A Man of Many Nations at the Intersection of Time

He stood at the intersection of time, a man of many nations, and a man whose leadership lessons resonate through the ages. His name was Thayendanegea but we know him better as Joseph Brant.

Thayendanegea was born the son of a Mohawk chief in present day Ohio in the 1740s when his people where still seen by the French, British, and American colonists as allies and trading partners. However, those days were ending. The Seven Years War, called the French Indian War in the United States, was a world war. It swept across the Atlantic and saw aboriginal nations choose between the French and British. Thayendanegea was in the thick of it all.

His family had moved to what is now upper New York state. Powerful and wealthy British diplomat William Johnson had married his sister Molly. Johnson had taken note of Thayendanegea’s intellect and leadership qualities. After assuming the English name Joseph Brant, he enrolled in a Connecticut school where he perfected English and learned Latin, Mathematics, History, and more.

With growing talk of war, Johnson arranged for Brant to join the British army. At age 15, he fought in the 1758 expedition that ended with the horrific Battle of Carillon. He was promoted to captain after leading men at the 1759 Battle of Fort Niagara. In 1760, he led Mohawk men in the 1760 siege of Montreal that saw the city fall to British and Mohawk forces and, with that defeat, the French empire leave North America.

Brant was one of 181 Native American soldiers honoured with Britain’s Silver Medal. Britain had won but demanded that its American colonists help pay for the war with a series of taxes and that they remain east of a line drawn to protect Native land. As tensions grew, Brant was again that the center of it all.

He had become an influential leader in the six-member Iroquois League, formed to present a united aboriginal front. With growing violence demonstrating that the British and colonists were headed for war, the League convened in August 1775. The League was broken. Four of the six nations decided to back Britain, including the Mohawks, now led by Chief Joseph Brant.

With the revolutionary war causing more intrusions into Mohawk land and Britain asking for more aboriginal help, in 1777 Brant and Johnson’s successor Guy Johnson traveled to London. Brant met with political leaders, members of the artistic and academic community, and twice with King George III. He spoke articulately and in his perfect English of the advantage to Britain of a full alliance with the Mohawk nation. He left with the promise that his efforts in the war would be rewarded with protection and land grants.

Joseph Brant

(Photo: http://www.nativecanadian.ca)

Brant was good to his word. He rallied a substantial force of Mohawk soldiers and for the next two years led them in a number of operations and battles. He and his men fought with the British at Fort Oswego, at the Siege of Fort Stanwix, and the Battle of Oriskany. The war became vicious with both sides destroying livestock, poisoning wells, burning farms, homes and towns, and slaughtering civilians. In November 1778, Brant led 300 Mohawks on a raid along with 150 British Rangers led by Captain Walter Butler that resulted 30 civilian deaths in Cherry Valley. General George Washington reacted by ordering an expedition that resulted in the destruction of over 40 Iroquois villages and the murder of countless women, children, and old people.

Brant gathered his people and soldiers and, after consultation with British generals, moved in April 1781 to Fort Detroit. He was victorious in a number of battles against American troops but conditions grew harsh, British provisions stopped, and on the Atlantic coast, Britain suffered its final defeats.

With the Revolutionary War’s conclusion, Brant and his Mohawk people were left without land, economy, or friends. The 1784 Treaty of Fort Stanwix saw the new American government take control of what had been aboriginal land. Meanwhile, newspapers branded a number of Native leaders who had fought with the British as war criminals. Brant was personally cursed as a monster with actions he and his men had taken exaggerated while similar actions by American armies were swept from official accounts and popular memory.

Brant returned to England where he again met with King George III. He was promised a personal pension with vague pledges of land. With a new American war against aboriginal people spilling more blood and more burning towns, Brant met with Quebec Governor Lord Dorchester and then with President Washington. Despite his efforts he could not negotiate an end to the American – Indian war or secure land for his people. The 1794 Battle of Fallen Timbers led to a number of aboriginal nations signing a treaty that ceded scraps of land for a tenuous peace. Like Shawnee war leader Tecumseh, Brant refused to surrender and sign.

Brant gave up on the Americans. He dealt with the British and, with the assistance of Upper Canada Governor John Graves Simcoe, secured a large land grant along the Grand River that flowed north from Lake Erie in what is now Ontario. Brant moved the remnants of his Six Nations people to the fertile valley and together they developed the area while affording protection against a possible American invasion across the border at Niagara. Roads and towns were built and farms thrived.

Brant bought an additional 3,500 acres from the Mississauga nation at the western tip of Lake Ontario at Burlington Bay. He built a fine house on a cliff that afforded him a stunning vista over the lake. He lived in peace and until his death in November 1807.

Today, memory of Brant has been washed from America but Ontario has the city of Brantford, Burlington’s main street is Brant Street and its hospital is Joseph Brant Memorial. He is remembered as a diplomat, military leader, and a fierce defender of the dignity and rights of his people. The Iroquois confederation he helped form is remembered as an inspiration not only for Tecumseh but also for American and, later, Canadian leaders who admired its democratic nature and federal political structure. Brant and his struggles should be recalled when those living along the Grand River and elsewhere in Canada and the United States are reminded from time to time that their homes may well rest on Native land.

If you enjoyed this column please share it with others through Facebook or your social media of choice and consider checking out my other columns at http://www.johnboyko.com

A Man You Need to Know More Than Ever Before: Mistahimaskwa

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.

Image

 Mistahimaskwa

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.