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Past Glory Of The Plains Cree Recalled By Chief Thunderchild

SASKATCHEWAN INDIAN      JANUARY 1974      v04 n01 p37  
For the Plains Cree, life on the prairies during the early 1800's was one of endless freedom, for with his horses and skill in the chase the Plain's Indian was able to win abundant food and buffalo hides for clothing and shelter and he roamed the prairies at will.

Yet it was a freedom that, in the space of one man's lifetime, was strangled by the encorachment of the Whiteman and disappearance of the buffalo and ended finally with confinement to the reserve, a pitiful plot compared to the mighty expanses the Plains Indian once called home.

Today few of our people have tasted such freedom and it is with wonder and longing they hear tales of their ancestors who lived and hunted and fought where now stand cities, towns and carefully plotted fields.

For us, certain of our Chiefs stand as bridges between then and now. Chiefs like Starblanket, Poundmaker, Mistawasis and Sweetgrass. In their youth they dwelt in such freedom and lived as Indians themselves had, determined life should be. Then with age and prominence, they reluctantly lent their names to the Treaties and led their people to reserves. Today we are reminded of them by the reserves that bear their names.

Another such Chief was Thunderchild and,' like the rest of the Treaty signers, his name among the Indian people of Saskatchewan has grown to larger than life proportions. This legendary quality comes not only from their mighty deeds but from our association of their names with a time when an Indian's life had
a purpose and dignity securely rooted in tradition.

Now a vivid and compelling description of such a life is available to us through the first hand accounts of Chief Thunderchild.


In "Voices of the Plains Cree", a book recently published by McClelland and Stewart, author Edward Ahenakew provides us with 20 tales related to him by Chief Thunderchild, tales in which Thunderchild tells of the fierce and vanished freedom he enjoyed in his youth, of a life when buffalo roamed the plains in countless numbers, of a time when the Cree and Blackfoot engaged in constant and unrelenting warfare and of a time when the Sun Dance and the shaking tent were still a way of life.

Thunderchild was born in 1849 - and he lived along the North Saskatchewan River. He was a Plains Cree, one of the "River People" who had been in the forefront of the Cree migration from their original forests and woodlands of the east. In their movement west the Cree had to continually drive back the Blackfoot and deadly enmity was the rule between the two.

The events of Thunderchild's life, as Ahenakew says in his foreward, make "tales of struggles almost super-human, of endurance, of perilous adventure, of long hazardous excursions into enemy country, of love, of anything indeed that was ever of any consequence in the Indian life."

They include tales of near starvation after a long winter, of ambushes and horse stealing, of unfaithful wives, of the Thirst Dance.

Thunderchild talks of the Society of Warriors and how they were responsible for keeping order in the tribe and settling interpersonal disputes and he tells of the great buffalo hunts where a mighty corral would be built and the hunters would lure the beasts into the trap.

He talks in. a language clear and simple and throughout the stories shows a great grasp of detail despite the fact the stories were related in 1923 when Thunderchild was in his seventies.

It was an accident of health that led Edward Ahenakew to Chief Thunderchild. Born on the Sandy Lake reserve, Ahenakew later became an Anglican missionary. He was studying to be a medical doctor when he fell ill and was sent to Thunderchild's reserve to recover his health. While there he determined that his time could be best-spent collecting- stories and legends of the Indian tradition and Thunderchild was a "rich repository of these."

True Elder

Thunderchild was an elder in the true sense of the Indian tradition. As described by Ahenakew, the Elder "had a responsible and important position to play with the band. In a sense they have supplied our moral code taking both the place of historians and legal advisors. Theirs has been the task of firing the spirits of the young men through stories of daring

Past Glory Of The Plains Cree Recalled By Chief Thunderchild

SASKATCHEWAN INDIAN      JANUARY 1974      v04 n01 p38  
deeds in past times . . . it was the old men who were the influence for good, who sought to right wrongs and settle disputes; it was the old men who were qualified to speak for they had passed through most of the experiences of life and their own youthful fires were burned out."

In addition to these qualities, the gift of eloquence was Thunderchild's as well and his tales breathe both poetry and wisdom. Indeed, they have little trouble "firing the spirit."

Old Keyam

In the second half of the book, Ahenakew introduces another Elder, Old Keyam, a fictional character through which Ahenakew expresses his thoughts of the plight of the Indian now confined to reserves.

The stories of Old Keyam were also written in 1923 yet the problems he encounters, the matters that concern him, are as relevant today as then. Through Old Keyam, Ahenakew talks of the need for education, for responsive officials in government and the need of the Indian to hang onto his religion, culture and traditions.

They were issues with which Ahenakew was well acquainted for in his work with the Anglican church he traveled extensively among Saskatchewan reserves and he was, in addition, an executive officer of the League of Indians of Canada, a national organization formed shortly after the First War.

The book is available now, thanks to its editor Ruth Matheson Buck. After Ahenakew recovered his health in 1923, he continued his work with the church and never found time to bring his notes into book form. When he died in 1961 the notes of the Thunderchild and Old Keyam stories were found and turned over to Mrs. Buck, the daughter of an Anglican missionary who lived on the Onion Lake reserve and an old friend of Ahenakew's.

In addition to editing the material, Mrs. Buck has done a fine job of providing comprehensive notes to explain some of the more elusive references in the stories.

Priced at $7.95, "Voices of the Plains Cree" is a book well worth reading. In addition to it's, other fine qualities, it is one of the few books available about the Indians of Saskatchewan that is written by an Indian.