Saskatchewan·Q & A

'A real smear job': Authors who dispelled myths about Chief Poundmaker applaud exoneration

Two authors who dispelled myths about First Nations involvement in the Northwest Rebellion are applauding Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's plans to exonerate Chief Poundmaker.

Co-authors Blair Stonechild and Bill Waiser revealed Chief Poundmaker was a peacemaker, not a rebel or traitor

Prof. Blair Stonechild says the investigation and conviction of Chief Poundmaker was 'bogus.' (Matthew Howard/CBC News)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's exoneration of Chief Poundmaker, planned for Thursday at the Saskatchewan First Nation that bears his name, will help right a historical wrong and correct a 134-year-old myth in Canadian history, according to two authors who wrote the book on First Nations involvement in the Northwest Rebellion.

Poundmaker, whose Cree name was Pîhtokahanapiwiyin, was convicted of "treason-felony" and locked up after Ottawa accused him and other First Nations leaders of instigating violence in the Northwest Rebellion of 1885.

Authors Blair Stonechild and Bill Waiser say a long-held belief that most First Nations leaders joined the rebellion, led by Louis Riel and his Métis supporters, is one of Western Canada's "most persistent myths."

The truth, the co-authors say, is Poundmaker was a peaceful chief who prevented the massacre of Canadian soldiers in the Battle of Cut Knife in 1885. 

Stonechild, an Indigenous professor at the First Nations University of Canada, and Waiser, a non-Indigenous historian, teamed up two decades ago to publish Loyal till Death: Indians and the North-West Rebellion. They used oral history from elders, trial transcripts, government records and newspaper articles to dispel myths about First Nations involvement in the rebellion. Their research revealed that Poundmaker, like most First Nations leaders, wanted to pressure Ottawa in a non-violent way to honour treaty promises.

Chief Poundmaker will be exonerated by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Thursday. (Oliver Buell/Library and Archives Canada)

The book exposed the Canadian government's ulterior motive for prosecuting chiefs. The authors cite letters from Canada's Indian Commissioner, Edgar Dewdney, writing that he saw an "unprecedented opportunity to rid himself and the Canadian government of troublesome Indian leaders and their nagging call for revision of the treaties."

They say the exoneration is an important step in the reconciliation process, but will not erase the legacy of distrust and racism fostered by Ottawa's false accusations of 1885.

The authors have been invited to attend the exoneration event. The following interviews with them have been edited for length and clarity.

How do you feel about the exoneration of Chief Poundmaker?

Stonechild: The exoneration is extremely important and long overdue. The false accusations and wrongful portrayal have been extremely damaging for First Nations people in the Battleford area, as well as, I think, the entire community. It's created an atmosphere of distrust and racism, which, I think, has shown itself in the relationships between Indigenous people and non-Indigenous people. Of course, I think of the Colten Boushie case.

Waiser: I support [the exoneration]. I applaud it. I think that Poundmaker was wrongly convicted in 1885 with treason-felony and I think that what is happening this Thursday at the Poundmaker First Nation is part of the reconciliation process. We need to come to a, perhaps, hard understanding of what happened in the past, and confront some hard truths, and recognize and address past wrongs. And this is part of that process. 

How would you describe Poundmaker?

Stonechild: Poundmaker was the up-and-coming leader of the Cree. He was extremely clever. He was the first one to stand up during the Treaty Six negotiations and basically say, "How can you take our land, which is all ours, and give it back to us in little pieces?" And, of course, that kind of stunned the negotiators.

Poundmaker was a peace chief. The proof of that is at the Battle of Cut Knife Hill, where he was ambushed by the Canadian military. After the military were routed and were in retreat, he basically used his Sacred Pipe to stop the warriors from pursuing the retreating soldiers. So, in effect, he did prevent a massacre. He was also very capable and a charismatic leader and the government was fully intent on wanting to suppress him.

Stonechild, a professor of Indigenous studies, heard stories from elders about how the First Nations had remained faithful to their treaty promises during the Northwest Rebellion. (Bonnie Allen/CBC News)

Why was the government so intent on suppressing him?

Stonechild: You have to explain the mentality that existed back in 1880, which was much different than it is today. There is something which is called social Darwinism, which is a real belief that Indigenous people were savages. That they had no real reasoning ability and no real moral qualities. And so, of course, who were the worst of the lot? The worst of the lot are the leaders. So part of the theory was, if you can control and get rid of the leaders, then you can basically control and influence the people.

Waiser: There's a document that's produced in the weeks following the end of the resistance in 1885 called "The Future Management of Indians." And it's a very hard-hitting document that calls for a number of coercive and interfering measures. The Canadian government sets out to effectively control First Nations communities in Western Canada, and by blaming First Nations for being involved in 1885, it gives them, effectively, a free hand to do this.

In your book, you said, "the First Nations role in the troubles has been sadly misrepresented or grossly misunderstood." How so?

Stonechild: Misunderstood in the sense that there was a total lack of understanding of Indigenous culture and spirituality and, for example, with the treaties. The elders were telling me, "It wasn't possible for us to violate the treaties because we had made a sacred pledge. A pledge to the creator that we would not do that." They were intensely spiritual people who took it very seriously and to violate an agreement like that would be even worse than violating a political agreement. So this was the reason why the chiefs stayed out of the rebellion and all of the ones who ended up becoming implicated were essentially forced into it and Poundmaker was no exception. 

 

It was a real smear job. Poundmaker was accused of waging war when it was simply a convenient misrepresentation for the government's agenda ... The government's agenda essentially was to gain control over Indigenous people, which had nothing to do with justice. It was about establishing control over people that they consider to be unpredictable and dangerous.  

What role do you think your book played in leading to this exoneration?

Stonechild: Our book got a lot of attention and we managed to get a lot of stories that had been only told secretly up till then. Because, people were still afraid. Some of their families had witnessed Canada's largest mass hanging at Battleford. There were some who were still afraid to talk about it. So we managed to elicit a lot of these stories.

Historian Bill Waiser co-authored Loyal till Death, which he says is dedicated 'to the First Nations of Western Canada who stood by the Queen during the troubles of 1885 and yet were deliberately tarred with the brush of rebellion.' (Submitted by Bill Waiser)

Waiser: Loyal till Death tells the other side of the story. That it's too seductive to think that it was an Indian-Metis alliance against the federal government. It's a very complicated messy affair.

What do you hope happens after this exoneration?

Stonechild: The false accusation of all the First Nations and this portrayal that they were all guilty of rebellion has been damaging. The Canadian government identified 28 First Nations that had been disloyal in the rebellion. That was totally bogus. It was totally a bogus investigation and conclusion. That created a real sense that First Nations were not trustable, that they did not adhere to the treaty responsibilities, and therefore they sort of deserved what they got. I think it's the government's responsibility to provide the resources to correct that whole story, and to show what the real story is. 

Waiser: I hope this exoneration is the beginning of, perhaps, two others. There were two other chiefs sentenced to treason-felony in 1885: Big Bear and One Arrow. Both those chiefs exercised restraint and yet those two chiefs were also found guilty, sentenced to time in Stony Mountain penitentiary, and died only a few months after their release. So this is the first step. We need to understand what happened in the past, recognize the wrongs that were done and move forward collectively.

About the Author

Bonnie Allen

Senior Reporter

Bonnie Allen is a senior reporter for CBC News based in Saskatchewan. Before returning to Canada in 2013, Allen spent four years reporting from across Africa, including Libya, South Sudan, Liberia and Sierra Leone. She holds a Master's in International Human Rights Law from the University of Oxford. @bonnieallenCBC