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Indian Fall: Desperate Times

Hunger bred discontent and resentment in every Indian camp that winter. But Poundmaker's reserve became the epicentre of the turbulence, and Big Bear led the agitation. He was determined to make one more attempt to secure better terms for his people. He was convinced the white man would listen only if the Indians could speak with a united voice. Hence, he decided to hold a thirst dance and a grand council in the summer of 1884. He sent runners off in all directions bearing invitations to the leading chiefs of the Cree and Blackfoot. And his efforts yielded results. By early June, more than two thousand Indians were camped on Poundmaker's reserve. By the time they had departed, Indian-white relations on the North Saskatchewan had taken a terrible turn. The government's no-work, no-rations policy had almost provoked an Indian war.

The gathering began as a social event. Old friends became reacquainted. They shared stories about their new lives on the reserves and the hardships that had befallen them. They reminisced about the freedom and excitement of the nomadic lives they had left behind. And they listened to the captivating tales of the storytellers. Hunters extolled the thrill of the chase and the great feasts that followed. Warriors told of the tingle in their spines as they stole into Blackfoot camps at dawn and rode away on prized ponies. They relived the danger and glory of war and, for the first time in months, their eyes glowed from something other than hunger.

All this talk stirred the passions of young men who had so recently been warriors. Some were ready to crush the whites in the tiny settlement of Battleford, forty-five miles to the east. Others wanted to unleash their fury on the mounted police. But the chiefs wanted peace, even though they filled mornings and afternoons with political harangues against the new order that had reduced their people to subservience. They would renegotiate rather than fight, and Big Bear would speak for them. He would carry their message to Indian Commissioner Dewdney in Regina, the new territorial capital, and he would take it from there to Ottawa. He would present their case to this man named Canadian government. Big Bear would demand more food, better treatment and the fulfilment of the promises made in the treaties.

Having settled on a plan, the chiefs prepared for the thirst dance. Big Bear, a religious man who had sponsored many of these ceremonies, fasted and went without sleep the night before the dance began. He discarded his clothing, coated himself in clay dust, and prayed to the Great Spirit. The following morning, he joined the young men who were building a large, circular lodge for the three-day dance. First, they cut an appropriate tree to serve as a centrepole. They cut down others and erected them around the centrepole to form the outer walls of the lodge. They enclosed the structure with heaps of brush and branches, and old lodge coverings. Soon, the rhythmic throb of Indian drums filled the prairie sky while dancers in animal skins and feathered headdresses chanted power songs that had once carried them into battle.

The drummers and dancers went all night, and into the day, just as they had in former times when the thirst dance was a celebration of summer, and plenty, and life. In those days, the drummers pounded their skins with joy, and the dancers danced with glee. But there was no joy, and precious little glee at Big Bear's thirst dance of June 1884. Nevertheless, the drummers and dancers pushed themselves to exhaustion, bringing to a boil their hatred of the new order.

So trouble was inevitable when a small contingent of police officers interrupted the dance to arrest two brothers—sons of the prominent chief Lucky Man. One of the brothers had whacked an Indian agent across the arm with an axe handle a day earlier after the agent refused to give them rations. The officers pushed their way into the dance lodge but were unable to locate the suspects amid the swirl of painted faces, and the chiefs refused to surrender them. Big Bear prevented a violent confrontation by promising to deliver the men when the dance was over.

The police withdrew to the rations house on Poundmaker's reserve. They worked feverishly overnight to fortify the structure and brought in volunteers from Battleford to help defend it. The following day at noon, Big Bear and Poundmaker arrived. They offered themselves in place of the two brothers. But the police wanted their men, and they rode toward a huge mob of Indians, assembled a few hundred yards away, to make the arrests. As the officers approached, Lucky Man convinced one of his sons, Man Who Speaks Our Language, to step forward and explain how the assault had occurred. However, the police were not interested. They seized the man and dragged him forcibly toward the rations house.

At that, the Indians exploded. They charged on horseback, whooping and howling. They bumped and jostled the officers, and stripped many of them of their guns. Big Bear attempted to stop the mêlée, shouting "Peace, peace." Meanwhile, Poundmaker wielded his ceremonial war club, an axe with three knives driven through it, and threatened to kill one of the officers. But the Indians would not fire the first shot: to do so would have been cowardly and deplorable. Instead, they hoped to provoke the police into opening fire: But the officers kept their composure, and eventually reached the rations house where Superintendent Leif Crozier then had a stroke of inspiration. He ordered his men to begin handing out food, and so the crisis passed, without bloodshed or casualties.

From pgs. 149-152 of Indian Fall: The Last Great Days of the Plains Cree and the Blackfoot Confederacy, by D’Arcy Jenish. Reprinted with kind permission of the author.

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