In the era of the making of the treaties to clear the way for the Canadian Pacific Railway and the privatization of lands and resources this project required, Canadian officials were especially intent on preventing the consolidation of an Indian confederacy in western North America.

The idea of a confederacy of nations to defend Indian interests had been articulated several times before. For example, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, an Indian confederacy had rallied around Tecumseh to establish secure borders for a permanent and inextinguishable Indian Country in the interior of the continent. Two generations later on the Prairies, Big Bear, Poundmaker, and others attempted to form this same kind of transborder confederacy.

1876 - Treaty 6

Eventually concluded with signings in two locations, Fort Carlton and Fort Pitt, the sixth treaty concluded in the West was reached after the most contentious set of negotiations encountered in the Numbered Treaties. Lieutenant-Governor Morris hoped to gain title to an enormous tract of land in what became central Saskatchewan and Alberta, and the Native negotiators sought an alternative to what they knew to be increasingly limited options in the face of the disappearance of the bison. The primary negotiators for the Cree were Mistawasis (Big Child) and Ahtakakoop (Star Blanket) at Fort Carlton and Sweetgrass at Fort Pitt. After extended discussions, during which the assembled Cree expressed concern for the security of their future and the necessity to adopt an agricultural livelihood, Mistawasis and Ahtakakoop accepted what they believed was the best deal they could get from the government. Mistawasis tempered the more irate expressions of dissatisfaction with government aid voiced by Poundmaker and the Badger, although he reiterated for Morris the need for security against starvation in the transformation period. This agitation forced Morris to make concessions in order to get the treaty signed. These included a "famine relief" clause, a "medicine chest" clause, and more agricultural assistance than had been offered to any other treaty people. In council among themselves, Mistawasis also challenged the disgruntled Poundmaker and the Badger to produce an alternative to the treaty, thereby quelling effective opposition to it. On hearing the report of the negotiations at Fort Carlton, and especially the arguments employed by Mistawasis and Ahtakakoop to win favour for it, Sweetgrass accepted the treaty without further question.

Mistahimaskwa (Big Bear) raised a more critical voice. He was one of the more significant chiefs on the Plains, and his reputation had led the negotiators to avoid issuing him a special invitation. By the time he reached Fort Pitt, the treaty had been signed. At Fort Carlton, dissatisfaction with treaty terms had focused on the inadequate assistance offered to smooth the transition to agriculture as a means to address the impending food crisis. Big Bear stood apart from his fellow chiefs in his demands for preservation of the bison as a solution to this problem. He did not take his band into treaty until forced to do so by starvation in 1882.

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1884 - Indian Unification Effort

The discontent rampant on the prairies in the early 1880s inspired efforts by a number of prominent Native leaders to organize in an attempt to redress the deteriorating condition of their peoples. At the centre of this movement were three Cree chiefs, Piapot, Big Bear, and Little Pine. They had co-operated before. In the Battle of the Belly River in 1870, they had united against their common enemy, the Blackfoot. In the 1880s, the three chiefs came together once more to combat the starvation induced by the disappearance of the bison and the reluctance of the government to honour its treaty promises to assist the Natives in the difficult period of transition to agriculture.

As early as 1879, Little Pine and Piapot realized that strength lay in numbers, and, in agreeing to settle, they had sought a consolidated reserve in the Cypress Hills. Discouraged in this effort by Indian Superintendent Edgar Dewdney, who violated treaty assurances in denying them their choice of reserve lands, Piapot moved to a reserve at Indian Head. He returned to the Cypress Hills in 1883, now personally acquainted with the inadequacy of treaty terms and with government resistance to their implementation. This time, Big Bear, who supported the drive for a concentration of forces, joined Piapot and Little Pine. Dewdney, however, used a coercive ration policy to scatter them and thwart their goals.

On the North Saskatchewan and in the Qu'Appelle Valley, Big Bear, Little Pine, and Piapot persevered in efforts to attain consolidated reserves, moves that developed in both places into drives for unified action on treaty revision. During the summer of 1884, Big Bear and Piapot both sponsored thirst dances as a preliminary to serious reconsideration of the treaties. Misinterpreting the spiritual ritual, uneasy officials saw the Thirst Dance as the first step toward armed insurrection. The risk of unrest was perceived as especially high on the Poundmaker reserve where an attempted arrest during the Thirst Dance ceremonies very nearly precipitated violence.

Intent on forcing treaty revision, Big Bear devised a strategy that involved forging a common front among the Prairie Indians in order to confront Ottawa with a single voice on Indian grievances. In this, he sought Piapot's assistance.

Riel's return confused official views of Indian activities. Riel actively sought an alliance with the Natives. At an Indian council at Duck Lake at the end of July 1884, a meeting sponsored by Chief Beardy who had joined the growing coalition of treaty revisionists, the Cree gave Riel a brief hearing and then returned to a consideration of their primary concern, their own grievances. This council shortly relocated to nearly Fort Carlton, and there, under the scrutiny of the local subagent, the Indians enumerated the sources of their dissatisfaction and reasserted their allegiance to the Crown. Big Bear assured the subagent that no violence was intended, but he warned that a failure to redress Indian grievances would lead to further action on their part.

An investigation by Dewdney and Hayter Reed in the fall of 1884 revealed the strength of the growing unification movement and raised concerns about the proposed council on treaty revision slated for the summer of 1885. Even more distressing was the news that the Cree were seeking a wider alliance. While Piapot and Big Bear concentrated their efforts on the Cree in Saskatchewan, Little Pine courted the Blackfoot, who shared many of the same grievances. Little Pine returned to Saskatchewan with a request by Blackfoot chief Crowfoot for a grand council with the Cree at Blackfoot Crossing. This meeting was to be held in the summer of 1885.

The power of such a coalition alarmed government officials. Dewdney sought the means to subvert this movement and thought he had found the answer in a plan to arrest its principal leaders. The outbreak of the North-West Rebellion, brought on, in part, by the desperation of the Cree following an unusually severe winter, rendered Dewdney's plans unnecessary. The rebellion provided a convenient cover for the government's failure to deal fairly with the Indians and allowed Dewdney to cloak his assault on the Indian unification effort in the robes of legitimate suppression of rebellion. The effect was to destroy the alliance crafted by Big Bear and Piapot and to undermine any subsequent effort in this direction for decades to come.

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In the years following the making of Treaty 6 in 1876, a movement of mostly Cree peoples coalesced around Poundmaker and, especially, Big Bear, a Native leader who had refused to accept the terms of the treaty. These, and other key members of the Cree leadership, proposed initially to create a unified Indian confederacy across the Prairies. When that objective failed, they attempted to create a sovereign Indian territory in the Cypress Hills of what is now Saskatchewan. The Cree independence movement was not forced underground until the buffalo were all but extinct on the Prairies and until the conclusion, in 1885, of a brief war between the Métis and the Canadian government. Big Bear and Poundmaker worked to keep their followers neutral in that conflict. But, with the military defeat of the Métis at Batoche in the North Saskatchewan Valley, Canadian officials had found a pretext to act decisively to enforce the regime of reserves and the Indian Act on an unwilling population. Not only did the government of John A. Macdonald hang Louis Riel for treason, but his administration incarcerated Big Bear and Poundmaker in an attempt to send a message to their supporters.

Big Bear and Poundmaker with Lawyers and Government Authorities, 1885.

Big Bear and Poundmaker with Lawyers and Government Authorities, 1885.

The final stage of the North-West Rebellion saw Canadian forces attempt to track down Big Bear and his warriors. The Cree chief finally surrendered to government authorities at Fort Carleton on 4 July 1885.
SAB (R-A 2146).

Written By

Anthony J. Hall
Professor of Globalization Studies
University of Lethbridge


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