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Indian Fall: The Surrender of Poundmaker

The night of May 2 was a joyous one in Poundmaker's camp. The fires burned brightly and everyone had a story to tell. There was Jacob with Long Tangled Hair, surrounded by yet another awestruck crowd, explaining how he hadn't been able to sleep the previous night, recounting how he had turned this way and that way until he realized that Old Man Stone was prodding him, telling him to get up. Jacob was the keeper of this object, which was regarded as a sacred stone. He made offerings to its spirit, and Old Man Stone had spoken to him many times, telling him when visitors were coming, for instance, or a storm was imminent.

So Jacob got up and ascended to a lookout above the camp. He sat with his back to the west. He felt the wind rise to greet the dawn. He stared as far as he could see, to the grey line where land met sky, then directed his gaze to the marshy, meandering creek below him. That's when he saw the wagons, filled with soldiers, coming straight toward the camp, and he raced off to sound the alarm.

The story of the battle was told again and again. It had been a thrilling victory. But few slept well that night. People kept hearing wagons rumbling in the distance, and occasionally someone would yell, "The soldiers are coming." Everyone knew the whites would want revenge for their defeat at Cut Knife Hill. They knew the camp would have to move. The question was: where should they go?

Two days after the battle, Metis emissaries arrived with a letter from Louis Riel and a council was held to discuss it. Riel was looking for two hundred men. His representatives, seven in all, assured the Indians that the Metis would defeat the Canadians and capture Middleton. They provided rousing accounts of the fight at Fish Creek. Many of the Cree leaders, including Poundmaker, were unimpressed. They wanted to move west, away from the conflict. Poundmaker, his family and a few loyal followers even packed their possessions and started to ride away from the camp. But they were forced to return by a group of armed Metis and Stoneys. Warriors and militants were in control. They had decided to go east and join Riel. And given the rules that governed Indian camps, that meant everyone would go east.

The Indians began travelling toward the Eagle Hills, moving every other day or so and cutting a wide arc across the prairie until they were sixty miles south of Battleford and the Canadian soldiers. But collisions occurred anyway. The Crees and their allies encountered three white scouts, two of whom escaped on horseback. The third was left behind and, rather than surrendering, died in a shootout with the Indians. Later the same day, they met a train of horse-drawn wagons, driven by teamsters hauling supplies north to Battleford from the railway. Native and Metis fighters seized the wagons and made prisoners of the drivers.

The column of more than a thousand people was still in the vicinity of the Eagle Hills when Metis messengers arrived with news of the fight at Batoche. A day later, there was more news. The Metis had been defeated and Riel had surrendered. This led to a final council for there were many in the camp who remained defiant, who knew they could be starved out but did not believe that they could be beaten in a fight. Finally, Poundmaker rose. He stood amid the multitude seated within the circle of tepees, a tall, slender, dignified man, a blanket draped over his shoulder and thick, braided locks cascading down to his waist.

"You all, as many as you are, behold me. You all call me your chief. Listen carefully to my words. Today, it is no more a question of fighting. You who have committed murders, who have plundered the innocents, it is no more time to think of saving your own lives. Look at all these women and children. Look at all these youths around you. They are all clamouring for their lives. It is a case of saving them. I know we are all brave. If we keep on fighting the whites, we can embarrass them. But we will be overcome by their numbers, and nothing tells us that our children will survive. I would sooner give myself up and run the risk of being hanged than see my tribe and my children shot through my fault, and by an unreasonable resistance see streams of blood shed. Now, let everyone who has a heart do as I do and follow me."

The time had come to surrender and the people stood behind him. Poundmaker dictated a letter to Jefferson asking Middleton for terms. Jefferson left with the document the next day, accompanied by a party of Metis and Indians. They went north to Duck Lake, on to Prince Albert, and southwest to Fort Carlton before catching the general, who was travelling by steamer up the North Saskatchewan to Battleford. Middleton's response was brief and menacing. The Indians could surrender unconditionally or face the consequences. "I have men enough to destroy you, and your people, or at least to drive you away to starve," he wrote, "and will do so unless you bring in the teams you took, yourself and Councillors, to meet me at Battleford on Tuesday, the 26th."

And so they marched north to Battleford, making their final stop eight or ten miles out. "It was a sad camp," Jefferson later wrote. "Gloom of the deepest clouded every face. All conversation was direful speculation as to the form the General's vengeance would take." The next morning, the men filled two wagons with their weapons, over three hundred in all. They walked with empty hands and heavy hearts. Poundmaker led them into the soldiers' camp at Battleford, past dozens of tents pitched on the flats between the Battle River and the police barracks, to Middleton's quarters.

When all were seated, the Cree leader went forward to greet the silent and glowering general who remained in his chair, with officers behind him and soldiers back of them. Poundmaker surrendered his gun, a sleek Winchester rifle with a polished brass breech and a stock studded with brass tacks representing hail, a potent natural force revered by the Plains Cree. Then he extended his hand but Middleton refused to shake it.

"Is it usual," the general asked through an interpreter, "for Indians to go about pilfering like rats?"

"I felt that I had a rope about my neck and something drawing me all the time."

"Has a chief no power?"

"I am not sure that I am a chief."

"Who murdered Payne and Tremont?"

"I cannot name them, and I would not tell the great chief a lie."

Middleton interrogated Poundmaker about every incident of the past two months attributed to his followers, and concluded with a warning against future transgressions. "Let all Indians understand that if one white man is killed, ten Indians will suffer for it."

Then the arrests began. Middleton had Poundmaker and his brother, Yellow Mud Blanket, taken into custody. Itka and Waywahnitch, or Man Without Blood, were next. Itka, an old man with a bandage around his head and a tattered blanket drawn over his shoulders, came forward to confess to the murder of Payne. The younger Waywahnitch, resplendent in beads and plumage, admitted slaying Tremont. As the prisoners were led away, whites and natives began to disperse. An old Stoney woman had the final word that day. "The Almighty sees," she wailed in a wrenching voice. "Our children and country have been taken."

From pgs. 193-198 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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