July 19th, 2017 ~ Vol. 87 No. 29
Looking Back - John Kinnear
Deerfoot - An Original Sinister Runner
Looking Back
John Kinnear photo
The original Deerfoot - a Seneca Indian- who were indigenous Iroquoian-speaking people native to North America
I officially had my mind blown after I visited the Sinister 7 Ultra View Team and Solo lists on the web a couple weekends ago. This was one remarkable event and really puts us on the map. I know this for many reasons one of which was that 200 plus teams showed up here to compete and came from as far away as El Cerrito, California; Fargo, North Dakota; and Montreal, Quebec. There were teams listed from places I have never heard of: like Westerose, Widewater and Ferintosh Alberta. Good Grief! Ferintosh has a population of 202 people. It’s a half hour south of Camrose.
Three hundred soloists were also here from all over the place like Mexico, Australia, Great Britain, and the U.S. states of Oregon, Utah, Wyoming, California and Texas. Some of the monikers these teams attached to themselves were just hilarious. Names like Cirque du Sore Legs (Calgary), Myassess Dragon (Fox Creek), What Were We Thinking (Cranbrook) and my all time favourite, Rhymes with Bucket from Saskatoon.
Holy Mackerel, it must have been brutal to run those seven legs in that 30 plus heat. Talk about endurance. So being the kind of guy who is always looking backwards I thought it might be interesting to share the story of another endurance runner who made a name for himself about 130 years ago.
Most of us have had occasion to drive into or through Calgary on that dreaded bypass road from hell known as the "Deerfoot Trail". It is a white knuckle, pedal to the metal ride that can turn into a nightmare because of weather conditions or maniac drivers during rush hour. The Deerfoot is designed to get you to or through parts of that city in jig time providing you are prepared to commit your vehicle to and risk your life at its breakneck speed.
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What you may not know about the Deerfoot Trail is where its name comes from. Deerfoot (Api-kai-ees) was the name of a Blackfoot (Siksika) Indian who became renowned as a runner. Son of Medicine Fire and the nephew of the great Blackfoot head chief Crowfoot: “Api-kai-ees had developed a local reputation for long-distance running on the Blackfoot Indian Reserve (Alta) by 1884 when he was discovered by a Calgary syndicate interested in professional running.”

Foot-races of all kinds were a popular form of entertainment and gambling back then. Races in which local champions would pit themselves against travelling professionals from as far away as Great Britain.

Tall and well muscled Api-kai-ees could apparently run for hours without tiring and that ability was capitalized on by that unscrupulous syndicate back in 1886 at a place known as "Claxton's Rink" in downtown Calgary. Claxton's was a hot spot for ice skating in winter, roller skating in the summer and also featured highly popular foot races, one of which was a 16 hour ordeal run four hours at a time over four days.

So it was, back then, that promoters pitted a North West Mounted Police named Constable James Green against Api-kai-ees and his companion Little Plume. As an aside you should know that the translation of A’pikaiees original Blackfoot name was "Scabby Dried Meat", a name the promoters decided to change. Certainly not as romantic as Little Plume that’s for sure. Say wouldn’t it be neat if a future Sinister team or soloist picked that name some day?
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On the first two days of the race against the professional runner Green, Api-kai-ees and Little Plume easily outdistanced him. Of course, just like in the movies, those sneaky gamblers devised a plan to scratch him from the race. In true ignorant white man fashion they got him roaring drunk after the second day of racing. Sure enough a terribly hung over Api-kai-ees lagged badly on the third day. (Maybe he didn’t know about the Sinister 7 trick of using pickle juice for nausea!). Undaunted by his performance he said he'd win on the fourth day anyways, which he did, while the whole town roared in approval.

According to an account written by Hugh A. Dempsey: “He completed 84 miles and 6 laps during the allotted 16 hours. Following this dramatic success Api-kai-ees was given the professional name Deerfoot, used in the 1860s by Ha-ga-sa-do-ni, a Seneca Indian who had defeated some of the top runners in the world and set several world records in foot-races at the Crystal Palace in London, England.” I’m thinking either Deerfoot would have been a marvel to watch run the Sinister 7.

Deerfoot carried on his chest the scars of the famous Blackfoot Sun Dance, an act of self mutilation that was eventually banned by the Indian Act of 1895. The Sun Dance was designed to help the Blackfoot gain contact with the spirit world. The normal means for this was self torture and mortification, such as the Sun Dance or "Thirst Dance", the Cree version of this ritual. The K'tunaxa (Kutenai) First Nation west of us were also sun worshippers.

Usually held in the spring or early summer, it involved the worship of Manito through the Thunderbird or Sun spirit. A central pole was erected with a white cloth with a buffalo skull on it set next to the pole. The ceremony involved prayers, singing, dancing, cloth offerings and the ultimate commitment, self torture. Male dancers were tethered to rawhide lines that were connected to the top of the pole and to skewers pushed through the skin of the dancer's breast. The dancer fell back on the lines attempting to tear the skewers from his skin as he circled the pole. If he failed to tear them out he could be released after one song.
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Runner or not, the fact that Deerfoot went through this ritual suggests to me that he was a remarkable man. Deerfoot went on to win many more races against white men but his life took a sad turn in 1887. He apparently stole two wool blankets from a settler’s home near the reserve and defended himself with an axe against arrest and escaped. He managed to evade a hundred- man search party on the reserve and remained at large for two years before giving himself up. It is interesting to note that another Blackfoot was shot and killed the day before for stealing from a settler.

Deerfoot was represented in court by James Alexander Lougheed, Peter Lougheed’s famous grandfather and was sentenced to 45 days hard labour for this minor offense. This must have been an awful experience for a man who had never before been denied the freedom of movement. This jail term seemed to break his fine spirit as he never raced again, spending the rest of his life in and out of jail. In 1896 he was once again arrested for assault and drunkenness and got a total of seven months in sentences. He was sent away to jail in Regina which is where he may have picked up scrofula, a virulent form of tuberculosis. After serving his sentence he returned to the reserve where he was arrested once again in 1897 for assault. By this time the glands in his neck were so enlarged he was deemed untreatable. So it was on February 24th of that year that the man who could run like the wind died. His running reputation long since forgotten by most, he was only remembered in the end as a troublemaker and jailbird.

I'm not sure what Deerfoot would have thought of having a freeway, an industrial park, a school and a shopping mall named in honour of his memory but I do know this. Knowing the history of that highway’s name makes it a lot more tolerable for me to drive it. So the next time you head down that freeway think about that unbeatable Blackfoot warrior that no white man ever outran.

Author’s Note: In the fall of 1996, the Indigenous Sports Council of Alberta inducted the legendary Deerfoot into its Hall of Fame. He received a similar honor when he was inducted into the Alberta Sport Hall of Fame, located in Red Deer, on May 22 of 2011.
July 19th, 2017 ~ Vol. 87 No. 29
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