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Poundmaker, Big Bear, and
the Northwest Rebellion

 

Part 1: events leading up to the Rebellion

 

by Brian M. Brown

 

 

 

Contents

Part 1: Events prior to the Rebellion (located below).

Background
The early years of Big Bear
Chief Big Bear
Poundmaker: Another Great Native Leader
Signing Treaty #6
The size of Big Bearís band becomes threatening
Poundmaker's struggles
Big Bear searches for solutions
June 1884 Conflict

Part 2: The rest of the story (located in another file).

  • The Rebellion: Fort Battleford's town is ransacked, the Frog Lake Massacre, the burning of Fort Pitt, the Battle of Cut Knife Hill, the Battle of Frenchman Butte, the Battle of Loon Lake, and surrender.

  • The Trials
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography

 

 

copyright©1999 Brian M. Brown
latest revisions: Jan.22/00 and July 27, 2001.
Web published: January 1, 1999
to http://www.tcel.com/~brownb/Na-acnt.htm and
to http://www.alittlehistory.com on Jan. 10/01.

 

 

 

 

From the perspective
of both the Natives and White people,
it is important to put this entire story in context,
so I begin with a little background.

 

 

Background:

The time leading up to the 1885 Northwest Rebellion was a time when the Natives on the central plains of North America were undergoing major changes. In the past they had experienced the "Dog Days." This was the period before any horses lived on North America. During this time, they had to rely on dogs, so traveling and hunting was difficult and slow. Sometimes they faced starvation, and life was often a struggle.

So the first major change that the White people brought to the Natives came in the late 1600's, when Spanish settlers came to North America and traded their horses to the Natives in the south. Eventually, the Natives in the north were able to trade for horses, and in time they traded for guns, so hunting became quick and easy. For over a hundred years, the Natives experienced a lifestyle in which they did not have to struggle, and starvation was seldom a problem.

Unfortunately, the coming of the White man also brought destructive epidemics of Smallpox, struggles with whiskey, and the loss of the buffalo. When the buffalo disappeared from the plains, the Natives lost their main source of food, clothing, and shelter. Big Bear lived during this tragic period.

 

 

 

The early years of Big Bear:

Big Bear's father, Black Powder was the Chief of a band of Cree and Ojibwa. Black Powder was known as a great warrior and horse thief. As for Big Bear's mother, almost nothing was remembered about her.

But we do know that they lived in an area of Canada which was known as the Northwest. Their band hunted buffalo on the plains during the summer, and then spend the winter in the woodlands where they could hunt and trap. It was in 1825 that they had a baby and named it Big Bear.

When Big Bear was young, the people in the tribe were happy to teach him things. They knew that Big Bear's father was the chief so there was a good chance that he would also become a chief. Big Bear was taught how to ride, to use the bow and arrow, to hunt and fish, and to stalk buffalo on the open plains.

When Big Bear was 12 years old, there was an outbreak of smallpox which killed a lot of Natives and weakened the tribes throughout the West. Since the Natives were not immune to smallpox, the disease was often fatal. The Blackfoot tribe suffered the most. They lost two-thirds of their people.

Big Bear came down with smallpox. He was lucky enough to survive, but the disease left his face pitted with smallpox scars.

In 1838, at about 13 years of age, he had a vision about problems the Natives would experience in the future. In his vision he saw "the coming of the White man, his purchase of the land, the bounteous presents from the Great Mother." This was long before anyone could imagine that the Natives would sell the land to the White man. At this time, it was a huge wide open hunting ground containing millions of buffalo. As the major changes came, Big Bear retold his vision many times. It was 38 years later when the Natives had to sign a treaty with the White man.

*   *   *   *

When Big Bear got older, one summer, he set out with his friends to get horses by raiding the enemy Blackfoot camps. In their culture at that time, even though horse stealing tended to create enemies, it was seen as a valued skill. It brought a lot of respect to those who did it. After each raid, Big Bear had someone deliver the horses he had taken to his father. Meanwhile, Big Bear went off on another raid.

When he returned home in the fall, he was praised and welcomed as a hero. In response, he gave away all his horses. This impressed everyone in the band.

*   *   *   *

One time, when Big Bear was out by himself searching for buffalo, he rode into an area where the Blackfoot did their hunting. After awhile, he turned and saw a dozen Blackfoot coming after him. They were coming at full gallop; shouting their war cries. Big Bear ran his horse to the top of a ridge, down the other side, and then while riding past a grove of bushes, he jumped off.

When the Blackfoot got to the top of the ridge, they suspected that Big Bear had hidden in the willow bushes. They surrounded the small grove of bushes and began to search them systematically. But when they werenít able to find Big Bear, they gave up.

After they left, Big Bear came out and was able to walk back to the Cree camp where he found his horse and the people there waiting anxiously for him. It was not known how he was able to hide, but no doubt his small physical size was a help.

*   *   *   *

When Big Bear was 22 years old, a group of Blackfoot attacked a Cree camp and killed four. Next spring, about ninety Cree lodges, including Big Bear and his father gathered together. They wanted to get revenge.

But when they camped, they were not aware that a party of about 500 Blackfoot were in their area looking for Crees. The Blackfoot also wanted to get revenge.

The Blackfoot attacked and surprised the Cree camp. The Cree were not prepared for battle, so many died. When the fighting stopped the Blackfoot withdrew, leaving the bodies behind. While the Cree had killed ten, the Blackfoot had killed 19 and wounded 40. Although Big Bear was not injured, this was one experience which taught him about the impact of war.

*   *   *   *

Big Bear grew up to be a very plain looking man, short and stocky. He only stood four feet five inches (135 cm) tall.

But he gained a lot of charisma and respect because he was a kind man, good natured, a good sense of humor, and easy to get along with. As well, he was a good hunter and horse thief, and this allowed him to be very generous.

By the time he was in his mid-twenties, he was admired as an experienced warrior and known for his visions. At about this time, he married and took on new responsibilities. He turned from his warring activities and began working at looking after a family.

 

 

Chief Big Bear:

Big Bear 7 kb

Big Bear in 1885, after the Rebellion.

Although most Natives were old before they became a chief, Big Bear was only forty when his father died. It was a natural move for him to take over as chief of a Cree band which included about 100 men, women, and children.

By 1871 he was the leading chief of the Prairie River People and in 1874, about ten years after becoming chief, Big Bear's camp included 65 lodges which contained about 520 people.

Unfortunately, Big Bear was taking over as Chief at a time when the Natives on the plains were experiencing a major disaster. The Natives had been depending on the buffalo for their main source of food, clothing, and shelter. But now the millions of buffalo that had roamed the plains were being killed off. The highly valued buffalo was being hunted by Whites, Metis, and Natives.

Some White people hunted buffalo for sport, and in the South there was a deliberate effort to kill buffalo so the Natives could no longer roam the plains hunting them. This freed up the land for settlement. Many Whites saw nothing wrong with this. Western "civilization" was thriving and expanding, so settling the West was seen as good: it was considered to be progress.

But when the huge herds of buffalo disappeared, the Natives became hungry and many were starving. They had no choice. They had to sign treaties with the White man in which they were promised food, treaty money, reserves, and help with farming in exchange for their land.

*   *   *   *

A year before the gathering to negotiate Treaty Six, a missionary was sent by the government to tell the various Native bands that the treaty meeting would take place in July of 1876. Along with his message, the missionary brought presents. Most of the Natives accepted the presents and expressed thanks.

But, when the missionary visited Big Bear, Big Bear recalled his earlier vision about receiving presents from a Great Mother. He declared, "We want none of the Queen's presents! When we set a fox trap, we scatter pieces of meat all around but when the fox gets into the trap we knock him on the head. We want no baits! Let your Chiefs come like men and talk to us."

 

 

Poundmaker.   Another Great Native Leader:

Poundmaker was born in 1842 near Battleford. His mother was Metis and his father was from the Stoney tribe. Poundmaker was named after his father, a medicine man who was known for an ability to make pounds which were used to trap the buffalo.

Poundmaker 7 kb

Poundmaker
in 1885.

But his father died, and not long after that his mother died, so Poundmaker was raised by his Plains Cree relatives. We do not know much about his early life. But we know that he did not have a reputation as a great hunter or a great warrior. Instead, he was known for his ability to talk.

When Poundmaker was a young man, Crowfoot, the chief of the Blackfoot came to his camp. Crowfoot's son had been killed in battle, so he wanted to adopt a new son to replace the one he lost. Crowfoot found that Poundmaker reminded him of his son, so he adopted Poundmaker. Poundmaker had grown up as an orphan, so he was happy to be adopted. They became close, and their friendship lasted until Poundmaker's death, 13 years later.

Poundmaker was adopted in 1873, at a time when it was important for the Cree and Blackfoot to stop fighting over the dwindling buffalo herds, and to be united when dealing with the White man. The adoption helped to do this because it created family ties between the tribes.

So Poundmaker knew how to speak well. His friend, a farm instructor recalled that Poundmaker's speech was so dignified and so well suited to the occasion that he was able to "impress every hearer with his earnestness and his views." He was known for enjoying a battle of words.

When he became Chief, he became important to all the Native bands because he was the only Chief who liked to deal and argue with the White man. The White public also became impressed with Poundmaker. They liked his looks, and he was fashionable; and he spoke freely and was friendly.

A newspaper reporter wrote: "He is a noble looking Indian.... His eyes are black and piercing. One moment they twinkle merrily at some humorous remark, and the next they flash with fire as something is said that is not agreeable to him."

 

 

Signing Treaty Six:

Two thousand Cree gathered for negotiations.

By 1876, Poundmaker was a headman of one of the River People bands, so he was allowed to speak at Treaty #6. Poundmaker objected to the idea of reserves and their small size. He stated, "This is our land! It isn't a piece of pemmican to be cut off and given in little pieces back to us."

The Cree were concerned. They feared that the transition to farming would not be as easy as the Whites claimed. But, there seemed to be no choice. One Chief stated, "Can we stop the power of the White man from spreading over the land like the grasshoppers that cloud the sky . . . ?   I think not."

They wanted some protection from hunger during the transition to farming and were able to negotiate this. The treaty that they finally agreed to made a vague promise that if the Natives experienced famine, they would receive enough assistance "to relieve the Indians" from their condition. However, it was not made clear if the Natives would be relieved from being hungry or be relieved from death by starvation.

Poundmaker was still not happy with the treaty. Before signing it, he complained, "I cannot understand how I shall be able to clothe my children and feed them as long as the sun shines and the water runs." But Poundmaker finally agreed to sign because he knew that most of his band wanted him to.

So, Poundmaker was the leading voice among those who argued that the treaty was not good enough. He made a strong impression on the other Natives there, especially those who had doubts about the agreement or about the tendency for the White man to carry out the agreement fairly. In time Poundmakers concerns proved to be valid, so his statements at the time of the treaty helped him to gain respect and power.

*   *   *   *

Unfortunately, Big Bear arrived after the negotiations and signing. He had been busy talking with a number of bands which were out on the plains, so he arrived expecting to speak on their behalf. But the rest had already signed the treaty and it appeared that the negotiations had been completed.

Big Bear was given a chance to speak to the group. During his speech, he requested that he be saved "from what I most dread, that is: the rope to be about my neck." Big Bear was using a common expression on the plains which referred to a person giving up his freedom.

However, they were using an inexperienced interpreter, and he had interpreted Big Bear's comments to say that he feared being hung with a rope. The White commissioner replied, "No good Indian has the rope about his neck."

The commissioner now saw Big Bear as a potential troublemaker. He believed that if Big Bear had a strong fear of being hung, then he must have evil intentions. The misunderstanding continued and the government refused to renegotiate the treaty. When their talks ended Big Bear did not have any agreement.

Big Bear had unintentionally created a bad impression and over the years this became a problem. It added to the hostility that the government officials were building towards the chiefs who were slow to become agreeable to the government's plans.

 

 

The size of Big Bearís band becomes threatening:

Two years after signing the treaty, about 2,000 Natives from a number of bands gathered in an agreed to place to receive their treaty payments. Many Natives were now upset with the treaty they had signed because it had been a difficult winter in which some had starved. In spite of what was promised in the treaty, the government had failed to provide assistance.

Big Bear was the main spokesperson because many had appointed him to speak on their behalf. But, the government had already decided not to spend any more money, so the Lieutenant-Governor did not have the power to negotiate. When Big Bear found this out, he terminated the discussion.

Some of the young Crees responded by becoming angry and galloped wildly through the camp firing their guns into the air. Although they were not from Big Bear's band, he was asked to stop them. Big Bear was then blamed for the incident. More White people were convinced that Big Bear was a troublemaker.

After this incident, in the settlement at Battleford there were rumors which suggested that at any time the Natives across the plains might resort to violence.

During this time the government and the Canadian public were concerned with the Natives who would not sign the treaty. They tended to interpret anything they did or said as negative.

*   *   *   *

Big Bear decided to refuse treaty for four years, mainly because four was one of the sacred numbers of the tribe, and he had seen a number of bad omens.

The size of Big Bear's camp and his influence was rising because many of the chiefs who had signed the treaty were regretting their decision. They had found that the White man was slow in providing the farming instruction, equipment, and cattle which had been promised in the treaties. Also, when it was provided, it was inadequate. The Natives grew critical of the treaty and many joined Big Bear's large camp.

The settlement at Battleford, where there were a couple of hundred White people, was now experiencing a lot of unnecessary fear. Big Bear's camp had really grown, so it was now a threatening size of about two thousand.

 

 

Poundmaker's struggles:

Soon after the signing of Treaty Six, Poundmaker became a chief, and in 1879 he agreed to settle with his 182 followers on a reserve which was located west of Fort Battleford and the Battleford settlement.

At about this time, Poundmaker told the chief administrator that the Natives needed a lot more cattle than what the treaty had given. In this case, they were promised more cattle and the promise made the Natives feel better. However, that wasn't much help, because they never received any cattle.

Poundmaker killed an oxen which belonged to the Cree. This would make things harder in the future, but they now had food at a time when they needed it. The oxen had been given to the Cree, so it belonged to the Cree; therefore nothing was done to punish the Cree for killing it. Poundmaker then encouraged other Cree bands to kill their oxen if they needed food.

In the past, before 1869, the Hudson's Bay Company had owned the northern plains, also known as the Northwest. They had seen the Natives as trading partners, so they had treated them well. The Hudson's Bay Company would give the Native advances in goods and then wait almost a year for payment. When the Native was hungry the Hudson's Bay Company would feed him, and when the Native was sick, he could go to the fort and get food and medicine.

However, the Northwest had been sold to the Canadian government and the government had its own policy and its own administrators. Government administrators were uncaring, and did not treat the Natives with fairness or respect. So, although the government did provide some rations in exchange for work, the Natives were not happy with the arrangement.

By 1981 Poundmaker knew that the buffalo were gone and that the only hope for the Natives was to make farming work on the reserves. In 1882, Poundmaker (whose mother was Metis) worked hard at farming. He kept his farm free of weeds, and grew potatoes and turnips as well as grain. In this way, he was a good example for other Natives to follow.

But it was hard for the Natives to change their lifestyle from the freedom and excitement that came with being a hunter to a comparatively dull life where they stayed in one place and worked at regular routine labor. Even White farmers who had experience, knowledge, and equipment had difficulty living as farmers. The Natives faced a major struggle.

Unfortunately, many of the White people had hardened beliefs about what needed to be done. They believed that the Natives should only be given a simple choice: a choice between farming and starvation. They thought that this was for the Native's own good. On Poundmaker's reserve, there was widespread hunger that lasted for years.

During this time, the Canadian economy was not good and the building of the national railway was costing a lot of money. The government was making cut backs. The government cut back on the farming instruction, farm equipment, and cattle which had been promised in the treaties. The Canadian public believed that the government should spend as little money as possible on the Natives.

It is easy to blame the government or the Canadian public for many of the problems. However, we need to keep in mind that most of the White people believed that this was all part of the expansion of Western Civilization, it was just part of "progress." When most White people held the same beliefs, it was hard for them to believe they could all be wrong. They lacked interest in finding better alternatives.

 

 

Big Bear searches for solutions:

Meanwhile, from 1878 to 1880 Big Bear traveled through the Canadian Northwest and Montana talking to the Natives and trying to unite their bands. He knew that if they were all united, there was a greater chance they could force concessions from the government.

In the 1880s Big Bear also wanted to locate the reserves in one area, so they could create a Native territory which would have greater influence. The government refused to grant adjacent reserves.

Big Bear took his band into the United States, and at one point he met with Louis Riel in Montana. But he was not interested in Riel's plans. When an American military force gathered to attack Big Bear's camp, Big Bear lost power and his warrior lodge took over. War chief Wandering Spirit was able to avoid a battle.

After this, although his sons disagreed with him, Big Bear decided to leave American territory and return to Canada. When Big Bear settled in Canada, food was scarce. During these years, he had lost many of his followers, so his following had now dwindled to 114 people.

By December Big Bear saw that his band faced destitution and starvation. He was forced to sign an adhesion to the treaty. When he heard about what is in the treaty, he complained that "half the sweet things were taken out and lots of sour things left in."

Later, Big Bearís oldest son, Twin Wolverine left his band because he could not agree with his fatherís strategy.

In May of 1884, some of the Chiefs got a chance to speak to the Lieutenant Governor. Poundmaker complained that he was not in charge of his own reserve, that government employees treated his band like servants. His comments were noted, then ignored.

Then Big Bear got a chance to make a speech to the Lieutenant Governor. In his speech, Big Bear went on and on, complaining about all the treaty promises which were not kept. There was a lot to complain about, so his speech lasted for four hours. The White listeners had gotten so tired of his speech that they stopped taking notes. Big Bear had asked to negotiate the Native grievances. But this was denied. He also complained that Indian Agent Tom Quinn had refused to give his band rations. In addition, Wandering Spirit complained about Quinn, but nothing was done.

Big Bear visited reserves where many Natives were hungry and some were starving. He convinced many chiefs that they must work together in their struggles against the government. He was able to get 2,000 Natives to meet at Poundmakerís reserve where they held a thirst dance (also known as a sun dance).

 

 

June 1884 Conflict:

As the Natives gathered for a thirst dance, some of them went to Battleford to stage a Hungry Dance. The local citizens responded with donations of food.

But the authorities were not impressed. The Native agent fined the Natives six days' rations for not getting permission before leaving their reserves. The editor of the Saskatchewan Herald claimed that compromise would only encourage the Natives. He stated, ". . . give the Indians their rights, but nothing more."

The thirst dance began. While it was going on, back at a storehouse, a Farm Instructor refused to give food to a hungry Native and his brother. The Farm Instructor then pushed him out of the storehouse. In response, the Native got angry and hit the Instructor on the arm with an axe handle. The police were called.

The law had to be maintained, so about 90 police assembled and then went out to the reserve to arrest the Native.

Two hundred armed Natives brought the accused to the police, but then stayed in the distance and would not turn him over. The police advanced. Some were on foot because they didn't have enough horses. The Superintendent of the police and a small group went ahead and tried to get the accused to give up. They were surrounded by a lot of excited Natives. In all the noise and confusion, Big Bear shouted: "Peace, Peace."

The accused came forward and claimed he had been sick and had wanted food for his sick child. The Superintendent needed a prisoner, so he grabbed for him and missed. The accused retreated into the crowd with four police after him. Some Natives cried out, "Now is the time to shoot," while others yelled, "Don't fire the first shot." The four police got both the accused and his brother, and while the Natives continued to shout and threaten, the police were able to drag them back to their makeshift fort.

The excitement around the fort continued until it was decided to break government policy and hand out bacon and flour. The Natives settled down and quickly lined up for food.

Luckily, nobody had fired a shot, because it is believed that one shot would have started a war in which all the unhappy, hungry Natives in the Northwest would join in.

But the incident distracted the Natives from the purpose of their gathering. As a result, Big Bear and Poundmaker failed in their efforts to get agreement to act with one voice.

The government decided to maintained a hard line policy, because they believed the voters in Ontario and Quebec would not tolerate increased expenditures in the Northwest. Nothing much changed until March of 1885 when the Metis fought a battle at Duck lake.

 

 

 

to Part 2 the rest of the detailed story which includes:

 

 

                       
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Posted here January 10, 2001 .