Loyal Till Death:
Indians & the North-West Rebellion

310 pages,
ISBN: 1895618886

Post Your Opinion
Guilt by Non-Association
by Stan Dragland

Big Bear and Poundmaker
Blair Stonechild and Bill Weiser
The front cover of Loyal Till Death bears a photograph of Pac-sic-wasis, Chief Thundercloud, taken at Battleford, Saskatchewan in 1896. Inside, a note explains that Pac-sic-wasis is "wearing [a] Queen Victoria medal given to him for his loyalty in the 1885 Rebellion." On the back cover-a photograph of Big Bear and Poundmaker, taken in Stoney Mountain Penitentiary circa 1886. Front and back: the book is visually framed by good and bad (loyal and disloyal) Indians during the Rebellion of 1885, as defined by Sir John A. Macdonald's government. A second look at the front cover discloses the ghostly image of the eight Cree men hanged in the rebellion's aftermath. The designer of Loyal Till Death has understood the book well. He offers an image (a drawing, since no photographs were taken of the hanged men) of a deep trauma suffered by the Plains Cree, a trauma about which Blair Stonechild and Bill Waiser say, "To this day, the executions have remained a numbing event, comparable to an old scar on the soul of a people." Their book examines what they call "one of the most shameful episodes of Canadian legal history"-the government's calculated spread of a myth that the 1885 North-West Rebellion was an "Indian-Métis uprising", rather than a predominantly Métis affair.
There were a few Indians with Riel, of course, and murders were committed by Indian people during the rebellion. The most notorious took place in what became known as the Frog Lake Massacre. Stonechild and Waiser present those circumstances and events in context, as part of their persuasive argument that the true general picture of Plains First Nations in 1885 was one of steadfast loyalty. As they say in the conclusion of their book, "This version of events is not new. It can be found in the rebellion trials' transcripts, the official records of the Indian Affairs department, and the personal papers of John A. Macdonald and Edgar Dewdney. But these are obscure sources, and Canadians have largely overlooked or ignored the government's duplicitous role in the rebellion." The story (or parts of it) can also be found in sources less obscure, like Hugh Dempsey's biography of Big Bear and Rudy Wiebe's novel The Temptations of Big Bear. Stonechild and Waiser draw on the former but not the latter, perhaps because of the ambiguity that persistently and properly clings to non-Native representation of Native reality. For what it's worth, the novel and the history are mutually confirming. For readers who prize accuracy in historical fiction, that fact may even increase the impact of Wiebe's powerful book.
But Big Bear was not the whole story between 1876 and 1885, 1876 being the date of Treaty Six, the first of the Western treaties concluded between Plains Cree and the Canadian Government honourably represented by Alexander Morris. (Morris was the one who spoke that beautiful line, so darkened by subsequent history, about a treaty that was to last "as long as that sun shines and yonder river flows.") Stonechild and Waiser want Poundmaker, Beardy, One Arrow, Mistawasis, Ahtahkakoop, and other Cree leaders raised into their proper place in the history of the West-alongside Riel and Dumont and the Métis, whose historical place or myth (as martyrs) has been secured. The two authors clear reputations consciously besmirched by Sir John A. Macdonald and his Indian Superintendent, Edgar Dewdney, with the on-location connivance of Hayter Reed, the Indian Commissioner. For the government, the Western Indians were a nuisance, an obstacle to a vision of continental Canada that included settlement of the prairies and construction of the railway to the coast. In the game of realpolitik played by a government remote in every way from the people whose lives it cruelly manipulated, treaties had very little force. Few so-called civilized people came out and said so, but a common assumption was that the natural inferiority of savages would ensure their disappearance "as a distinct race". The government's assimilationist policy rested on an assumption that the red race would dissolve into the white. For their part, Native signatories adhered to the treaties as a sacred trust, holding the reasonable assumption that treaties are concluded between equals.
Stonechild and Waiser show Big Bear and Poundmaker and others exercising their power in statesmanlike, even Gandhian, ways: embracing peaceful methods and saving lives even when their own civil authority was neutralized by war chiefs, younger and hotter members of their bands, and pursuing diplomatic initiatives in an attempt to sway the government into honouring treaties. Their thanks was to be branded as agitators and demons. It is clear that Macdonald never intended to treat the Indians as deserving equals, that it was in his political interests to divide and conquer, to label them as rebels and create the appearance that the treaties had been abrogated by rebellion. The result was unbelievable wretchedness in the lives of the Indians deprived of promised support. Controlling spoken and written vehicles of myth-making, the powerful cynically distorted the truth. The evidence is preserved in archival records. Macdonald says of the Rebellion, for example, "We have certainly made it assume large proportions in the public eye. This has been done however for our own purposes, and I think wisely done." One of the purposes was to squash Cree independence once and for all.
For Stonechild and Waiser, the 1885 Rebellion was a power struggle between Riel and Macdonald, with the Cree caught in the middle. Their narrative of that middle focuses more on the decentralized leadership of the Native collective than on individuals. Perhaps that explains why the climax of their version of the tragedy is the hanging of the eight convicted "murderers", rather than the less dramatic fates of the more famous chiefs. It is very easy for a persuasive story to sway a reader or listener in the direction it sponsors. Loyal Till Death permits itself some of the dramatic strategy of fiction by now and then focusing on a particular character, but the intention is to cover the whole story from many angles, including that of the First Nations, and there is no exaggeration for effect.
The authors of Loyal Till Death are no fans of Riel, though they understand his agenda in terms of its own underdog necessities. It was in the Métis interest to distort the picture of his Indian support. Riel could not mobilize more than 250 or so of the 1500 members of his own people in the West, so he desperately needed Indian commitment to his cause. Riel did feel that he was acting for Indian people, though he too thought they were savages. He and his emissaries tried and failed to recruit Indians, except in a very few cases, and Stonechild and Waiser say that no evidence came out at Indian trials to the effect that any Indian actually fought against the government. Whole bands were at times held by Riel against their will, but the meticulously supported point stands: there was no North-West Indian rebellion. The Cree were not natural allies with the Métis, and they saw diplomatic avenues as the best way to press the case for treaty rights. But Métis attempts to enlist Indians on their side played into government hands, because the appearance of an alliance was as useful to Ottawa as the thing itself. Almost as if in recognition of this usefulness, much milder punishments were meted out to Métis than to Native rebels. Riel was the only Métis hanged; many others were simply set free. No wonder Stonechild and Waiser are cool to the Métis. History has treated them much more kindly than it has Indians like those of the Muddy Bull and Sharphead bands, who in a letter to Edgar Dewdney, prepared by the "local Methodist minister at Wolf Creek mission", promised "to have nothing to do with the insurgents and.remain loyal till death."
Cree leaders understood that the lives of their people had reached a turning point. They saw the inevitability of having to share their land with settlers. Even before 1881, when the buffalo first failed to appear in the North-West and when turning point became crisis, it was clear to them that they had no choice but to adapt to agricultural ways. They had treaty agreements with Ottawa, or so they thought; what could association with Riel do but impair the hope of a co-operative future? When the government reneged on its promises, it let the Cree down just when they most needed help. They weren't going to become farmers overnight, though there are instances of remarkable effort and success.
Loyal Till Death is not a fancy book. It espouses no particular orientation to historiography, no selfconsciousness about its own approach, not even to the use of the word "Indian", which ties so many contemporary writers in knots. The writing is not fancy either, just clean. The book methodically lays out its case and then proceeds with the narrative that supports it (buttressed, in turn, by scholarly notes to each chapter). There are five appendices containing documents with their own eloquence: the terms of Treaty Six; Edgar Dewdney's proclamation that "any Indian being off his Reserve without special permission in writing from some authorized person, is liable to be arrested on suspicion of being a rebel, and punished as such"; Hayter Reed's "Memorandum for the Honourable the Indian Commissioner relative to the future management of Indians"; Reed's "List of Band Behaviour during Rebellion"; and a list of "Indian Convictions". An index follows the notes, and the text is liberally illustrated with maps and with contemporary photographs and drawings.
In most ways, then, Loyal Till Death is a standard scholarly book on the plain side. What gives it added authority is a quiet honouring of oral sources, tales of elders, and an insider's clarity about Native cultural assumptions and practices. The Cut Knife camp had warning of Colonel Otter's approach because "an old man, Kohsakahtigant or Jacob with Long Tangled Hair", possessed "manitouassini" or Old Man Stone, a sacred stone that "would not let him sleep; his protector was trying to alert him to the coming of the troops." Poundmaker was able to prevent the pursuit of Colonel Otter's retreating soldiers because he held aloft the "sacred pipe-stem, the Oskichi", "to be used in times of acute crisis to invoke the power of the Creator." These are facts, not picturesque pagan details. And here is a thirst dance, one of those "pagan ceremonies" later proscribed by the Canadian government, interpreted from the inside as the opposite of the war dance, which a million Western movies have fixed as the only sort of dance an Indian ever does:
"Half Blackfoot Chief, a member of Big Bear's band, tried to heal this growing rift between the Plains and Woods Cree by vowing to hold a thirst dance at the base of a nearby kame, known locally as Frenchmen's Butte. Undertaken for renewal and thanksgiving, the ceremony was a major commitment for both the sponsor and the camp, and as such, underlined the Indians' search for direction and guidance in a time of great crisis; it did not mean, as some commentators have suggested, that the Indians were making warriors."
Such matters were understood by a few white people in the West at the time, but not by many. Ottawa felt no particular need to try to understand them. What interest could the quaint ceremonies of a dying people hold for the "superior race" that conquered it? Stonechild and Waiser make it clear that First Nations were a "vibrant society and culture", an "extremely dynamic and resilient people". "Above all," they say, "they were a proud, self-governing community that was not about to step aside without protest when some foreign country tried to claim their territory." Their book creates a poignant irony by presenting the Cree as real people with no essential human difference from those who treated them like nothings.
How could such proud people be brought so low? Loyal Till Death is one arc of the whole tale of the tragic decline of First Nations, showing how the government had no ears to hear their reality, no will to deal with them as they were, preferring to read all difference from white European ways as inferiority. The historical sequel must be sought in other books that tell of the concentrated, demoralizing onslaught on Native culture. History is changing in this country; people once relegated to footnotes are finding and telling their own stories. But society at large is slow to change, and too many smart and educated people still find it all too easy to rest their whole view of First Nations on stereotype. The authors of Loyal Till Death are both university-educated scholars and educators. Bill Stonechild is also "a member of the Muscowpetung band in southern Saskatchewan". He is part of a First Nations renaissance that is a mixed triumph involving mastery of the language (both words and culture) of an oppressor to tell one's own story. The stories thus told often make the heart sore. They dovetail all too easily with a vast literature of oppression written by Canadians whose origins are Japanese, Chinese, Caribbean, and on and on.
Canadians like to think of themselves as good and tolerant citizens of the best country in the world. Could we actually hold onto that view of ourselves and project it-not what we have been but what we want to be-into the future? Only by accepting the nastiness in our past and admitting that impurity (in ourselves, in our social fabric) always falls between ideal and achievement. Then we might be able to embrace impurity in national self-examination. Any way you look at it, we are a mixed people not much given to accepting ourselves as such. Loyal Till Death hints at a spirit in which we might move ahead, heartsore maybe but not mired in past outrages, as it acknowledges in still relevant words the difficulties of administering Canada in the 1880s: "It was an empire more in keeping with an established world power, not a dominion less than a decade old. Mistakes or delays were bound to happen, especially since policy makers in Ottawa were far removed from the western interior and had little practical knowledge of the region and its peculiarities." Mistakes: non-inflammatory, un-ironic understatement. The characteristically restrained tone of Loyal Till Death is as persuasive as the argument itself.

Stan Dragland is the author of Floating Voice: Duncan Campbell Scott & the Literature of Treaty 9 (Anansi).


Home First Novel Award Past Winners Subscription Back Issues Timescroll Advertizing Rates
Amazon.ca/Books in Canada Bestsellers List Books in Issue Books in Department About Us