The Dream of Big Bear
What would the Plains look like today if Big Bear’s dream had become a reality? Big Bear, or MISTAHIMASKWA in Cree, was a Cree-Saulteaux Chief who lived on the Plains from 1825-1888. He is remembered as a great peacemaker who helped to end the wars between the Cree and Blackfoot.
Big Bear was an insightful leader. In 1875, when the Canadian government sent Reverend McDougall to offer presents to the Plains people, Big Bear understood the government’s motivations and refused the gifts stating, “when we set a fox-trap we scatter pieces of meat all round, but when the fox gets into the trap we knock him on the head; We want no bait; let your chiefs come like men and talk to us” (Big Bear quoted by Wiebe, 2015).
When the Canadian government came with their numbered treaties, Big Bear refused to sign. Instead, he and his followers lived for several years hunting bison. But by the 1880s the bison had been all but wiped out by industrial hunting, the fur-trade, and a policy of extermination in the United States. Big Bear was forced to sign a treaty in order to obtain food for his people.
The rations provided by the Canadian government were not sufficient. As James Daschuk has documented in his book ‘Clearing the Plains’, the Canadian government used food to “ethnically cleanse” the area we now call Saskatchewan, knowingly keeping those who had signed treaty on the “verge of actual starvation” (John A. MacDonald quoted by Daschuk, 2013), vulnerable to diseases like tuberculosis.
Big Bear imagined a better future for his people. He petitioned the Canadian government to grant the Cree a giant reservation in northern Saskatchewan. The area would be large enough to support a roaming bison population, and with it, the traditional Cree lifestyle.
On April 2nd 1885 Big Bear’s dream of a bison commons was cut short when violence erupted at Frog Lake. Though he tried to make peace even then, Big Bear was no longer in charge of the Cree men who had once followed him. The men, led by Wandering Spirit, killed 9 settlers, among them the Indian agent Thomas Quinn who had withheld their rations. Wandering Spirit and five of the Cree men involved in the ‘Frog Lake massacre’ were later captured and hung, along with two others, in what stands as the largest mass execution in Canadian history. It is said the bodies were left hanging dead for twenty minutes to serve as an example to others. Prime Minister John A. MacDonald remarked that the execution “ought to convince the Red Man that the White Man governs.”
Despite working to keep the peace, and helping settlers escape with their lives, Big Bear was charged with treason for working to organize the Cree people and was sentenced to three years in Stony Mountain Penitentiary. While imprisoned he became ill with tuberculosis. He was released early on compassionate grounds, but died soon after.
What would Canada be like today if the events of April 2nd 1885 had been different? Can we imagine a bison commons in what we now call Saskatchewan? We speak of wanting a nation-to-nation relationship between Canada and First Nations today, but what is a nation without land?
With this song we honour the memory of the great leader and visionary MISTAHIMASKWA (Big Bear). And we ask, does the Dream of Big Bear live on?
For further reading please see:
Daschuk, James (2013) “When Canada used hunger to clear the West.” Globe and Mail
Daschuk, James (2013) Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life. Regina, SK: University of Regina Press.
Stonechild, Blair and Bill Waiser (1997) Loyal Until Death: Indians and the North-West Rebellion. Fifth House Publishing.
Wiebe, Rudy (2008) Big Bear. Penguin Books.
Wiebe, Rudy (2015) “MISTAHIMASKWA (Big Bear)” Available on-line at: www.biographi.ca/en/bio/mistahimaskwa_11E.html
released April 2, 2016
Vocals: B.D. Willoughby
Lead Guitar: Kris Smith
Rhythm Guitar: B.D. Willoughby
Bass: Scott Fulton
Drums: Mark Budd
Keyboards and piano: Steve ‘The Hat’ Jeske