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Indian Fall: First Nations Leaders

Those who lead rarely can choose their time in office, their challenges, or their adversaries. Therefore, leadership is always a test of character, and this was certainly true for Piapot, Big Bear, Crowfoot, and Poundmaker. These men and their peoples faced an adversary more menacing than any invading army or competing economic system. They confronted a civilization that was alien and incomprehensible, that threatened all that they knew and loved: a way of life that allowed them to draw strength from the elements, knowledge from the land and wisdom from their dreams; a way of life that, according to frontier journal keepers, kept them healthy, happy and robust; a culture based on motion and mobility, homes that were light, portable and comfortable, villages that flowed with the season and the herds of buffalo, nations of the spoken rather than the written word, communities where names were fluid rather than fixed.

Piapot, Big Bear, Crowfoot and Poundmaker fought to preserve what they could of their communities and their cultures, their freedom and their independence, their pride and their dignity, their way of living, thinking and being. They led their peoples during a time of crisis and national catastrophe. To understand the challenge they faced, think of Moses being called upon to lead his people from slavery into freedom, and think of these men being forced to lead their people from freedom into subservience.

Leadership brought them challenges they could not surmount and a cultural conflict they could not win. They were up against a civilization that strove for permanence, that erected fences and fixed structures, that built roads and railways, that adhered to clocks and calendars. It was a world where things were nailed down, driven into the ground, built to last.

The times denied these men the rousing victories and personal glory that leaders so often crave. The times tested them in ways that few other leaders in our peaceful, orderly Dominion have ever been tested. They drew upon their unshakeable courage and integrity to deal with the circumstances that fate had dealt them, and they displayed an adamantine resolve to do what was best for their nations. They were heroes to their people, and justly so, for they were remarkable leaders. They were noble to the end, and fearless even as they faced death, qualities that found expression in Crowfoot's dying words, delivered to his grief-stricken family and friends as he lay in his lodge that overlooked the swift, shallow Bow River and the Blackfoot Crossing. “A little while and I will be gone from among you, whither I cannot tell. From nowhere we came, into nowhere we go. What is life? It is as the flash of a firefly in the night. It is as the breath of the buffalo in the winter time. It is as the little shadow that runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset.”

From pages 323-325 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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