Researchers hope to start search for Poundmaker weapons thrown in North Sask. River

The Poundmaker Cree Nation is working with researchers in hopes of finding antique weapons dumped in the North Saskatchewan River in 1885.

Research indicates over 200 weapons were confiscated from Chief Poundmaker in 1885

Chief Poundmaker was convicted of treason after the North-West Rebellion in 1885, but this year the federal government announced plans to exonerate the conviction. (Oliver Buell/Library and Archives Canada)

A search for antique artifacts confiscated more than 130 years ago from historical figure Chief Poundmaker could soon be on.

Researchers are hoping to find axes, knives and rifles believed to have been dumped in the North Saskatchewan river in 1885.

After Chief Poundmaker's warriors forced Col. Otter to retreat during the Battle of Cut knife Hill on May 2, 1885, Poundmaker led a delegation to Fort Battleford in hopes of reaching a peace agreement with Gen. Middleton.

Poundmaker was arrested and all of his band's weapons were confiscated and thrown in the river. Now some people at the First Nation that bears his name is hoping to get them back.

"It is certainly one of the highlights of my adult life," Milton Tootoosis, a headman for Poundmaker Cree Nation, said of learning about the artifacts. Tootoosis is hoping the search will soon enter the "excavation phase," but the First Nation's band council has yet to decide on whether to proceed.

"To have something, items, lying right just in our ancestral territory... and understanding that the potential of finding an item — whether it's a rifle, a knife or an axe — connected to my ancestors, it's just something that has really triggered my psyche, my emotions."

Poundmaker Cree Nation headman Milton Tootoosis said learning about the artifacts is "certainly one of the highlights of my adult life." (Jason Warick/CBC)

The rifles likely weren't just from Poundmaker's band, according to Tootoosis. Some of the weapons could also belong to neighbouring bands involved in the Battle of Cut Knife Hill such as Little Pine, Sweetgrass, Lean Man, Mosquito and Red Pheasant.

Research by Butch Amundson, archaeologist for the Prairie Heritage Steamship Association and Stantec, shows over a ton of metal was dumped off the S.S. North West near Pine Island — a small island about 50 kilometres east of Lloydminster.

Amundson says the confiscated weapons could account for some of that metal.

"When [the S.S. North West] got to an island on the North Saskatchewan River where there were wood lots to provide the fuel for steamships, the captain on the steamship decided there wasn't room for the riles and the wood on the bows of the ship," Amundson said.

"So he threw all of these rifles into the North Saskatchewan River, never to be used again by anybody."

Upon discovering the weapons could be in the river,  the Prairie Heritage Steamship Association got in touch with Poundmaker Cree Nation. They've been working together since 2016.

"As soon as we realized that there's something that might be tangibly in the river, we stopped and said, 'This isn't our story. This is the story of the Indigenous people from whom these rifles were confiscated,'" Amundson said.

'It just makes you mad.'

Research shows the rifles may have already been antiques when they were thrown in the river. Dumping them took away Poundmaker's people's ability to hunt and feed their families, although Amundson can't confirm if that was intentional.

Tootosis, however, sees it as evidence of policies such as forced starvation.

"It just makes you mad. Sad and mad at the same time," he said.

"But it also makes you understand why so many warriors took justice into their own hands at times."

- With files from CBC Radio's Saskatoon Morning and Kelly Provost