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Big Child (Mistawasis)

"Our way of living is gone, there are no more buffalo, we have to find a new way to feed our people".
- Big Child, Plains Cree Chief

Big Child (Mistawasis) was born in approximately 1813. He was one of the most influential Plains Cree chiefs in the Fort Carlton area, with one of the greatest followings on the prairies. In his early years, Big Child supplied the Hudson’s Bay Company with bison to make pemmican in his early years and was a cousin and life long friend of Star Blanket. Big Child’s people eventually settled on a reserve at Snake Plain.

During his youth, Big Child often met in contest with Crowfoot, the boldest of the Blackfoot, and they appear to have been amicable rivals. Big Child respected Crowfoot, and Crowfoot's people called the Cree chief 'The Iron Buffalo of the Plains'.

Big Child was strongly opposed to the trading of alcohol with the Cree in the 1860s and 70s. After his son was stabbed during a drinking binge, he petitioned the Dominion government to ban the sale of alcohol in the Northwest Territories. Big Child’s appeal, along with that of many others, convinced the government to create the North West Mounted Police to maintain order and put an end to the destructive whisky trade.

With the disappearing bison, the arrival of settlers, and the ravages of smallpox, life for the Cree was rapidly changing, but the government had yet to approach them with a treaty. In the summer of 1875, Star Blanket and Big Child stopped a telegraph construction crew in their tracks, telling them that they needed permission to be on Cree land. As a result, the government finally decided to negotiate with the Cree of the Saskatchewan River region.

When the Treaty Commission arrived in 1876, Big Child used his leadership status to speak out in favour of Treaty 6. He saw the situation in a similar light as Star Blanket. His major argument was that the hardships of the First Nations were likely to worsen, rather than improve over time. Big Child saw the possibility for a new way of life in the treaty and asked those who opposed it, "Have you anything better to offer our people?" He did not directly acknowledge Poundmaker's view that the proposed terms were inadequate and that they should insist on better terms. Rather, he argued that even if all the bands were to act together, their numbers were too small to make their demands heard. Big Child agreed to sign Treaty 6 on 23 August 1876.

Even though Big Child supported the treaty, he participated in a Cree council at Duck Lake in 1884 to draw up a petition concerning grievances with the treaty. During the Northwest Resistance, Big Child shared many of the concerns of those who joined the uprising, but he and his people refused to participate in the violence, fleeing their reserve to avoid being pressured to join it.

In 1886, Big Child travelled to Ottawa, along with Star Blanket and two other Cree chiefs, to attend the dedication of the Joseph Brant Memorial by Prime Minister John A. Macdonald. He was so impressed by what he saw in Eastern Canada that he said he wished to learn all the white man knew. When an inspection of reserves was carried out in 1888, his was found to be one of the most advanced. Big Child died in August of 1896.


Sources:
www.otc.ca
www.sask2005.ca
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