by Dave Yanko
In Plains Indian tradition it was not unusual for a young person to be adopted by the chief of another band.
The custom involved young adults as well as children and was often used to bolster an alliance between friendly bands. Heads turned, however, when famous Blackfoot Chief Crowfoot adopted a young Cree man named Poundmaker; the Blackfoot and Cree Nations were traditional enemies. Clearly Poundmaker, who was in his twenties, was someone to be watched.
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||- National Archives PA-134918
Poundmaker (Pitikwahanapiwiyin), named for his skill at building and employing pounds used for hunting buffalo, grew to be one of the most influential leaders of the Northern Plains. He was a key figure in the 1876 negotiations for Treaty Six, as well as in the later fight for fair implementation of its provisions. With Cree Chief Big Bear (Mistahimaskwa), he was a central character in the momentous events surrounding the Northwest Rebellion/Resistance of 1885.
"He had the smarts and he was articulate" says Blair Stonechild, professor of Indian studies at Saskatchewan Indian Federated College in Regina. "Had (Poundmaker) lived to an older age, he probably would have become the principle leader of the Cree."
Yet, some of the most popular histories of the period are not accurate in their accounts of the role Poundmaker played during those tumultuous years on the Prairies, or the role played by Plains Indians in general. Stonechild, co-author with University of Saskatchewan historian Bill Waiser of Loyal Till Death: Indians and the North-West Rebellion, says the same cultural misunderstandings that contributed to Poundmaker's treason-felony conviction after the rebellion are largely responsible for the errors and misinterpretations in the histories that followed.
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|Poundmaker with "4th wife".
According to oral histories collected by family members, Poundmaker's early life was challenging. He was born around 1842 in the Battleford region of what's now western Saskatchewan. His father was an Assiniboia shaman named Sikakwayan, his mother a mixed-blood Cree and sister to Chief Mistawsis.
The family was living in the vicinity of Great Slave Lake when Poundmaker's father died. Poundmaker, his older brother Yellow Mud Blanket and their younger sister were taken by their mother to live with her parents in the Red Pheasant band in the Battleford district. The childrens' mother died soon thereafter, leaving them to be cared for by other members of the band. But they were not long a burden on anyone.
"Both boys became good hunters, always providing and always protecting," says Eric Tootoosis, a descendant of Yellow Mud Blanket who lives at Poundmaker First Nation. "The interests of the people were always paramount," says Tootoosis. "Always."
Poundmaker was in his mid-30s and a headman in the Red Pheasant band when he became involved in 1876 in Treaty Six negotiations with the Government of Canada. It was a treaty that promised Indians in the Fort Carlton region land, equipment and assistance in their transition to farming (among other provisions), in return for their agreement to peacefully share their traditional lands. Poundmaker made himself known to the government, led by chief negotiator and North-West Territories Lieutenant Governor Alexander Morris, as a force to be reckoned with in the future.
To Morris' suggestion the government would "give" land to the Cree for farming, for example, Poundmaker protested: "This is our land! It isn't a piece of pemmican to be cut off and given in little pieces back to us. It is ours and we will take what we want."
Poundmaker wasn't fighting against the treaty; he was fighting for a good treaty. He knew what happened to Indians south of the border who refused to take treaty, and he feared the same consequences for those living north of the "medicine line". What Poundmaker wanted was fair treatment and respect for his people. He spoke out and lobbied hard for a provision that guaranteed food in time of famine, an item that became a central issue during the rebellion nine years later.
By then, Poundmaker was a chief with his own band and reserve land. He tried hard to learn farming and adapt to a new way of life -- he even sent away his only son to be educated by priests. But the majority of reserve farms failed, as would the majority of white settlers' farms before dryland farming techniques were developed two decades later. With the buffalo gone, Indians in the region were hungry or starving. When Indians invoked their Treaty Six rights to food rations, however, they were frequently denied assistance.
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Poundmaker and the legendary Big Bear, who was forced by starvation of his people to finally take treaty in 1882, were leaders in the fight for fair treatment.
"The principle strategy of the Indian leaders was to build a widespread political movement," says Stonechild, "like the political lobbying type of thing you see today."
In 1885, few residents of the region that's now central Saskatchewan were not upset with the federal government. Indians cried foul over broken treaty promises while whites, who protested that Ottawa policies favored central Canada, were thoroughly miffed at the government's decision to re-route the railroad 100 miles to the south of them.
The Metis, led by Louis Riel at Batoche, were angry because the government refused to recognize their land-holding system, or to help them in their own transition to farming.
On Mar. 15, 1885, Riel proclaimed a provisional government at Batoche and warned North-West Mounted Police in the
region to surrender or be killed. On Mar. 26, his dispute with Ottawa exploded into violence at Duck Lake, when
an interpreter for a mixed force of Mounties and Prince Albert militiamen shot and killed a Metis and
an Indian as the force attempted to cross reserve land. The ensuing Battle of Duck Lake resulted in nine militiamen
and three Mounties killed in a fight with Metis forces that included several Indians. Three other Metis were killed.
The involvement by a few Indians was not an indication Plains Indians aimed to fight with the Metis, according to Stonechild. Most Indian leaders saw little in common between their primary interests and those of the Metis. Indians, for example, already had land holdings guaranteed through treaty.
|- courtesy National Archives of Canada C-004593
|Poundmaker (blanket) in Fort Battleford.
However, the politically-savvy Poundmaker apparently saw opportunity in crisis. At the end of March, he set off on foot for Battleford with a delegation of about 60 people, including women and children, with the intention to plead for food rations. He sent a messenger ahead to inform the Indian agent in Battleford of his purpose.
"Poundmaker told the Indian agent they were not planning to become a part of this," says Stonechild. "But he probably had an ulterior motive: His people were in poor shape and he reasonably expected that when he did that, the agent would reciprocate by providing rations for his starving people."
The agent in Battleford did not reciprocate. When news of the Mar. 26 fight at Duck Lake hit the town, residents began preparing the Mounties' Fort Battleford for an Indian attack they believed was inevitable. By Mar. 29, about 500 residents of the town and outlying area were crammed into the fort prepared for a siege.
Poundmaker, meanwhile, was joined on his journey by members of other bands from the area who doubled his number by the time he reached Battleford on the morning of Mar. 30. The fearful Indian agent refused to come out to speak with him. Frustration mounted among the hungry Indians and houses were looted and ransacked before they left the next day.
In Ottawa, meanwhile, news of Duck Lake spurred an immediate military response as hundreds of militiamen were dispatched to quell the uprising. Residents of Battleford remained in the fort until April 24, when one unit of 500 men led by Lieutenant-Colonel William Otter arrived to "relieve" them.
Otter then assembled 325 men, two cannons and a Gatling gun and headed for Poundmaker's camp at Cut Knife Creek, by then a gathering place for members of a dozen bands fearful of attack.
His intention was to mete out punishment for the siege. But the Gatling gun was ineffective against the Indians, who counterattacked from hidden positions along the ravine. And cannon volleys did little but send the women, children and the elderly scurrying for cover into the woods.
Once Otter realized he'd had enough and began his retreat, some of the Indians prepared to give chase and finish the job. Poundmaker intervened, reportedly telling the braves: "They have come here to fight us and we have defended ourselves, our women and our children. Now let them go."
Stonechild says Poundmaker likely prevented a slaughter. But the Crown's misinterpretation of Poundmaker's role at Cut Knife Creek, as well as at Battleford, helped seal his fate before the Regina jury that convicted him of felony-treason.
In traditional Cree society there was a peace chief and a war chief, explains Stonechild. Poundmaker was a peace chief. When a band was threatened by an enemy, the warrior society, led by the war chief, took control of the band.
Records show the Cut Knife Creek camp did not go on a war footing until April 29, well after the so-called "siege of Battleford" and several days before Otter's attack. In other words, Poundmaker was in charge at Battleford, and the warriors' group, not Poundmaker, organized the defensive battle against Otter.
"That's a traditional thing that the courts, obviously, didn't have any appreciation of," says Stonechild.
After the Battle of Cut Knife Hill, a radical element of the warrior's group held sway, according to Tyrone Tootoosis, Eric's nephew and an oral historian who lives in Saskatoon.
"There was a certain faction within the Cut Knife Creek camp on May 1 and May 2 who were the agitators," explains Tyrone. "They were Metis, and they were goading the Assiniboias -- who were very quick to anger -- into joining Riel."
The warriors' group, or "rattlers society", decided they had no choice but to go to Batoche to help Riel fight Major General Frederick Middleton's 800-man force. En route, however, they received word the Metis had been defeated and Riel arrested. Poundmaker, the peace chief, sent a message to Middleton seeking peace terms.
As for collusion between Poundmaker's Cree and Riel, Tyrone is emphatic: "There was never any treaty, agreement or plan between our people and Louis Riel."
For their roles in the rebellion, Poundmaker and Big Bear were sentenced to three years each in Manitoba's Stoney Mountain Penitentiary. As a sop to Crowfoot, whom Ottawa did not wish to anger, Poundmaker's hair was not cut and he was released after serving only seven months of his sentence. Still, his health suffered in prison and he died just months after his release, while visiting his adopted father Crowfoot. The year was 1886. He was 44.
Printed materials, exhibits and artifacts relating to Poundmaker's life can be viewed at Poundmaker Historical Centre and Teepee Village,
located at Poundmaker Cree First Nation, 60 km (40 miles) west of The Battlefords. The centre is open from May 1 until the September long weekend. Admission is $6 for adults,
$5 for students and seniors, and $3 for children under 12. An overnight stay in a teepee can be arranged by calling (306) 398-2718 or 398-4971. People interested in visiting the centre
might consider phoning ahead, as well.
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