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Mistahi-Muskwa (Big Bear)

Stan Cuthand

Big Bear was the son of Muckitoo, a Saulteaux, who served Kakikekasakowew, the head Chief of the Plains People. Big Bear was born in 1825. Like his father, he was always in the shadow of the Plains Cree, so he upheld and asserted his identity. He was stubborn and superstitious like his ancestors before him. He had Five wives, the second being Rocky Boy's (Stonechild) sister. His sons were Ayimisis (Little Bear) by the third wife, Twin Wolverine, King-bird and Horsechild. His daughters were Nawakeech and Earth-women.

Big Bear was a leader by virtue of his dream spirit bundle that gave him prestige and power. He impoverished himself for his generosity. He was soft spoken but deliberate his speech. He refused to take treaty for it was like giving away land entrusted to him by the Creator, and the Created beings were part of the land. "The Indians and the land are one." The Whiteman's law of hanging criminals was like hanging a dog for a feast. This was not a Worthyman's way to die. It would shame his ancestors.

Big Bear was brought to trial on September 11, 1885, before Judge Hugh Richardson and a jury of six on a charge of treason, which was a felony. He was sentenced on September 25 to three years in the Stoney Mountain Penitentiary. After this sentence was interpreted to him, Big Bear was asked if he had anything to say. Big Bear replied: "You see me, I am an old man, I am tied to chains, as if I might run away like a young man. I am accused of many things I did and many things that happened were beyond my control. It is not entirely my fault. I did not know what was decided by the Okihcitwak, I was away hunting. I wanted my own food, not the food we were receiving. When I returned I heard shots and I yelled as I came, "Ceskwa! Ceskwa!" (Wait! Wait!) but it was too late. The "Sioux Speaker" was shot, and then others followed. I am grieved for the wrongs done to my friends the White people. They are not numerous and I have always tried to protect and support their place on our land. But the wrongs done went too far. True! We were badly treated by the government; but we tried to make the New-comers understand our side. I have been a friend to each person, young, old, Cree, Saulteaux, Assiniboine and English.

There is no one here (in court) who knows all the good I have done. My generosity has been evident, in my life; my door was always open to any visitor or stranger. No one can deny this. Nor did anyone here come forward to say I ordered the killing of a priest or agent. No one came forward to say I ordered people to rise up and fight the White people. When trouble began at Duck Lake, my men ignored my authority. They took over and ignored me. I became as powerless as a beaten animal caught in a trap.

I never stole a Whiteman's horse: The reason why I did not steal their horses is that I know they are rich and they can help me. That is why I befriended them; besides they have the skills we need. I was taught to be good to others and in return will receive gifts, with honour. When we have any dance we always give away horses, goods or food. The recipients will reciprocate later at another celebration at their own camp. That is our custom.

As I look around, I see that you are all good looking, much better looking than I. I am old and ugly. (Laughter) I have ruled my people and I have spoken out for them. Now I am in chains and will be sent to jail; I am useless to my people; perhaps you handsome persons will do better to govern this Upstream country. I am confident in your ability to do well. As for me, I am as if dead to my people, who are living in the woods, hiding in terror. Could you not send them a message of amnesty. My own children are hiding like rabbits in a dark den. They are afraid to come out. They are hungry.

If the government does not help them this winter they will perish. They are poor now. Have pity on them!"

"I did not want the Sundance to be detracted by improper behaviour so I cried for peace when the soldiers came to arrest the man. Poundmaker and Little Pine helped me. It would have been fatal if it were not for the Sundance. The young men were restless and angry but they respected the sacred ceremony.

As Big Bear looked around he stretched out his arms, a sign of humble petition to a power, saying "To you Leaders of White man's laws, have pity to those outcasts, I am an old man, my burden is heavy. Have pity on my people who are hiding in the woods."

"In the distant future the Upstream People will one day serve the Great Queen, but I want you to be good to her people, my people. When I spoke harshly to the Indian Agents I did it for the rights promised by the Great Queen and for better terms. The Upstream Country belongs to me, and I love my country, perhaps I may never see it again. I want you to tell my people what I have said. I am old and ugly. I have tried to do the right thing for my people. Pity them! Pity them!"

"Before the Promises (Treaty) were accepted by our Leaders the surveyors were running lines near Medicine Hat. You already took over our land before any agreement was made. For that reason I refused gifts from your great Leader at Sounding Lake."

Our children were weak and hungry, my men were impatient; I finally signed the Treaty. Once I was trapped I was not allowed to take a Reserve at Cypress Hills. This is the land where I camped many times. There the grizzlies were masters of That Northland (Nanahtakahk) I was forced to go to another place; Waskahikanihk (Fort Pitt). I said "Yes, I will take this land for my reserve, My men said 'No!'" I was led like a horse pulling a load, not knowing where my master will allow me to rest. The "Ration-giver" cut off rations for net settling on a reserve. We had a very hard winter. I made a vow that if my people survived I would make a Sundance. I did and many people came. They too made vows. They came to give thanks, to renew relationships and to remember their ancestors. They had many hardships. They worshipped and prayed for better days. Only one thing dishonoured this event - one man was refused rations by the Ration-giver; He attacked him just to frighten the Whiteman. For such a small thing, many soldiers came to arrest this man. When people come from a distance we give them food. You cannot part with a little of the Queen's food she promised us."

"I did not want the Sundance to be detracted by improper behaviour so I cried for peace when the soldiers came to arrest the man. Poundmaker and Little Pine helped me. It would have been fatal if it were not for the Sundance. The young men were restless and angry but they respected the sacred ceremony.

The old man was led out of the court room tired after speaking two hours. His undoing was his determination to be both a Religious Leader and a military leader. His own son Ayimisis opposed him for that; Wandering Spirit was the Military Leader of the Okihcitaw Society. This was the reason why Big Bear had lost his authority and was victimized by his own stubbornness.

Big Bear made a prophetic statement when he said "the western people will one day serve the great Queen. " After World War 1, Duncan Campbell Scott Deputy- Minister of Indian Affairs, in his annual report recognized the Indian veterans in the following statement: "In this year of peace, the Indians of Canada can look with just pride upon the past played by them in the Great War, both at home and on the field of Battle. They have well and manly upheld the loyal traditions of their gallant ancestor who rendered invaluable service to the British Cause in 1776 and 1812 and have added thereto a heritage of deathless honour, which is an example and an inspiration for their descendants."

[CSP DIA Annual Report 1919]

Note: I imagine it was difficult to translate Big Bear's speech when much repetition in short sentences is the style of an oral tradition. His speech was never recorded. After much meditation and thinking in Cree and knowing Cree idioms I tried to resurrect what he might have said. It has been my ambition to bring Big Bear's message, a timely message when the treaties are gradually being eroded by the Queen's government. It is a story of struggle for credibility. It is said that some Whites who witnessed the court room scene paid very little attention and some said it was a laughable speech, some said it was a long harangue for nothing. The struggle continues.