The Rebellion of 1885 was not an event of Indian making, but they were drawn into it nonetheless by unhappy and separate circumstances that led to isolated outbursts among the Plains Cree at the very moment the Métis launched their crusade. The band of Chief One Arrow, whose reserve was close to Batoche, was implicated in the Métis struggle despite the fact that the 70-year-old chief was hardly in a position to lead men in battle. Later charged with treason-felony, One Arrow argued that his band had been coerced to join the Métis, a position that the court did not accept.

Within days of the Duck Lake incident, a group of young warriors at Frog Lake, led by war chief Wandering Spirit, killed the reserve agent and eight others. In times of peace, Mistahimaskwa (Big Bear), who opposed taking up arms, led the band, but he arrived on the scene too late to argue the wisdom of this action with Wandering Spirit. This event more than any other, evoking fears of a Plains Indian war, galvanized the Canadian relief effort. Subordinate to the war chief in this moment of crisis but still influential, Big Bear remained with his people in the subsequent confrontation with the North-West Mounted Police at Fort Pitt and through the clashes with the militia and the N-WMP at Frenchman's Butte and Steele's Narrows. Despite his limited participation in these events, Big Bear was painted as one of the chief villains of 1885, a characterization that endured for almost a century.

Poundmaker, chief of the Cree Indian tribe in the Northwest Territories in the 1870s and 1880s


O.B. Buell/Library and Archives Canada/C-001875

Chief Poundmaker came to grief by bringing his people into Battleford in the wake of the Duck Lake uprising, precipitating a panic among the residents there. Although there was some plundering of the town, the settlers barricaded in the fort faced no attack. Colonel William Otter, arriving with the militia after the Indians had departed, decided on a punitive expedition and caught up with Poundmaker's camp west of Battleford. In the Battle of Cutknife Hill, Otter faced stiff opposition and retreated with losses. The rout would have been more severe but for Poundmaker's intervention with the warriors of his band.

Each of these chiefs paid for his participation, such as it was, with a jail sentence of three years at Stoney Mountain Penitentiary in Manitoba. All three were released before their terms had expired due to ill health, and each died shortly thereafter. Wandering Spirit and 7 other Natives died on the gallows at Battleford, 6 of them for the murders at Frog Lake, and 33 more served jail terms of varying lengths.

The 1885 Rebellion effectively ended the movement for treaty revision for which the imprisoned chiefs had worked. But there were broader consequences as well: the rebellion justified an increase in the coercive and restrictive nature of Canadian administration over Natives in the West. On 5 May, Indian Commissioner Edgar Dewdney, in response to a request by General Middleton, issued a directive requiring "all good and loyal Indians" to remain on their reserves, warning that those found off-reserve might well be implicated in the rebellion and punished as such. Although the suggestion came from Middleton, Dewdney was not averse to implementing it as it complemented his own ideas for greater control over the Indians in the West and served as a means to forestall future difficulties. In this measure can be found the roots of the pass system, exercised with vigour in the wake of the rebellion.

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