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Big Bear, "Mistahimaskwa"
b. 1825 ca. d. 1888

Big Bear, while in prison after Riel Rebellion, 1885. (National Archives C-1873)

Very little is known about the early life of Big Bear. He was born around 1825 near Jackfish Lake, north of present-day North Battleford, to the Chief of a small mixed band of Cree and Ojibwa and his wife who was also a member of this small band. He seems to have grown up with the Plains Cree bands that wintered along the North Saskatchewan River and hunted south every summer for buffalo. The traditional activities of hunting and warfare occupied much of his life until the 1870s which saw the arrival of the North-West Mounted Police, the treaties and the waning of the buffalo herd. He began establishing himself as a leader early on. By 1871 he was already the leading chief of the Prairie River People and, by 1874, was at the head of a camp of 65 lodges. His influence rose steadily as a peacemaker, diplomat and strong leader, reaching its height in the late 1870s. During that time he tried to create a political confederation of Indian bands that would be strong enough to negotiate freely and fairly with the government. Much of his time between 1878 and 1880 was spent travelling throughout western Canada and the United States in an attempt to unite bands, a task which in the end proved too difficult to achieve. Toward the end of his travels he began to focus instead on creating a unity amongst only the Cree. Despite his efforts, the government flatly refused to negotiate with joint gatherings of Cree bands.

Big Bear, Cree Chief, 1886. Taken in Stoney Mountain Penitentiary.The terms of each of these treaties were similar: the Indians were to give up their rights and claims to their hunting grounds in return for parcels of land, or reserves, treaty money and assistance in education, farming and health. Although Big Bear joined the Treaty No. 6 negotiations in 1876 he became the first major chief on the prairies to refuse to sign the treaty. However, with a rapidly decreasing buffalo herd and the steady influx of white-men on the prairie, the Cree, faced with destitution and starvation like most other tribes, were obliged to accept the treaties. Finally, just six years later, Big Bear conceded and signed an adhesion to the original treaty.

Riel Rebellion prisoners at Stony Mountain Penitentiary, Manitoba. 1886. L-R back row: Father Albert Lacombe; Big Bear, Cree; Sam Bedson, Warden; Father Clouthier.His tireless efforts at creating a united Cree tribe in hopes of creating a more balanced negotiation with the government gained him personally very little. He began to lose influence over his band's warrior society by 1884 as a result of both the government's refusal to negotiate with him and the political and economic concerns that led to the 1885 rebellion. As a result, he could not keep his band from joining in the resistance, though he continued to counsel for a peaceful end to the conflict. Like Poundmaker, even though he was an advocate for peace, he was still held responsible for the actions of his tribe during the the North-West Rebellion and when the Rebellion failed he was silenced. Big Bear surrendered at Fort Carlton on July 2, 1885, was brought to trial and sentenced to three years imprisonment. He was released early due to failing health and died on the Poundmaker reserve in January 1888.

Big Bear, left, and Poundmaker, Cree Chiefs. 1886. Taken in Stoney Mountain Penitentiary.

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135 - Treaties Part Three, Treaty 6
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