Willow Cree Chief Beardy and his Chiefs.
Although there is no shortage of written material on the Northwest Rebellion of 1885, Indian Elders have said that the full story of the First Nations involvement has yet to be told.
As one Elder put it, "This story was told only at night and at bedtime. And not the whole story. No way. They did not want to tell on anyone who was involved. It is like when something is covered with a blanket and held down on the ground on all four sides. They talked about it in parts only. And they got nervous telling it. They were afraid of another uprising and more trouble. And they were also afraid of getting the young people into trouble."
Some Elders did not like to tell the stories simply because it made them sad. Other Elders did not tell their stories to any white person, even priest, as they were afraid that these stories would be used for the profit of others.
Most historians have used only written documents and official interpretations in their research. After the Uprising the First Nations people did not have the freedom of luxury of doing their own research and putting forward their own views. As a result, contemporary interpretations of the First Nations role have remained very biased.
How the Uprising Started.....
The first First Nations involvement in the Uprising is said to have been at the Duck Lake fight on March 26, 1885. A few First Nations were among Gabriel Dumont's group of about 30 men; but then, considering that the fight itself occurred on Beardy's Reserve, it should not be so surprising that First Nations were present at all. One of the least understood aspects of the Duck Lake fight is why one of Chief Beardy's Headmen (Assiyiwin) was shot during the purported parley preceding the fight. How did an old, half-blind, unarmed Headmen of the Band become involved in the fracas?
What does First Nation oral history have to say about this? The following story is told by Harry Michael of Beardy's reserve. Harry Michael's grandfather was the nephew of Assiyiwin:
"Assiyiwin had gone to town, to Duck Lake to visit a friend, a half-breed by the name of Wolfe. Over there he heard that there was going to be come trouble. Something very bad was going to happen. He had gone to town on horseback and he bought some goods from the store in Duck Lake which he tied on his saddle. He then started walking home. The town of Duck Lake was not too far from the camp.
The old man had very poor eyesight - he was almost blind. And as he was approaching the reserve and the camp he noticed something. He heard a lot of voices, a lot of talking. But he could not see anything until he came near the people.
It was then that a half-breed spoke to him - called in Cree and said, 'Stop! Don't you know what is going to happen?'
Assiyiwin answered, 'Yes, I heard about it.'
The half-breed replied, 'You have walked right into it. Turn back were you came from.'
Assiyiwin answered, 'Ha! I cannot turn back. I'm going home. This is my reserve land. If you are going to have a battle, if you are going to spill blood, you cannot do it on our reserve land.' And he remained standing there with his horse.
The half-breed threw his coat to Assiyiwin. His name was Joe McKay. He said 'Step over my….I'll shoot you.'
That was the time when Assiyiwin heard someone saying while he was standing there, 'Don't shoot each other. Don't shoot.' It was said in Cree.
It was a half-breed. He must have been very brave, coming to the center of the two sided of people on horseback, half-breeds and Indians on one side and the Northwest Mounted Police on the other side. He was trying to tell the people not to shoot each other. He came running from the half-breed side. He did not know the name of this man. He was waving his hands shouting 'Don't shoot each other! People are trying to find a way on how they can get along better. Don't try and kill each other.' He got as far as their location.
It was then Assiyiwin stepped over and passed the coat of McKay and said, 'I am going home.'
Assiyiwin preformed some brave acts when he had the strength and power in his legs. He had some scalps in a wooden box. He had fought and killed in battles and scalped: this was a brave man. That is why he did not back out from Joe McKay's orders. He refused Joe McKay and stepped over past the coat and said he was going on home. He was not about to get frightened. His bravery must have returned to him in spite that he was an old man.
The gun went off and fired. McKay shot the old man Assiyiwin down, hitting him in the stomach. Then there were blasts of gunfire coming from all directions.
They later came after the old man. He didn't die right away that night. He died at sunrise the following morning. He was the first Cree Indian killed. That's how my grandfather told this story."
This is a sketch of Chief Beardy. He was a very honourable and well respected chief.
The official interpretation of the event at Duck Lake was that the Beardy's Band had joined the Uprising. The story of Assiyiwin, however, presents an entirely different view. An older man, with poor eyesight, Assiyiwin was hardly likely to be associating with young fighters. Moreover, as one of the Beardy's Headman, he probably shared Beardy's disassociation from Riel's activities. And Beardy's dislike of outside intruders on their reserve land.
It appears that Assiyiwin's mistake was being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and being too bold in asserting his indignity at what was occurring. Gabriel Dumont did not see his brother Isidore or Assiyiwin approach Crozier and McKay. What was probably not so much a parley as an effort to defuse a tense situation turned into a senseless slaughter when Joe McKay pulled his trigger.
It later became clear that Chief Beardy had not ordered his men to support the Uprising, yet through the incident at Duck Lake his people were fully implicated.
Picture of a Cree woman.
A Cree family.
Poundmaker and one of his wives.
Upon news of Duck Lake, Poundmaker felt it necessary to affirm his allegance to the queen. Poundmaker and a delegation arrived in Battleford, March 29, 1885, to find it abandoned. The white population, having misinterpreted Poundmakers reason for coming, had taken refuge in the N.W.M.P. Fort. Tired of waiting and hungry some of his people looted stores and homes while leaving Battleford.
A group of Big Bear's Cree, led by Wandering Spirit, attacked the Frog Lake settlement, April 2, 1885, because they were tired of waiting for promised extra rations to be given out. Nine people were killed including Indian Agent Quinn, 2 priests, and 6 others. Three prisoners were taken captive, including Theresa Gowanlock, Theresa Delaney and Hudson's Bay Company clerk William Cameron.
Chief Big Bear at Fort Pitt.
This photo was taken inside Fort Pitt
Big Bear and 250 of his people arrived at Fort Pitt on April 23, 1885 to find it barricaded. Inspector Dickens refused Big Bear's request to surrender, however, he sent tea, tobacco, blankets and kettles as an invitation to discuss native grievances. These peaceful discussions were broken when 3 deployed scouts made an attempt to return to the fort. The commotion led to one scout being killed and another wounded. As Inspector Dickens abandoned Fort Pitt the white settlers were added to Big Bear's prisoners.
North West Field Force, a federal army of eight thousand and led by General Frederick Middleton, was raised because of these incidents and dispatched to quell Big Bear, in the north-east and to relieve besieged Battleford.