Gabriel Dumont—the name conjures up a host of images: the diminutive but courageous chef métis who led his people in armed struggle against the Dominion of Canada; the 19th-century Che Guevara passionately concerned with his people’s self-governance; the quintessential homme de prairie who lived freely as a bison hunter and entrepreneur; and the humanitarian who shared his bounty with the less fortunate. Gabriel Dumont was a man of action, whose many admirable qualities, including his selflessness, courage, sense of duty and love of his people, have inspired generations of Métis.
Despite being so lionized, little is known of Gabriel Dumont prior to the 1870s. He was born in December 1837 in St. Boniface, Red River Settlement, the third child of Isadore Dumont and Louise Laframboise. Alongside other Métis from St. François-Xavier, Red River, Dumont participated in the bison hunt in present-day North Dakota for the first time in 1851; in time, the boy who embraced this activity with so much gusto would become an excellent buffalo hunter. Another event happened in 1851 that would profoundly impact upon young Dumont’s psyche: on July 13–14, he and 300 other Métis decisively defeated, through disciplined marksmanship and the use of barricaded rifle pits, a much larger party of Yankton Dakota at the Battle of Grand Coteau. The ease of the Métis victory, with only one fatality, made a huge impression upon Dumont; however, when he used the same defensive rifle pit system in 1885, he would be less successful.
Dumont’s life as a young adult was typical of other Métis. In 1858, he married Madeleine—daughter of Jean-Baptiste Wilke, a Métis bison hunt leader and trader—at St. Joseph (Walhalla), in present-day North Dakota. They had a warm, loving relationship, although they had no children of their own. The couple’s early years were spent on the hunt, constantly moving between the North Saskatchewan River and the rich bison-hunting grounds of the Dakotas. By the 1860s, the great herds of bison which provided many Métis with their livelihood were rapidly dwindling. Seeking new economic opportunities, Dumont operated a ferry service at “Gabriel’s Crossing” and owned a general store. Dumont had become the leader of several hundred Métis living in and around St-Laurent de Grandin, in what is now central Saskatchewan. The Métis community, which was steadily being augmented by émigrés from Manitoba, elected him Chief of the Hunt in the 1860s, and President of the St. Laurent Council in 1873. Dumont presided over the Council until 1878, when the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP) disbanded it after it attempted to levy a fine against those Métis who contravened the conservation measures of the Law of the Hunt.
Gabriel Dumont’s role as the Métis’ military leader during the 1885 Resistance is where he is best remembered. Under his leadership, throughout the 1870s and 1880s, the Batoche area Métis anxiously sought redress from the federal government, particularly regarding their land tenure. However, being unlettered and uncomfortable with Euro-Canadian politics, Dumont knew his limitations: therefore he, Michel Dumas, and Alexander Isbister brought Louis Riel back to Canada from Montana in order to negotiate with the federal government. Riel then became the undisputed political leader, and Dumont the military commander. However, once the resistance broke out, Dumont knew that his force of 100 to 300 men could not defeat the Dominion’s larger, better-equipped army, backed ultimately by the might of the British Empire. Despite successfully employing guerrilla tactics and superior marksmanship at Duck Lake against the NWMP and Prince Albert Volunteers on March 26, and at Fish Creek on April 24 against General Middleton’s forces, the Métis resistance was doomed. On May 9–12, the Métis fought an entrenched battle at Batoche against a larger, well-armed force. Tired and out of ammunition, the Métis succumbed to a swift charge by Canadian volunteers. Thus ended Gabriel Dumont’s role as military leader.
After 1885, Dumont lived a varied existence: as a political exile in the United States, a Wild West Show performer, a political speaker in French-Canadian nationalist circles (where his tenure was brief), and a raconteur of the events of 1885 (which he dictated in January 1889). He was also a farmer—he received land-scrip in 1893—and a hunter and trapper. Madeleine had died of tuberculosis in 1886; Gabriel Dumont died suddenly on May 19, 1906 at Bellevue, Saskatchewan, probably of a heart attack.
Darren R. Préfontaine