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Indian Fall: The Last Days of Big Bear

The executions were set to take place at 8 A.M., and the condemned men were up early. Outside, it was cold and a sharp wind blew. The prisoners ate their last meal. They said their goodbyes. And they bowed their heads. Mounted police officers cut their hair, removed the shackles and fitted each man with a black veil. Then the men began to sing. Death chants filled the air as they prepared to march across the square from the guardhouse to the gallows.

Miserable Man, who had wounded Charles Gouin, the carpenter at Frog Lake, stood at the head of the line. Bad Arrow, who had finished off Gouin, was next, followed by Round the Sky, who had fatally wounded Father Fafard. Wandering Spirit was fourth. Iron Body, who had murdered the trader George Dill, went fifth, and his co-accused, Little Bear, who maintained his innocence till the end, stood behind him. Itka and Man Without Blood completed the column.

One hundred and fifty mounted police stood at attention around three sides of the square. Dozens of Cree and Stoney people squatted on the grass below the gallows where eight nooses swayed in the wind. Natives were no longer welcome around Battleford. But this was a special occasion. They had been summoned from the reserves around the town to witness the deaths of their brethren. The square was utterly silent as the prisoners marched of the guardhouse, each with a mounted police officer to the right and left. One by one, they mounted the steps and took their places. The two priests, Fathers Cochin and Bigonesse, and interpreter and deputy sheriff A.P. Forget stood behind them as the executioner Robert Hodson bound their hands and feet. The short, chubby Hodson, a former cook at Fort Pitt, had been a prisoner of Wandering Spirit's that spring and an object of ridicule. Now, he would be sending his tormentors to their deaths.

Forget read the death warrants then asked the condemned men if they had any last words. Most of them expressed remorse. But Itka was filled with fire and anger. Resist the white man, he told the Cree and Stoney witnesses seated below him. Reject his ways. Make no peace with him. Remember this day, and remain defiant for the rest of your days. Itka began his death chant, and the others joined him.

Hodson worked quickly as the condemned men sang. He pulled the veils over each man's head. He tightened each noose. He drew the bolt. "There was a sharp sound of grating iron, the trap dropped and eight bodies shot through it,” Cameron later wrote. "A sickening click of dislocated necks, and they hung dangling and gyrating slowly. A few convulsive shudders and all was over.

"The bodies were dropped into rough wooden boxes and buried in a common grave on the hillside below the police barracks overlooking the broad, wild valley of the Saskatchewan. We certified to the death of the murderers in fulfillment of sentences passed upon them, and thus closed the last tragic event in the occurrences of the year 1885."

The hangings brought to a close a much larger conflict: the Canadian government's long fight to assert its control over the North-West, the vast territory it had acquired from the Hudson's Bay Co. in the winter of 1869-70. As Sir John A. Macdonald put it in a letter to the Indian Commissioner Edgar Dewdney: "The executions … ought to convince the Red Man that the White Man now governs."

Many years earlier, Big Bear had foreseen the day when the white man would rule. He was an adolescent then, and he had a niwitcewahakan, a mentor who was teaching him to hunt buffalo and make war, two skills a boy had to acquire to succeed as a man among the plains Indians. His people were free and sovereign. Yet he had had a vague but disturbing vision of hordes of white men arriving in his country and pushing the Indians out. This and much more had happened in the intervening years. The Blackfoot and the Plains Cree had been subdued and confined. His band had been obliterated. His war chief and some who had listened to him had been hanged. Imasees and his small band of followers had fled to Montana where they would wander as outcasts, homeless and friendless, begging and stealing to survive until desperation drove them home a few years later. And Big Bear had become Convict Number 103 at Stony Mountain Penitentiary.

He served his time quietly, working briefly in the prison carpentry shop before transferring outside to tend the farm animals kept at the institution. He liked the fresh air but was not fond of pigs and chickens. They were noisy and smelled unpleasant. Whenever he could, Big Bear watched the animals in the warden's little menagerie. Bedson kept four buffalo and two bears. The sight of listless buffalo brought him no joy, but the bears made his adrenalin flow. He could see the fire and tenacity in these creatures as they paced in their enclosures. The bear had been his spirit helper in the old Indian world. It gave him power and protected him from his enemies. Now, he saw in these captive bears something he admired. He saw that they could be caged but never tamed.

By the summer of 1886, Big Bear wanted out. The authorities had pardoned other inmates convicted of rebellion offences, men younger than himself and most serving longer sentences. If they were being released, why not him? He was no threat to white society, and never had been, according to most of the witnesses at his trial. Besides, he was an old man. He pleaded with his jailers to let him go, but the federal cabinet refused to grant him parole.

By year end, Big Bear's health was declining. Dr. WR. Sutherland examined him and concluded that he was seriously ill. "Although not asked to report on the condition of Convict No. 103, I desire to say that he is very sick and rapidly getting worse," the physician wrote in a memo to the warden. "He is weak and shows signs of great dibility by fainting spells which are growing more frequent. Undoubtedly his further confinement here will aggravate this condition and possibly lead to a fatal termination. I would therefore urge most strongly that he be released as soon as possible."

Prison authorities and the federal cabinet did not want native inmates, especially prominent figures like Big Bear, dying in custody. Indian Department officials prepared a petition and had two loyal chiefs from the Prince Albert area—Big Child and Star Blanket—adopt it as their own in order to protect the government from criticism. "Although we have no sympathy with the heinous crimes laid to his charge," the petition stated, "we humbly submit that it would be very gratifying to the Cree nation if her Majesty's Government would extend to this criminal the clemency shewn from time to time to other prisoners, and grant his pardon for the unexpired term of his sentence."

With this in front of them, Sir John A. Macdonald and his cabinet approved the release of Big Bear, effective January 27, 1887. The old chief left Stony Mountain a week later, when he was well enough to walk, and spent nearly a month travelling to Battleford by train and freight wagon. He had no reserve and no home, but decided to go to the Little Pine reserve, in the valley of the Battle River, about forty miles west of Battleford. His daughter, Earth Woman, was living there and so was his wife, although she had taken up with another man.

Big Bear hardly spoke when a friend of many years, chief Thunderchild, came to visit one day. "You must wonder why I don't speak," he said at last. "My heart is broken. All I can think of are 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.

"The jail was so different from the old times. I did the dirtiest work. One night I was put in a bad place, a dungeon; it was dark and I felt something, a snake perhaps. I did not sleep at all that night. I hated it there, but I would not kill myself for I am not a coward. Now I will not last long. I am broken down."

Big Bear lived to see another cycle of the seasons. He saw the grass grow and heard the rivers run. He saw the prairie summer arrive with the suddenness of a hawk swooping down on its prey. He saw autumn settle with the softness of a sigh, and he felt winter land with a frosty thud. There were, after all, some things the white man couldn't change.

Big Bear had always lived at the centre of his community. He had been the son of a chief and a leader of war parties. A skilled hunter and a good provider. A sponsor of sun dances and finally a chief himself. Now he wanted nothing to do with the world. He took no part in the affairs of his people. And who could blame him? He had been the greatest Indian activist of his time, a leader who wanted a homeland rather than a bunch of scrawny reserves.

But his final years were filled with heartbreak and tragedy. He had been spurned by his son Imasees, rejected by his followers, shafted by a Canadian court and abandoned by his wife. He went to his grave a lonely man and a convicted felon. Big Bear died peacefully January 17, 1888, amid the wind, the whiteness and the savagery of a western winter storm. Sometime that day, he lay down in Earth Woman's flimsy shanty and curled up beneath a blanket. He fell into a deep sleep, and slipped away without a twitch or a sound.

From pgs. 262-267 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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