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History of Saskatchewan and The Old North West
Chapter XXVIII - Racial Aspects of the Rebellion of 1885


The Rebellion a French Halfbreed Rising — Misunderstanding Between French and English—Alliance of Rebels With the Indians—Character of Big Bear; His Trial; Summary of Evidence—Poundmaker's Case—Dewdney's Opinion of Poundmaker—White Cap's Experience.

While the Saskatchewan rebellion was the immediate result of prolonged neglect on the part of the Ottawa officials and of gross errors of judgment on the part of others in the territories, it arose in a considerable measure from racial and religious causes.

The whole population of the Territories shared and bitterly resented many of the grievances of which the rebels complained, this being, of course, specially true of the English speaking Halfbreeds. Nevertheless, it is doubtful whether a single white man1 could be named who fairly earned the name of rebel, and the non-French Halfbreeds remained loyal almost without exception. So also did the great majority of French Halfbreeds, though in a special sense the rebellion was a French Halfbreed rising.

It is evident that at least some of the seeds of insurrection can be traced to the lingering discontent of the haughty warlike race whose army met disaster on the Plains of Abraham in 1759. The gulf involved in diversity of languages and national traits is one to be bridged only by generations of mutual forbearance, by prolonged and general efforts to appreciate a standpoint far removed from one's own and by the exercise of wise and patient statesmanship. The facts that there were no rebels of unmixed French blood, and that the French Canadian volunteers served nobly in the suppression of the rebellion, are among the many indomitable evidences that such a gulf can be bridged, however, and the insurrection is merely a painful reminder that the task of unifying the Canadian nation was not as yet altogether completed.

Indeed, the rebel Halfbreeds were disaffected not so much because they were French as because they were Indians. The aboriginal blood flowing in their veins made them feel that in a special sense the country they occupied was their own, and that the whites were interlopers who by force of numbers and by the subleties of the law were robbing them of their inheritance. The crime laid at the door of Kiel and his associates, which people of the west found it hardest to forgive, was that of instigating an Indian outbreak. As we have seen, many of the French Halfbreeds themselves were intensely averse to anything that might involve such a conflagration. In judging the moral culpability of the others, moreover, one should realize that it would be a very different thing for white men to arouse the warriors of a barbarous race to support them against their foes, from what it was when a handful of Metis in desperate straits sought succor from their brothers-in-law and cousins of the red race, whom they felt to be suffering from the wrongs identical with or kindred to their own.

The amazing feature of the whole situation is, however, that no general Indian rising actually took place. The great majority of the Indians, as we have seen, remained either neutral or definitely on the side of the Government. Of the numerous American Indians residing in Canada few, except some of the Teton Sioux, took any part in the rising. Those who did were, it may be remarked, practically exterminated. Furthermore, many of the Canadian Indians who were involved in the insurrection played the part they did very much against their wills.

Most of those who have written on rebellion topics have united in vilifying Big Bear, but the testimony of those who knew him is almost unanimously in his favor and, from a dispassionate review of the available evidence, I am personally convinced that he had no share in instigating the outrages with which his name came to be associated. "Personally,"' says MacBeth, in his Making of thc Canadian West, "he was rather a harmless old man who but for two of his band, Wandering Spirit and Little Poplar, would never have been found on the warpath." Mr. John Dixon, of Maple Creek, knew Big Bear well, and has always been convinced that he was not responsible for the outrages at Frog Lake. "Big Bear," said Air. Dixon, in an interview with the writer, "was an Indian of whom I cannot say too much good. He was generous to a fault and always faithful to his word. He was constantly endeavoring to educate his people, especially the younger ones, to obey the law. He recognized that the white men had come to stay and he was concerned only to get for his people the best terms that he could." Mr. Dixon won Big Bear's complete confidence and the unfortunate chief frequently discussed his difficulties with him.

The Saskatcliezuan Herald of June 9, 1883, said of Big Bear: "He was the only chief around here who has displayed any energy in his operations or who has conducted himself with dignity, and it would have a bad effect on the other bands of the district if, from any fault not his own, he should be made to forfeit his high position as the most industrious, best behaved and most independent chief in the district." Big Bear, Crowfoot, and other Indians have alleged that as early as 1879, while they were visiting Montana, Riel attempted to arouse them against the whites.

I do not think that any disinterested person can now read the official records of Big Bear's trial for treason-felony without feeling profound sympathy for the unfortunate old man.

Big Bear's trial took place on September 11, 1885, at Regina, before the Honorable Hugh Richardson, Stipendiary Magistrate and Henry Fisher, Esq., Justice of the Peace. The charge was one of treason-felony—i. e., that, with others, he had designed and intended to levy war against the constituted Government. The occasions of the alleged offense were, first, at the massacre of Duck Lake (April 2nd) ; second, at the capture of Fort Pitt (April 17th); third, on April 21 when an incriminating letter was said to have been dictated by him; and, fourth, at the Battle of Frenchman's Butte. Big Bear was defended by F. B. Robertson, Esq., while Messrs. D. L. Scott and \V. C. Hamilton appeared for the Crown. The following pages contain a fair synopsis of the evidence upon which Big Pear was convicted.

One of the principal witnesses was Mr. John Pritchard, who had performed such important public services in protecting Mrs. Delaney and Mrs. Gowanlock, when after the massacre he and they were prisoners of Big Bear's band for a period of two months. Big Bear's son, Tmesis, was the leader of the band of Indians that took him prisoner. Witness affirmed that Big Bear had tried to save the white families at Fort Pitt, and had arranged for the police to get away in safety. When the Indians moved down on Fort Pitt, Wandering Spirit and Little Poplar were in command and Big Bear had no influence over their following. He could not have prevented the pillaging of the Fort, and, in Mr. Pritchard's opinion, the best he could do was to help the whites to get away and save their lives. Indeed, the witness made it clear that Big Bear was treated from first to last with much contumely by his unnatural son and the* other rebellious warriors. Mr. Pritchard was a Crown witness, but the only item in his prolonged evidence that reflected upon Big Bear's loyalty was as follows: Witness was taken to Wandering Spirit's teepee, where he also found Big Bear and two French Halfbreeds, Montour and Andre Xeault. Big Bear said he was going to try and compel the Bacana Indians to join them and approved of a letter written by Montour to friends at La Biche, inviting them to come also. This letter was not produced nor was it shown that Big Bear made any actual attempt to deliver his proposed ultimatum to Pecan of the Bacanas. During all the wandering of the band, in spite of the difficult nature of the country and the fact that they had more than one hundred horses, Big Bear was always on foot. A letter came to Pritchard from Norbert Delorme, and upon this falling into the possession of Wandering Spirit and his companions, a Council was held as to the advisability of joining Poundmaker, but the witness was not aware that Big Bear himself had taken any action in the matter. Imesis, Wandering Spirit and Little Poplar had wished to have all the prisoners killed, but Big Bear and others, especially the Wood Crees from Long Lake, had protected them.

James Kay Simpson visited Frog Lake on the afternoon of April 2, after the massacre, and was detained a prisoner. Big Bear complained to Simpson that his young men would not listen to him, and that he was very sorry for what had been done. He had known Big Bear for nearly forty years and had always found him a good Indian, a good friend to the white man, and always respected by the white people. At the time of the outbreak witness affirmed that Big Bear was not in control of his people. Indeed, as a matter of fact, of late years the younger men in the tribe had looked upon him as a sort of old woman. He had seen Big Bear the day of the skirmish of Frenchman's Butte early in the afternoon, about sixteen miles distant from the scene of battle. The fighting men were still at the front. When the proposition bad been made that the band should join Poundmaker, Big Bear said he did not wish to go.

Mr. Stanley Simpson, Hudson's Bay Company clerk at Fort Pitt, another of the prisoners, stated that somewhere near Frenchman's Butte Big Bear had said something about wanting his people to cut the head off "the Master who was over the soldiers,"—that is to say, the officer in command of the police. At the same time Simpson admitted that this had been said in Cree and that his knowledge of that language was very limited. During the fight at Frenchman's Butte he had seen Big Bear about two and a half miles from where the skirmish was taking place, but the Indian had expressed his approval of the losses inflicted upon the soldiers. The witness admitted, however, that Big Bear had used his influence for the protection of the prisoners, and that the Indian had complained to' his followers that there was a time when he was a great chief and they had obeyed him, but that now when he said one thing they would do another. In the cross-examination, to test this witness' knowledge of Cree, Interpreter Houri expressed in that language the following sentence written by Mr. Robertson, and the witness was asked to translate it: "If the Captain of the Soldiers does not give me tobacco we will cut the tops off the trees." In answer, he said: "I am asked by Mr. Houri if he had given me some tobacco, or something of that sort. I can't understand it."

Mrs. Catherine Simpson of Frog Lake was visited by Big Bear on April 2 and warned of danger. Big Bear told her that he could not be every-where to look after his young men and that he thought there was going to be trouble. He stayed at her house for a time and had something to eat, and during this interval the massacre commenced. Big Bear sprang up and ran out shouting to the people to stop firing.

Mr. W. J. MacLean, Hudson's Bay Company factor at Fort Pitt, considered Big Bear a good Indian. During his two months' experience as a prisoner he had seen the chief almost daily, if not daily. The chief bad taken no part in the pillaging of Fort Pitt. Through the whole trouble Wandering Spirit, Imesis, and Little Poplar had treated Big Bear with utter contempt. Mr. MacLean had worked actively to prevent the band from uniting with Poundmaker's Indians, and Big Bear also sided with him. He affirmed that at least during most of the time of the fighting at Frenchman's Butte Big Bear had been in camp with the prisoners some miles away, and he did not think he had taken any part in the fight. Big Bear had dictated letters to the police strongly advising them to leave Fort Pitt. The witness was very frequently at Big Bear's camp, than which none other was more wretchedly poor, and be was sure that the chief was not in possession of any of the pillaged goods.

Mr. Henry R. Halpin, Hudson's Bay Company clerk, had known Big Bear by reputation for six or seven years, and personally for the last nine months, and as far as he had known and heard of him he had always been a good Indian and friend of the while man. He had met him on the trail on March 19th and told him of the report that Riel had stopped the mails at Batoche and that there was likely to be trouble. Big Bear showed surprise. The Indian was then engaged in a hunting expedition. Afterwards when Mr. Halpin had been taken prisoner by Lone Alan, Big Bear bad shown himself friendly. He bad invited Mr. Halpin to his own tent for security and told him that it was not through his fault that the trouble at Frog Lake had occurred. In the subsequent Indian Councils Big Bear very seldom spoke. When the Indians went down to Fort Pitt, Big Bear was away at the back of the caravan. Big Bear told him to come with him,- as he thought if Flalpin went down to Fort Pitt and wrote letters for him the white people might be induced to come out of the Fort peaceably and bloodshed might be prevented. He was in company with Big Bear during the whole time the pillaging of the Fort was going on and the Indian did not take any part in it. While Mr. Halpin had been a prisoner with the Indians the leading chiefs of his band had treated Big Bear altogether with contempt. The witness thought the prisoner had been desirous that no blood should be spilt and was sure that his intentions towards the captives had been good. Their chief protection, however, had been the prestige of the Hudson's Bay Company. When the witness had told Air. Stanley Simpson that he had been called for the defense, Mr. Simpson had said that he thought it very strange that any white man should appear in the defense of an Indian.

Mr. W. B. Cameron, Hudson's Bay Company clerk at Frog Lake, described an interesting harangue in which Big Bear had spoken to thc following effect:

"Long ago I used to be recognized by all you Indians as a chief, and there was not a bigger chief among you than I was. All the southern Indians knew it—the Plains, the Piegans, the Sioux, and the Blackfeet. When I said a thing at that time there was some attention paid to it and it was acted upon, but now I say one thing and you do another."

The chief pointed at Wandering Spirit and his other rebellious subordinates, and then sat with banging head. When the Indians came to pillage the stores in the charge of Air. Cameron at Frog Lake, Big Bear had crowded his way through the young men and forbidden them to take anything without permission. In a Council when Wandering Spirit was speaking against the white prisoners in the camp and agitating for their assassination, Big Bear got up and said:

"I pity all these white people that we saved. I don't wish harm should come to one of them. Instead of trying to harm them you should be giving them back some of the things you have plundered from them."

On one occasion the witness had heard Mr. Halpin complaining to Big Bear that some things had been stolen from him by some of the Indians and Big Bear said that he himself had had a blanket stolen out of his own tent, and added, "When they would steal from me, the man they call their chief, I can't be responsible for what they do to other people."

Briefly synopsized the salient points of the evidence were these: That Big Bear received his first information of the impending insurrection from his loyalist friend, Mr. Halpin, March 19th; that the news did not disturb his hunting plans and that he did not return to Frog Lake till the beginning of April; that in the meantime he had heard of the Duck Lake affair and that immediately on his arrival he went to the Indian Agent and assured him of his intention to remain loyal: that next morning he interfered to prevent the looting of the Hudson Bay Company's store, from which he went to Airs. Simpson's to warn her of his inability to control his braves: that while there the massacre broke out and that he did what he could to stop it; that a fortnight later when the band moved down against Fort Pitt he reluctantly accompanied them and that by letters and messages to the inmates of the Fort he tried to avert bloodshed; that when the police left and the Fort was looted he took no part in the robbery, but that on the other hand he subsequently upbraided his people for having done so; that he said he was going to try to make Chief Bacana (Pecan) join him and that he advised Montour to write in the same tenor to friends of the latter, that at Frenchman's Butte it appeared that he took no part in the fighting, though, according to one witness, speaking with manifest- animus, Big Bear on this occasion wished for the head of the officer who was driving him into the wilderness; that, on the whole, he enjoyed an exceptionally good reputation, had at one time been an influential chief but had of late years lost his prestige with his people; that he was a good friend to the whites and continually exercised what was left of his waning powers to protect the prisoners his band had taken; and that the real leaders of his band in their late adventures had been his misguided son, Imesis, certain subordinate chiefs and a mischief-making and influential Halfbreed.

Mr. Robinson's address to the jury was very earnest and convincing. He emphasized the unfairness of applying to an Indian, without consideration of his environment and viewpoint, the rules of conduct applicable to an intelligent white man. With rebellion in the air around him, a white man would have joined himself to the Government forces, but thus to separate himself from his band would not and could not naturally occur to an Indian; while on the other hand, in his wish to restrain his son and prevent further bloodshed he had abundant motive for staying with his people.

Mr. Scott took advantage of his privilege as Crown Counsel to address the jury after Mr. Robertson. He rested his case simply on the fact that Big Bear continued to associate with rebels, knowing them to be rebels.

Mr. Justice Richardson's charge reads very much like a continuation of Mr. Scott's address and, with it, had the effect of producing, fifteen minutes later, the verdict of guilty. Big Bear was sentenced to three years' imprisonment, hut through the exercise of executive clemency he was released before his term had expired.

The case of Poundmaker is even more pathetic than that of Big Bear. That he had taken no active part in the rebellion until his camp was attacked by Otter is admitted, as also is that fact that had he chosen to take advan-age of its helplessness he could utterly have annihilated Otter's column. A number of irresponsible Stoneys, who had associated themselves with his band, on more than one occasion had manifested a desire to murder the numerous white prisoners taken by bis braves. Before sentencing Pound-maker to three years' imprisonment, Judge Richardson spoke as follows:

"That you were kind to the white men who fell into your hands is quite clear; that you were kind to the prisoners and took care of them seems also unquestioned: and probably the friends of these young white men, the teamsters, owe their lives to your personal influence."

At his trial Poundmaker bore himself with impressive dignity and decorum. Before sentence was passed, Air. Justice Richardson gave him leave to speak.

"I only want to speak once," said he. "Everything that is bad has been said against me this summer—there is nothing of it true. This summer what I have worked for is the Queen and the country that belongs to the Queen. I did everything to stop bloodshed. If I had not done so there would have been plenty of blood spilt this summer. Now, as I have done that much good, whatever sentence you may pass on me, of course pass it.

"I am glad I stayed where there would have been a great deal of blood spilt, and now that I have done so, I shall have to suffer for their sins."

When the prisoner heard he was to be sent to Manitoba penitentiary he expressed the wish that he might be hanged instead. Indeed, such a course would perhaps have been the more merciful. Though he was released after some months, his confinement and chagrin had broken his heart. His death occurred shortly afterwards.

As illustrative of Riel's methods of securing Indian support, the case of White Cap may be taken. The Halfbreeds came and drove away his cattle and loose horses, practically obliging White Cap and his band to follow them. Mr. Willoughby, of Saskatoon, endeavored to get an interview with White Cap, but the Halfbreeds did all they could to prevent it. However, a conversation occurred. White Cap sent for Air. Willoughby and complained that he was being taken up to Batoche against his will, and wished the citizens of Saskatoon to assist him to escape from the Halfbreeds. Unaided, he said he was afraid to break away, but he said he would have nothing to do with the rebellion. Some citizens did try to secure his release, but either no favorable opportunity presented itself or, when the crucial moment came, White Cap himself failed to take the initiative. Consequently this old Sioux Indian, who could not speak a work of French or Cree, was brought in fear to Kiel's headquarters at Batoche. He was taken into a meeting at which all the proceedings were conducted in French and Cree, and it seems certain that he knew nothing of what was transpiring. As a matter of fact, he had just been made a member of Riel's Council whether he liked it or not. Mr. Robertson's pathetic appeal for White Cap proved successful, and it is a relief to read that the jury at Regina returned a verdict of not guilty.

[The Honorable Edgar Dewdney, in a letter to the author, speaks of this unfortunate Indian in the following terms:

"Poundmaker was a good Indian and a great friend of mine. If I could-have reached him I know I could have kept him in check. He stood among the Crees very much in thc same position that Crowfoot did among the Blackfeet. Crowfoot called him his son. He had spent many years with the Blackfeet and spoke their language thoroughly. When thc Crees were at war with the Blackfeet He always traveled between the two camps and was a 'peacemaker,' at the same time lie was a brave Indian and had good control over his men which I was made aware of more than once when I had chargc of them. He had most beautiful hair, which he wore in two longer tresses which hung down almost to his knees. When sent to the penitentiary he begged me to save his hair for him and to request that it should not be cut off. This I did.

"After he came out of jail he came to me and thanked me at Regina for doing this, and asked to be allowed to go direct from there to see Crowfoot at the Blackfoot reserve. I did not think this advisable at the time and advised him to go home to his reserve and when I thought he might go to Crowfoot I would send him word.

"This I did in about twenty-six weeks. On his visit to Crowfoot, and while he was in Crowfoot's lodge, a berrv stuck in his throat, which brought on a fit of coughing and he broke a blood vessel and died. He was an adopted son of Crowfoot and the old Blackfoot chief felt his death very much."]

I have thought it worth while to report the cases of Big Bear and Poundmaker thus at length, because they remind the student of history of important practical truths. In times of public excitement irresponsible newspapers and orators may so prejudice the public mind that unless citizens learn caution from past miscarriages of justice, cruel wrongs may be indicted even in our British Courts, of which we are so justly proud. The proverb, "Give a dog a bad name and then hang him," reflects a tendency to be guarded against, especially in times of popular excitement and in dealing with persons of another race.


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