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Fort Pitt

"I see nothing to be afraid of, I therefore accept of it gladly and take your hand to my heart... I thank God we stand together…"
- Sweet Grass, Plains Cree Chief

“I am glad to meet you. I am not undutiful. I do not throw back your hand; but as my people are not here, I do not sign.”
- Big Bear, Plains Cree Chief

In a spirit of optimism, Alexander Morris and the other commissioners made the two hundred mile trek to Fort Pitt, the second appointed meeting place for the Treaty 6 negotiations. Established in 1829, Fort Pitt was the major Hudson’s Bay Company trading post between Fort Edmonton and Fort Carlton, located at a large bend in the North Saskatchewan River just east of the present-day Alberta-Saskatchewan border.

The assembly was much larger than that at Fort Carlton, with even grander, more impressive displays of pomp and ceremony. The majority of the roughly one hundred lodges belonged to the Woodland Cree and Chipewyan (Dene), with some belonging to the Saulteaux (Plains Ojibwa); only a quarter of them were Plains Cree. The majority of the Fort Pitt Crees who would have made treaty were obliged, instead, to follow the bison hunt. Chiefs Big Bear (Mistahimaskwa) and Little Pine (Minahikosis) were notably absent when the negotiations began on 7 September 1876.

The prominent chief of the Plains Cree, Sweet Grass (Wikaskokiseyin), greeted the commissioners warmly upon their arrival. The North West Mounted Police band played "God Save the Queen,” and a pipe ceremony was performed, this time using four pipes instead of one (see The Pipe Ceremony and the Importance of Cultural Context). Morris addressed those present:

“…I see the Queen's Councillors taking the Indian by the hand saying we are brothers, we will lift you up, we will teach you, if you will learn, the cunning of the white man… I see gardens growing and houses building; I see them receiving money from the Queen's Commissioners to purchase clothing for their children, at the same time I see them enjoying their hunting and fishing as before, I see them retaining their old mode of living with the Queen's gift in addition.”

Morris offered the Fort Pitt bands the same terms that had been set at Carlton. Speeches were delivered for three hours, after which the Aboriginal people met in council to deliberate for several days. Finally, Sweet Grass voiced his acceptance of the treaty. Above all, he appealed for government co-operation in protecting the First Nations from extinction. The leaders signed the treaty, payments and medals were distributed, and thus Treaty 6 was concluded on September 9, 1876.

Of those bands that were already farming or ready to farm, like that of Sweet Grass, there was a desire for a treaty. But had Big Bear, and those hunting bison on the plains, been present, the outcome of Treaty 6 may have been quite different. By the time Big Bear arrived the treaty had been concluded. Big Bear, as the representative of the hunting bands, visited with Morris, expressing his surprise that the negotiators had not waited for his arrival.

According to the account of secretary M.G. Dickieson, Big Bear commented that he dreaded "the rope to be about my neck", to which Dickieson added his own interpretation of Big Bear's words: "hanging." Unfortunately, the interpreter Peter Erasmus had left Fort Pitt by this time, and Big Bear's words were misinterpreted by Dickieson. Big Bear was not speaking about a fear of being hanged; rather, he was employing an expression used by his people to mean surrendering one’s freedom. Unfortunately, the commissioners did not understand this and dismissed him as a troublemaker.

Before leaving Fort Pitt, Morris firmly reiterated his promises; the treaty was now in writing and could not be erased. His departing words echoed his earlier speeches about his confidence in the treaty:

“Indians of the plains, I bid you farewell. I never expect to see you again, face to face. I rejoice that you listened to me, and when I go back to my home beyond the great lakes, I will often think of you and will rejoice to hear of your prosperity. I ask God to bless you and your children. Farewell.”

The people responded with loud cries of satisfaction, and the Chiefs and Councillors shook hands with Morris and invoked the blessings of the Great Spirit. For Big Bear and the others who had not wholeheartedly accepted the treaty, there seemed little room for further discussion.

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