Summary: Poundmaker, Big Bear, and the
by Brian M. Brown
copyright©1999 Brian M. Brown
Before the 1885 Northwest Rebellion, the Natives on the central plains of North America underwent major changes. The first major change came when the White people brought the horse to North America and traded it to the Natives. After this, for over a hundred years the Natives enjoyed a good lifestyle, and starvation was seldom a problem.
Unfortunately, the coming of the White man also brought destructive epidemics of Smallpox, struggles with whiskey, and the loss of the buffalo. When the buffalo disappeared from the plains, the Natives lost their main source of food, clothing, and shelter. Big Bear lived during this tragic period.
Big Bear was born in 1825. His father was Chief of a band of Cree which hunted buffalo on the plains during the summer, and then spend the winter in the woodlands where they could hunt and trap.
When Big Bear was young, he learned how to ride, to use the bow and arrow, to hunt and fish, and to stalk buffalo on the open plains. At 12 years of age, he came down with the deadly disease of smallpox. Although he was able to survive, the disease left his face pitted with smallpox scars.
As Big Bear got older, he became a good hunter and horse thief. In the Native culture at that time, horse stealing was seen as a valued skill even though it tended to create enemies. One time, Big Bear spent the entire summer out steeling horses from other tribes. When he returned home, he gave all his horses away to the people in his band.
Big Bear was only forty when his father died. Big Bear took over as chief of the band, and during the next ten years, his band grew from 100 to about 520 men, women, and children. He had become the leading chief of a band of Cree which was known as the Prairie River People.
Poundmaker was born in 1842 near Battleford. His parents died when he was very young, so he was raised by his Plains Cree relatives. We do not know much about his early life. But we do know that he did not gain a reputation as a great hunter or a great warrior.
Instead, he was known for his ability to talk. As a man Poundmaker's greatest asset was that he enjoyed a battle of words. He impressed everyone with his speech which was dignified and seemed to be always well suited to the occasion.
The White public became impressed with Poundmaker. A newspaper reporter wrote: "He is a noble looking Indian.... His eyes are black and piercing. One moment they twinkle merrily at some humorous remark, and the next they flash with fire as something is said that is not agreeable to him."
A few days later, news that a rebellion had started reached Big Bear's camp. The Warrior lodge, led by Wandering Spirit, took control of the camp. They went into the White settlement of Frog Lake, plundered the contents of a store, borrowed some government horses, and took some White people prisoners. The Natives then found some alcohol and began to drink.
It wasn't long before Wandering Spirit tried to order Quinn to go to the Cree camp. Quinn, an arrogant, harsh, unfair, and stubborn Indian agent refused to go. Wandering Spirit tried again. Quinn still refused to obey. The sometimes hot tempered and irrational Wandering Spirit then shot Quinn.
As more shots rang out. Big Bear rushed from a house yelling, "Stop, stop!" But it was too late. The braves shot six men, two women, and two priests. Two women and one man were taken prisoner and given protection by others in their camp.
The White people across the plains heard what was happening. They feared for their own lives because they realized that all the Natives might join together in a huge war. But, when the government sent out fresh flour, beef, tea, and tobacco many of the Natives lost their desire to fight.
The closest fort to Frog Lake was Fort Pitt. The 67 people in Fort Pitt prepared for a siege because they didn't have enough horses or wagons in order to get away. The fort had been built for trading, so it offered very little protection. It was mainly the job of the 23 police there to protect the traders, women, and children. They were all extremely vulnerable.
The troops were surrounded by Fine Day's warriors. It crossed the minds of many that only nine years before, in the United States, Custer had been surrounded and his entire regiment wiped out by Natives.
By 11 A.M. Otter began to organize a withdrawal. They withdrew by filing through a gully and crossing the creek. At this time, they were very vulnerable and could have suffered enormous casualties.
Some Cree mounted their horses and were ready to attack. But, Poundmaker rode between them and the troops. Poundmaker told them that to defend their women and children was okay, but to go on the attack was not. They still respected Poundmaker so they did not attack.
So after seven hours of fighting, it was all over. The troops marched back to Battleford.
* * * *
On May 26, the Cree loaded all their guns into two wagons and then quietly went into Fort Battleford. A huge crowd of settlers, townspeople, police, and soldiers had gathered and watched as the Cree entered the fort. They were greeted with formal hand-shaking.
Others spoke up. Then, one of the old Cree women cried out, "You must extend mercy to our starving people!"
Middleton responded: "We do not listen to women."
Poundmaker stood up and said, "Then why do you obey the Queen?" In the tense crowd there was a gasp. Someone said "Hear, hear," then there was a bit of laughter.
The soldiers went into the wide coulee and tried to attack, but struggled to advance through a marshy area. Beyond the marsh, there was no cover, so it was too dangerous to advance. The few that did found themselves to be easy targets for the Cree who were hidden above in rifle pits. Three soldiers were wounded.
* * * *
Big Bear was able to elude the soldiers. He traveled for a hundred miles with his twelve year old son and a councillor. It was July 2nd when he entered a camp near Fort Carlton looking for food. The police were called and he was taken prisoner.
* * * *
Even though One Arrow was an old man, it was believed he was at Batoche, so he was put on trial. A long and complex set of charges were read to the court. One Arrow's translator struggled. He then informed One Arrow that he was accused of "knocking off the Queen’s bonnet and stabbing her in the behind with a sword."
But, it appears the translator had made an honest mistake. The record shows that what was read included the word bayonets, and then it continued with the statement that One Arrow " did levy and make war against our said Lady the Queen.... her Crown and dignity."
All three chiefs had been sentenced to three years in prison.