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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Chinook Multimedia

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