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

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