Once the European settlers came to Western Canada, the way of life for the aboriginals was threatened and Big Bear, a Cree Chief, fought, through protests of peace to make things better for his people. He was branded a troublemaker. This is his story and the story of his people, an account of one man’s losing battle against authority. Big Bear had fought the authorities by word, his people fought with bullets and both lost. By 1887, Big Bear’s people were scattered throughout the country, most of his family was in Montana, he died alone in January of 1888.
It’s August 181h, 1876, on the Carlton side of the North Saskatchewan, the day for signing Treaty #6, between the Lieutenant Governor of Manitoba and the Northwest Territories, Alexander Morris and the Ruling Chiefs. Artist, Gus Froese has superimposed upon this mural three Indian chiefs who tower over the proceedings, but are not actually a part of it. To the left is Chief Beardy, who signed the Treaty ten days later on his own turf, then Chief Big Bear and Chief Poundmaker, who also were not part of the original signing. The whole event takes place under a foreboding sky, which hints of conflict yet to come.
Race to Be Chief
Chief Big Bear, laying on his deathbed called together his two sons, Dark Claw and his younger brother Wild Horse. knowing that he would go to the great hunting ground in the sky soon he told them “Soon one of you will become chief, but in order to do so you must pass a test. The chief knew that Dark Claw only wanted to kill but his younger son Wild Horse wanted peace more than anything. The honor of being chief mostly fell to the older son, but Big Bear did not want to give it to his eldest son. Your test shall be go to the over the moutain, down the mighty river, to a clearing, there is a spring that has the purest and sweetest water I have ever tasted.
I was a boy there until the white man drove us out. Dark Claw’s eyes opened wide with anger at the mention of the white man. Bring me back some water from that spring so I may drink one last time before I die.A mischievious grin came on Dark Claw’s face as he looked at his younger brother. Dark Claw was much bigger than Wild Horse. He was faster but not as smart. He thought this would be an eazy way to become chief. He would follow his brother and wait for him to bring back the water, and then he would kill him and take the prize to Big Bear, and become chief. You will leave at sunrise and the first to return with the water will be chief. That night as Dark Claw went hunting, Big Bear called his son to his side. Wild Horse, I do not have to tell you of your brother’s ways. I fear for your safty my son. If you return with the water then I know you have outsmarted your brother. If he returns with the water then I will know that you are dead. Be careful my son. I cannot give one more help than the other so you must find a way. On your own.
The next morning before the sun rose Dark Claw set off. Wild Horse carefully packed things he might need in a deerskin bag and left. The hike up the moutain was a trecherous one. Three or four times times Dark Horse almost lost his balance on the small pebbles that were sliding in his wake. Clouds covered the sun and it began to get very dark. Wild Horse knew it was going to rain so he took shelter in a small cave just off the path. Dark Claw had passed that way not more than an hour ago, He was constantly on the lookout for some where to hide to ambush his brother once he returned.
Big Bear, like Louis Riel, was one of the leaders of the Metis and Plains Indians who tried to unite and press John A. Macdonald’s government for native rights. In 1876, Big Bear refused to sign a treaty he believed would sacrifice his people’s rights in exchange for a reserve. But with buffalo gone and the Cree facing starvation, the treaty was signed in 1882. Big Bear lost control of some of his warriors which resulted in Wandering Spirit and his men killing nine settlers at Frog Lake, north of today’s Lloydminster, and burning Fort Pitt near the Alberta-Saskatchewan border. The warriors were eventually hanged and Big Bear was found guilty of treason and sent to Stony Mountain penitentiary near Winnipeg. After two years, he was released to the Poundmaker reserve near North Battleford, Sask., and died a year later.
Part of the poem THE FROG LAKE MASSACRE
© Copyright Sandie Johnson, 1992. All rights reserved.
|Chief Big Bear was a friend of the whites,
often trading furs for food
at Fort Pitt and Fort Edmonton.
Big Bear, as befitting a chief, was generous.
He shared with his people
whatever goods and supplies came into his hands
Big Bear viewed himself
as a giver of goods among his people,
seeing that no one suffered from hunger
lack of shelter or of clothing.As an okimaw,
Big Bear’s greatness
was measured in wealth and goodness,
not by what he had,
but by what he gave away.
By this measure,
Big Bear was rich.
But, as a minor chief,
he was obscure,
and many writers of the time
do not even mention him.
The picture at the top of this page and the one it is linked to at alittlehistory.com are cut from “Mistahi maskwa (Big Bear ca. 1825-1888), a Plains Cree chief” – one of a number of photographs of Cree chiefs who were involved in North West Rebellion of 1885, in leg irons, photographed outside the North-West Mounted Police barracks, Regina, Sask., 1885. I always wondered why Big Bear looked so sad and angry in the only picture I have ever seen of him. Descriptive record of this photo.
Quoted from the Article TWO CREE BEAR SOLDIERS: “Rarely is it mentioned that these photos were taken during or after their time of captivity. By no means should this be taken as emblematic of their usual dress.”
Dempsey, Hugh A. Big Bear: The End of Freedom.
Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1984.
Dion, Joseph F. My Tribe The Crees.
Calgary, Alberta: Glenbow-Alberta Institute, 1979.
Fine Day. My Cree People. Invermere, B.C.:
Good Medicine Books, 1973. Heritage House Publishing Company Ltd.
Frog Lake Massacre. Surrey, B.C.:
Frontier Books, 1984. Lusty, Terry; Allen Jacob; and Vi Sanderson.
Back to Batoche: 100th Anniversary. Edmonton, Alberta:
Aboriginal Multi-Media Society of Alberta, 1985.
Lusty, Terry, and Sandie Johnson.
“New York Museum Has Major Cree Medicine Bundle.”
Windspeaker (newspaper), Edmonton, Alberta, January 9, 1987.
Mandelbaum, David G.
The Plains Cree: An Ethnographic, Historical, and Comparative Study.
Regina, Saskatchewan: University of Regina,
Canadian Plains Research Center, 1979.