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On the night of Oct. 24, 1870, Payipwat,  a Cree Nation leader, was preparing for battle.

His warriors, the Young Dogs, were part of a group of 800 men led by himself, Little Pine, Big Bear and other Cree chiefs. They planned to launch an invasion of the Cypress Hills area near present-day Lethbridge, Alberta in the territory of the Blackfoot.

Payipwat, was a highly respected man in his mid-50s who had led the Young Dogs for the past three decades. Throughout his life he had seen the bison disappear, and the start of settlers arriving from the east to settle on the lands of the new Canadian West.

Where once bison herds numbered in the millions, only a few thousand remained due to overhunting by settlers. The invasion in the Cypress Hills planned for the next day was an attempt to take territory of the Blackfoot and have access to the last of the bison herds.

As Payipwat went to sleep that night, he had a dream of a terrible Cree defeat.

He woke up from the dreams convinced it was a vision.

 Payipwat attempted to convince the other leaders to abandon the battle plan and retreat back to their territory. The other leaders had come too far, and didn’t listen to Payipwat, despite the respect he commanded.

As they went into battle, Payipwat refused to allow his Young Dogs to participate. That battle, now known as the Battle of Belly River, was the last Indigenous battle in the Canadian prairies.

For the Cree, it was a disaster. While both the Blackfoot and Cree had 800 men going into the battle, by the end, only 400 Cree remained, among 750 Blackfoot.

Payipwat’s vision had come true. But this wasn’t the end of the story for Payipwat It was just the beginning.

I’m Craig Baird…and this is Canadian History Ehx.

The man who would become Payipwat began his life circa 1816 in the area of eastern Saskatchewan. He was not Payipwat at  birth, that name would come later.

Instead, he was named Kisikawasan, or Flash in the Sky.

As a young child, he and his grandmother were captured in a raid by the Sioux and he was raised by them.

He learned their culture and medicine and when he was around 20 years old  he was found by the Cree and returned to his own people.

With  knowledge of Sioux medicine, something the Cree felt was very powerful, he was given a new name:.

Payipwat, which translates to One Who Knows The Secrets Of The Sioux, or Hole In the Sioux.

Back with his people, Payipwat proved himself to be an exceptional warrior and hunter. He quickly gained respect from those around him and he became the leader of the Young Dogs, legendary warriors, bison hunters and horse thieves. The band was made up of Assiniboine and Creemen, women and children who followed Payipwat.

Today, the connotation of a horse thief is negative because for colonial settlers, it was a terrible crime that demanded justice, equivalent to car thieves today.

For  Indigenous people, stealing horses was more of a prank, rather than a criminal act. 

European colonizers, especially the Hudson’s Bay Company, saw it as a criminal act and they branded Payipwat and the Young Dogs as troublemakers. The fact that the band rarely traded with the company didn’t help their reputation.

At the time, the Hudson’s Bay Company enforced European law in the West. Rupert’s Land, a massive area that included parts of the future provinces of Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. had been given to the company By King Charles I in 1670 without consultation with  Indigenous people

In the 1850s, the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Metis moved into the Qu’Appelle Valley, east of present-day Regina. This was the traditional territory of the Cree but once again, land was settled without consultation and Payipwat saw the immediate impact of the new arrivals as the bison herds began to decline.

The Hudson’s Bay Company refused to recognize the authority of Payipwat, but fur trader Isaac Cowie would refer to him in letters as Payipwat, Lord of heaven and earth.

Cowie had his first posting at the Qu’Appelle fort, where he remained until 1874, and he interacted with Payipwat on several occasions. Along with recognizing Payipwat’s importance in the area, Cowie respected him and called him,

“an honourable man and a good hunter.”

It is understandable why Cowie respected Payipwat. The Cree leader spoke five Indigenous languages, was known for his deep commitment to his people and for his ability to see the changing tides and do his best to adapt to them.

Payipwat knew that his people would face a major crisis in their current location and he began to advocate for the Cree to move westward to the Cypress Hills.

Located along the border of Alberta and Saskatchewan, The Cypress Hills, are a truly unique. The area around them is arid, and suited for ranchland, but the Cypress Hills themselves rise to  2,000 feet above the surrounding plains and is one of the few areas in Western Canada to not have been covered by the Laurentide Ice Sheet during the last ice age. As a result, it remained unglaciated, and the flora found there is unique to the area. There are also 220 species of bird, 47 different mammals and many different species of reptiles within the hills.

It has a Rocky Mountain feel but it’s a place like no other because the highest point is located  in Saskatchewan and rises to 4,816 feet or 1,468 metres. This is also the highest point between the Canadian Rockies and Labrador.  

I lived in the area years ago and canoed often through the stunning landscape.

But back in year #### The Blackfoot called the region I-kim-e-kooy, meaning earth over earth. The Cree called it manatakaw, meaning beautiful upland or an area to be respected, protected, and taken care of. When Metis fur traders came through the area, they saw the jack pine trees or cypress in French and renamed it Cypress Hills.

The Hills were also a borderland between the Sioux, Assiniboine, Blackfoot, Blood, and Cree. Due to the respect for the area, few Indigenous nations hunted there, and  bison were allowed to thrive well after the herds on the Great Plains were decimated by Canadian and European hunters on both sides of the border.

With options dwindling, Payipwat and the other Cree leaders were determined to make the hills part of their territory. This led to the fateful Battle of Belly River and Payipwat’s dream or vision that saved the lives of his men. Despite the losses in that battle, the Cree were able to settle on the eastern edge of the Cypress Hills,, and they made the area their home.

Since Payipwat was no longer in the Qu’Appelle area  where Fort Qu’Appelle was located and he did not know that the Government of Canada was sending a commissioner to speak to the Cree there regarding a  treaty.  Since the Government of Canada had received Rupert’s Land, the former Hudson’s Bay Company territory, and with plans for a railroad to be built through the Canadian West, the Canadian government was beginning to negotiate treaties with the Indigenous peoples of the west to cede land to the government in exchange for reserves, provisions, supplies and food.

The Numbered Treaties, as they are known, were signed between 1871 and 1921.

Treaties 1 to 7 were signed from 1871 to 1877, while Treaties 8 to 11 were signed between 1899 and 1921.

These treaties ceded land to the government in exchange for provisions, reserves and money to the Inuit, Indigenous and Metis people.

The land the treaties cover stretches from the border of present-day Quebec to the Arctic Ocean and the Yukon territory. In the area ceded, you could comfortably fit the United Kingdom, Italy, France, Oman, Pakistan, Iceland, Portugal, Germany, Belize, and Austria, with room to spare. Treaty 4 would cover nearly all southern Saskatchewan except for the extreme southeast.

The commissioner from the Canadian government was coming to the Qu’Appelle area so that the government could build railroads through the Canadian West in anticipation of the arrival of more settlers.

Treaty 4 was negotiated through the early 1970s  as the government wanted to include the Cypress Hills within the ceded land since the proposed transcontinental railway would move through the area to the north.

Payipwat only learned of the treaty, Treaty 4, after it was negotiated in 1874.

A year later, in 1875, Payipwat met with treaty commissioner William Joseph Christie at the Qu’Appelle Lakes.

Christie, who was Metis, had a long career in the Hudson’s Bay Company and was respected by the Cree. He  also spoke their language.

Payipwat told Christie that the signing that took place with other Cree chiefs in 1874 was only a preliminary negotiation. He stated that the Cree wanted the final treaty to have provisions for farm instructors, mills, forges, mechanics, machinery, medical assistance, and more tools.

Payipwat was told by that these demands would be taken to Ottawa to determine their inclusion in the treaty. Payipwat believed that the government would honour his request and on Sept. 9, 1875, he signed the document. But it turns out, the government refused all his requests. And for the rest of his life, Payipwat never forgave Ottawa

Treaty four went through without Payipwat’s requests, although eventually the government implemented in Treaty six which they signed it with the Indigenous people of current central Alberta and Saskatchewan in ####

But back in #### after treaty 4 was signed, Payipwat was in close contact with Indigenous leaders and friends Big Bear and Little Pine. They were leaders of the northern Cree, but they were living in the Cypress Hills and they expressed their concern that the treaties with Canada were destroying the culture and autonomy of the Cree.

For the next decade, Payipwat and the other Cree chiefs refused to sign any other treaties with the Canadian government until they were guaranteed their autonomy.

These leaders hoped that instead of isolated reserves, their bands could create a Plains Cree territory that would have protection from governmental interference.

Payipwat became the spokesmen of the southern Cree in this movement and called for revisions in Treaty 4 to create this new homeland.

The Canadian government was hesitant to allow it.

In response, Payipwat, the entire Assiniboine nation, and two Cree chiefs named Cowessess and Foremost Man, requested to have reserves next to each other in the Cypress Hills. They selected a site in May 1880 that was 50 kilometres northeast of Fort Walsh, which was a North West Mounted Police fort, established a few years earlier.

This time, Ottawa agreed.

It is likely that the government agreed due to growing pressure from Indigenous populations for  territory, and the government’s need for treaty negotiations with other Indigenous nations across the country

A reserve survey was conducted in 1880 and all signs pointed to the Indigenous population getting a large territory in the Cypress Hills, where they could live their lives without interference.

Of course, if you look at a map of Alberta and Saskatchewan today you can see that there are nearly no reserves anywhere in southeast Alberta and southwest Saskatchewan, and certainly no territory in the Cypress Hills, which is now an interprovincial park.

Indian Commissioner and Lt. Governor of the North West Territories Edgar Dewdney happened. [4] 

Edgar Dewdney began his career as a surveyor on a trail that runs through British Columbia. The Dewdney Trail runs 720 kilometres through the middle of the province and was the main thorough-fare during the 19th century. T

Today, 80 percent of the trail has been incorporated into the Crowsnest Highway, which is the main highway running through southern British Columbia, and the third most important highway in the province after the Trans-Canada Highway and Yellowhead Highway.

In 1870, Dewdney took up a role in the Canadian government, and served in Parliament from 1872 to 1879.

In 1879, he became the Lt. Governor of the North West Territories, while also serving as the Indian Commissioner for the region.

Dewdney was known for his method of using food rations to control Indigenous people and force them into reserves.

He  became aware of the large concentration of Indigenous people becoming an autonomous political entity, which he felt the government and North West Mounted Police would be unable to control. 

Knowing that the bison were fast disappearing, he felt using starvation was the best way to force them to accept  treaties as written, and to prevent this new Indigenous territory from being created.

Unfortunately, without even realizing , the Young Dogs and other Cree groups helped Dewdney achieve his goal

In 1881, the Young Dogs and other Cree followed the remaining bison to ranges in Montana, where they stole horses and, according to authorities, killed cattle for food.

The American army rounded them up, took their guns and wagons and escorted them back to Canada.

With the Cree disarmed, Dewdney seized on this opportunity and recommended Fort Walsh be closed, thus cutting off rations to the Cree and Assiniboine until they gave up their request for land next to each other. While he recommended the fort be close, that did not happen yet.

This was the beginning of  a shift in  government policy when dealing with the Cree, and in particular, Payipwat.

In the spring of 1882, Payipwat and his people were starving so they agreed to move to the Qu’Appelle River valley, located in present-day eastern Saskatchewan.

In return, his people were given horses, wagons, and rations for the journey.

Their stay in the Qu’Appelle River area did not last long, as Payipwat said they were treated poorly as the treaty was not being honored.

By September of 1882, they returned to the Cypress Hills to winter there with Big Bear, Little Pine, and their Cree nations.

In return the Canadian Government in agreement with Dewdney ordered, Acheson Gosford Irvine, the Commissioner of the North West Mounted Police close Fort Walsh  and not give the Cree any food.

 Irvine worried that doing so would result in violence, not only against his troops, but also attacks and disruptions to construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway which was well on its way across Canada.

He chose to ignore the orders from Ottawa, and kept the Cree fed, while also keeping Fort Walsh open. In the spring of 1883, Ottawa once again ordered that Fort Walsh be shut down and an end to all rations to the Cree. They provided extra troops in the area in case of conflict.

This time, Irvine agreed, and Fort Walsh was closed and completely dismantled.

With no other option, Payipwat took his people to present-day Indian Head, east of the Qu’Appelle River valley and established a reserve there.

To make sure he left the Cypress Hills, a police escort travelled with him the entire way.

Even though he had seen his people weakened by starvation, and pushed out of the Cypress Hills, Payipwat continued to advocate for territory for the Indigenous peoples elsewhere in the land covered by Treaty 4.

His first plan was to do so in the Indian Head area, but the lack of fresh food  did not make it feasible.

By this point, the population of his  band had fallen from 700 in 1878, to less than 450 members in 1884

Mostly due to starvation and malnutrition. In April 1884, Payipwat told the federal government that he was moving to the area of Fort Qu’Appelle so he could take a reserve next to another Cree nation.

He also stated that before his journey he would hold a Thirst Dance and a grand council of all the Indigenous leaders in the Treaty 4 region.

The Thirst Dance, also known as a Sun Dance, is a sacred ceremony for the Indigenous people that occupied the grasslands of Saskatchewan.

The ceremony could last between four and eight days, taking place between spring and summer. Participants start with a sweat lodge ceremony, and then gather to celebrate the renewal of life, good growing seasons, good community, and good health. The ceremony was looked down upon by the Canadian government and banned the ceremony completely in 1892,

That ban lasted until 1951, just 70 years ago

Payipwat invited Dewdney to attend, but he refused.

Instead, he sent Irvine with orders to break up the council and force Payipwat back to Indian Head , roughly 100 kilometres away.

In May 1884, Irvine, with 56 men and a seven-pounder gun, caught up with Payipwat shortly before he reached his destination near Qu’Appelle.

His men attempted to arrest Payipwat in the dead of night but soon found themselves surrounded by armed warriors.

Rather than fight, Irvine negotiated.

After speaking with Payipwat, Irvine recommended to the government that Payipwat be allowed to take the reserve near Fort Qu’Appelle. He also stated that the Thirst Dance and Grand Council should be allowed to proceed, which they did.

Dewdney decided to agree to what Irvine recommended because he saw it as the lesser of two evils in his mind. Having Payipwat on a reserve in the Qu’Appelle area seemed like the better option than having a larger Indigenous territory to the west. Dewdney believed that if Payipwat was not allowed to settle at his new reserve, he would travel to the Battleford area, in present-day west-central Saskatchewan, and take a reserve next to Little Pine.

If that were to happen, he believed, other Treaty 4 Indigenous would follow and the Battleford area would become a large Indigenous territory.

The movement for treaty revisions was growing among  Indigenous people, including  the Assiniboine  Saulteaux Rabbit Skin and Touchwood Hills people.

On March 26, 1885, before any progress could be made the North West Resistance of Louis Riel , the Metis leader who had led the Red River Resistance 15 years previous, which led to the formation of Manitoba, erupted in the Battleford area.

This resistance, which was fought primarily by the Metis and some Cree, would  only last until June 3 beforethe Canadian government and its militia shut it down at the pivotal Battle of Batoche.

In the aftermath LouisRiel was hanged in Regina on Nov. 16, 1885, labelled a traitor by the Canadian government.

Eight Indigenous leaders were hanged on Nov. 27, 1885, in Battleford for their role in the resistance in the largest mass hanging in Canadian history.

Payipwat took no part in the resistance, but his friend Big Bear was jailed despite having a minimal role.

Big Bear had attempted to negotiatebetween his people and the government peacefully, but he would be found guilty in a trial after the rebellion.

His time in prison caused a decline in his health and he was dead by 1888.

Little Pine had died just before the resistance began.

With their deaths, Payipwat lost two of his closest friends and allies.

After the resistance was over, the government established a military base next to Payipwat’s reserve. The associates of Payipwat were then labelled as rebels and traitors by the government. Payipwat was the only one of the major Cree leaders in what is now Saskatchewan,  not to be arrested, or die soon after the resistance.

With his dream of an Indigenous territory shattered, Payipwat settled  to live on his reserve in the Qu’Appelle area.

By this point, he was the major spiritual leader of the Southern Cree and he continued to promote Indigenous culture.

 He chose to make his reserve a small homeland for his people. On his reserve, he also prevented the government from breaking up the village, . The government’s hope was to take Payipwat’s Cree band and atomize it, forcing members to settle on farms scattered across the reserve.

Payipwat refused to allow the land on his reserve to be parceled, which would have allowed the government to disperse the members of the band.

Due to this, Ottawa grew distrustful of Payipwat and his growing influence, believing he would influence other Cree to resist the government. Despite the banning of the Thirst Dance in Canada, the practice continued on Payipwat’s reserve. Payipwat considered it an ancestral rite and said,

“I agree that my people do not pray to their God in their own way, if the commissioner is in agreement not to pray to their own in their own way.”

Even as Payipwat grew older and kept to the reserve, the Canadian government was intent on breaking up his band and removing him from a position of power. In 1900 William Morris Graham was appointed the new Indian agent for the reserve and he demanded that Payipwat be removed as chief on grounds of incompetence. Graham, who had only one leg, believed that the Indigenous people should abandon their traditional ways, and forced chiefs to sell portions of their reserves so it could be settled by colonists. 

Payipwat described him like this,

“He is so mean he carries a linen rag in his pocket into which to blow his nose for fear he might blow away something of value.”

“Now I know the government is going to break the treaty because when it signed it was understood that it would last as long as the grass grew, the winds blew, the rivers ran, and men walked on two legs. Now they have sent us an agent who has only one leg.”

Graham’s efforts to depose Payipwat were hampered by the Indian Commissioner David Laird.

Laird had known Payipwat since the 1870s and refused to see Payipwat’s behavior as grounds to depose him.

Governor General Lord Minto was also a supporter of Payipwat, having met with him, and he attempted to have the ban on dances lifted after Payipwat requested it of him.

Unfortunately, he was unsuccessful. But Graham wouldn’t relent He then wanted to have Payipwat arrested for holding a Thirst Dance and, this time, Ottawa agreed. Soon after, on April 15, 1902 Payipwat was deposed by the government as chief .

Although the government removed his title, his people regarded him as chief for the rest of his life. Later in life  he converted to Christianity, but only partly and he said,

“I only accept half of your religion because if you were wrong, there would be nothing left for me to believe.”

In April 1908, Payipwat died on his reserve. Lord Minto honoured him by saying

“He had been a celebrated old chief for many years, and a great warrior in his time.”

Payipwat was buried on his reserve. His body was placed in a coffin in the Christian tradition, but his knees were placed against his chest, in the Cree tradition

This is the end of the story of Payipwat but there’s one more thing you need to know of his legacy.

Today as you drive along the Trans-Canada Highway, just to the east of the Cypress Hills, you will reach the small community of Piapot.

Spelled in the anglicized version of Payipwat’s name, this community was established in 1908 and was once a thriving community.

Unfortunately, like so many communities in southern Saskatchewan, the slow decline began in the 1950s and today, only 50 people call it home.

On the other side of the province and almost 150 years after it was first established by Payipwat.  the Piapot First Nation continues to exist with a reserve population of 2,551 people.

Lastly, The Government of Canada finally gave  Payipwat his dues and labelled him a Person of National Historic Significance on Nov. 13, 1981,

The designation, says in part,

“For many years, he strove unsuccessfully to have the treaty terms improved…In later years, he championed the right to continue Cree spiritual ways.”

Today, Payipwat is mostly forgotten among great Indigenous leaders. He doesn’t have the same name recognition of leaders such as Big Bear, Poundmaker and Crowfoot.

Payipwat was a man who could see the path the Indigenous were on with the Canadian government. He knew moving to reserves would fragment their way of life and allow the government to push their assimilation into Canadian culture, at the expense of their own. Through his life, he fought against that, not through wars or battles, but by uniting Indigenous nations together to form a place where they could continue to live their traditional lives. Circumstances out of his control prevented this from happening, and the worries of Payipwat were confirmed with residential schools, Indian agents who had dictatorial powers on reserves, and the infliction of generational trauma on the Indigenous peoples. 

[12] Information from Biographi, Canadian Encyclopedia, Piapot Nation, Wikipedia,

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