I’m all for the pardon of Poundmaker, but there is much more to this than the reputation of one man, writes Doug Cuthand. Other warriors suffered in jail and the excesses for revenge and control set the stage for the administration of First Nations for over a century.
A couple of weeks ago, Prime Minister Trudeau apologized to the Tsilhqot’in Nation for the wrongful execution of their six chiefs by the colonial government in 1861. This action on the part of the colonial government was a travesty of justice but not uncommon in Canada’s colonial past.
There is a growing movement to pardon Chief Poundmaker, who was sentenced to two years for his role in the events of 1885. The pardon of the Tsilhqot’in chiefs in British Columbia has added fuel for a similar show of respect for Chief Poundmaker.
The chief and Council of the Poundmaker First Nation have been lobbying for his pardon for several years and it looks like it may be forthcoming.
The events of 1885 were a travesty and unnecessary. It is a part of Canadian history that is largely forgotten in the history books, but it remains fresh in the hearts and minds of First Nations people.
On March 30, 1885, Chief Poundmaker, along with chiefs and headmen from of the neighbouring First Nations, rode to Battleford to meet with the Indian agent and request assistance for their people. It had been a harsh winter and the people were hungry.
Instead of meeting the delegation, Indian Agent Rae, along with the townspeople, were barricaded inside the fort. Rae refused to step outside to meet with the Chiefs, considering them to be hostile. The young men who had accompanied the leaders became very upset at this treatment and they looted the stores to obtain food for their families.
The warriors and the leaders returned to Poundmaker’s camp beside Cut Knife Hill. They feared that the militia would come and attack, so at this point the warrior chiefs took over and the political leaders took a back seat.
Sure enough, on May 2 Colonel Otter and his troops attacked the camp. My people were expecting to meet with Colonel Otter or someone from the Canadian government and negotiate; they weren’t expecting them to do something so stupid.
First, we held the high ground and rather than come up at a different point and go to the camp Otter decided to head straight up the hill. He badly underestimated the warriors and his troops were pinned down in the open while the warriors were hidden in the trees.
Second, they began firing a cannon into the camp where women and children were present. My great-grandfather, Misatimawas, was the war chief for Little Pine. He mounted a horse and organized the evacuation of the camp and the safety of the women and children. He was wounded in the lower abdomen and unable to continue.
After six hours of fighting, Otter had lost eight men and more were wounded. The militia began to retreat, and it was obvious that the Cree and Assiniboine warriors had won. The warriors wanted to continue and finish the job. Poundmaker was powerless to stop them. He went to Misatimawas a told him that he had to stop them. He was unable to stand, so he gave Poundmaker his pipe, which was his symbol of authority. Misatimawas had distinguished himself in the Blackfoot wars and was wildly respected by the warriors.
Poundmaker went to the field of battle and held the pipe in the air and told the warriors to stand down. The warriors complied, and Otter and his men were able to retreat to Battleford.
Following the events of 1885, trials were held in Battleford and Regina that resulted in the incarceration of 37 warriors and innocent bystanders as well as the public hanging of eight warriors at Battleford. The trials were conducted in English and while a translator was present there was no defence council and the juries were white protestant settlers.
In total, 37 warriors were sentenced to jail and eight sentenced to death. For their part Misatimawas received six years and Poundmaker got three years. Both were released early and Poundmaker contracted tuberculosis and died shortly after at Blackfoot Crossing in Alberta.
I’m all for the pardon of Poundmaker, but there is much more to this than the reputation of one man. Other warriors suffered in jail and the excesses for revenge and control set the stage for the administration of First Nations for over a century.
The unrest in the northwest allowed Canada to repress our people and complete the clearing of the plains for settlement and a national railway. History must reflect this.