Bill Waiser

‘My people made war gently’

On the morning of May 26, 1885, Cree Chief Poundmaker proudly led his people into Battleford under a white flag of truce to meet with Gen. Frederick Middleton, commander of the North-West Field Force. After surrendering their weapons at Middleton’s insistence as proof of their unconditional submission, the chief and his people gathered in a large semicircle at the feet of the general, who looked down upon them from his chair.

Middleton, fresh from his defeat of Louis Riel and the Métis at Batoche two weeks earlier, was in no mood to be generous. The general believed that Indians like Poundmaker should be punished for their role in the 1885 North-West Rebellion.

But it’s debatable whether Poundmaker was actually a rebel.

In late March, upon hearing of the clash between Métis and North-West Mounted Police at Duck Lake, Poundmaker led a delegation to Fort Battleford to affirm Cree allegiance to the Crown and secure rations for his hungry people. But when the Indians reached Battleford, all of the town’s 500 residents had taken refuge in the small police stockade in the belief that the incoming Cree had war-like intentions.

The Cree patiently waited all day for the local Indian agent to meet with them. Only when it became apparent that their mission to Battleford had been in vain did some of the Indians help themselves to provisions in the abandoned stores and homes before heading back home late that night.

From the vantage of the stockade, it appeared to the frightened residents that they were under siege. But the telegraph line was never cut. Nor were the townspeople prevented from drawing water from outside the stockade.

Returning to the Poundmaker reserve, the Cree camped along a creek not far from the base of Cut Knife Hill and anxiously waited to see what would happen.

The uneasy calm was shattered following the arrival of Colonel W.D. Otter’s relief column at Battleford on April 24. Disappointed that he had not seen any action on his march north from Swift Current and determined to punish the Indians for their apparent siege of Battleford, Otter assembled an attack force of about 325 men, complete with two cannons and a gatling gun, and planned to storm the sleeping Cut Knife camp in the early hours of 2 May.

But the Indians were alerted to the coming of the troops and mounted a counterattack which proved so effective that Otter’s retreating force might have been wiped out if not for Poundmaker’s restraint of the warriors.

Middleton did not appreciate Poundmaker’s position. His job was to bring a swift end to the rebellion.

The Battleford meeting consequently started badly for the Indians.

When Poundmaker came forward to exchange greetings, the general waved him away, stating through his interpreter that he did not shake hands with rebels. Middleton then opened the discussions by accusing the Indians of “pilfering like rats.”

Poundmaker replied that he had tried to hold back the young men and that the Cree were simply defending themselves when they were attacked at Cut Knife. “My people made war gently,” he said.

Middleton dismissed Poundmaker’s statements as lies, telling him at one point, “You have been on the warpath since the troubles began … committed murders and kept the country in alarm.”
Tatwaseen (or Breaking-through-the-ice) then asked that his mother be allowed to speak on behalf of the women and children. When Middleton curtly replied that women did not address war councils, Poundmaker wondered aloud why the Queen, the Great Mother, always presided at their supreme councils.

This response brought an approving shout from the Indians and even sent a ripple of laughter through the officers and men when it was translated.

The meeting came to a close when one of Poundmaker’s head men asked how they were to make a living that summer. Standing for extra emphasis, Middleton told the Indians that the government would take care of them if they behaved themselves and returned to their reserves, but that all would suffer if there was any more trouble.

He also announced that Poundmaker was to be taken into custody.

At his Regina trial later that fall, the Cree chief was found guilty of treason-felony and sentenced to three years in Stony Mountain Penitentiary.

Poundmaker served only a few months before he was released in early March 1886. His freedom was short-lived. A broken man, the 46-year-old chief died four months later from tuberculosis.

This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.
Photo credit: Library and Archives Canada
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