There were many important Indigenous leaders during the 19th century, across Canada, and today I am looking at one of the most important in the Prairies and a man whose legacy stretches into today. He is Chief Poundmaker and he is a fascinating individual.
His name in his language, and I am doing my best to pronounce it, was Pitikwahanapiwiyin. I will be referring to him as Poundmaker throughout this episode.
Born around 1842 near Battleford, he was given his name for his ability to attract bison into pounds, which was a trap used by the Indigenous to kill and harvest the bison. According to the oral traditions of the Cree, he was gifted by spirit helpers, and he would sing and drum a special song to entice the lead bison of the herd into the encloser.
The son of Sikakwayan, and Assiniboine medicine man, and the sister of Cree Chief Mistawasis. The family was living near Great Slave Lake when his father would suddenly die. At this point, his mother took him and his siblings to live with her parents in the Red Pheasant band back near Battleford. Soon after, his mother would die and Poundmaker, his brother Yellow Mud Blanket and his sister would be raised by the Cree community.
As an adult, Poundmaker would gain prominence in the Canadian Prairies during the negotiations in 1876 of Treat 6. He did not believe that the treaty was favorable to his people and was opposed to the agreement. He asked the government how they could lay claim to the territory stating, “this is our land. It isn’t a piece of pemmican to be cut off and given little pieces back to us. It is ours and we will take what we want.” Unfortunately, other chiefs wanted to sign the treaty and Poundmaker would sign it as a result. It was not that Poundmaker was against the Treaty, it was that he was fighting for a good treaty for his people.
He would say to Lt. Governor Alexander Morris, “From what I can hear and see now, I cannot understand that I shall be able to clothe my children and feed them as long a the sun shines and water runs.”
After the signing of the treaty, he would split off from the main band to form his own band and in 1881, this band would settle 40 kilometres northwest of Fort Battleford. In 1873, he had also been adopted by Crowfoot, the chief of the Blackfoot, which greatly increased his influence. Crowfoot had adopted Poundmaker after Crowfoot lost his son in a battle between the Cree and Blackfoot, as a means of replacing his fallen son. Crowfoot would give Poundmaker the name Wolf Thin Legs.
As Poundmaker expected, the government did not fulfil its promises and he became more critical of the Canadian government as a result. Poundmaker did what he could to adapt to the new life on the reserve, learning farming and even sending his son to be educated by priests. Unfortunately, most of the farms failed on the reserves, much like most of the settlers farms did before dryland farming techniques were developed in the early 20th century.
Robert Jefferson, the farm instructor on the Poundmaker Reserve, would write about his interactions with Poundmaker after the death of the chief. He would say that Poundmaker was, “tall and good looking, slightly built and with an intelligent face, in which a large Roman nose was prominent. His bearing was so eminently dignified and his speech was so well adapted to the occasion, as to impress every hearer with his earnest and his views.”
In 1881, Poundmaker was asked to accompany Lorne Campbell, the Governor General of Canada, during a tour from Battleford to Blackfoot Crossing. The Governor General was incredibly impressed with Poundmaker, especially his knowledge of Cree culture and his philosophy as a peacemaker.
With the bison gone, and the farms failing, the Indigenous would invoke their Treaty Six rights for food rations, but more often than not, they were denied assistance.
In June of 1884, Poundmaker and Big Bear, along with other Cree leaders, would assemble on Poundmaker’s reserve to form a plan of action as food and supplies were inconsistent from the government. To gather spiritual strength, they held a sun dance. The North West Mounted Police would disrupt the dance, searching for a warrior who had assaulted John Craig, a farm instructor on a different reserve. With 90 men, they told Poundmaker and Big Bear to hand the man over. Both refused and while the man was found and arrested eventually, the two chiefs were instrumental in preventing a large-scale conflict at that moment with the North West Mounted Police.
By the mid-1880s, the bison were nearly eliminated from the prairies by overhunting and government policies, which was increasing the starvation of Poundmaker’s people. With his people in desperate need for food, Poundmaker travelled south to Battleford in 1885 just as the North-West Rebellion was beginning. The oral history states that Poundmaker went to the fort to speak with the Indian agent. At the same time, the settlers around Battleford had heard reports of large numbers of Cree and Assiniboine people leaving reserves and making their way to Battleford and they believed the Indigenous were coming for them. On March 30, 1885, those settlers began to seek shelter in Fort Battleford and when Poundmaker and his party reached Battleford, the town not the fort, he was told the Indian agent would not meet with him. For the next two days, Poundmaker waited and the telegrams coming out of the fort stated that Poundmaker was waiting to attack, which was not the case. Peter Ballantyne exited the fort and checked Poundmaker’s plans and found that Poundmaker’s intentions were peaceful only.
There was also looting taking place of the town, now abandoned, and while the settlers stated it was Poundmaker’s people doing the looting, one observer said they had seen the looting being done by whites. In fact, according to oral history, the Nakoda people were doing the looting and Poundmaker did his best to stop it.
With no one meeting him, Poundmaker chose to leave and set up an encampment on Cut Knife Hill.
On May 2, 1885, Lt. Col. William Otter arrived with a force of 332 Canadian troops at Fort Battleford and requested permission to, in his words, “make Poundmaker pay”. He would take his force to Cut Knife Hill and they attacked Poundmaker’s encampment. To say that this battle did not go well for Otter would be an understatement. Unfamiliar with the land, Otter and his men had to ford Cut Knife Creek, and in doing so, they made enough noise that a Cree man named Jacob with Long Hair heard them and alerted the camp. Otter then set up two cannons and a Gatling gun and began firing into the camp. At first there was confusion and women and children were running for safety in the ravine. A group of Assiniboine warriors then charged Otter’s men to stop them from killing the women and children, while Fine Day went to the top of Cut Knife Hill to co-ordinate the attack against the Canadian militia. The method he used was to have the warriors fight in small groups. One group would charge forward and attack, then rush to the ravine as another group of warriors were rushing out of the second ravine to attack. This prevented Otter from knowing how many Indigenous there were attacking and it caused complete confusion in the ranks. After six hours of fighting, Otter and the Canadian militia retreated having suffered eight dead and 14 wounded, while the Cree and Assiniboine, who numbered 50 to 250, suffered five dead and three wounded.
Poundmaker had not taken part in the fight but as Otter and his men began to flee he prevented his band’s fighters from pursuing the soldiers and killing them. His actions likely saved dozens of lives. He is said to have told his warriors, “They have come here to fight us and we have defended ourselves, our women and our children. Now let them go.”
In the New York Times, it would say across the front page, “Defeated by the Indians: Col. Otter routed by Chief Poundmaker”, which made it seem as though Poundmaker was a rebel looking for blood, when this was not the case.
Several of Poundmaker’s warriors planned to join Metis forces at Batoche, which Poundmaker was against. Nonetheless, they left and on route they captured a wagon train carrying supplies and took the men from the supply train as prisoners. Hearing this, Poundmaker would intervene to ensure that the prisoners were not harmed.
A few weeks later, he would receive news of the defeat of the North West Rebellion at Batoche and he would choose to surrender. Louis Riel had written a letter that contained Poundmaker’s name and Poundmaker was convicted of treason as a result and sentenced to three years in Stony Mountain Penitentiary. He would say to Riel, “you did not catch me, I gave myself up. I wanted peace.”
Poundmaker’s trial had lasted only two days and the jury took only half an hour to return a guilty verdict.
During his trial, he would state:
“Everything that is bad has been laid against me this summer, there is nothing of it true. Had I wanted war, I would not be here now. I should be on the prairie. You did not catch me. I gave myself up. You have got me because I wanted justice.”
Thanks to Crowfoot, his adopted father and the power he held, Poundmaker was spared having his hair cut in prison.
According to legend, Poundmaker stated “I would rather die than be in that place”, referring to Stony Mountain Penitentiary. Father Lacombe, the legendary missionary who Lacombe, Alberta is named for, went to Ottawa to plead for the pardon of Poundmaker. Whether because of Lacombe or a review of the evidence that showed Poundmaker took no part in fighting, he would only serve seven months.
On July 4, 1886, he would die at the age of 44 from a lung hemorrhage while visiting his adopted father Crowfoot.
He was buried at Blackfoot Crossing, where his remains were kept until 1967 when they were reburied at Poundmaker Reserve in Saskatchewan.
On May 23, 2019, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau travelled to Poundmaker Cree Nation and officially exonerated Poundmaker and cleared his name.
Today, the Poundmaker Cree Nation continues to live on near Cut Knife. Poundmaker’s grandnephew John Tootoosis would become a prominent Cree leader as chief of his band, beginning in 1920. The Canadian government did not recognize his leadership, stating that a chief had to be at least 25 and John was 21. Nonetheless, he stayed as chief and would serve as the first president of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations. In 1986, he would be awarded the Order of Canada. Poundmaker’s great-grandnephew Gordon Tootoosis would become a highly respected Canadian actor, and the founding member of the Saskatchewan Native Theatre Company. He would appear as Albert Golo in 52 episodes of North of 60, as well as in several movies and television shows. He would win a Gemini Award and be nominated three times. In 2004, he would also be awarded the Order of Canada.
In the game Civilization 6, Poundmaker is the leader that players can choose when they pick the Cree as their civilization.
In July 2018, for the first time since 1885, several personal belongings of Chief Poundmaker were returned to the Poundmaker Reserve and are housed at the Poundmaker Museum and Historic Site.
Information comes from The Canadian Encyclopedia, Wikipedia, Virtual Saskatchewan, Biographi.ca, The Star, The Plains Indians, Sask Culture, PoundmakerCN.ca