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The people of the Plains became a powerless people when they met new forces of evil. It was inconceivable that millions of buffalo would be annihilated and entire families of the Plains People would die of Small Pox and other new diseases. Half of the Indian population was wiped out in a short time.' This caused the Plains People to become hostile and to seek larger hunting territories.
The story of that first encounter with small pox is told by Misatimwas who also survived it in 1870. He was a member of the Worthy-Persons Society and he survived a wound he received on Cutknife Hill on May 2, 1885. For his part in the Rebellion he was imprisoned at the Stoney Mountain Penitentiary for four years, he was subsequently released and lived on Little Pine Reserve. He became a leader and medicine man.
"It was during the winter when we prepared to go to the Blackfoot country and take their horses. We assembled in a big lodge and sang and prayed for success. We also dedicated certain weapons to the individual dream spirits of the owners. One such weapon dedicated was a spear that each one held and prayed for its success in protecting the owner from the enemy he might encounter."
Early the next morning ten warriors including a conjuror, headed west in single file, with the leader, Misatimwas, breaking the trail for his men. There was a slight breeze blowing a low drift across their trail.
About mid-day, a young man at the end of the line said, "Haw, there is a coyote following us, I think it is `O wanes'. He looks as if he has no fur". A sick coyote with a dreaded disease, can transmit it to a human by a single bite. The warriors made no response, they feared nothing, they were the bravest of the brave.
The young man again reminded them "He is now closing on us". Finally one of the warriors said "Let's stand in a semi-circle and have fun with this animal." The coyote approached and stood within the circle with flashing eyes, he looked at the men; suddenly he sprang at the man with the spear, who caught him in mid air, saying "Ce-mah-kay" "of all things to contaminate my spear". The men laughed for the owner had expended the power of the spear on a worthless sick coyote.
The men continued on their march across the lonely silence of the winter. When the sun set they continued on through the moonlit night.
Suddenly from the starry sky we heard a yell "Eeeh! Eeeh!" and a stick fell from the sky. The brave men soon tried to hide under each other for protection. Then another and another fell. I stood there watching the men. I realized this was not real. The sticks that fell disappeared as they hit the ground. When I conveyed to them the reality of the situation, they all laughed at their behavior with much relief.
The next day we saw another strange sight. We came upon a trail made by a large animal dragged through the snow, we thought, and we followed it to investigate and found big snowdrifts that had made the trail. There were no other signs of tracks of animals or persons anywhere.
It was very strange but the warriors kept their thoughts to themselves. We pushed on towards evening and once again in the moonlit sky we passed a bluff, where the dead had been placed on platforms. The ground was covered with their belongings, beaded leggings, bows and arrows, bags of personal totemic objects. The men saw beads hanging from the dead and they seized them. Some had dropped to the ground; the men were crawling around like excited children collecting colored objects. Some they put in their mouths. I was astounded by this irrational behavior. Nothing seemed to be normal. Not too far away we saw campfire lights. So I summoned the men to move on and investigate.
"We have arrived at the camp of the Blackfoot. Listen! Do you hear them singing a strange chant? We will go in pairs to circle the camp and see if this is real. See the lights, they flicker in a weird way, they change color. Let us go!"
We returned home - my young friend was the first to drop and die on the trail. One by one my friends moaned - trying to sing, to empower themselves, but they fell and died. Small pox was a powerful disease.
Our medicine was useless, the conjuror also collapsed on the trail and begged us to go on. He was raging mad at French traders who brought this "box" to destroy us.
The return journey was slow and grim. I had a burning fever. I was cold and hot, my feet became numb but I struggled on. All my men had fallen. I was alone to tell the tale. There ahead of me was smoke and the lodges looked so far away. I wanted to stop but a stronger urge to arrive kept me moving. Suddenly I fell and I did not know what happened."
Some boys went running to the tipi to tell Macinam (the Handsome One) that his son had fallen on the way home. "He is sick, he cannot get up; he lies in the snow." they said.
Macinam took a dog sled and quickly harnessed the dogs. As he went on his way, his daughter-in-law followed to the place where Misatimwas lay. Gently they lifted him onto the toboggan and took him back to the tipi.
Macinam was a medicine man and a warrior. He had caught and tamed a bear cub. The cub had wandered about the camp and people skinned it and his wife Wehwew tanned it and decorated it with beads. This is what Macinam wore slung about his front and over one shoulder. It was a family totem-a guardian spirit; worn in battle for protection and used for conjuring. From time to time it was unbundled to be fed ritually by prayer and a feast.
Wehwew had prepared the bundles and the medicine for the Conjuror. Macinam spread the bear cub robe before him and burnt incense. Having filled the pipe he prayed:
"I am poor today
Give me strength
My need is great
My son is very sick
He is the only one
who has returned.
I have so much to fear
for all of us.
Help me, pity me.
To you "Who is Lord of All"
Give me the gift
To heal this sickness."
Macinam covered the body of his son with the bear cub robe. It began to move and growl and wrestled with Misatimwas. In no time Misatimwas sat up. "It was a pitiful site" he said half delerious. "The Blackfoot are so helpless - they left their dead and fled."
The disease spread throughout the Cree Camp. It was so powerful that as two or three persons stood together to talk of the horror, one would yell in pain and fall backwards and die. The Medicine persons (men and women) did what they could but they themselves died. It was the first time the Small Pox struck the Plains Cree on the Saskatchewan River. There was a sense of powerlessness.
They did not know what medicine or what power would heal. It was a Whiteman's importation. Even the sweat lodge did not help. Some would shriek and dive into the river. The survivors eased their grief by gulping down "fire-water" which made mournful grieving worse.
The Crees were demoralized and dispersed into small bands. Their last battle with the Blackfoot was in 1870 and the following year they made peace at Witaskowin.
Misatimwas is the Author's grandfather.
This oral history comes from his father.
Howard, Joseph . Strange Empires, Toronto James, Lewis and Samuel, 1974.
Ray, Arthur J. Small Pox: The Epidemic of 1837-38. The Beaver, 1975.