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Indian Fall: Big Bear's Band and the Northwest Resistance

For anyone familiar with the North-West in early 1885, there was one other potential source of trouble: Big Bear's band. Big Bear had led the movement to renegotiate the treaties. His large following included many warriors who hated the way of life that had been imposed on them and longed to make war on the white man. Furthermore, they had endured a hard winter. Big Bear still had not settled, so his people had camped on the shores of Frog Lake, about thirty miles northwest of Fort Pitt, on the reserve of another Cree band.

A brief item in the March 13 edition of the Saskatchewan Herald hinted at the toll of an especially cold winter. "Disease has all but exterminated their horses, leaving them without the means of moving about as freely as of old, and the old procrastinator seizes on this as another excuse for not settling down because he has not horses where with to move. This is, of course, a mere pretence. Big Bear has always an excuse for not going on to a reserve."

But one week later, on March 20, the Herald notified its readers that the chief and his followers had chosen a site at Dog Rump Creek, about twenty-five miles west of Frog Lake. "Big Bear has at last yielded his point and selected his reserve and will move to it at once," Laurie wrote before snidely dismissing the chief's tactics as "schemes that were meant to secure free rations without work."

Big Bear was through fighting. He was worn out. He and a few others—Piapot, Lucky Man and Little Pine—had led the Cree resistance until those who had settled on reserves and cooperated with the whites—leaders like Poundmaker, Mistawasis and Atahkakoop—became disillusioned with the Canadian authorities and their broken promises. But Big Bear had paid a high personal price. He had alienated his sons Twin Wolverine and Imasees. And he had nearly destroyed his band.

Many of his followers had no stomach for political struggle, for an endless fight against impossible odds. They simply wanted a home and whatever assistance the government might provide to help them start new lives. They had hoped Big Bear would choose a reserve after the long march north from the Cypress Hills in the summer of 1883. And they became sullen and resentful when he stalled yet again in the fall of 1884, using any small disagreement with the Canadian authorities as a reason to avoid selecting a site. They rallied around Imasees, who wanted a land base, and who was, for all intents and purposes, running the band.

The camp included another faction. It was made up of warlike young men who still dreamed of riding the plains and ridding them of whites. They rallied around Wandering Spirit, Big Bear's militant war chief. In the winter of 1884-85, Wandering Spirit acquired a potent ally-the spellbinding Little Poplar, a renegade Cree who had rolled in from Montana preaching defiance and spoiling for a confrontation.

Big Bear had lost the will and the ability to govern. Half of his band wanted to settle down and try to survive. The others wanted blood and vengeance. Yet the old chief had paid little or no attention to either faction. Instead, he spent most of that winter in the bush north of Frog Lake hunting muskrat. He let others take over the fight with the Canadian authorities. He let them organize the grand council of plains Indian chiefs planned for the summer of 1885. And he had shown little interest in the political storm brewing in the Metis communities of the South Saskatchewan. He just wanted to live quietly and try to scratch out a living.

But things had advanced too far for that to happen. "The combination of cold weather, destitution, hunger, Little Poplar's provocative harangues and impatience with Big Bear created a seething undercurrent of unrest," Dempsey wrote. "On the surface all seemed calm, as men chopped wood, women cooked bannock and bacon, and a few people ventured out to hunt; but, in fact, the camp was like a hungry, sleeping grizzly, needing only a small provocation to send it raging through the countryside."

From pgs. 156-158 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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