Canada has had many amazing Indigenous leaders who have worked to help their people in the face of growing European settlement. One of the most important Indigenous leaders in Canadian history, especially in the latter-part of the 19th century, was Big Bear.
Big Bear was born in 1825 at Jackfish Lake near North Battleford, Saskatchewan. His father was Black Powder, who was the chief of a tribe of Plains Cree people who numbered about 80. It is not known who his mother was but Big Bear was noted for being a child who would wander through the camp talking with many people and learning from them. In 1837, when he was 12, the tribe was hit with smallpox but unlike many who passed away from the disease, Big Bear would survive after two months of suffering, but he would bare the marks of smallpox on his face for the rest of his life. The smallpox outbreak also pushed the Cree from the area they had been living in for years.
Once recovered from the virus, Big Bear began to spend more time with his father, learning from him about the gods and spirits of the land. The bear was an important animal to the strong boy and he would make a fur necklace in the shape of a bear paw with five ivory claws hanging from it. He called it the Chief’s Son’s Hand. This necklace would gain him the name, and I will do my best to pronounce this, Mistahi-Maskwa, which means Much Bear.
As a man, Big Bear would have at least four male sons, including Little Bad Man, also known as Little Bear, who would go on to found the Montana First Nation reserve in Alberta and the Rocky Boy reservation in Montana.
As a young man, Big Bear was noted for his prowess as a warrior and he would take warriors under his father’s command on missions that he would describe as “haunting the Blackfoot”. He would often participate in raids and attacks of enemy tribes, which often meant stealing horses, land and food from enemies. Big Bear was also an accomplished hunter and was able to provide for his family through his hunting, while also taking part in attacks.
When his father died in 1864, Big Bear was approaching 40 and was now the chief of the band of 100 members.
As chief, Big Bear would lead his warriors in the largest Indigenous battle to be fought on the Canadian prairies, that is known at least, when he took part in the Battle of Belly River in 1870 near Lethbridge, Alberta.
This battle would be the last major conflict between the Cree and the Blackfoot, and the last major battle between the First Nations on Canadian soil.
After a smallpox outbreak had decimated the strength of the Blackfoot, a Cree war party took advantage of this weakness to launch the attack in October of 1870. Each side had roughly 500 to 800 warriors, with Piapot, Big Bear, Little Pine and Little Mountain leading the Creek. Big Leg, Black Eagle, Heavy Shield, Crow Eagle, Bull Back Fat and Button Chief led the Blackfoot. After several hours of battle, a Blackfoot party was able to take the high ground and this put the Cree in a terrible situation. They attempted to retreat but were taken down by the Blackfoot, who killed about 300 Cree who tried to escape. In all, nearly 400 Cree were killed while 40 Blackfoot were killed and 50 were injured.
In 1871, the Cree and Blackfoot made a formal peace, which was formalized by Crowfoot, the Blackfoot chief. In 1860, Lethbridge commemorated the battle by naming a park Indian Battle Park. In 2005, the name was nearly changed to Valley of Peace to remove the negative references to the Indigenous people. This proposal was rejected though.
Despite the loss in the battle, Big Bear and his people continued to grow in strength through the 1870s but as time went on, Big Bear could see that the conditions his people enjoyed were not going to last. Disease was ravaging his people and the bison were declining in numbers which threatened the food and economy of the tribe.
On Aug. 14, 1874, the Hudson’s Bay Company visited with Big Bear, which was odd considering they had to travel seven days to visit the camp. Factor William McKay brought four wagons of supplies for his friend Big Bear and warned him that the North-West Mounted Police were being established in the area. McKay warned Big Bear that the police force would establish and preserve the west as Canadian and how they would not interfere but protect the interests of his people. At the end of the visit, gifts were given to all 65 tents in the camp, but many did not accept the gifts worrying about the intentions of the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North-West Mounted Police, which they saw as an incentive to start a treaty process within the area.
Big Bear then began to talk with the Canadian government about a treaty. Big Bear was not in favour of being on a reserve because he saw it as the loss of freedom as a hunter but he also saw that the bison were disappearing and many food sources were growing weaker. The only way for his people to survive, he saw, was a treaty with the Canadian government.
By the time 1876 came around, all of the major Cree chiefs on the plains had signed Treaty 6, except for Big Bear. He did not want to sign because he knew the Canadian government would violate the treaty upon its signing.
As he would say, “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 baits. Let your chiefs come like men and talk to us.”
In August of 1876, Alexander Morris, the Lt. Governor of Manitoba and the North West Territories went to Fort Carlton to negotiate with the Indigenous people of Saskatchewan. After getting the treaty singed there, Morris went to Fort Pitt, near the home of Big Bear, to gain the signatures of Indigenous there while Big Bear was away.
Big Bear believed that the Canadian government was just telling the chiefs what they wanted to hear and this led him to pursue better terms for the treaty.
Big Bear attempted to warn the others against the treaty, even riding to each lodge himself to urge people not to sign or give up their resources.
Big Bear was unhappy that the treaty was signed without consulting him. He refused to sign any treaty feeling that it would be, in his words, a “rope around our necks”, feeling it would strangle the freedom of the Indigenous people.
The Canadian government attempted to discredit Big Bear among the chiefs and his people, saying he did not deserve the esteem he carried. The claimed that he was an outsider, which was very far from the truth.
Big Bear also had a plan to have the various tribes and nations choose reserves all next to each other to effectively create a First Nations country within Canadian borders. When the Canadian government learned of this, they disallowed it, even though it had been said the Indigenous could choose their reserves wherever they wanted.
In 1878, Big Bear and his Cree supporters would prevent agents for the government from surveying through their land. The surveyors would call in the support of the North West Mounted Police and Col. Acheson Gosford Irvine threatened to arrest Cree if they prevented the surveyor’s work. The Cree complied with the order.
In 1879, Big Bear and the Cree went into Montana to hunt the last of the bison before returning three years later.
Big Bear would resist signing the treaty for four years until 1882 when he had no choice but to sign on Dec. 8 of that year. He felt that he had been betrayed by the other chiefs because they still signed even with his warnings. With food supplies running low and his people coming close to starvation, he had to sign the treaty.
After signing, the government told Big Bear to find a reserve to live on. Big Bear and his people did not want to live on a reserve but in order to receive food rations from the government, they had to.
In the first winter after signing the treaty, his people received no food rations since they were not on a reserve. In 1884, Big Bear met Henry Ross Halpin, a Hudson’s Bay Company clerk at Frog Lake and the two became friends and this would help influence his decision of the reserve to live on.
Big Bear had taken so long to choose a reserve land because he had initially planned to live near Fort Pitt but he saw the poverty of his friends there and he worked hard to get concessions from the federal government, none of which were agreed to.
That same year, Big Bear organized possibly the largest gathering of Cree in history, when he had 2,000 people come together in an effort to force the government to live up to his treaty promises.
Through all of this, Big Bear wanted to resolve things politically, rather than through violence. When a troop of North West Mounted Police arrived to arrest two warriors, Big Bear prevented the angry Cree from attacking the troops and allowed the warriors to be taken into custody.
The troops had arrived after hearing about a Sun Dance, also known as a Thirst Dance, which was outlawed under the Indian Act. One young warrior assaulted John Craig, a farm instructor of the Little Pine reserve and the NWMP was called in with 90 men from Battleford, ready to arrest the warrior.
Lt. Lief Crozier of the troop would write, “the chiefs, including Big Bear, were doing all they could to have the man give up quietly. They said however if any attempt were made to arrest him forcibly, they felt sure bloodshed would follow. What made me most anxious to avoid a collision was the fear that the first shot fired would be the signal for an Indian outbreak with all its attendant horrors.”
In 1885, Big Bear chose a reserve to live on but because he took so long to decide, his people began to turn against him. Chief Wandering Spirit began to rise in authority among the Cree people as a result. At one time, Big Bear was leader of over 500 people but by this time his support base was down to about 114 people.
It was around this time he also spread his message of unity among the Indigenous people to Louis Riel, after meeting with the Métis leader in Prince Albert.
When the Métis took part in the North-West Rebellion, Big Bear and his supporters played a minimal role in the uprising but his son, Little Bear, went with Chief Wandering Spirit to Frog Lake in order to attack settlers. On April 2, nine men were killed in what would become known as the Frog Lake Massacre. Big Bear had no part in the massacre.
On April 14, Big Bear negotiated the surrender of 44 civilian inhabitants of Fort Pitt, when Chief Wandering Spirit was moving in to attack.
On July 2, Big Bear surrendered at Fort Carlton.
Big Bear had attempted to stop any massacre from happening but the government still charged him with treason and put him on trial in Regina on Sept. 11. Big Bear had actually tried to solve the problems peacefully and had protected those that were taken prisoner. His friend Henry Ross Halpin, who had been taken prisoner, testified on his behalf at the trial saying that Big Bear was just as much a prisoner as those he protected.
The trial was in English and had to be translated into Cree for Big Bear and only one witness, Stanley Simpson, was asked to appear for the Prosecution. Much of the evidence presented was in favour of the innocence of Big Bear as well and it showed that Big Bear took no part in the killings, looting or taking of prisoners.
Nonetheless, Big Bear was found guilty and sentenced to three years at Stony Mountain Penitentiary in Manitoba.
In 1887, he would be released after two years due to his poor health and he would die soon after on the Poundmaker Reserve on Jan. 17, 1888 at the age of 62.
In 2019, Chief Poundmaker was exonerated by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who apologized for the 1885 conviction of the chief. There are now calls to exonerate other chiefs, including Big Bear.
Information from Wikipedia, CBC.ca, Cree Nation Heritage Centre, University of Saskatchewan, Canadian Encyclopedia