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The Trial of Big Bear

“Never did I order any one of my people to one act of violence against the White man… I ask for pardon and help for my tribe. They are hiding in the hills and trees now afraid to come to White man's government. When the cold moon comes the old and feeble ones, who have done no wrong, will perish. Game is scarce… Because I am Big Bear, Chief of the Crees. Because I have always been a friend of the White man. Because I have always tried to do good for my tribe. I plead with you now; send help and pardon to my people.”
- Big Bear, Plains Cree Chief

Cree Chief Big Bear Big Bear, the great, peaceful leader of the Cree, had done all he could to prevent bloodshed during the Northwest Resistance. Nevertheless, he was hunted by the North West Mounted Police and had no other choice but to give himself up at Fort Carlton in July of 1885.

At Big Bear's trial in Regina, the prosecutors would not accept that he was innocent. He had been present when the killings had occurred and this, in their eyes, was proof enough of his treachery. In accordance with Plains Cree tradition, Big Bear was not in command of his people after the warrior’s lodge had assumed control. The jury, however, was unsure how to apply the law in such a situation. And according to Father Alexis Andre, the Protestant jurymen were bitterly prejudiced towards the First Nations and the Métis people. It took them a mere fifteen minutes to pronounce Big Bear guilty.

Just prior to his sentencing, Big Bear delivered a two hour speech. One newspaper reporter called it an eloquent address, but another wrote that the long speech was "more or less laughable." Big Bear was convicted of treason and sentence to three years imprisonment at Manitoba's Stony Mountain Penitentiary. When he pleaded for release, the Saskatchewan Herald portrayed him as a stubborn individual, whose words and request should be ignored. In the fall, Big Bear was refused parole.

In January, he was admitted to the prison hospital after falling sick and suffering from fainting spells. He was released from prison shortly afterwards, on 4 March 1887. After a month of traveling by train and wagon, he finally arrived at Little Pine’s reserve where he was cared for by his daughter, Earth Woman. Big Bear was, by this time, a tired and broken old man. His wife and most of his family had deserted him. "My heart is broken,” he said. “All I can think of is my past deeds and the misfortunes which have happened to me. I have had a hard time. My sons have gone to the States. I am alone."

Big Bear’s efforts to save his people had brought him ruin and disgrace. He was no longer a chief, did not have a reserve, and his band and family were now scattered across the Northwest and Montana. Sick and broken in spirit, he spent his last few months on Poundmaker's reserve where he died in his sleep on 17 January 1888, at the age of 62.

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