Rudy Wiebe, two-time winner of the Governor General’s Literary Award, has been writing about the 19th-century Cree chief Big Bear for 35 years. In Big Bear, his contribution to Penguin Books’ biographical series Extraordinary Canadians, Wiebe traces the tumultuous times of one of the most visionary leaders in Canadian history. An excerpt:
More than 20 Cree bands, including those of Big Bear and his close friend Little Pine, smoked the tobacco. In early October 1870, the Cree met the Assiniboine in the Vermillion Hills and rode west together in the largest force they had ever assembled. While some turned back, almost 600 warriors continued south to the Oldman River, where scouts had discovered a Blood camp. They attacked before dawn.
But, unknown to them, several much larger bands of Peigan and Blood were camped nearby, and before the Cree and Assiniboine could completely destroy the smaller camp, they were in turn attacked. These Blackfoot were armed with the latest Winchester repeater rifles and Colt revolvers traded from the Americans, and they drove the invaders back over the open prairie and into the Oldman River coulees. There, after four more hours of ferocious fighting, the Cree allies escaped total annihilation only by leaving 300 of their dead on the cliffs and in the coulees and river valley when they retreated. They were so outgunned that Jerry Potts, a half-Blood warrior who later became a guide for the North West Mounted Police, said, “You could shut your eyes and still be sure to kill a Cree.” The Blackfoot named that place Assini-etomochi, Where They Slaughtered the Cree.
Big Bear returned home not badly wounded, but Cree mourning continued all winter. And in the nights when Big Bear lay sleepless under his buffalo robes, he came to realize that the unbelievable stories they had heard about the Americans fighting among themselves—how in their battles uncountable thousands of men were destroyed in a single day, and almost as many horses—were true. Such White wars actually happened. The Blood and Peigan had shown them how American guns could kill.
Through the winter nights, with all his relations breathing around him, Big Bear finally understood that the honourable battles of hand-to-hand combat with an enemy you knew by name were gone. Brutal, faceless killing war had come, war fought at such long range you could barely see a body nor find a breath between the unending bullets. Never on earth would there be enough People to survive such capability for slaughter.
So, think different. For People to live, they must try to think like Whites too.
That winter Big Bear and all the chiefs along the river from Carlton to Rocky Mountain House agreed: war among the Plains People must end. They negotiated a peace treaty with the Blackfoot so that the Cree could safely visit Chief Factor William Christie of the Hudson’s Bay Company at Edmonton. On April 13, 1871, Christie sent a letter to the governor at Red River with messages from the Cree, including, “We heard our lands were sold and we did not like it; we don’t want to sell our lands; it is our property, and no one has a right to sell them.”
Talking was good, Big Bear believed; you saw Whites face to face, you knew where they were and what they were doing, they had to answer you. For four years Big Bear waited while his band hunted the plains and the winter boreal forest. They avoided Whites except for essential trade at Fort Pitt. Three wives now lived in his lodge, and his children Nowakich and Twin Wolverine were married. Nowakich’s husband was Lone Man, a fine warrior and perceptive thinker, the son of a Blackfoot woman captured in a raid; he became Big Bear’s closest confidant. Big Bear’s leadership attracted more and more Cree to his band, but now the buffalo grazed in small, scattered herds and, despite widespread peace with the Blackfoot, were increasingly difficult to find. Starvation threatened.
A government messenger finally came in 1875. He spoke about the Queen who loved all her children so much, her Red as much as her White. Thousands of her Red children had already taken her hand, through her commissioners, in five great treaties, and next summer the same commissioners would come and make treaty with them too. Big Bear was thinking, if the Queen—wherever and whoever she might be—was indeed their Great Mother who cared for them so overwhelmingly, why did she not visit them? What mother never visited her children, only sent messengers with rigid instructions: this bit can be yours, but the rest is mine forever? She had paid her Hudson’s Bay Company “child” money for rights the company didn’t have, but how could she claim the land was hers when his People knew the Creator had given it to them?
Since before the story memory of their oldest Elders, People had lived and hunted on this earth. They belonged here; it was their home, they were this earth’s family. It was impossible to give away the Creator’s gift by making “treaty,” especially with someone whom no one, not even her commissioners, had ever seen. Just because she said it was her land and, if you said it wasn’t, she would send thousands of her Young Men with guns and take it? That was no mother. That was a war chief.
Big Bear sent a message back: “We have heard your words, here are ours. We want none of the Queen’s presents. When we set a fox trap we scatter pieces of meat all around, but when the fox gets into the trap, we knock him on the head. We want no bait. Let your chiefs come like men and talk to us.”
The messenger reported to Governor Alexander Morris that Big Bear was not “reasonable in his demands” and “for years has been regarded as a troublesome fellow.” It was an image that was only reinforced—with ominous implications for his future trial for treason during the Riel rebellion—when Big Bear did, finally, meet with Morris to discuss a treaty in 1876.
The other two translators had already departed when Big Bear arrived, so John McKay—whose Plains Cree words often got tangled with Woods Cree—was left to fumble through the exchange. The record reads: “Big Bear: ‘I will make a request that the Governor save me from what I most dread, that is: the rope to be about my neck—hanging.’ ”
No doubt the words recorded (and Morris’s also) were what McKay translated; the question is, are they exactly what Big Bear said? For more than a century the Cree oral tradition has cast doubt on their accuracy, and since 1966, historians as well. As Dorothy Thunder, a lecturer in Cree at the University of Alberta, recently explained, the Cree expression esakâpekinit means “I am being led by him/her using a string/rope,” but the somewhat similarly pronounced ehakotiht means “s/he is being hung by the neck.”
Did McKay mistake this crucial difference or simply not know the expression and add the word “hanging” as an explanation? It would seem that Big Bear’s powerful image—after all, he was an orator and a horseman—of fearing that the treaty would control his life, make him lose his freedom just like a horse led about by a rope around its neck, was mistranslated into an elaboration on the White practice of hanging criminals. Beyond that, since the Cree considered the soul of a person to reside in the nape of the neck, the metaphor of a rope around the neck was even more meaningful: it implied destruction of the soul.
Now the governor began a harangue. “No good Indian has the rope about his neck. If a white man killed an Indian, not in self- defence, the rope would be put around his neck . . . The good Indian need never be afraid; their lives will be safer . . . the redcoats, they were here to protect. . . ”
Big Bear listened to McKay’s translation, but could not comprehend why Morris was responding so strangely. He had created a picture of his dread of the treaty controlling him like a roped horse, of it killing him by choking his very soul—but Morris interrupted to lecture them
on the White punishment for murder!
Big Bear’s expression would be unambiguously recorded as “hanged” in Morris’s reports and thereby in the government’s eyes brand Big Bear as a cowardly man fearful that Indians—including himself—would probably commit murders and consequently be condemned to execution under the Queen’s law. Clearly a “troublesome, very bad” Indian.
The governor rose, and the chiefs on the ground before him knew the meeting was over. According to the record, “The Bear remained sitting until all had said goodbye to the Governor, then he rose and taking his hand, said, ‘I am glad to meet you, but as my People are not here, I do not sign.’ ”
Later, Big Bear’s fellow chief, Sweetgrass, spoke to him. I see nothing to fear. Some of us will learn how to grow food. But Big Bear was thinking land. He asked, how will we keep the land?
Sweetgrass avoided answering directly; he said, Mistawasis and Ahtah-kakoop already chose theirs, north of the river at Carlton, and One Arrow at Duck Lake.
Chief Pakan added, Red Pheasant wants his place in the Eagle Hills.
All of them far apart, little pieces?
Wherever we want it. You could go to Jackfish Lake, one square mile for every five People.
How much is that, “one square mile”?
It sounded very small. How would you feed hundreds of People on land you could probably walk around in three days? Maybe enough territory for two cow moose and four yearlings, maybe a bull now and then, and once they were killed . . . to live year after year, you could not choose one bit of hunting land, and gardens only grew well on certain soil. Abruptly he realized how White he was thinking, and his council voice burst out deep and angry:
One square mile! We belong everywhere here! Big Bear’s arms waved to the hills, river, sky. Wherever we lean our lodge-poles together and build a fire, there is our home!
Sweetgrass said, you heard them say it, the Grandmother has big breasts. She’ll feed us if starvation comes.
To this day the Cree oral tradition repeats that Fort Pitt breast story. Historian Neal McLeod quotes five different informants who elaborate on this metaphor concerning the iconic mother “who would provide for the Indians as the earth once had.” Isabel Smallboy, who was alive when the treaty was signed, said it most directly: “The Queen’s tits are very big and you will never eat them all, that’s how rich they are.”
Whether or not Queen Victoria ever heard the story is not known.
From Extraordinary Canadians: Big Bear by Rudy Wiebe. Copyright © Rudy Wiebe, 2008. Reprinted by permission of Penguin Canada.