On June 26, 2014 Canada changed. The Supreme Court rendered a decision that remade the relationship between Native nations and the Canadian state by dictating that Native land and related concerns must be respected even if absent a treaty. We need to begin adjusting to the new reality and perhaps a good place to start is bringing Native heroes to the centre of Canada’s story. The effort must afford them respect as individuals with agency and not simply victims or foils or important only as they hindered or helped the country’s development. Let’s begin with someone we should all know – Big Bear, whose real name was Mistahimaskwa.
He was born around 1825 near what is now Port Carlton, Saskatchewan. Home was a predominately Cree community that included a number of Ojibwa people. His father was Black Powder, his people’s respected Chief. Young Mistahimaskwa internalized the freedom of the plains, moving south with his community every summer to hunt buffalo and back to winter along the North Saskatchewan River. By the early 1870s he was Chief of the 500 or so people living well according to ancient ways. But things were changing.
God, gold or the gumption to start life anew brought the Hudson’s Bay Company, the police and then more and more White settlers. The aftermath of the 1869-1870 Manitoba uprising introduced a Metis community. More people meant fewer buffalo and less freedom of movement. Metis buffalo hunter Gabriel Dumont began practices that affected traditional migration routes and there was a clash but Mistahimaskwa and Dumont met and arranged a compromise.
Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald was Canada’s indispensable man but with respect to Native nations his tactics and goals reflected the racism of his time. He wanted the semi-nomadic plains nations immobilized and farming or gone. In 1874, he sent a Hudson’s Bay commissioner to bring them to treaty. Some nations accepted the proffered blankets, tobacco and trinkets but Mistahimaskwa said no. He explained that he meant no disrespect but he would not be bought and would not sign.
A Methodist Minister arrived the next year promising more gifts including that of God’s blessing. Mistahimaskwa again declined saying, “When we set a fox-trap we scatter pieces of meat all round, but when the fox gets into the trap we knock him on the head; we want no bait; let your chiefs come like men and talk to us.” The Minister reported that while several Native leaders were friendly and had signed, Big Bear was a trouble maker.
A year later, Macdonald sent another delegation, this time led by Lieutenant Governor Alexander Morris. Morris convened a large conference at Fort Carlton and with Treaty No. 6 offered reserves, money, and farm implements. A number of Chiefs signed. Mistahimaskwa arrived just as the conference was wrapping up. He carefully considered all that was on offer but again rejected it. In an impassioned speech he equated trading the 120,000 square miles of prairie for reserves to slipping a rope around the necks of his people. He had become the leader of the defiant Chiefs and a thorn in Macdonald’s side.
With buffalo herds continuing to shrink Mistahimaskwa and others invented new ways to trap and hunt. In the fall of 1878 he was asked to help Chief Minahikosis who had found White surveyors on land that had been ceded to his people near present-day Medicine Hat, Alberta. Mistahimaskwa met with the surveyors and police and had the work stopped. The incident afforded him even more prestige and power.
By the winter of 1878–79 the buffalo were all but gone. For the first time in their long histories, many Native communities suffered starvation. Mistahimaskwa convened a remarkable gathering of Chiefs and other leaders from the Blackfoot, Bloods, Sioux, Saulteaux, Sarcees, Stoney, Assiniboine, Metis and Cree Nations. Dumont was there as was Sitting Bull. Nations who had based their cultures on the buffalo and the freedom of the plains understood that everything they treasured was disappearing. He encouraged them to learn new ways, to share what they had, and to avoid fighting one another while keeping peace with the growing White communities.
Another spring saw more Native Chiefs taking treaty to secure food for their hungry children. Mistahimaskwa led his people and any who wished to follow to Montana where it was rumoured that the buffalo still roamed. The plan failed as the American herds were gone too. Mistahimaskwa returned and tried several ways to renew prosperity but by the winter of 1882 the 250 people that remained in his community were reduced to eating gophers. On December 8, Mistahimaskwa travelled to Fort Walsh and traded his signature on Treaty No. 6 for food.
The next summer, his people moved north to their assigned reservation near Fort Pitt. The land was terrible. He toured other reserves and found similar conditions. He repeatedly contacted Ottawa’s officials with demands that treaty obligations be observed and asked that his people and all others that wanted it be awarded new land that was more like they needed and had been promised. His requests were answered by his people’s rations being cut and then ended.
Mistahimaskwa organized another large meeting of Chiefs. In the spring of 1884 he led around 500 men and women from his community and rode to Poundmaker’s reserve near Battleford, Saskatchewan. The gathering began with songs, drums and, in honour of Mistahimaskwa, a special Thirst Dance. About 2000 people from several nations negotiated things they could do together to improve the lot of them all.
While negotiations proceeded, a young Cree man left to purchase food and beat up a White government official who refused him. News of the incident spread quickly and soon about 90 police stood glaring at a line of 400 armed Native men. With guns cocked, the two lines strode toward each other when suddenly Mistahimaskwa and Poundmaker galloped between them yelling, “Peace! Peace!” Both sides retreated and the two Chiefs negotiated a supply of food to placate their angry young men. A massacre and perhaps a war had been averted.
Mistahimaskwa met with Metis leader Louis Riel but refused to support or join his planned resistance. His rejection of Riel and constant talk of peace alienated a number of angry young men in his community who wanted quick action and quicker results. Near the end of March they heard of Metis fighters having won a victory against Canadian soldiers at Duck Lake and were inspired to attack the White settlement at Frog Lake. Mistahimaskwa rushed to the scene and arrived yelling, “Stop! Stop!” But this time he was too late. A church service had been interrupted and the unarmed and terrified people forced outside. An Indian agent, two priests and seven other men were killed. The settlement was destroyed.
A growing number of young Cree men who rejected Mistahimaskwa’s leadership were now led by Āyimisīs and Wandering Spirit. Two weeks later, on April 13, they surrounded Fort Pitt with 250 men. Mistahimaskwa got a note to those trapped inside advising them to escape and forget thoughts of negotiation as the young men were wild and beyond his control. A number of soldiers managed to get out but the Fort was taken, ransacked and burned.
Mistahimaskwa saved the twenty-eight civilians captured at Fort Pitt by returning them to his village. Meanwhile, Poundmaker led an attack at Battleford and Riel’s forces clashed with soldiers at Batoche. Canadian troops and militia won both contests and near the end of May, more troops defeated Wandering Spirit’s men near Frenchman Butte. During each of the battles, Mistahimaskwa had been home protecting the White captives and his equally frightened people.
When soldiers began arresting Native leaders, Mistahimaskwa rode to Fort Carlton and on July 2, 1885, he surrendered. He was charged with treason-felony and in September stood trial in Regina. A number of witnesses swore that he had not been present or in any way participated in any of the battles and had, in fact, tried to stop them. Judge Richardson told the six White men of the jury that he could be found guilty only if he had left his reservation and participated in or led the insurrection. It didn’t matter. After only 15 minutes the jury returned a verdict of guilty.
Mistahimaskwa was then allowed to speak for the first time. He asked for nothing for himself, saying only, “Many of my band are hiding in the woods, paralyzed with terror. . . . I plead again, to you, the chiefs of the white men’s laws, for pity and help to the outcasts of my band!” Richardson sentenced him to three years in Stony Mountain Penitentiary.
Locked behind walls and bars the free man of the plains grew weak and ill. In March, 1887 he was released. His family and people had been scattered among various reserves. He made his way to Poundmaker’s reserve where on January 17, 1888 he died. Mistahimaskwa’s body was consigned to the prairie he loved, near the spot where the Thirst Dance had honoured his courage and celebrated his spirit. In this new country in which we now live, may we do the same.