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The Métis in Western Canada: O-Tee-Paym-Soo-Wuk

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The BeginningsThe People and Their CommunitiesCulture and Lifeways
The Battle

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As these final preparations were completed, scouts signalled that the Sioux were coming. When they appeared along the crest of the Coteau, "the army, the whole man power of the great Sioux camp, their war ponies of piebald and pinto and chestnut vivid on the skyline, their gun barrels and spear points glinting in the fierce sunlight of the plains." The Sioux paused. The Métis sent out thirty hunters to warn them to keep their distance. (Remember that this was almost half their camp men.)

The thirty could see the three prisoners. When the prisoners saw them, McGillis suddenly kicked his buffalo pony into full gallop and escaped to join the thirty. After asking them not to laugh at his fear, he reported that there were two thousand Sioux who meant to attack. The Métis advance group, instead of fleeing back to the camp, rode over to the advance guard of the Sioux, gave them some presents and asked them to leave. (It seems that this was part of the formal language of Plains democracy.) The Sioux ignored both the presents and the request. They would take everything the camp had, not just some token presents. They pushed forward. The Métis at once wheeled and raced for the camp. The Sioux tried to cut them off, but were too slow. The Métis regained their camp, left their horses and ran for their rifle pits.

The Sioux came charging in, led by a young chief. Falcon shouted, telling the young man to break off his charge. The Sioux came on, singing war cries. Falcon shot the young chief off his horse, and the rest of the Métis fired in volley. They saw Sioux warriors tumble from their horses, and the rest turned and galloped back to the main body of the Sioux.

Inside the circle Lafleche had donned his surplice with the star at the neck, and had taken his crucifix in his hand. His tall white figure passed around the carts as he encouraged the warriors and soothed the children. All through the fight he prayed amid the fighting and exhorted his people from a cart rolled into the centre of the circle, a prairie Joshua. He did not, he told a friend later, take a gun himself, but he had a hatchet handy, resolved that if the Sioux reached the carts he would fight beside his Métis warriors.

There was a brief pause which was broken when Whitford and Malaterre’s guard, a white man, urged them to make a dash for it. He would only pretend to fire at them. Whitford, mounted on one of the best buffalo ponies on the plains, put his horse into a run and rode "weaving and swaying through a poplar grove, down the slope towards the camp."

Malaterre, knowing his horse was too poor to carry him clear, first shot at the nearest Sioux and actually hit three. He then rode for his life, but was soon brought down by a storm of balls and arrows. His body, bristling with shafts, was dismembered and mutilated and his remnants waved at the Métis to terrify them.

Whitford escaped unharmed. As soon as he knew he was free, he turned and shot down one of his pursuers. Then he joined the defenders inside the cart circle. His mother, who had been weeping, ran to him and said "My son, if you are tired, give me your gun and go and get some sleep. Let me fire a shot at those rascals out there!"

The mass of the Sioux closed in and surrounded the camp, as Lefleche said, "like a waistband." This was not a European-style charge. It was individual. They crept forward, they sniped, and they dashed. Individuals came charging in on horseback and swerved off, shooting from the saddle or under the horse’s neck. Because of this style of fighting, they never did all attack at once. They did not use their sheer mass to overwhelm the Métis. It was what saved the Métis.

The Métis were able to hold them off from the cart circle. They fired steadily as targets presented themselves, while at the same time not giving the Sioux any targets. The Sioux could not get close enough. Most of the Sioux bullets fell short and all of the arrows did. Occasionally, a bullet would find a target in a horse or ox. Meanwhile, up the slope, the Sioux began to feel the bite of the Métis weapons.

Warrior after warrior, "like choice game" writes Dugas, "was offered up with the sure hand of the priest practised at the sacrifice." Some of the stricken warriors turned over quietly in death, some leaped in their death throes, "strewing the yellow prairie with their heaving bodies."

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