The Treaty Makers - Bearspaw (Ozija Thiba)
Ozija Thiba, also known as Jacob Bearspaw, was chief of the southern Nakoda (Stoney) Nation at the time when Treaty 7 was signed. He acted as a strong advocate for his people’s rights in the years that followed the treaty signing.
Bearspaw was born around the year 1837 in the area around present day Morley, Alberta, the traditional lands of the southern Nakoda. Though the Nakoda were led by a hereditary succession of chiefs, Bearspaw’s prowess and demeanor as a great wa rrior and leader prompted the chief of the southern Nakoda to choose Bearspaw as chief instead of the chief’s own sons.
Nakoda oral history portrays Bearspaw as a respected leader of the southern Nakoda. He was a skilled buffalo hunter who was sure to upkeep the tradition of sharing the hunt with all band members so that no one went hungry. Oral tradition also suggests that Bearspaw, like many others among the Nakoda, responded favourably to the Christian religion, and he encouraged Methodist missionaries George and John McDougall to establish a mission among the Nakoda. A Methodist mission was established at Morley in 1873.
Bearspaw was deeply concerned for the welfare of his people, whom he had watched suffer as a result of disease and the destructive effects of alcohol sold to them by American whiskey traders. He was also aware of the increasing encroachment of European settlers on southern Nakoda land. In Bearspaw’s estimation, the Nakoda could wage war with the settlers, or they could strive to make peace with them. When representatives of the Crown arrived in the lands of what is now southern Alberta to negotiate a treaty, Bearspaw left the Nakoda traditional hunting territory around Chief Mountain, Montana to join the talks. Though he was at first reluctant to sign a treaty with the Crown, Bearspaw became one of the first chiefs to support it, believing it to be an agreement that would ultimately bring peace and welfare to the Nakoda in a situation that was becoming increasingly difficult.
After Treaty 7 was signed, Bearspaw became an ongoing advocate for the rights of the southern Nakoda – rights he felt were being pushed aside by government policy. He petitioned for hunting and reserve land rights, locking horns with Indian agents and the federal government for the privileges he felt his people were entitled to. Despite disillusionments with the way the government was handling things, he kept the Nakoda out of the 1885 Rebellion, and he even had Nakoda serve as scouts for the Canadian militia during the conflict.
Bearspaw died in 1903 and is buried on the reserve lands he fought to secure for his people.