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Misto-ha-a-Musqua: Last Chief of the Free Plains Cree

For the week of Monday January 17, 2011

On January 17, 1888, Misto-ha-a-Musqua (otherwise known as Big Bear) died. Born around 1825 into a Plains Cree band living in southern Saskatchewan, Big Bear was known to be an even tempered, thoughtful man who was a devastating warrior, skilled hunter and an influential leader. A pacifist in his struggle against the Canadian government, he became the champion of the last band of non-treaty First Nations of the Canadian prairies to settle on a reserve.

A young Big Bear in warrior attire
© Library and Archives Canada / PA-117944
Near the end of the 19th century, as the number of buffalo declined, Plains First Nations were faced with the prospect of starvation. Many Chiefs signed treaties with the Canadian government in exchange for reserves (lands set aside for the exclusive use of registered or status Indians), small payments and farm equipment. But, convinced that it would ensure perpetual poverty among his people, Big Bear sternly resisted signing Treaty No. 6. It soon became his goal to unite all the Plains First Nations under one thundering political voice.

By 1879, Big Bear was at the height of his influence but, with few options, other chiefs continued to sign Treaty No. 6. In 1882, when starvation struck hardest, he too signed on behalf of his band. According to the treaty, each band was free to choose the location of their reserve. However, when Big Bear and other chiefs requested their reserves be located next to each other in the Cypress Hills area, the government refused. Consequently, in 1884, he organized a thirst dance, a traditional gathering that had been banned by the government. There, he persuaded other Treaty No. 6 chiefs to recognize him as their spokesman on treaty grievances and resolved to petition Ottawa directly.

Big Bear and his son on the left with fellow Cree Chief Pitikwahnapiwiyin (Poundmaker) on the right, posing in front of the Regina police barracks in 1885
© O.B. Buell / Library and Archives Canada / C-001872
While Big Bear sought to renegotiate the treaty through peaceful dialogue, Kahpaypamhchukwao (Wandering Spirit) convinced others that more aggressive action was needed. On April 2, 1885, against Big Bear’s wishes, Wandering Spirit and his men attacked the settlement at Frog Lake and killed nine settlers. Although Big Bear had condemned the violence, as the popular chief of the band, he was branded a traitor by the government and was sentenced to three years in prison. Due to his failing health he was released two years later and died shortly after. Despite his bitter end, Big Bear’s dream came true in 1993 with the creation of the Confederacy of Treaty Six First Nations.

Big Bear was designated a person of national historical significance in 1971, Frog Lake a National Historic Site in 1923, and Treaty No. 6 a National Historic Event in 1927.

For more information regarding Big Bear and the North-West Rebellion/Resistance, please read past This Week in History stories The Battle of Frenchman Butte and The North-West Mounted Police Retreat from Fort Pitt, and visit Fort Battleford National Historic Site.

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