CALGARY—On a grassy hill at Blackfoot Crossing in 1967, five-year-old Milton Tootoosis watched as the bones of legendary Cree Chief Poundmaker were exhumed from Alberta’s soil.
It was a solemn, spiritual affair. Tootoosis recalled seeing a teepee, dignitaries and lines of yellow school buses parked on the hill. As a young boy, he didn’t know a lot about Poundmaker — and most history books had branded him a traitor. The Cree leader known as Pitikwahanapiwiyin was jailed in 1885 for treason-felony. But there was an allure to Poundmaker that Tootoosis and the other children in attendance at his exhumation felt.
“We knew as five-year-old kids that this individual that we were paying attention to that day was someone very special,” the headman and councillor of the Poundmaker Cree Nation recently said.
On Thursday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is due to exonerate Poundmaker following decades of work by First Nations elders and leaders, including Tootoosis, to clear his name. The ceremony will come just over a year after Trudeau exonerated six Tsilhqot’in war chiefs hanged in 1864 for defending their traditional territories. Some hope it will prompt future exonerations, but Tootoosis is just happy to see the record set straight concerning Poundmaker’s reputation.
“We are all very excited, honoured, thrilled,” Tootoosis said. “At the same time, I think it’s going to be very emotional and kind of sad because of who Poundmaker was and the fact it took this long to have some justice — to clear his name.”
Growing up on the Poundmaker Cree Nation near Cut Knife, Sask., Tootoosis always wondered what really happened at the Battle of Cut Knife. The incident made the New York Times’ front page. ‘DEFEATED BY THE INDIANS: COL. OTTER ROUTED BY CHIEF POUNDMAKER’ screamed the newspaper’s headline in May 1885, painting the Cree leader as a bloodthirsty rebel. In university, Tootoosis began reading about a very different Poundmaker. This Poundmaker was a skilled orator, a shrewd negotiator and ultimately, a peacemaker.
Born around 1842 in what is now Saskatchewan, Poundmaker was ceremonially adopted by Siksika Chief Crowfoot after his son was killed during a battle. This tightened the bonds between the Cree and Siksika peoples, who traditionally saw each other as bitter enemies.
“He was very well respected. They actually took him into their societies and they actually respected him because he learned the language,” Tootoosis said.
By 1876, Poundmaker — then in his 30s — was a minor band leader who took part in Treaty 6 negotiations with the Crown at Fort Carlton, Sask. During the negotiations that August, Poundmaker questioned the basis of the government’s authority to grant First Nations peoples their own land, arguing 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.”
But the buffalo herds that Plains Cree peoples depended on for food and survival had dwindled alarmingly and Treaty 6 promised to supply bands who signed with rations. Influential Cree leaders at the negotiations considered this the best option, so Poundmaker signed.
Nearly a decade later, in the spring of 1885, the Cree leader and his followers travelled to Battleford, Sask., to seek the rations the Crown owed them under Treaty 6. The local Indian agent refused to leave the protection of a local fort to meet with them thanks to a recent uprising by Métis leader Louis Riel — which became known as the Northwest Rebellion.
This infuriated some warriors in Poundmaker’s band and they raided Battleford itself in response. In retaliation, a force of 325 armed men led by Lieutenant-Colonel William Otter attacked Poundmaker’s camp on May 2 near Cut Knife Hill. After seven hours of fighting, hundreds of Cree and Stoney warriors managed to repel the settlers. Though Poundmaker was known as a peace chief and, according to Tootoosis, had no authority to command the warriors, he managed to convince them to let the troops retreat.
He later offered to conduct peace negotiations with the Canadian government in Battleford. Instead, when he arrived there in May of 1885, he was arrested, convicted of treason-felony and sentenced to three years’ imprisonment in Manitoba’s Stony Mountain Penitentiary. Released after a year due to ill health, Poundmaker returned to Alberta to visit Crowfoot on the Siksika reserve and died there in July 1886.
Originally buried at Blackfoot Crossing, his remains were exhumed at the 1967 ceremony Tootoosis witnessed and repatriated to the Poundmaker Cree Nation that same year.
More than 50 years later, the land that welcomed the chief back will host his exoneration. The day will include a pipe ceremony at dawn and a formal grand entry to the Poundmaker Cree Nation with chiefs, elders and the Cree leader’s direct descendants.
Trudeau will make a formal apology along with a joint statement of exoneration. Poundmaker Cree Nation Chief Duane Antoine and Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde will give responses. An exchange of gifts, a moment of silence and the firing of a cannon are all intended to remember the circumstances surrounding Poundmaker’s conviction.
Another Cree chief in similar circumstances has yet to see his name cleared. Chief Big Bear, a contemporary of Poundmaker, was also convicted of treason-felony and imprisoned in Stony Mountain Penitentiary. Terry Atimoyoo of the Little Pine First Nation has been calling up Chief Big Bear’s descendants from across Canada and the United States to co-ordinate such an effort. Last year, he held a descendants’ gathering to share stories, and intends to organize another this summer.
“It’ll happen. We’ll pursue it,” Atimoyoo said of an exoneration for Big Bear.
The Poundmaker ceremony is expected to attract anywhere from 2,000 to 5,000 people, including schoolchildren who are the same age Tootoosis was when he watched the exhumation at Blackfoot Crossing all those decades ago. He said the ceremony will have great significance for the Poundmaker Cree Nation — and for reconciliation as a whole.
“I’m very hopeful it’ll continue,” Tootoosis said. “That the exoneration of Chief Poundmaker should — I hope — open further conversation, further research and further respect for the Indigenous perspective as to what happened during the past century.”
Brennan Doherty is a work and wealth reporter with Star Calgary. Follow him on Twitter: @bren_doherty