The Railway Incident:
In 1882, at the age of 57 a Cree chief named Piapot saw that the White man was building a railroad across the prairie. He realized that the railroad would soon bring a lot of White settlers. Although Chief Piapot knew he could not prevent this from happening, Piapot decided that the Natives should show some form of symbolic resistance. He sent his warriors to uproot 40 miles of railroad survey stakes.
But when that had little impact, some months later, Chief Piapot ordered his band to pitch their lodges on the right-of-way where the steel tracks would be laid. A telegraph was sent to get help from the North West Mounted Police.
Two Mounties, one a young Corporal William Brock Wilde, were sent to clear the way. While railroad workmen watched, Wild told the chief to move his encampment. Piapot refused. Hundreds of Crees whooped in anger at the officers. Wilde took out his pocket watch and firmly told the chief that he would give them 15 minutes to move. Native screams of defiance increased. They fired their guns in the air and waved their knives. Riders encircled the police in a threatening way.
But when 15 minutes was up, Corporal Wilde walked boldly over to Piapot's tipi and kicked over enough poles to bring it down. As the Crees looked on, Wilde marched about the camp collapsing the tipis as he went. He appeared fearless.
Piapot could have given the signal to kill, or the signal to erect the tipis again. But he admired courage and was impressed by what he saw. Piapot yielded. He motioned an order to his people to break camp and clear out, making way for the rails.
So Piapot's decision to attempt a confrontation failed. The newspapers made the incident into "a hero versus red man story" in which the Natives were the humiliated losers.
But the truth is that Piapot's band did the best they could in a no win situation. Piapot and his warriors knew that if they all overwhelmed the two relatively defenseless Mounties, the White people would make them pay for their acts. The Natives knew that they had to maintain some sympathy because they were depending on the White people for food.
As well, if the Natives broke the law, they knew that punishment would be severe. The Natives avoided jail; it was not a good place to be. Even the Indian Department Records stated that those Natives who had to serve long sentences were prone to contract tuberculosis in the dark cells of the penitentiary, and die of the disease.
Although Wilde had displayed tremendous courage, he also demonstrated that he had a perceptive, realistic understanding of the situation, Chief Piapot, and the Cree.
[For more on Chief Piapot, try the file called tidbits.]
to Part 8: February 1884 Incident.