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Indian Fall: Treaty 6

In the difficult years ahead, the mounted police would frequently prevent the anger and exasperation of natives and whites from escalating into violence. And the potential for confrontations grew as civilization spread west, as the first towns sprang to life on the North Saskatchewan-Prince Albert in 1866, the Metis community of St. Laurent in 1871 and Battleford in 1874-and as the white population shot up from a thousand in 1870 to almost seven thousand by 1881. Newcomers of all sorts arrived-settlers, merchants and newspaper publishers-or simply passed through the country: surveyors who delineated the border between Canada and the United States; workmen who strung a telegraph line from Winnipeg to Fort Edmonton; and more surveyors who plotted a road for the prairie portion of Canada's transcontinental railway.

All of these things occurred before the Plains Cree or the Blackfoot had signed treaties extinguishing their title to the land. As early as April 1871, Sweetgrass, one of the leading Cree chiefs of the North Saskatchewan River, petitioned A.G. Archibald, lieutenant-governor of the territories, for a treaty, as well as cattle, tools and agricultural implements to ease the transition to a new way of life. But over five years elapsed before the Dominion government got around to negotiating.

Between 1871 and 1875, commissioners appointed by Ottawa negotiated five treaties with Ojibway, Cree, Saulteaux and Assiniboine Indians whose ancestral homelands stretched from the western end of Lake Superior all the way to the Cypress Hills. Finally, in the fall of 1875, the lieutenant-governor of the day, Alexander Morris, asked the Reverend George McDougall to deliver a message to the Cree bands who lived around Forts Carlton and Pitt on the Saskatchewan. McDougall visited twenty-two camps to announce that the government wished to make a treaty with them the following summer. At one large encampment, he addressed Mistawasis, a leading chief of the Carlton district, Beardy of the Willow Cree, and several Assiniboine head men. Sweetgrass was absent, but his son and most of his councillors were present. All of these men were delighted with the news.

"That is just it," Mistawasis said. "That is all we wanted."

"If I had heard these words spoken by the Great Queen," Beardy said, "I could not have believed them with more implicit faith than I do now."

There was one dissenting voice and it belonged to Big Bear. The Methodist missionary had known the Cree chief for years. In his report to Lieutenant-Governor Morris, McDougall dismissed him as a "troublesome fellow" from Jackfish Lake. He was the leader of a small band, a man of no consequence and an outsider. Big Bear was an Ojibwa, a member of that tribe of conjurers and mischief-makers. But there he was, trying to take over a Cree council.

"We want none of the Queen's presents," Big Bear told McDougall. "When we set a fox-trap, we scatter pieces of meat all around. But when the fox gets into the trap, we knock him on the head. Let your chiefs come like men, and talk to us."

Big Bear sensed that traps and dangers lay ahead, and perhaps he remembered his youthful vision in which white men arrived in droves and pushed the Indians off their lands. But Lieutenant-Governor Morris, who arrived at Fort Carlton in mid-August 1876 to negotiate with the Crees, envisioned a bright, harmonious future for both races.

"I cast my eyes to the East down to the great lakes and I see a broad road leading from there to the Red River," Morris said at one point during the negotiations. "I see it stretching on to Ellice, I see it branching there, the one leading to Qu'Appelle and Cypress Hills, the other by Pelly to Carlton. I see the Queen's Councillors taking the Indians by the hand saying we are brothers, we will lift you up, we will teach you. All along that road I see Indians gathering, I see gardens growing and houses building; at the same time I see them enjoying their hunting and fishing as before."

Morris and his deputies, a retired Hudson's Bay factor named William J. Christie and Manitoba agriculture minister James McKay, met with the Crees of Fort Carlton on August 18, 1876. The governor's tent was erected on a knoll about one and a half miles from the fort, facing the Indian camp of some 250 lodges and 2,500 people about four hundred yards away. The Indians approached Morris and his deputies, beating drums, firing their guns, singing, dancing and circling on horses. After a ceremonial display of friendship and formal introductions, the commissioner spent the entire day explaining the purpose of the treaties and the Queen's desire to treat the Indians fairly.

On the second day, Morris outlined the Queen's offer to her Cree subjects: reserves based on 640 acres of land-one square mile-for every family of five; schools where numbers warranted; a ban on the sale of alcohol; hoes, spades and scythes for each family; a plough and two harrows for every ten families; oxen to pull the ploughs; one bull and four cows per band; seeds for growing grain and vegetables; tools for building homes. There would be $1,500 worth of ammunition and twine yearly; $ 5 per year for every man, woman and child, payable to the head of the family; $25 annually to each chief and $15 per head man; and new coats every three years for the chiefs and councillors. And there were signing bonuses: $25, silver medals and flags for the chiefs; $ 15 for their head men; and $12 per individual.

Morris may have been an honourable man who envisioned a future of prosperity and racial harmony. But he underestimated the challenges facing the Crees and their fear of the future. He offered them a few acres each in exchange for 120,000 square miles of land. Some of the older, more prominent chiefs, notably Mistawasis and Atahkakoop, were prepared to accept the offer as tendered. They knew that the position of their people was becoming untenable and that many other bands from Lake Superior to Cypress Hills had taken the same deal. But several younger Cree chiefs objected, and Poundmaker spoke for them. "The governor mentions how much land is given to us," Poundmaker said. "He says 640 acres, one square mile for each family, he will give us. This is our land! It isn't a piece of pemmican to be cut off and given in little pieces back to us. It is ours and we will take what we want."

He and the others recognized, as Morris dearly didn't, that their people would need more than farm implements and carpenter's tools because they did not know how to till the soil or grow crops or build homes. "When I commence to settle on the lands to make a living for myself and my children," Poundmaker told Morris, "I beg of you to assist me in every way possible—when I am at a loss how to proceed I want the advice and assistance of the Government; the children yet unborn, I wish you to treat them in like manner as they advance in civilization like the white man."

This demand put Morris in a tight spot. He had no mandate to promise open-ended assistance of the kind the Indians wanted, but got around the problem by enriching the offer of tools, agricultural supplies and farm animals, and by agreeing to what might be called a disaster relief clause. It stipulated that the government would, in the event of "any pestilence or a general famine," provide assistance sufficient "to relieve the Indians from the calamity that shall have befallen them."

With that, the negotiations at Carlton were finished, and the commissioners moved on to Fort Pitt, where Sweetgrass and a number of lesser chiefs accepted the treaty without argument or modification. Once again, Big Bear provided the lone voice of dissent. He had come in to speak for several Cree and Assiniboine bands who were hunting on the plains, and he arrived late. His fellow chiefs, many of them now Christians and swayed by the missionaries, urged him to sign as well. But he would have none of it.

"Stop, stop, my friends," Big Bear pleaded to his fellow chiefs. "I have never seen the Governor before. When I see him I will make a request that he will save me from what I most dread, that is: the rope to be about my neck, it was not given to us by the Great Spirit that the red man or white man should shed each other's blood."

This statement was poorly translated and subsequently misinterpreted, according to Big Bear's biographer Hugh Dempsey. He was speaking figuratively about the impact of giving up his freedom to roam and settling on a small piece of land like a reserve. To Big Bear, this would be equivalent to being choked by a rope and would ultimately lead to bloodshed. Morris thought the Cree chief was speaking literally about his fear of being hung if he murdered someone, and he delivered a lecture on capital punishment and how it would be applied equally to Indians and white men, if necessary.

So the two men parted, with a chasm of misunderstanding between them. Big Bear went back to his camp, fearful and aggrieved, and determined to resist having any ropes placed around his neck. Morris returned to Winnipeg, his work complete, his political masters grumbling that he had been too generous with the Cree, and his term as lieutenant-governor of the North-West Territories over. A new man, David Laird, took his place, and it fell to him to negotiate an accord with the Blackfoot, the only major tribe left between the western end of Lake Superior and the foot of the Rocky Mountains that hadn't signed a treaty.

From pgs. 132-137 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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