Saturday, October 6, 2012

Chief Big Bear

Photo: Our Legacy

The Plains Cree Chief Big Bear was born in 1825 near Fort Carlton, Saskatchewan, at a time of great historic upheaval. His Cree name was Mistahimaskwa, and his French name Gros Ours. He attained this name following a vision of the venerated Bear Spirit of the Cree.

In the 1860s, Hudson's Bay traders reported he was living near Forts Carlton and Pitt. In 1870, he was involved when the Cree fought the Blackfeet at Belly River, near present-day Lethbridge.

In the years following Confederation, the buffalo populations were dwindling, threatening the traditional livelihood of the plains people, including the Metis. In 1874 a Hudson's Bay trader was sent to the camp of Big Bear to distribute gifts of tobacco and tea and explain the coming of the Northwest Mounted Police, who were supposed to keep the peace in the West.

Later the Lieutenant Governor came to negotiate Treaty 6 and found Big Bear disinclined to sign. He foresaw the coming calamity represented by the imminent demise of the buffalo, and knew that in this situation, the treaty money the government was offering would be of little use.

As conditions worsened in the 1880s, Big Bear determined to go to Ottawa. He travelled east with a band of 500 in 1884. They stopped at the camp of Poundmaker for a Thirst Dance, alternatively known as a rain Dance. By then, the government had expressly forbidden such ceremonies. At this large gathering, hostilities broke out between a young warrior and a white farm instructor. Thanks to Big Bear and Leif Crozier of the Mounties, peace was maintained.

Big Bear's demands for his people were set out in speeches he made at Duck Lake and Fort Carlton the same year. Sadly, the government was not only unresponsive, but dismissive. A few months later, the NWMP under Crozier were routed at Duck Lake by the Metis. This was the beginning of long and difficult hostilities.

Big Bear tried to keep the peace and protect the interests of his people. Instead of espousing force, he employed wisdom and reason in his efforts to unite the Plains people and resist white control.

During the Riel Rebellion, he'd avoided taking part in the hostilities, but after Batoche, he was tried for treason in Regina, sentenced and imprisoned in Stony Mountain. As his health worsened, Crowfoot and others petitioned for his release, and he was allowed to leave the jail. By then his health was broken and the buffalo gone. Big Bear died on the Poundmaker Reserve in 1888.

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