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The Leadership of Big Bear and Poundmaker

Cree Chiefs Big Bear and Poundmaker The first major chief on the Canadian prairies to refuse to sign Treaty 6, Big Bear (Mistahimaskwa) stood firm in his hope for a better solution. For six years, while chiefs like Little Pine (Minahikosis) signed adhesions, Big Bear continued to maintain his belief that moving onto a reserve would destroy his people; advocating instead a strategy of non-violence and attempting to form a unified pan-Indian government. He left for Montana, intending to hunt the last of the remaining bison, but the herds were so few that he eventually returned north. During these years, his following dwindled to 114 people. Big Bear and his followers petitioned the government for food, eating gophers and fishing at Cypress Lake to survive. In December of 1882, with no other choice, Big Bear reluctantly added his signature to Treaty 6. At the time, he had 247 followers.

After signing the treaty, Big Bear continued his efforts to petition the government to renegotiate, suggesting that the bands might share a large, unbroken area of land, instead of the small, isolated, scattered parcels the Canadian government had allotted them. He knew that if they were all united, there was a greater chance they could force change from the government. The government rejected the idea of adjacent reserves, but the size and influence of Big Bear's camp continued to grow. Many of the chiefs who had signed the treaty found that the government was providing inadequate farming instruction, equipment, and cattle which had all been promised in the treaty. The people grew critical of the treaty as Big Bear's camp grew to approximately two thousand people.

In the meantime, Poundmaker (Pitikwahanapiwiyin) had followed the wishes of his band and agreed to sign Treaty 6. He settled with his 182 followers on reserve land located west of Fort Battleford, continuing to hunt whenever the opportunity arose. Like Big Bear, Poundmaker protested that the people needed more than what the government had provided. Over time Poundmaker’s band grew to several times its original size and came to include Cree, Nakoda (Assiniboine or Stoney), and a number of Métis people. The hunger of his people pushed Poundmaker to sanction the killing of oxen which had been given to his band as treaty payments.

In May of 1884, Big Bear and Poundmaker were given the chance to speak to Edgar Dewdney, then Lieutenant Governor of the Northwest Territories. Poundmaker protested that he was not in charge of his own reserve and that the government officials treated the members of his band like servants. In a four hour speech, Big Bear voiced his concerns, enumerating all the broken treaty promises and complaining that the Indian Agent had refused to give his band any rations. He asked to negotiate the Aboriginal grievances, but was denied.

As a result of the government's refusal to negotiate with Big Bear and Poundmaker, they lost the support of their more extreme followers. Meanwhile the militant young warriors, Fine Day, Wandering Spirit (Kapapamahchakwew) and Little Bad Man (Ayimisis), were gaining influence in an already volatile situation.

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