Pitikwahanapiwiyin, or Poundmaker in English, was an important Cree leader around the time of Confederation. He resisted Treaty 6 and the reserve system but signed Treaty 6 to follow the will of his people. As chief in the 1880s he attempted to reduce violence during the 1885 Riel Rebellion. Despite his peacemaker role, he was convicted of treason for his involvement in the Rebellion. He died shortly after.
Pitikwahanapiwiyin was born around 1842 near the Battlefords in Saskatchewan. The son of a Stoney chief and a Metis woman, he was raised with his mother’s Cree family in what is now Alberta. In 1873 he was adopted by Isapo-Muxika (known in English as Crowfoot), a Blackfoot chief who lost his own son.1
Pitikwahanapiwiyin was a band headman in 1876 when the Government of Canada negotiated Treaty 6 with Indigenous groups in the central prairies.2 This treaty territory is a long strip across what is now central Alberta and Saskatchewan, including Edmonton. The Numbered Treaties were created after the addition of Rupert’s Land expanded Canada’s territory in 1869. These Treaties were established after 1871 in response to Indigenous appeals. Indigenous communities sought protection from unregulated settlement and the rapid decline of buffalo herds that were central to their livelihood. By 1875 Indigenous resistance had begun to disrupt land surveying projects and threatened telegraph line construction. The Government of Canada reluctantly agreed to negotiate treaties in order to expand and develop land in the west.3
Pitikwahanapiwiyin was an outspoken opponent of Treaty terms. He was particularly offended by the idea of a reserve system. In response to the reserve system he said, “This is our land, it isn’t a piece of pemmican to be cut off and given in little pieces back to us. It is ours and we will take what we want.” At first, Pitikwahanapiwiyin had a lot of support for his views. However, older leaders opposed him, including his uncle Mistawasis. The more experienced leaders acknowledged his concerns, but were more worried about what would happen if they did not sign treaties. The other leaders were convinced and agreed to sign.4
Though Pitikwahanapiwiyin could not prevent the signing of treaties, his dissent helped negotiate better terms for his people than previous treaties. The “famine and pestilence” clause, which promised aid from the Government of Canada in the event of those problems, was a large improvement.5 Pitikwahanapiwiyin eventually signed Treaty 6 despite his personal objections because the majority of his band supported it.6
Pitikwahanapiwiyin was selected as chief shortly after the Treaty was signed. He committed his leadership to negotiating and promoting peace. In the early 1880s reserve living conditions deteriorated in the Prairies. Pitikwahanapiwiyin hosted a Thirst Dance on his reservation in 1884 to discuss improving the situation. Approximately 2000 people attended. A disruption occurred when the North West Mounted Police pursued someone accused of assault on a nearby reserve. Pitikwahanapiwiyin was able to calm the situation and avoid an outbreak of violence.7
Violence erupted on the Plains the following year during the second Riel Rebellion. Pitikwahanapiwiyin intended to use the success that Riel’s followers had had at Duck Lake as leverage in negotiations with government agents. As the situation grew more tense, leadership was given to the soldiers’ lodge rather than the chief. Pitikwahanapiwiyin was able to keep the warriors from pursuing the retreating government troops after their camp was attacked in the Battle of Cutknife Hill, even though he did not have official control of the reserve .8
Pitikwahanapiwiyin was still tried for treason due to his role as leader of his reservation during the Rebellion, despite his continued commitment to reduce violence. He was sentenced to three years in prison but only served one before being released due to ill health. He died while visiting his adoptive father at the Blackfoot reservation in 1886.9
The tragedy of Pitikwahanapiwiyin illustrates the struggle that Indigenous communities face due to the encroachment of settler populations. He saw the danger that the treaties and reserve system posed and tried to mitigate the damage. He was a wise leader and negotiator trapped in an impossible situation.
1The University of Saskatchewan Libraries, “Pitikwahanapiwiyin (Poundmaker)”, The Northwest Resistance: A dabase of materials held by the University of Saskatchewan Libraries and the University Archives, online: <http://library.usask.ca/northwest/background/pound.htm>.
3Michelle Filice, “Treaty 6”, The Canadian Encyclopedia (11 Oct 2016), online: <http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/treaty-6/>.
6Supra note 1.