by Brother Sean Brooks
Too few people have the ability to live by their beliefs when challenged with more than ordinary circumstances. Even fewer will do so when they have taken on the added burden of leadership. Poundmaker, a Plains Cree Chief was such a person. By briefly examining events in his life it will become evident why he is remembered; and for what he is remembered. Poundmaker exemplifies the phrase: “how we get there matters.”
Poundmaker was born about 1842 near Battleford, Saskatchewan. Orphaned before he reached adolescence he was fortunate to be living in a society that cared for everyone in their group. He gained popularity and respect from early adolescence as an outgoing and friendly person who was a proficient hunter and generous to the needy. He lived during tense times on the Canadian prairies and some of the darkest times for his people. Cree and the Blackfoot had been enemies for quite some time as they clashed over territory and the buffalo. Settlers were pushing west demanding land and the government of Canada was actively extending the treaty system into Saskatchewan; forcing the First nations bands to accept treaties and moving them onto reserves. This was also the time of the Riel Rebellions. Although present in many battles, Poundmaker made his reputation as a skilled orator and leader. Many of his deeds will go unrecorded here. This page will focus on his actions in 1885 during the Riel Rebellion. These actions are typical of the man and the way he lived.
The Metis rebellion came about under the charismatic leadership of Louis Riel. Metis land grants, provincial status, title to lands already held were a few of the grievances the Metis had with the Canadian government. The reply from the government was unsatisfactory and Metis anger grew. It escalated into outright rebellion when a detachment of North-West Mounted Police were sent from Battleford to Fort Carlton. Rumors flew about their size and motive, but the mere fact that they moved sparked the rebellion. The first conflict took place at Duck Lake and is considered a victory for the Metis. The Metis hoped to sway the Cree and other Nations to join their cause. Poundmaker and others saw it as an opportunity to make their own grievances heard. They did not rush to the side of the Metis, but instead went to Battleford to speak with the Indian agent to voice their own concerns. The citizens of Battleford, fearing the Indians assumed a state of siege and fled to the police post and telegraphed for assistance. The Cree waited around for a few days, then left, baffled at the actions of the town. There had been no intention of besieging the town, although cold and hungry warriors did begin a small amount of looting and burning of the abandoned buildings. The Cree eventually moved back to Poundmaker’s reserve. A relief column of volunteers, soldiers and police commanded by Lieutenant Colonel William Otter arrived in Battleford to restore order.
May 2 Battle at Cut Knife Hill
Otter led a force from Battleford with the intention of confronting the Cree. He marched from Battleford with 324 men, 2 cannon and one gatling gun. Otter’s men came across them at Cut Knife Hill. Poundmaker, being the political leader of the camp, did not fight. The war chief (Fine Day) scattered his warriors in small pockets around the area. The Canadians were very confused by the fire from the left and right and assumed they were fighting a force of close to 500. The real numbers were more like 50 warriors. By late morning the Canadians (both cannon broken down and the gatling ineffective) were almost surrounded. Otter gave the order to retreat. The Cree and Stoney warriors were ready to follow up the retreating soldiers in what would have been a disaster for the Canadians. Poundmaker stopped them. “They have come here to fight us, and we have fought them. Now let them go.” His actions prevented a potential great loss of life and showed how greatly he was respected. Although not in command of the warriors, his words were heeded. Following this battle Poundmaker wanted to move his tribes west, away from the conflict, but the warriors and militants were in control. They wanted to march east to join the Metis. Because of the rules that governed the camps, everyone went east.
Protection of Prisoners
The Cree encountered a wagon train hauling supplies to Battleford. The wagons were seized and the drivers were made prisoners. During Poundmaker’s subsequent trial for treason the wagon drivers were witnesses for the defense. Their testimony was how generous and compassionate Poundmaker was to the prisoners and how he prevented them from coming to harm at the hands of their captors. They recounted a story where Poundmaker replaced a knife taken from one of the teamsters by a warrior by one of his own. He did not confront the warrior, simply took a knife out of his pocket and gave it to the boy.
After the defeat and surrender of Riel at Batoche, Poundmaker was able to regain control of the tribes. There were many who wanted to continue the fight, but Poundmaker convinced them otherwise:
“You all, as many as you are, behold me. You all call me your chief. Listen carefully to my words. Today, it is no more a question of fighting. You who have committed murders, who have plundered the innocents, it is no more time to think of saving your own lives. Look at all these women and children. Look at all these youths around you. They are all clamoring for their lives. It is a case of saving them. I know we are all brave. If we keep on fighting the whites, we can embarrass them. But we will be overcome by their numbers, and nothing tells us that our children will survive. I would sooner give myself up and run the risk of being hanged than see my tribe and children shot through my fault, and by an unreasonable resistance see streams of blood shed. Now, let everyone who has a heart do as I do and follow me.”
Poundmaker took responsibility for his tribe, although by Cree custom not in command of the war parties nor the actions for the time of the battles. He turned himself in, surrendered his weapons and released the prisoners.
Poundmaker, throughout the rebellion, urged peace and attempted to lessen bloodshed when at all possible. He continued to make himself heard, although not technically in any command position in the tribe (while a warriors lodge was present.) He was prepared to sacrifice his life to preserve his tribe.
At his trial, Poundmaker said a few words in his own defense before sentencing. “I am not guilty, much that has been said against me is not true. I am glad of my works in the Queen’s country this spring. What I did was for the Great Mother. When my brothers and pale faces met in the fight at Cut Knife Hill I saved the Queen’s men. I took their arms from my brothers and gave them up at Battleford. Everything I could do was done to prevent bloodshed. Had I wanted war, I would not be here now. I would be on the prairie. You did not catch me. I gave myself up. You have got me because I wanted peace.”
The judge did recognize the Poundmaker had done much to protect the lives of people in his care. The judge decided however that his actions were not evidence of loyalty to the Queen, but where are simply mitigating circumstances that would affect his term of incarceration. Poundmaker was sentenced to three years at Stony Mountain Penitentiary in Manitoba. As he was being taken away Poundmaker shouted “I would prefer to be hung at once than to be in that place.”
Poundmaker was released after six months in Stony Mountain because of ill health. Canadian officials were very concerned about Poundmaker dying in prison and so released him early. Poundmaker returned home to find his world and his people changed. Treaties had condemned them to hunger and poverty, and old friends had died. He decided to visit his adopted father, Crowfoot, to discuss the changing fortunes of their peoples. They spent five or six weeks together but on July 4, while participating in a Blackfoot sun dance, Poundmaker burst a blood vessel and hemorrhaged to death in minutes.