'Correct one of history's wrongs': Poundmaker artifacts coming home

For the first time since 1885, some of Chief Poundmaker's belongings are coming back to Saskatchewan.

Poundmaker First Nation in Sask. hosts July 18 museum exhibit including famous chief's war club

A photo of Chief Poundmaker.
Chief Poundmaker's belongings were taken following the 1885 resistance. His war club and other items are being loaned back to the Poundmaker Cree Nation as part of a museum exhibit July 18-23 on the reserve near the Battlefords. (Oliver Buell/Library and Archives Canada)

For the first time since 1885, some of Chief Poundmaker's belongings are coming home to Saskatchewan.

Poundmaker was a 19th-century Plains Cree leader who was convicted of treason and imprisoned following the 1885 North-West Resistance and died shortly after.

Many of his possessions were seized and ended up in museums across Saskatchewan and around the world.

On July 18, the museum at Poundmaker Cree Nation, approximately 175 kilometres northwest of Saskatoon, will display the legendary chief's ceremonial war club and other items.

Chief Poundmaker's war club is being loaned to the Poundmaker Cree Nation for the first time since it was taken in 1885. It will be part of an exhibit at the band museum July 18-23. (submitted)

It's on loan from the federal government, which had been holding the artifacts at the nearby Fort Battleford national historic site.

Poundmaker museum curator Floyd Favel says it's one way to educate the public, but also Poundmaker Cree Nation youth, about the true history of the 1885 resistance.

Favel says it could also help efforts to have Chief Poundmaker exonerated.

Poundmaker Cree Nation museum curator Floyd Favel is looking forward to the return of Chief Poundmaker's war club and other artifacts for their July 18 exhibit. (Submitted by Floyd Favel)

"That is what we are asking for, is just to correct one of history's wrongs, especially to our people. And in many ways, when you correct and straighten out the mistakes of the past, it clears the way for the future."

Poundmaker councillor, or "headman," Milton Tootoosis said the band council has written to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to demand that Chief Poundmaker's treason conviction be quashed.

The effort was initiated several years ago by band member and historian Tyrone Tootoosis, who played Poundmaker in a feature film. Tyrone Tootoosis died earlier this year and others have decided to take up the cause.

Convicted of treason

In 1885, tensions between the federal government and First Nations and Métis people were increasing. In Batoche, Métis people led by Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont were attacked and defeated by federal troops in a bloody battle that lasted several days.

Over in west-central Saskatchewan, Poundmaker was trying to get help for his starving people. The buffalo herds had been decimated, and the treaty promises of food rations and agricultural implements made less than a decade earlier had already been broken.

Poundmaker and his band members traveled to Battleford to ask federal agents for food. When word spread of their impending arrival, terrified settlers and the Indian agent fled inside Fort Battleford.

The town of Battleford was looted, although accounts differ on whether it was First Nations or settlers who did it. The Indian agent refused to leave the fort to talk, so Poundmaker and his people went back to their reserve.

To punish Poundmaker for the "siege" of the fort, federal troops led by Col. William Otter attacked Poundmaker's camp at Cut Knife Hill in May 1885. The troops were badly beaten and began to retreat.

Poundmaker ordered his warriors not to pursue the 300 fleeing troops. Poundmaker turned himself in to authorities to prevent further bloodshed and was convicted of treason. He was imprisoned at Stony Mountain Penitentiary in Manitoba and died of a lung infection shortly after.

Poundmaker Cree Nation headman Milton Tootoosis is excited about the return of Chief Poundmaker's war club for a museum display on the First Nation near the Battlefords. (Jason Warick/CBC)

'History books should be updated'

Milton Tootoosis said Canadians need to know Poundmaker was an agent of reconciliation, more than a century before the term became common.

"Poundmaker did nothing wrong. As we talk about truth and reconciliation and justice, the history books should be updated," he said.

Scott Bardsley, press secretary for Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, said a request to overturn a conviction is usually made for those still alive. But he said they'll take a look at Poundmaker council's request.

"Currently, clemency is not granted posthumously, [but] if there is a formal request, we would give it due consideration," Bardsley said.

The artifacts will be on display at the Poundmaker band museum until July 23. Favel and Tootoosis said the museum is open to the public and they encourage everyone to attend.

They hope to repatriate these and other items permanently in the coming years.