The Legacy of Mistahi Maskwa (Big Bear) and the Nehiyaw of Treaty 6
Mistahi Maskwa, or also known as Big Bear, is known as one of the Great Nehiyaw - Cree Leaders that fought against the forces of Canadian colonialism (1) and went to great lengths and endured great suffering for the Nehiyaw nation.
Big Bear was born in 1825 near Jackfish Lake to the Cree & Ojibwa leader Chief Muckitoo (Black Powdwer) (2), (3) and was apart of non sedentary Nehiyaw people of the Plains that followed herds of Bison across the prairies & thrived while doing so, with the bison being essential for the Plains Nehiyaw way of life. The fur and hide from the bison were made into clothing and shelter & the meat from the bison was the main source of food for the Nehiyaw. (4)
Big Bear was raised among the Plains Cree bands in so-called Saskatchewan. He assumed power while still a young man after demonstrating his spiritual power and leadership qualities.(4) Mistahi Maskwa, received his named 'after he had a vision of the Bear Spirit. In his power bundle, Mistahi Maskwa has a bear's paw, which he wore around his neck during times of danger to provide him with courage and strength.(6)'
Around 1865, Big Bear became the leader of his own band near Fort Pitt. In the 1870's, the foreign colonial government started to employ their plan to get the Indigenous Peoples of the Great Plains to sign treaties. The colonial governments started sending gifts. These gifts were 'tea and tobacco, which were offered on the Crown's behalf by a Hudson's Bay Company trader.(7)'
While some leaders accepted the gifts, Big Bear was not interested(8), he believed that these presents were actually bribes, meant to facilitate future treaty negotiations.(9)
In the 1870's, the war on the bison of the Plains took place where millions and millions of bison were slaughtered. The United States government openly encouraged the slaughter of buffalo as a strategy to conquer the American Plains Indians. By the end of the 1970's, the bison that the Nehiyaw People of the Plains depended on for survival and what was the back bone of their way of life, had completed vanished from the Plains. The intentional extinction of bison and intentional starvation of Indigenous Peoples by the colonial governments, was a known tactic used to force Indigenous People to sign treaties for fear of starvation. The dwindling buffalo herds ultimately prevented the Nehiyaw People from continuing to rely on their traditional food source and pushed them to the point of starvation in less than a decade.
In September 1876, treaty negotiators traveled to Fort Pitt near Big Bear’s home, to gain signatures for Treaty 6. Despite Big Bear being away hunting on the Plains and was not present for the treaty negotiations, the treaty was signed in his absence by another Chief, named Sweetgrass, in the Fort Pitt District.
'Although he was concerned with the disappearance of the buffalo and increasing numbers of European settlers, Big Bear believed that the treaty conditions only seemed to ensure perpetual poverty and destruction of his people's way of life.(12)' Big Bear compared signing the treaty as having a 'rope around our necks'; likely referencing the fact that the treaty would strangle their freedom and limit their control over Indigenous land, resources and way of life.' (13)
In 1878-79 (14), word had gotten around to surrounding Nehiyaw people & Warriors about Big Bear's resistance, and he grew allies among his Nations people that also did not agree with the treaties and wanted to protect and fight for their land, culture & way of life. During the winter of 1879 Big Bear and his band were starting to become extremely hungry due to the disappearance of the buffalo, still refusing to sign Treaty 6, they all relocated to Montana to hunt the last of the remaining buffalo. 3 years later in 1882, Big Bear and his band headed back to Saskatchewan in search of another food source once the supply of buffalo in Montana had completely depleted, with fishing being the only option available in Saskatchewan & not an option sustainable enough to feed the 250 people in his band, Big Bear ended up having to signing Treaty 6 on December 8th 1882 to prevent starvation.
Big Bear had worked to unite his fellow Nehiyaw Chiefs & Nations to 'take their reserve land next to each other, effectively creating a First Nations country (15)', which would essentially be 'one large reserve on the North Saskatchewan River.(16) Even though the treaties had previously stated that 'Natives could take the reserve land wherever they wish', the colonial government 'disallowed' this one large Nehiyaw reserve.
In the Spring and Summer of 1884, Big Bear and his people had traveled to meet other Nehiyaw peoples to unite. During this time, Big Bear had also gathered with his band at the reserve of Pitikwahanapiwitin (Poundmaker) & also met with Louis Riel in Prince Albert. It was a Spring and Summer filled with incredible Indigenous resistance and unity. Big Bear had also seeked and formed an alliance with his Nations longtime rivals, the Blackfoot.
But while continuing to hold off on selecting where the reserve for his band would be in hopes that the united Nehiyaw nations of people would make for the colonial government giving them the better concessions of land that they were asking for. But as we know, the colonial government is irrational and cruel, so instead the colonizers cut off rations to Big Bear's band in an attempt to force them to settle. This caused many of the warriors in Big Bear's band to become wary and restless. A warrior society, including Big Bear's son Āyimisīs, Little Bad Man as well as warrior Kappapamahchakwew, Wandering Spirit had gained confidence once receiving word that 'the Métis & the North-West Resistance had defeated the NWP at Duck Lake on March 26 1885 , (17)' and on April 2nd 1885 the warrior society started to retaliate and fight back for their people. They warriors went to Frog Lake and the Indian Agent that had denied their people food rations was shot. Big Bear had attempted to stop the violence, but the warriors continued their fight for freedom and retaliation, killing 9 men and 2 priests.
Big Bear was not to blame and had not been involved in any of the acts of violence as well as tried to intervene and stop the violence, the colonial government still went ahead and blamed Big Bear for being active in the North-West Resistance.
The warrior society fought a handful of other battles, where Big Bear did not participate and typically would stay behind with women, children and elders. But on June 3rd 1885 (17) Big Bear did fight back in a final battle where scouts and police officers defeated the warrior society at the same battle that ended the North West Rebellion, known as the Battle of Loon Lake (18). 'The Poundmaker First Nation oral tradition maintains that Big Bear wore his bear claw during the battle to protect him and his people. (19)'.
Upon the warrior society's tiring defeat, many of the warriors had fled, were killed or surrendered. Almost exactly a month after the defeat at the Battle of Loon Lake, Big Bear surrendered at Fort Cartlon on July 2 1885.
Big Bear was transporter to Regina where he stood trial for the warrior society's attack at Frog Lake where an Indian Agent refusing food was shot and killed, despite Big Bear not participating in the violence and even trying to prevent bloodshed at Frog Lake (20), he was still tried and found guilt for treason-felony. The judge for Big Bear's trial 'argued that Mistahi Maskwa should have abandoned his band when they first started to turn violent and mutiny.(21)'
Big Bear was sentenced to 3 years in the Stony Mountain Penitentiary, while in prison he became very sick and subsequently was released in February 1887 after serving only one and a half years of his sentence.
Mistahi Maskwa spent his last year living with his daughter in the Little Pine reservation, making his journey to the Spirit World on January 17th 1888 (23).
The legacy of Mistahi Maskwa continues to live on in his descendants, the Nehiyaw of Treaty 6 and Big Bear's Indigenous kin across Turtle Island. We see this in the strength our people have so clearly shown, the fact of our survival is proof enough. Our continued pride and carrying of culture, language & tradition would truly make Big Bear proud. Here at Decolonial we are so grateful to be able to honour & share and embody some of Big Bear's legacy.
(6), (7), (9), (10), (11), (12), (13), (14),(16), (17), (18), (19), (20), (21), (23)
-A Tribe Called Beauty-