Canada needs to exonerate Chief One Arrow and apologize to the One Arrow community. It’s not a question of why, but when?
By: Tricia Sutherland and Bill Waiser
This past May, on a glorious spring day, the Poundmaker exoneration ceremony was held atop a hill at the Poundmaker First Nation.
Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau offered a heartfelt apology for the wrongful conviction of Cree Chief Poundmaker for treason-felony in the aftermath of the 1885 North-West Rebellion.
It was a deeply moving event, an important step on the road to reconciliation.
But there need to be other public ceremonies to correct the historical record and, more importantly, absolve other bands and their chiefs of disloyalty in 1885.
One Arrow, a Willow Cree leader, is certainly deserving of an apology.
In the months leading up to the 1885 North-West Rebellion, Indian Affairs officials were carefully monitoring the mood on Cree reserves in the Saskatchewan country.
The Canadian government was worried that Cree bands, disillusioned with their treatment under treaty, might join with Metis leader Louis Riel in a grand Indian-Metis alliance.
But Cree chiefs steadfastly resisted Riel’s entreaties because they had their own strategy of dealing with a distant and unresponsive Ottawa.
Chief One Arrow of the Willow Cree, for example, told the Indian agent for the Carlton agency that he wanted nothing to do with any Métis resistance and “spoke in glowing terms of the loyalty of himself and his band.”
Then, on March 19, 1885, the day Riel declared his provisional government at Batoche, the chief was taken hostage.
Michel Dumas, the Metis farm instructor at the One Arrow reserve and ironically a member of Riel’s governing council (Exovedate), ordered the Willow Cree band to slaughter their cattle and join the Métis camp at Batoche.
Gabriel Dumont, Riel’s general, and a contingent of armed horsemen ensured that the Indians complied.
“Surrounded by rebels and influenced by their own Instructor,” a government official later concluded, “it was almost impossible to expect Indians to act differently to ‘One Arrow’s’ Band.”
Exactly how many One Arrow men, including the chief, actively participated in the four-day battle of Batoche is not known.
It did not matter.
General Frederick Middleton, the commander of the North-West Field Force, considered anyone appearing to assist Riel to be the enemy and took One Arrow into custody after the fall of Batoche on May 12.
The general also confiscated his treaty medal.
“Think it will be a good thing for the country,” Middleton informed the minister of Militia, “if I can chastise a body of rebel Indians.”
Up until the rebellion, the territorial court had demonstrated leniency toward Indian defendants.
But that changed in the late summer and fall of 1885 when 81 men would be prosecuted for rebellion-related crimes, no matter how minor or circumstantial.
The image of a wild, lawless West was one of the last things Canada needed as it struggled to attract settlers to the region in the 1880s, and the Conservative government was determined to undo the damage by bringing the Indian population to heel.
The docket consequently included four leaders — One Arrow, Poundmaker, Big Bear, and Whitecap — for treason-felony.
Their sentencing and imprisonment would send a clear message that chiefs would be held responsible for the actions of their followers and be removed from their bands.
Indians who had committed murder and other alleged crimes, on the other hand, were not to be treated so leniently.
That these prosecutions have been largely forgotten prompted one writer to claim that “a great amnesia descended on Canadians.”
That they had the blessing of contemporary Canadian political leaders was confirmed by Conservative Prime Minister John A. Macdonald.
In a confidential letter to Lieutenant Governor and Indian Commissioner Edgar Dewdney just days before the public hanging of eight men at Battleford in late November 1885, the prime minister mused, “The executions … ought to convince the Red Man that the White Man governs.”
One Arrow was the first Indian to appear in court on Aug. 13, 1885, probably because he was considered the first Indian leader to join Riel at Batoche.
The trial started badly for the elderly chief.
He found the proceedings bewildering, even more so when the treason-felony indictment was translated as “knocking off the Queen’s bonnet and stabbing her in the behind with the sword.”
There was no Cree equivalent for words such as conspiracy, traitor, or rebellion.
“Are you drunk?” a perplexed One Arrow reportedly asked the court interpreter.
The case against One Arrow rested on the contention that he had openly associated with the Métis at Batoche and thereby breached his treaty “allegiance to the Government, the country, and the Queen.”
Not one prosecution witnesses was able to say, however, that the Willow Cree leader had actually fired a shot or was even directing his band at Batoche — because most had been imprisoned before the fighting and held inside different buildings.
At the conclusion of the Crown’s evidence, defence attorney Beverly Robertson tried to have the charge withdrawn, maintaining “not a tittle of evidence” had been produced to link One Arrow directly to the uprising.
But whether the chief had actively participated or not was irrelevant.
Armed with Judge Richardson’s suggestion that the Willow Cree chief should be found culpable if he was caught up in the troubles in any way, the six-man jury required only a few minutes to return with a verdict of guilty.
One Arrow was remanded for sentencing late the next afternoon.
At this point, the real story behind the band’s presence at Batoche emerged.
When asked by Richardson whether he had anything to say, an overwrought One Arrow tried to explain through the court interpreter that he could not have taken up arms or painted his face because he had just lost a grandchild.
He also claimed that his fighting days were long past and that he would never break his treaty pledge.
“All that was said against me was thrown upon me falsely,” he asserted. “I was taken to the place, Batoche’s, to join Riel by Gabriel. I did not take myself to the place. They took me there … I know that I have done nothing wrong, I can’t see where I have done anything wrong against anybody so I beg of you to let me go, to let me go free.”
Because there was no one to corroborate his account, One Arrow’s plea sounded like a last-minute fabrication to save himself.
Certainly, the judge was unmoved and sentenced One Arrow to three years in Manitoba’s Stony Mountain penitentiary.
He might as well have been condemned him to death.
One Arrow was taken to Stony Mountain in mid-August 1885.
He was assigned prisoner number 29.
The admission ledger also listed his vital statistics: he stood 5′ 8″ tall, was a hunter by occupation, and had no religion.
Stony Mountain was designed to house only 100, and with the arrival of those convicted of rebellion crimes, the prison population ballooned.
The severe overcrowding was exacerbated by the wretched sanitary conditions, especially the lack of a sewage system for human waste.
Respiratory and intestinal ailments pervaded the prison population, but the mortality rate was particularly high among the Indians, including the relatively young.
In April 1886, after eight months of incarceration, One Arrow was released early and immediately let it be known that he wanted to return to his reserve in the Saskatchewan country.
But the elderly chief, likely battling pneumonia, was too ill to make the 500-mile trip and taken instead to St. Boniface hospital in Winnipeg.
He was soon transferred to the nearby archbishop’s residence to spend his final days with the Roman Catholic priests.
It was here on April 19 that One Arrow received a visit from Indian Commissioner Dewdney.
The senior Indian Affairs official wanted the One Arrow people to abandon their reserve and move across the South Saskatchewan River to join the Beardy-Okemasis band.
With Archbishop Alexandre-Antonin Taché serving as translator, Dewdney asked the dying chief to send word to his band that it should relocate.
One Arrow countered with his own request — that his people be protected “from mistreatment by the White race.”
As One Arrow lingered near death, he was baptized — something he had resisted in the penitentiary.
He died Easter Sunday morning, at 8 a.m. on April 25, 1886, and was buried two days later in the St. Boniface cathedral cemetery grounds.
“There is no doubt,” argued the newspaper Le Manitoba, “that his detention was fatal to his health and that had he been released sooner it would have been possible to heal him.”
In August 2007, One Arrow’s body was exhumed from the cathedral cemetery and returned to Saskatchewan for a traditional burial on the reserve.
He had finally come home, and the healing process could begin.
But the One Arrow people still carry the stigma of having their chief sent to prison for treason-felony and being declared a rebel band in 1885.
Canada needs to exonerate Chief One Arrow and apologize to the One Arrow community.
It’s not a question of why, but when?
This Op-Ed originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.