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Big Bear (Mistahimaskwa)

“‘Many of my band are hiding in the woods, paralyzed with terror. . . . I plead again to you, the chiefs of the white men’s laws, for pity and help to the outcasts of my band!’”
— Big Bear, Plains Cree Chief

Plains Cree chief Big Bear Big Bear (Mistahimaskwa) was a Plains Cree chief thought to have been born near Fort Carlton in present-day Saskatchewan, around 1825. Big Bear’s parents are unknown but may have been Saulteaux (Plains Ojibwa). Over the course of his life, Big Bear had several wives with whom he had at least four sons. Big Bear was a traditional chief, chosen and followed for his knowledge of hunting and warfare. In 1870, he and his band were among those who took part in the Battle of Belly River, the final battle between the Plains Cree and the Blackfoot.

The 1870s saw the arrival of the North West Mounted Police, the numbered treaties, and the diminishment of the bison were changing prairie life forever. In 1874 Big Bear’s band numbered approximately 520 people, when Hudson’s Bay Company trader William McKay was commissioned by the government to visit the plains peoples with presents of tea and tobacco. McKay reported that Big Bear and his people “objected to receive any, stating they were given them as a bribe to facilitate a future treaty.”

Big Bear proved even more problematic to the Reverend George McDougall, commissioned in 1875 to “tranquillize” the plains bands in preparation for the upcoming treaty talks. Most of the First Nations accepted his presents and expressed their thanks, but Big Bear declared: “We want no bait; let your chiefs come like men and talk to us.”

When Lieutenant Governor Alexander Morris began the Treaty 6 negotiations at Fort Pitt, Big Bear was absent, choosing instead to listen to the views of the bands on the plains. By the time he arrived, the negotiations were over. Sweet Grass and the other chiefs urged Big Bear to sign the treaty. He replied that he dreaded "the rope to be about my neck," meaning that he dreaded surrendering his freedom to the newcomers. The statement was gravely misinterpreted by the Treaty Commission, who believed Big Bear feared being hanged, and must therefore have had criminal intentions. Unfortunately this only added to Big Bear’s reputation as a fearless troublemaker.

Morris promised that the Governor-General and the Council of the Northwest Territories would examine the possibility of a law to help preserve the bison herds. This pleased Big Bear, but he insisted that he could not sign Treaty 6 without his people present. Promising to return the next year with the views of his own people, Big Bear was the first major chief on the Canadian prairies to refuse to sign the treaty. However, Morris claimed that Big Bear’s assurances that he accepted the terms of the treaty were effectually equal to the presence of his signature on the document.

Big Bear refused to make treaty for the next six years, even after chiefs like Little Pine had signed adhesions. During this time, he travelled throughout western Canada and the United States in an attempt to establish a First Nations confederacy and negotiate with the government for better treaty terms. His defiance drew increasing numbers of independent warriors to his camp; and by the winter of 1878–79, Big Bear’s leadership and influence were at their height.

In spite of the government’s promise to help preserve the bison, the herds had all but disappeared by the early 1880s. Big Bear’s band moved south into Montana where they hunted the last of the bison; but by 1882 these too had disappeared. Big Bear and his people had no choice but to return north and petition the government for food; surviving by eating fish and gophers at Cypress Lake. Facing starvation, Big Bear signed Treaty 6 on 8 December 1882, at Fort Walsh. He had 247 followers at that time, having lost many of them to other chiefs who had already signed the treaty.

Plains Cree Chief Big Bear Big Bear selected a reserve near Fort Pitt, but after visiting friends on their small reserves along the North Saskatchewan, and seeing their destitution, he changed his mind. This aggravated the government, who cut off his rations. In 1884, Big Bear and his band of five hundred people gathered at Poundmaker’s reserve for the 1884 Thirst and Hunger Dances. Along with Poundmaker, Little Pine and Crowfoot, Big Bear was hoping to form a united First Nations council who would petition for one large reserve on the North Saskatchewan. This meeting never came to fruition however, as the Northwest Resistance of 1885 broke out before it could take place.

Like Poundmaker, Big Bear had any influence with his warriors and was unable to keep them from joining the Resistance. When the news arrived that the Métis had won the Battle of Duck Lake, Big Bear’s warriors led by Little Bad Man and the war chief Wandering Spirit burst into the Frog Lake Catholic church. Violence ensued, and nine settlers were killed. Big Bear was deeply saddened by the events, stating: “it is not my doings, and the young men won’t listen, and I am very sorry for what has been done.” When news of the Frog Lake Massacre spread, the name Big Bear became synonymous with “bloodthirsty killer.” This characterization was further reinforced after The Siege of Fort Pitt, although Big Bear had taken no part in his warriors’ actions and had, in fact, worked to ensure the safety of the civilians of Fort Pitt.

Finally, on May 28, Major-General Thomas Bland Strange and his troops arrived at Fort Pitt and attacked Big Bear’s warriors in the Battle of Frenchman’s Butte. Big Bear took no part in the violence, remaining with the captives and women. The battle ended without a clear victory and Big Bear’s people retreated north with their white and Métis hostages. Major Samuel B. Steele’s force of North West Mounted Police and local recruits caught up with them on 3 June at Loon Lake. All of Steele's men survived but Cree losses were heavy. Realizing the hopelessness of their situation, the Cree released the captured prisoners and fled. After the Battle of Loon Lake, Wandering Spirit and five others from Big Bear’s band were executed for their role in the Frog Lake killings. Big Bear surrendered at Fort Carlton on 2 July 1885.

On 11 September 1885, Big Bear and fourteen people from his band were tried on charges of treason-felony in Regina. Though evidence was provided that Big Bear had taken no part in the fighting and had tried to prevent bloodshed, the jury found him guilty and sentenced him to three years in Stony Mountain Penitentiary. Big Bear’s health quickly began to deteriorate, and ten months after arriving at the penitentiary, he was released. His own band having scattered, Big Bear returned to Poundmaker’s reserve where he passed away on 17 January 1888, at the age of 62.

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