba Museum is committed to educating visitors about Residential Schools, while calling upon all levels of government to protect these graves, and implement the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC’s) Calls to Action, particularly Calls 71 through 76 (Missing Children and Burial Information) which include letting the families of the children decide on how best to commemorate their lives.


Remembering Private David Thomas of Peguis First Nation

In recognition and celebration of National Indigenous History Month, we’re featuring an artifact from Private David Thomas, a Peguis First Nation soldier who died in the First World War. An exhibit featuring his story and a handkerchief he had sent to his sister from Europe was on display in November 2020. Unfortunately we closed to the public that week because of a COVID-19 province wide lockdown, and no one was able to see the exhibit! We’re putting it up again in November, 2021, and then it will become part of the Parklands Gallery “Impact of War” permanent exhibit.

Private David Thomas, 1916. Courtesy Karen Schnerch.

David Thomas was only 18 years old when he left his home at Peguis Reserve to fight in the Great War in Europe. He joined the 108th Battalion (Selkirk) in 1916, which was soon shipped out to England. A year later he was killed in the Battle of Passchendaele, in Belgium. Private Thomas died on October 26, 1917, the first day of the assault, possibly a victim of a poison gas attack. The 27th Battalion (City of Winnipeg), was finally able to capture the village of Passchendaele on November 6. Over 4,000 Canadians died and almost 12,000 were injured in two weeks of horrific fighting.

Private Thomas likely purchased this beautiful handkerchief in France. He sent it to his sister Mary Ann, who was living at Peguis Reserve. It is embroidered with a maple leaf and crown, and the words “Honour to Canada.” After learning of David’s death, she framed the handkerchief and it was displayed in Thomas family homes for over one hundred years. It was donated by the family to the Museum in 2020.

Framed silk handkerchief, 1917. H9-39-91. Image copyright Manitoba Museum

The central crest features a maple leaf inset with a crown and the word “CANADA.” Below, the term “Honour to Canada” is embroidered. H9-39-91. Image copyright Manitoba Museum.

David Thomas’ sister Mary Ann, her husband Frank Smith, and their daughter in 1912. Mary Ann received the handkerchief as a gift from David. Image courtesy Terry Overton, grand-niece of David Thomas.

First Nations Soldiers

Over one-third of eligible First Nations men and women in Canada voluntarily enlisted during the First World War. More than 50 First Nations soldiers received recognition for bravery during combat. While there was a shared sense of camaraderie with non-Indigenous soldiers during the war, they returned, having been stripped of their Treaty rights, to a country that provided no compensation or support for First Nations veterans after the war. 

The Battle of Passchendaele, where David Thomas was killed. Also known as the Third Battle of Ypres, the fighting raged on with British, New Zealand, Australian, and Canadian troops pitched against German forces for over three months. “Battle of Passchendaele – Mud and Boche wire through which Canadians had to advance.” CWM 19930013-512, Canadian War Museum


A Sunrise Solar Eclipse

From Winnipeg, the rising sun on June 10, 2021 will appear similar to this view, shot during the 2017 eclipse. [Image: Scott D. Young]


On the morning of June 10, 2021, early risers across Manitoba will see a partial eclipse of the sun from most of Manitoba.


The eclipse is already underway by the time the sun rises, and only lasts about an hour after sunrise, so this will be an early morning event on June 10.

What is happening? As the moon orbits the earth, it sometimes crosses the sun from our point of view in an event called a solar eclipse. When the moon only covers part of the sun we see a partial eclipse – this is what we will see from Manitoba. From other areas of the earth, the moon will appear to cross the center of the Sun, blocking out most of the sun’s rays in an annular or “ring” eclipse. This occurs because this eclipse happens when the Moon is near its farthest point from the Earth and so doesn’t appear quite big enough to cover the entire sun. When an eclipse happens when the moon is near its closest point to earth, the moon’s disk can cover the entire solar disk and a total solar eclipse results. A total solar eclipse is one of the true spectacles of nature, worth traveling to see. A total solar eclipse crossed the central United States in August 2017. Manitoba last witnessed a total solar eclipse on February 26, 1979.

For more details on the mechanics of eclipses, see NASA’s explanation here.

How can I observe the eclipse safely? The sun is always too bright to observe directly without special eye protection. Sunglasses are not sufficient – a specially-made solar filter is required to prevent permanent eye damage. Eclipse glasses purchased for the 2017 total solar eclipse are sufficient as long as there are no scratches or holes in the silver Mylar material. A #14 welder’s glass (available at welding supply shops) will allow you to view the sun safely. No other materials should be used – while dark plastic or Mylar balloon material may dim the sun’s image in the visual range, the invisible ultraviolet and infrared light can still enter your eye and cause irreversible damage or even blindness.

Due to COVID restrictions over the past year, the Museum’s shop is not open, and we do not have any eclipses glasses for sale.

If no appropriate filter is available, you can use a pair of household binoculars to project an image of the sun using the method described here. Note: DO NOT LOOK AT THE SUN THROUGH BINOCULARS! Make sure you follow the instructions carefully, including the part about turning the binoculars away from the sun every few minutes to let them cool down. The Museum is not responsible for any injury or damage due to solar viewing; if you’re uncertain it’s best to watch the event online.

If you have a telescope, do not look at the sun with it or you will instantly and permanently blind yourself. Safe solar filters that fit over the front of the telescope are available for telescopes through mail order, but they will cost $100 or more and at this point are unlikely to arrive before the eclipse. You can use your telescope to project an image of the sun similarly to the binocular method shown above, but the increased heat may damage your telescope. This is not recommended unless you already know how to observe the sun properly.

When and where should I look?

All of Manitoba can see the partial eclipse, although most of it occurs before sunrise; we catch just the end of it. The annular or ring phase is only visible from a path that starts in northwestern Ontario, goes up over the north pole, and down into eastern Russia. With provincial and international borders closed at the time of writing, Manitobans will have to be content with a partial eclipse and an online view of the annular portion.

For all of Manitoba, the eclipse is already underway as the sun rises – check your local newspaper or heavens-above.com for sunrise and sunset times for your location. In Winnipeg, the sun will be about half-eclipsed when it rises at 5:27 am CDT in the northeast, and the moon will uncover the sun as they both rise. By 5:55 am CDT (less than a half-hour after sunrise) the eclipse will be over from Winnipeg.

Points farther north in Manitoba will have better views. From Churchill, Manitoba, the sun rises at 4:08 am CDT with the eclipse beginning 4 minutes later. At 5:09 am CDT the sun reaches a maximum of 85% eclipsed before the moon moves on and uncovers the sun. From Churchill the eclipse ends at 6:08 am CDT. Flin Flon will see a maximum 75% eclipse just after sunrise; Thompson reaches 85% about 10 minutes after sunrise.


https://www.timeanddate.com/eclipse/map/2021-june-10?n=265 – eclipse times and simulated views for any location

https://eclipsophile.com/ase-2021/ – maps and weather prospects for the eclipse


























Eclipses and Transits: Overview

NASA.gov brings you the latest images, videos and news from America’s space agency. Get the latest updates on NASA missions, watch NASA TV live, and learn about our quest to reveal the unknown and benefit all humankind.


215 Indigenous Children

The Manitoba Museum joins with all of Canada in extending our heartfelt condolences to the families and the communities who have been devastated by the discovery of the remains of 215 Indigenous children who died at Kamloops Residential School in British Columbia. In doing this, we recognize both the profound loss that these children’s deaths represent and the story of erasure that this discovery exposes. We acknowledge and remember the 215 children who were loved, cared for, and missed by their loved ones – 215 children who are not forgotten, although their stories were silenced for so long.

The Manitoba Museum is committed to educating visitors about the circumstances surrounding the deaths of these children and where possible, who they were, while calling upon all levels of government to implement the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC’s) Calls to Action, particularly Calls 71 through 76 (Missing Children and Burial Information).

We also recognize that the story of the discovery of these children’s remains highlights the ongoing story of Indigenous child welfare in Canada. In keeping with this, we call upon all levels of government to respond promptly and wholeheartedly to the spirit and intent of the TRC’s Calls to Action, and especially to Calls 1-5 on Child Welfare.