Guns on the Plains

Tasneem Jamal News

The Ploughshares Monitor Spring 2009 Volume 30 Issue 1


From Extraordinary Canadians: Big Bear

A long-time Project Ploughshares supporter, Rudy Wiebe has twice won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction as well as the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction.

The seasonal cycles of band hunting continued in the 1850s. Not raids, but providing food and protection for his band and growing family, were Big Bear’s daily life. The Cree had established their buffalo territory on the plains, and though there were still clashes with the Blackfoot Confederacy, a mutual need for less violence had Elders in both tribes advocating peace. One Cree in particular, Chief Maskepetoon—who had allowed himself to be touched by Methodist Rundle’s holy water and, it was said, could hear Christian Cree words on birch bark or paper—gradually became a powerful peace negotiator.

Years before, while the chief was away raiding, Blackfoot warriors had destroyed his camp, killing his aged father. Maskepetoon was told the name of his father’s killer, but instead of pursuing revenge, he led his People into the Beaver Hills for healing. He began to talk aloud about the wisdom of peace. Now, it was told, Cree warriors had brought several Blackfoot into Maskepetoon’s camp and called out the name of the killer. The Blackfoot men were surrounded; the killer stood motionless facing the chief, waiting like a warrior for whatever would hit him.

Maskepetoon turned, went into his lodge, and emerged with his ceremonial warrior clothes, the suit of beads and quills and scalps he had not worn for years. Put this on, he said in Blackfoot, and after the man had done that he told him to mount the horse tied beside his lodge. Then Maskepetoon looked directly at him.

Both my hands are empty, he said. You took my father from me, so now I ask you to be my father. Wear my clothes, ride my horse, and when your People ask you how it is you are still alive, tell them it is because Maskepetoon has taken his revenge.
The Blackfoot warrior slid off the horse; he took Maskepetoon in his arms and held him hard against his heart.

My son, he said. You have killed me.

As this story was carried across the plains and along the rivers of the boreal forest by both the People and White missionaries, the Cree and Blackfoot Elders had a powerful teaching for their Young Men. Perhaps there were greater, braver honours to be attained than stealing and bloody coups and killing. Consider the profound pre-eminence of magnanimity and hospitality, the hard discipline of forgiveness. Who showed the greater courage: a warrior who fought wars with enemies or a man who rode unarmed into an enemy camp and tried to talk peace? Slowly, peace treaties—the Cree called them âsotamâkêwin, meaning “promise”—among the tribes reached over the prairie, lasting almost four years.
. . . .

For seasons on end Maskepetoon and his two sons rode to the Blood and Peigan, who were often more open to talk than the Siksika, trying to renegotiate peace treaties with the Blackfoot. He argued, We all want to live, and we all need buffalo. Honour the Creator with prayers, with the pipe and songs, and honour the promises between us in the hard life we all live. He carried a Bible with him now; he read it aloud in Cree and then translated the words into Blackfoot. He told them: This holy book tells of a Prince of Peace who would save all Peoples from evil. Listen to the Prince of Peace!

But there were always enough Young Men mourning their brothers, both Blackfoot and Cree, who could not endure such words. They would leave Maskepetoon and the Elders to their talk and ride away, ashamed that they had not protected their dead or wounded comrades and dreaming not of peace but of bloody revenge.
. . . .
That evening they drank tea and smoked and remembered Chief Maskepetoon, who that spring had again ridden to the Blackfoot to make peace. In the camp of his Blackfoot father he had been greeted with ceremony and joy. But before they could talk, a Blackfoot named Big Swan, who had fought with Cree near Edmonton just days before, fired a shot and knocked the old man from his horse. In a frenzy of hatred, over the shouts of consternation and grief from the Elders, the warriors dragged Maskepetoon’s body out onto the prairie, hacked it up, and left the pieces to the dogs.

Big Bear said, He was our peace chief. There can only be more war.
. . . .

The trader was surprised at how many horses Big Bear’s band bartered for despite its poverty. The chief did not tell him that they were planning war. Their Assiniboine allies had begun it by sending a tobacco message: The Blackfoot are ravaged by smallpox; come, now is the time to destroy them. We will avenge your peace chief Maskepetoon, and we will have the prairie and buffalo to ourselves.

More than twenty Cree bands, including those of Big Bear and his close friend Little Pine, smoked the tobacco, and though Sweetgrass was too old for battle, most of his Young Men came as well. In early October 1870, the Cree met the Assiniboine in the Vermillion Hills and more than six hundred warriors rode west together, the largest force they had ever assembled.

They finally reached the Little Bow River and sent out scouts. They readied their Bay muzzle-loaders and rifles, their bows and arrows, spears, war clubs, and knives, but one day in council, Assiniboine Chief Piapot told them he had dreamed a dream. He had seen a buffalo with iron horns charging through camp, goring, tossing warriors aside in bloody pieces; clearly, his guardian spirit was warning him not to commit war. But the other leaders did not agree: they were eight days into Blackfoot territory and still had not met one single enemy! So next day, while Piapot and some followers turned back, almost six hundred warriors continued south to the Oldman River, where the scouts had discovered a Blood camp within sight of the mountains. They attacked before dawn.

But, unknown to them, several much larger bands of Peigan and Blood were camped nearby, and before the Cree and Assiniboine could completely destroy the smaller camp, they were in turn attacked. These Blackfoot were armed with the latest Winchester repeater rifles and Colt revolvers traded from the Americans, and they drove the invaders back over the open prairie and into the Oldman River coulees where a few years later Whites would dig the coal mines of Lethbridge.

There, after four more hours of ferocious fighting, forty Blackfoot were killed and fifty wounded, while the Cree allies escaped total annihilation only by leaving three hundred of their dead on the cliffs and in the coulees and river valley when they retreated. They were so outgunned that Jerry Potts, a half-Blood warrior who later became a guide for the North West Mounted Police, said, “You could shut your eyes and still be sure to kill a Cree.” The Blackfoot named that place Assini-etomochi, Where They Slaughtered the Cree.

. . . .

Chief’s Son’s Hand protected Big Bear in the disastrous battle on the Oldman River; he wore the paw around his neck and was unharmed. His sons Twin Wolverine and Imasees also returned home not badly wounded. But the bodies of so many warriors from so many bands were left behind to be shamefully mutilated by the enemy that Cree mourning continued all winter. And in the nights when Big Bear lay sleepless under his buffalo robes, he slowly came to realize that the unbelievable stories they had heard about the Americans fighting among themselves—how in their battles uncountable thousands of men were destroyed in a single day, and almost as many horses—were true. Such White wars actually happened. The Blood and Peigan had shown them how American guns could kill.

Through the winter nights, with all his relations breathing around him, Big Bear remembered again and again riding south in darkness with the crunch of frosted grass under his horse’s hooves, and then, along the crest of the plain, the jagged wall of snow-covered mountains slowly rising into light before him. The Cree warriors charged screaming with him into the Blood camp, the lodge-hide split at the stab of his knife, a child’s eyes stared up at him—and then the sudden, terrifying revelation of blazing mountains, like a stampede of white buffalo charging up over him, trampling all the Cree among the Blood lodges. He had thought it had been revealed only to Piapot, but gradually he knew he had to think differently. He began to understand something he could never have comprehended without that little child’s eyes and the mountains of white buffalo vision when they attacked the Blood and had been attacked in turn by repeater rifles and revolvers, beaten back into the coulees, retreat upon desperate retreat, until they fell from the cliffs into the Oldman River. He finally understood what he should have recognized in the dawn light: that the honourable battles of hand-to-hand combat with an enemy you knew by name were gone. Brutal, faceless killing war had come, war fought at such long range you could barely see a body nor find a breath between the unending bullets. Never on Earth would there be enough People to survive such capability for slaughter.
So, think different. For People to live, they must try to think like Whites too.

That winter, Sweetgrass, Big Bear, Little Pine, and all the chiefs along the river from Carlton to Rocky Mountain House agreed: war among the Plains People must end.

Copyright © Jackpine House Ltd., 2008. Reprinted with permission of Penguin Group (Canada). No part of this article may be reproduced.

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