Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Mistranslation of Big Bear at Fort Pitt Treaty Negotiations

The mistranslation of treaty negotiations is central to recent First Nations historical scholarship which questions the ability of Dominion negotiators to convey the nature of land surrenders.  In the case of Big Bear's negotiations with Alexander Morris at Fort Pitt, historian Hugh Dempsey suggests that if proper translation of the Cree chief's words had been available, "Big Bear might have received an assurance from Morris that could have changed the course of history." (Dempsey, Big Bear, 1984, p.74)
A none too flattering sketch of Big Bear
Glenbow File number: NA-1353-16
Title: Big Bear, Cree chief, and General T. Bland Strange, with Fort Pitt, Saskatchewan in back
Date: 1885

In 1876, Big Bear came to Fort Pitt after the treaty had been signed, hoping to negotiate better terms for his band, and receive assurances on the conservation of the buffalo herds.  When Cree chief Pakan urged him to accept treaty, and talk to Lieutenant Governor Morris, Big Bear insisted,
Stop, stop, my friends.  I have never seen the Governor before; I have seen Mr. Christie many times.  I heard the Governor was to come and I shall see him.  When I see him I will make a request that he will save me from what I most dread, that is: the rope to be about my neck... (Dempsey, 74)
The likely translator for Big Bear was the Reverend John McKay, who spoke Swampy Cree, and had previous difficulties translating at Fort Carlton.  Peter Erasmus, who had left Fort Pitt immediately after the main negotiations were finished noted, "I knew that McKay was not sufficiently versed in the Prairie Cree to confine his interpretations to their own language."
File number: NA-4774-16
Title: Chief Joe Samson and horse during
 filming of 'The Last Frontier',
 Wainwright, Alberta. Date: 1923

As Dempsey notes, Morris remained fixated on Big Bear's comment about a rope around his neck, which he thought to mean fear of being hung.  Instead it is more likely that he was using an expression of haltering a horse, which was a metaphor for losing his freedom.  The term ay-saka-pay-kinit for "lead by the neck" was being confused with ay-hah-kotit, "hung by the neck".  Morris thought the chief was insisting that his band should be exempt from capital punishment, and told him that no "good Indians" would be executed.



Big Bear did not understand this response, but after re-emphasizing that he did not want to lose his freedom, he still could not get his point across.  His words were mistranslated again: "I have told you what I wish, that there be no hanging."  Morris responded, "What you ask will not be granted.  Why are you so anxious about bad men?" (Dempsey, p.75)


Hon. Alexander Morris, Dec. 1869
Credit: Topley Studio / LAC/ PA-025468

Dempsey suggests that had it been explained to Big Bear that his band would have been allowed to hunt across the plains, that his long struggle for better terms which led to much hardship could have been solved.  It seems clear that Big Bear wished to consult with his people further and did not go to Fort Pitt in 1876 prepared to sign treaty, but the misunderstanding about his rights and freedoms under the reservation system aggravated the distrust between the two parties.

The legacy of the mistranslation led the Dominion's representatives to continue to see Big Bear as wanting special legal circumstances  for his band.  In 1878 Lieutenant Governor David Laird noted of Big Bear,
He still, I am informed, entertains the idea that Indians should be exempted from hanging.  It is said also that he thinks Indians should not be imprisoned for any crime and though he asked Liet. Gov. Morris in 1876 that the buffalo should be protected he did not intend that any law of the kind should apply to Indians.  (Dempsey, p. 80).

Translation issues continued to plague Big Bear as he continued to press for better terms.  After the North-west Rebellion of 1885, at his trial for treason-felony, the charges ended with the statement that the offences were "against the peace of our Lady the Queen, her Crown and dignity."  The translator could not find the right meaning of Crown in the British legal sense, and Big Bear's reply shows his confusion over the term:
These people all lie.  They are saying that I tried to steal the Great Mother's Hat, how could I do that?  She lives very far across the Great Water, and how could I go there to steal her hat? I don't want her hat and did not know she had one. (Dempsey, p. 185)
It is clear that translation problems plagued Big Bear during the hard times of the treaties.  He would not survive long after his trial.  While deemed guilty of participation, he was at least given some mercy and a three-year sentence in Stony Mountain Penitentiary.  In an unfortunate twist, Big Bear became gravely ill while incarcerated, and in 1888 was let out only to die shortly afterwards in his sixty-third year.

Remarks: L-R back row: Father Albert Lacombe; Big Bear, Cree; Sam Bedson, Warden; Father Clouthier. L-R front row: unknown priest; Poundmaker, Cree Glenbow Archives Image No: NA-20-2
Title: Riel Rebellion prisoners at Stony Mountain Penitentiary, Manitoba.
Date: 1886

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Big Bear: not just another pretty face

Glenbow File number: NA-1010-24
Title: Big Bear, Cree.
Date: 1885
Big Bear was not known as a handsome fellow.  His biographer Hugh Dempsey notes that, "even when he was young, Big Bear was not a good-looking person, and the smallpox scars made him even homelier." (Dempsey, Big Bear, 1984, p. 18)  Our best known images of Big Bear are those surrounding the 1885 North-West Rebellion in a stage when the Cree chief, while still able to keep up with the best of them, was sixty years old.  Having seen his fair share of violence, starvation, and just plain hardy living, he admittedly looks like someone who has spent his days on the windswept and sunbeaten prairie.

The Cree chief was apparently no narcissist, and would often make fun of his appearance. An incident in the early 1880s shows that Big Bear had a good sense of humour about it all.  Walpole Roland, a photographer that wanted to take the chief's picture, was taken aback by the exorbitant demands for provisions from his prospective model.

Roland noted, "After giving him some presents, I said I could not afford so much; that he was reversing the order of things seriously, and further that I would try and find, if possible, a more repulsive-looking Indian between here and the Rockies and call him Big Bear.  At this he laughed very heartily and, wishing me good day, gave me a parting shot by adding that I would probably go beyond the Rockies to find his rival in ugliness." (Dempsey, p. 117)  Roland concluded that he had met the most stubborn chief on the prairies.  The judgement is in keeping with a leader who refused to take treaty, demanded better terms, and stalled on the selection of his reserve for many years. 

"Crow" D.F. Barry
Pictures or portraits of Big Bear in his youth are rare, if not non-existent.  One picture that is identified as the chief, appears to be a case of shoddy journalism, mistaken identity, and a pinch of colonial racism.  The original of the offending picture has been recently sold by auction, and identified as photographer D. F. Barry's "Crow". On the back of the photograph was pencilled, "Crow" - also called Pispisa Ho Waste (Good Voice Prairie Dog)". Barry travelled the American West in the 1870s and 1880s and is famous for capturing iconic pictures of the American frontier. A host of his photographs have been digitized in the Denver Public Library.  In a 1921 interview,a Lakota elder Elk was shown the photograph and described it thus:  
the man, Crow, whose picture you show me, wears those things in his hair. They are stripped feathers. He was shot by two arrows once. He pulled them both through. He did not break them off. So he can wear the quill of the eagle's feathers for each one.
Users of the internet forum American-Tribes have identified an earlier misconstruction of the Barry photo as Big Bear in The Graphic illustrated magazine.  This may be the original case of swapped identity, but could be that the Canadian Illustrated News ran these graphics first, as the McCord-Museum has them listed as the work of John Henry Walker (1831-1899), who sold his etchings to that journal.

One gets the feeling the north-west rebellion was good news in 1885, and editors were fine with running the picture of any aboriginal man who looked suitably exotic enough to impress their readers.  The portrait of "Poundmaker" on the far left has been suggested to be "Bad Soup", perhaps of the Blackfoot tribe.
Big Bear from Gowanlock's "Two Months..."
Curiously, the publication of Frog Lake "Massacre" survivor Theresa Gowanlock's memoir of her, "Two Months in the Camp of Big Bear", has a portrait of Big Bear, which appears to have been altered from the D.F. Barry cabinet portrait.  All of this misrepresentation boggles the mind. While further investigation is needed to confirm these identities, the phenomenon points to a shared American-Canadian construction of the "Indian" which hinges on the sensationalism of military reportage and a demand for images in a time when photography was in its infancy.  Historians should have picked up on the mistaken identity long ago.  "The Crow" is clearly a handsome chap!

Friday, August 10, 2012

Of Meteors, McDougalls and Manitou

A 2012 controversy over the question of repatriation of a meteorite considered sacred to Alberta First Nations is making headlines. Members of the Blue Quills First Nation are considering creating a ceremonial space which houses the meteorite should they be able to gain access to the 386 pound chunk of iron.  The meteorite is held today at the Royal Alberta Museum, where it was repatriated from collections in Ontario.  The Methodist roots of what was once Victoria College are the key to how it arrived there.
Glenbow Image No: NA-789-148
Title: Reverend Thomas Woolsey.

The earliest written report of the meteorite was made in 1810 by Alexander Henry the Younger, who noted the placename "Iron Stone".  It wasn't until 1860 when the Methodist Reverend Thomas Woolsey wrote a descriptor of the stone itself:

When with the Crees last August, I visited the locality renowned for having a large piece of iron there.  In fact, an adjoining lake and a rivulet bear the respective designations of Iron Lake and Iron Rivulet.  Well, there the iron is, as pure as possible and as sonorous as an anvil, and weighs, I should judge 200 lbs.  It is on the summit of a mound but whether it is a metoritic phenomenon or indicative of iron in that section, I cannot say.  (Southesk, 1875 as cited in Spratt, "Canada's iron creek meteorite", Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada 1989. )
One supernatural aspect of the stone was its professed ability to grow in size.  Writing in 1865, explorer Walter Butler Cheadle was told that the stone was the size of a fist when it was first put atop the hill, but could no longer be lifted.


"Manitou Stone"  Aaron Paquette. Print: Society6
The stone itself was considered to have been placed on a hill by the Ojibwa spirit Nanebozo close to the Battle River near present day Hardisty.  Some say one can see the face of Manitou (or the Great Spirit) on its surface.  The stone was said to have protective powers, especially over the buffalo and local aboriginals.  Hugh Dempsey notes in Big Bear: End of Freedom (1984) that offerings were left by the stone when the Cree left for the hunt. (Dempsey, p.37)

Unfortunately for the Cree, in 1866, the Methodist Reverends George and John McDougall decided to take this object of worship from its resting place by the Battle.  George McDougall noted that "for ages the tribes of Blackfeet and Crees have gathered their clans to pay homage to this wonderful manitoo." (Dempsey, p.38)  The McDougall's took the stone to Victoria Settlement.  One account notes that they used it as a part of the church's foundation, but others recall it lying in the church yard. Until this time the missionaries were largely tolerated, but Dempsey notes that the taking of the stone was the beginning of grave doubts about the intentions of the newcomers.

Medicine men predicted sickness, war and starvation, as a result of the removal of the guardian of the buffalo.  By 1873, all had come to pass. (Dempsey, 52).  It has also been suggested that George McDougall would suffer for moving the rock, and that his loss of three children to smallpox the next year was his penance.  Just which McDougall actually removed the stone, seems to be in question.  Sir William Francis Butler wrote in 1872 that David McDougall, a trader son of George's removed the stone.
Glenbow File number: PC-242-1
Title: Reverend George McDougall,
 Methodist missionary.
Date: [ca. 1860s]

After around 15 years at Victoria Settlement (now Pakan, Alberta), the Stone was sent east to the Methodist Victoria College, in Cobourg, Ontario where it adorned a hall.  It found its way to the Royal Ontario Museum, and in the 1970s was repatriated to the Royal Alberta Museum.


The meteorite is the third-largest to be found in Canada, and theories suggest that it is merely a piece of a much larger rock.  One rumour has it that the First Nations buried the rest of the rock so it would not be looted by Euro-Canadians.  The legend of this still remaining meteorite was continued by the Alberta Museum geologist Don Taylor in the 1960s.  Taylor had met with Hardisty local Bill McDonald, who told stories about the stone weighing around 1,500 pounds.  Others presume this to be false and that this larger rock was probably one of the aboriginal rock carvings, called rib-stones, seen in the area.

Various samples have been taken from the rock over the years and were once held in places such as the Smithsonian, the American Museum of Natural History, and the British Museum of Natural History.  Christopher Spratt noted in 1989, that 668.4 grams of the meterorite had been removed, and housed at six museums across Europe and North America.  No mention has been made yet in the media regarding the return of these pieces should the meteor ever leave its home at the museum.

The future of the rock has yet to be decided.  Problems returning the meteorite to one specific First Nation may arise.  Repatriating artifacts sacred to First Nations would not be unprecedented.  The Glenbow Museum has repatriated sacred bundles to the Blackfoot, for example, and loaned parts of its collection out for ceremonial use.  Only time will tell where the Manitou Stone will be headed next, but it is clear that the meteorite, as scientific or sacred object, has aroused interest for over two hundred years.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Big Bear's vision against Horse Ownership


Big Bear in custody at Regina, 1885.
Credit: O.B. Buell
/ Library Archives Canada / C-001873
Big Bear (1825-1888) was a legendary Cree Chief, whose heritage was both Cree and Ojibwa.  While the Cree, of course, had their own medicine men, the Ojibwa were particularly known for their spiritual abilities.  Big Bear's visions were central to his interpretation of the world around him, and it is said he foresaw the end of the plains peoples' way of life, foretelling times even more troubling that those of frequent epidemic in the early nineteenth-century.

One dream, recounted in Hugh Dempsey's Big Bear: End of Freedom, has been attributed to Big Bear's peculiar stance against acquiring horses.  For the Cree and Blackfoot, horse theft was an art and means to status.  Capturing a herd of thundering horses from one's enemy proved a man's prowess.  Theft was a part of prairie life.  Big Bear, however, while participating in horse raiding, distributed the chargers he acquired to his family and those in need.  Dempsey notes that this was more than just the generosity of a prospective chief, but also "the fulfilment of another vision." (Dempsey, 19)

In a dream a spirit came to Big Bear and led him to a cave filled with horses.  The spirit told him to,
Go to the centre of the herd and take the horse that you find there.  Don't take any other horse, just that one.  The horses will rear up and kick at you, but if you show no fear, they will move aside and let you pass.  But if you show any fear, you won't get to the horse in the middle.  (Dempsey, 19)

Unfortunately when Big Bear neared the middle of the cave, a large black stallion reared up, making at him with its hooves and Big Bear shrunk back in defence.  The herd vanished.  Suddenly alone with the spirit man, he was told, "It's too bad you crouched.  You had your chance but now you'll never be rich in horses as long as you live."
Glenbow Museum and Archives File number: NA-1709-43
Title: Cree people at Poplar Grove [Innisfail]
Date: [ca. 1891]
Big Bear interpreted this to mean that he should never try to accumulate horses, and thereafter only kept as many as he needed for himself.  Dempsey, whose biography of the Cree chief adapted First Nations' stories from numerous reservations in the Canadian West, noted that spirituality was central to Big Bear's life, and that, "he was remembered as much for the supernatural power he possessed as for his political acumen."   His source for Big Bear's horse theft vision come from a 1982 conversation with the Reverend Stan Cuthand.
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