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Indian Fall: Big Bear and Treaty 6

The will to resist had not been snuffed out entirely among the native peoples of the North-West. It survived in the minds and hearts of several thousand renegade Crees camped near Fort Walsh. They were gaunt and hungry and surviving on NWMP rations. They were clothed in rags and living in dilapidated tepees. Most had accepted the treaties, but were not prepared to go meekly to reserves, nor would they quietly take up new lives as farmers. "They are the most worthless and troublesome Indians we have," Dewdney wrote to one of his superiors, the Superintendent-General of Indian Affairs, in January 1882.

Their leaders were Piapot, Lucky Man and Little Pine, and in late April of that year Big Bear arrived from the United States with about three hundred people. They were the last Indian refugees hunting buffalo in Montana, and the U.S. Army had dispatched cavalry and artillery units armed with bayonets, rifles and cannon to chase the Cree home. Big Bear was the most independent chief and the shrewdest native politician on the Canadian prairie, but to the mounted police and the federal Indian agents he was just a rabble-rouser.

He had yet to sign the treaty. He had repeatedly demanded that the agreement be renegotiated, and the terms improved, something Sir John A. Macdonald, who was both prime minister and minister of Indian Affairs, had categorically rejected. Now Big Bear and his troublesome brood were back, and the Canadian government was ready for them. The government controlled the food supply in the North-West. Hence, food, as opposed to military might, became the weapon that would force Big Bear and the other recalcitrant chiefs north and on to reserves. Mounted police officers met Big Bear upon his return and laid out the government's policy: he could sign the treaty or his people would starve. Furthermore, the police force banished him and his followers to Cypress Lake—thirty miles from Fort Walsh—where they were expected to fish for their survival.

But Big Bear held out as spring turned to summer, summer to fall, and fall to winter. In mid-October, a police administrative officer and a physician named Augustus Jukes toured the Cree camps, and both were shocked by the conditions. "Few of their lodges are of Buffalo hide, the majority being of cotton only, and many of these in the most rotten and dilapitated condition," Jukes wrote in a letter to Dewdney. "Their clothing for the most part was miserable and scanty in the extreme. I saw little children at this inclement season, snow having fallen, who had scarcely rags to cover them. Of food they possessed little or none; some were represented to me as absolutely starving and their appearance confirmed the report. It would indeed be difficult to exaggerate their extreme wretchedness and need."

Big Bear and his fellow chiefs believed their people had been cheated. The government of Canada had taken their lands for a pittance, much less than the £300,000 that the Hudson's Bay Co. had received in 1869 for relinquishing its claims to the North-West, and the company had never owned the land in the first place. They knew that their brethren who had settled on reserves received inadequate rations and were often hungry, and that the government had failed to provide the seeds, livestock and farm implements the reserve Indians needed to become successful farmers.

They also knew that the government could ignore their complaints and grievances if each chief spoke only for his own band, and if each band lived on its own reserve. But if several bands were to take reserves adjacent to each other, and if those Indians were to speak with one voice, then maybe the government would listen. This was the goal of Big Bear and the other recalcitrant chiefs. They wanted to create an Indian territory in the Cypress Hills.

But the police and the Indian agents would not discuss the idea. They were mere functionaries in the field. They followed the policies set in distant Ottawa by Macdonald and his deputy minister, Lawrence Vankoughnet. And these two wanted the Indians settled north of the railway, out of the path of settlers who would soon be pouring into the country. They wanted to preserve these lands for the newcomers, and they would not relent even if the Crees went to bed hungry every night and shivered in their rags and rotting tepees as the snow piled up, and the cold deepened.

An outraged mother finally broke the stalemate between the chiefs and the government. Her name was never recorded, but she was the wife of a man named French Eater, and the daughter of Big Bear. She had ten children of her own, and many nieces and nephews, all of them starving. Her brother Twin Wolverine had five children, and a second brother Imasees had two sons and two daughters. Her older sister, Nowakich, had five children. French Eater's wife was not prepared to let the children die of starvation, so she broke with her father and took the treaty in order to obtain rations. Within days, 133 members of Brg Bear's band, including his sons Twin Wolverine and Imasees and daughter Nowakich, had defected.

Big Bear could resist no longer. On December 8, 1882, he walked from his tepee to the office of the Indian agent Allan McDonald at Fort Walsh. He stood opposite McDonald with the few men on those wide plains who were prepared to stand with him that day: Piapot, Lucky Man, Little Pine and several family members. And he unburdened himself. He raged at this minion of the government of Canada and all the other whites who had starved his people into submission and turned his own sons and daughters against him.

His speech was not recorded but it was likely similar to the message he delivered a few months later to an Indian agent in Battleford, then the territorial capital. A journalist from the Saskatchewan Herald recorded parts of Big Bear's harangue as it was translated. "Long before the advent of the palefaces, this vast land was the hunting ground of my people," he said on that occasion. "This land was then the hunting ground of the Plains and the Woods Crees, my fathers. It was then teeming with buffalo and we were happy. This fair land from the Cumberland Hills to the Rockies and northward to Great Green Lake, the River of the Beavers, and the shores of Lac la Biche, and south and westward toward the setting sun is now the land of the white man—the land of the stranger. Our big game is no more. You now own our millions of acres—according to treaty papers—as long as grass grows on the prairies or water runs in our big rivers. We have no food. We live not like the white man, nor are we like the Indians who live on fowl and fish. True, we are promised great things but they seem far off and we cannot live and wait. Alas, we cannot work. We are tired. Feed us until we recoup our wasted bodies and then speak of labor. We are hungry."

Big Bear went on to explain that his people were children of the plains. The Great Spirit had given them these lands, and covered them with buffalo so the people would have food and clothing and coverings for their lodges. Now that the Great Mother owned the land, and now that the buffalo were gone, the Great Mother had an obligation to provide for her children. But that obligation had not been fulfilled and the people were famished.

Big Bear spoke for four hours on that December day in 1882 and would have kept going, but his son-in-law Lone Man and one of his boys pleaded with him to take the treaty before it was too late. With great reluctance, Big Bear took the pen and marked an X on two documents signifying his acceptance of Treaty Six. Big Bear had been forced to sign away his freedom. But no government could ever break his will.

From pgs. 142-146 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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