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The Flight of Big Bear's Cree

Wandering Spirit led the flight of Big Bear's Cree from Frenchman's Butte to Loon Lake, a distance of forty miles. The journey took four days, and it was an ordeal. The war chief stayed off trails and waterways to avoid detection, leading women and children, youthful warriors and elderly men through bush and forest. Most were on foot and most had left their possessions behind. Some had nothing but the clothes they were wearing. A few had blankets. Others had a little food. Cold rains drenched them as they trudged through a dense, gnarled wilderness. Fear, hunger and fatigue gnawed at them. And the Canadians pursued them.

Inspector Steele, at the head of a squad of sixty-five officers and soldiers, led the chase. He and his men caught the Cree at the narrows between the two basins of Loon Lake on the morning of June 3. Some of the refugees had already crossed the swampy channel when the Canadians arrived with their guns blazing. Bullets whizzed by women and children, includ¬ing some of the white hostages. Cree warriors, poorly armed and short of ammunition, fought vigorously, driving off Steele and his men after a short, brisk skirmish. They wounded two Canadians, but five of their own, including a chief named Cut Arm, died. When the shooting stopped, the Cree and their prisoners completed the crossing and buried the dead. By then, despair had overtaken an elderly woman named Standing in the Doorway. She looped a piece of rope over the branch of a tree and hung herself.

The Cree kept moving. They knew that there would be more soldiers on their trail. Middleton was already en route from Fort Pitt with over 200 mounted men, 150 foot soldiers and a Gatling gun, although he would give up the chase at Loon Lake rather than cross the narrows. The general had sent Strange from Pitt to Beaver River to cut off any escape to the west. He had dispatched Otter from Battleford to Turtle Lake and the mounted police commissioner Acheson G. Irvine from Prince Albert to Green Lake to close off the eastern flank. In all, four columns of men were relentlessly pursuing the tattered, dispirited refugees.

Hunger and desperation finally shattered the large, dis¬parate assembly on June 9. As Big Bear's Cree pushed on north of Loon Lake, the Wood Cree went west, their departure unnoticed until the end of the day. Wandering Spirit and another leader named Dressy Man pursued them and then stayed with them rather than returning to their own bands.

With the war chief gone, Imasees took control of his father's band. Two weeks later, after a futile march east toward Batoche, the final rupture occur¬red. On June 25, the head men held a council. Imasees and several others, includ¬ing Little Poplar, Four Sky Thunder, Lucky Man and Miserable Man, declared that they would never surrender to the Canadians. Instead, they would flee to the United States. Big Bear and many others refused to join them.

Imasees headed south with about 140 followers, eluding the Canadian forces as they travelled through forest and parkland before reaching the prairie. They travelled some 250 miles—¬mortally wounding a settler whom they encountered on the South Saskatchewan and slaying a few stray oxen for food—¬before crossing the border in mid-July. Along the way, how¬ever, Four Sky Thunder and Miserable Man turned back and surrendered at Fort Battleford, the former to face a charge of arson and the latter a murder charge for acts committed at Frog Lake.

Those who remained with Big Bear began surrendering after the council of June 25. Forty people turned themselves in to Otter at Turtle Lake. Another seventeen gave up when they encountered Irvine. Fifty more, starving and beaten, walked in to the Indian agency at Duck Lake. Big Bear's wife was among them. But the old chief remained adrift in the bush with only two companions, his twelve-year-old son, Horse Child, and a former councillor named Two and Two. Big Bear had once been a prominent leader whose physical presence, command¬ing personality and powerful oratory had earned him the respect and recognition of his people. Now, he had lost almost everything a man can lose: his wife, his family, his followers and his country.

In the dark hours before he finally surrendered near Fort Carlton on July 4, Big Bear must surely have wondered how the Creator could allow such things to happen. He had been a good man. He had followed the teachings and traditions of his people. He had revered the Creator who had placed his people on these plains and provided them with the buffalo. He had loved this land in all its beauty, bounty and diversity.

Big Bear's faith had been sorely tested. And it would be tested again, when he was shackled and jailed. When he and his brethren were put on trial. When they were made to sit in pris¬oners' boxes while strange men speaking a foreign language argued their cases. When they were convicted. When they were imprisoned. And when those who had taken the lives of white men during the troubles of '85 were led to the gallows and hung from the neck until dead.

From pgs. 202-205 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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