Our final piece on Indigenous leaders focuses on Mistahimaskwa, a.k.a. “Big Bear”.
Born around 1825 and living until 1888, Big Bear rose to the position of Chief of the Scrub Plains Cree. While his father had held this position before him, it was his skill as a hunter and warrior that ultimately led to his selection as chief at age 40.1
Mistahimaskwa’s accomplishments in war against other tribes and his hunting skills were impressive, but his service to his people politically merits greater recognition.
Mistahimaskwa was heavily involved in the negotiations of Treaty Six, the territory on which the University of Alberta currently stands. Shortly after Confederation, Big Bear entered into talks with the Canadian government with an eye on setting terms for a treaty. He was opposed to living on a reserve as he rightfully believed that this would restrict both his mobility and his ability to hunt freely.2
Unfortunately, the dwindling buffalo population in the mid 1870s forced his hand.3 Starvation loomed and signing a treaty would provide food for people on the reserves, but Mistahimaskwa felt that the Canadian government would violate the terms of the proposed treaty before the ink was dry. He didn't trust the government. He wanted better terms for his people and a stronger guarantee from the Government of Canada. He knew the value of the land of his people and the resources it contained.4 Therefore, he held off on signing and, at one point, took a horse and rode to nearby Cree settlements in an attempt to convince other bands to wait for a stronger position and better deal.
In 1882, Mistahimaskwa finally signed the treaty, believing that he had no choice.5 He did so with great reluctance and felt that the other chiefs had betrayed both him and their people in signing, sensing that the new country being created around them would ultimately be a great detriment to the Cree.6
After Treaty Six came into force, Mistahimaskwa saw the importance of uniting the Cree to gain greater political power in this new arrangement. By June of 1884, his band was more than 500 strong, and were part of the more than 2000 who gathered on the reserve controlled by Pitiwahanapiwiyin (also known as “Poundmaker”, who we wrote about earlier this week). This large scale unification of the Cree was unprecedented.7
Mistahimaskwa is remembered not only for his political prowess, but for his commitment to relying on peaceful means in his dealings with the Canadian government. His wisdom unquestionably avoided bloodshed during times when it seemed like it might have been imminent.
1 Frits Pannekoek, “Mistahimaskwa” in Canadian Encyclopedia (Historica Canada: 2016) online: <www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/big-bear/>.
2 Jean Allard, “Big Bear's Treaty: The road to freedom” (2002) 11 Inroads 110.
3 James Rodger Miller, Big Bear, Mistahimusqua, (Toronto: ECW Press, 1996) at 58.
4 Supra note 2.
5 Neal McLeod, “Rethinking Treaty Six in the Spirit of Mistahi Maskwa (Big Bear)” (1996) 19 Can J Native Studies 70.
6 Michelle Filice, “Treaty 6”in Canadian Encyclopedia (Historica Canada: 2016), online: <www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/treaty-6/>.
7 Supra note 1.