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The Battle at Battle River

Stan Cuthand

Natosiy was a Military Chief of the Blackfoot Tribe (Natos - in historical journals).

Natosiy was a Military Chief of the Blackfoot Tribe
(Natos - in historical journals).
Photograph credit goes to the Provincial Archives, Alberta.

During the night of December 4, 1865, the Crees and Assiniboines attached the Blackfoot camps at Battle River causing the Blackfoot so much devastation and suffering.

Father Lacombe has arrived that evening having travelled about teaching the Indians. "When I arrived at Notary's (Old Sun) camp I noticed that there were three camps, and I has warned them that they should all camp together for defence in case they were attached; but they did not listen. In one camp there were over forty-five tipis; the others had fifty and sixty tipis.

During the evening I taught the people Christianity; and having sung a hymn and reciting prayers, I went to Chief Natosiy's tipi where I was invited to stay, and prepared my bed, so likewise everyone bent to bed. The camp-fires burned out and soon we were sound asleep.

Suddenly Natosiy sprang up from his bed and yelled Asinaw! Asinaw! (Cree!Cree!) He grabbed his rifle and rushed out yelling. There were rifle shots outside which increased to rapid fire. If was a terrible sound, children aroused so suddenly, were screaming with fright. The women cried out in an effort to arouse their men for quick action. All around were bullets flying through the tipis. The Crees and Assiniboines were shouting obscenities to the Blackfoot, some were singing, some groaned as they were shot, while others screamed. I yelled out to the Crees to stop, but the noise was too great. The dogs growled and barked continually; some ran away yelping; the horses snorted and neighed with fright.

The Crees and Assiniboines moved into tipis. They captured twenty five tipis, killing and scalping the occupants; they slashed their throats with knives, including women and children; they took anything useful to them. The Blackfoot in turn shot them at close range and scalped them.

When the other camps heard the shots they came to the rescue and fought. The war chief Natosiy organized the attack; three times they drove them back. The Cree warriors were trying to take over all the lodges. Towards morning Chief Natosiy was still in control shouting encouragement and fighting. He proved himself a great war leader. Eventually he was shot on the forehead, which was not fatal; only then did he remain silent.

It was now daylight and I put on my white robe, with a flag in one hand and a cross in the other, I went out towards the Crees and Assiniboines in an effort to stop them. The Blackfoot realizing my presence stopped firing, but the Crees and Assiniboines did not see me for the powder smoke hanging in the air. The Blackfoot shouted saying "Never mind them, Father come back." But then I was shot on the head and nearly stumbled. I thought it was a useless effort so I returned to the tipis.

Someone shouted; The "Praying person is here in our midst, You have wounded him! Pale Lacombe is here!"

The Crees decided to withdraw when they realized my presence. So ended the battle. There were one hundred and twelve casualties among the Blackfoot people; two children were captured, fifteen wounded; Two hundred horses were missing; some were shot accidentally. There were ten casualties among the Cree and Assiniboines; fifty were wounded.

The following day the Blackfoot moved camp and joined another larger camp for protection. [Translated from Kihchwaw Miteh Publication 1913]

It was in the late summer of 1865 when a sudden tragedy struck a Cree Camp, near Battle River. Their camps were always in danger, so guards were usually posted on the outskirts of the camp day and night. But on this particular day, it was unusually quiet and peaceful; so in harmony with the day the men were engaged at various tasks, while a group of women went to fetch water; they always did things together.

All of a sudden the stillness was broken by shouts and screams. Someone at the camp yelled "Ayahciyiniwak!" (Blackfoot!) The men ran out to protect their women but it was too late fifteen women were killed. The Blackfoot escaped as there were no mounted warriors to give chase. There was panic and wild excitement; mourning and lamentations mingled with accusations. The Providers blamed The Dancers' Society for their failure to protect the camp, who in turn reprimanded the Okihcitawak for their lack of organization.

In that poor mob of mourners was a father whose two daughters were killed. It was he who went through all the camps of the Crees and Assiniboines crying for war. He stirred up the people to avenge the death of the two daughters and their relatives.

It was the month of Pawacakinasis (December) when finally the people gathered in a great camp of about one thousand warriors, including some women and boys who wanted to see action. Among them were medicine men and women.

The warriors and would be warriors assembled with their war regalias, clubs, guns and other objects given to them for protection and good fortune. They prayed and displayed their garb; they danced for three nights. Then they moved out in a long line through the deep snow. Some ran ahead on snowshoes, while others were on both sides of the marchers.

It was very cold and everyone was running slowly to keep warm. The scouts and others were well ahead of the main body. They reached the Blackfoot camp and stole some horses. They rejoined the main body during the night.

"We camped in the centre of wooded hills and across the creek there were stands of poplar and the Blackfoot Camp." (Thunderchild. Voices of the Plains Cree)

The Blackfoot scouts had been aroused and one of them escaped after the other had been shot, "so we knew that the Blackfoot would be ready for us, so we had no choice but to attack the camp during the night." Whatever happened to the scout we caught them sleeping.

When the fighting started I was surveying the area and looking for horses. I was not particularly interested in fighting that night. There was a terrible noise of yelling, shooting and singing.

My father was shot in the leg and another was shot through the mouth which gave him the name Broken-jaw. We did not know if he would live, but he did pull through. There were others wounded and the dead were scalped. Towards daybreak I asked the men to cover me and went to the centre of the circle where racehorses were kept in a corral. I took three of the best horses. It was the grey horse that I really wanted. By mid morning we had enough horses; we decided to return home with enough ammunition left to help us fight a rear guard.

Misatimwas summoned his men to retreat; Mounted on his new trophy, he shouted, "Ekos'ekwa! Ekos'ekwa! Poyotan!" (That's enough! That's enough! Let us quit.) Misatimwas was the military leader, whose mixed ancestry often interfered with his leadership. He spoke Blackfoot and often was caught between the two opposing factions.

"The wounded and the dead were carried back to our encampment, though the dead who were close to the Blackfoot tents we had to leave." [Thunderchild - Voices of the Plains Cree]

As we withdrew the Blackfoot followed us, but Misatimwas rode proudly on his grey horse with his robe flying, he rode part ways towards the enemy and back again, the Blackfoot shot at him again and again but he evaded them by crouching low: Most likely Blackfoot were afraid to hit the racer, whom they admired; Misatimwas too, looked elegant and in harmony with his new horse. A Blackfoot was inspired to do the same but he sang as he galloped by saying "You Cree go home quickly. We have other camps near by! We yelled back saying he was lying."

We left the dead at the camp and we returned home, he avenged the women who were war victims of the Blackfoot.

It was in early July 1931 when there was a sundance at Little and Poundmaker Reserves. The sacred tent was on the border between the two reserves, and people camped on their respected lands; the visitors were camped with relatives or on the north side of the circle.

It was customary for veterans of tribal wars to select tents covering or to fetch wood, (one or two for from each tent.) Broken-jaw was perhaps one of the last of the living legends performed this function. He usually shouts for young men to help him.

As boys we observed the custom and followed Brokenjaw and his young men, to select to be used for the sundance lodge. Broken-jaw struck a tent with a stick and told a story how he pulled down a tipi in the midst of at a battle Blackfoot camp. After the short story, the men pulled up the pegs and took down the tent, leaving occupants setting with their belongings in the sun; And Broken-jaw continued his way, until enough were taken to cover the lodge. These tents became memorials of warrior societies used only once for that particular ceremony, and tents were returned to the owners the conclusion of the sundance. Broken-jaw also took young men to collect the firewood for the lodge during the sundance. The sundance stopped and with a lively drum beat Broken-jaw did a dance and then told a story of the Battle of 1865 at Battle River, for he said "Pale Lacombe, a Roman Catholic priest was there at the Blackfoot camp." I never heard him once recall he was wounded. Nor did other tellers tell of scalping. Christian thought may have inhibited stories, for in the 30s the Churches were flourishing in every native community. Their myths and values had changed.

Broken-jaw Badger was from the Mistawasis Reserve.