There exists a common perception that First Nations were followers of Louis Riel during the North-West Resistance of 1885. This notion is bolstered by the fact that thirty-three First Nations individuals were convicted of rebellion-related offenses, compared to nineteen Metis. Included were two of the principal leaders of the Cree (Nêhiyawak), Big Bear and Poundmaker, both convicted of treason-felony and in addition, eight First Nations men were hanged at Battleford in what came to be Canada’s largest mass execution. In retrospect, the trials of the First Nations defendants were strongly biased by the prejudices of the day: the Saskatchewan Herald editorial of April 23, 1885, for example, concluded that “the only good Indians are the dead ones.” The testimony of the few sympathetic observers of First Nations participation was dismissed. Chief Big Bear was convicted simply on the basis that he did not desert his band and was therefore guilty by association. His efforts to avoid violence at Frog Lake and Fort Pitt were ignored. Chief Poundmaker was accused mainly on the basis of a letter found in the possession of Riel implying that the chief supported the Resistance, despite witnesses testifying that the chief’s name had been put on the letter against his will. Poundmaker’s attempts to forestall violence at the “Siege of Battleford” and the Battle of Cut Knife Hill were ignored. Big Bear and Poundmaker were actually peace as opposed to war chiefs; however, White juries failed to appreciate such subtleties.

Most of the First Nations individuals who were hanged were found guilty in connection with the Massacre of Frog Lake. The defendants did not have a lawyer, and to avoid difficulties in pronouncing names they were simply referred to by number. The fatal blow was dealt when Prime Minister Macdonald ordered that the defendants be tried on charges of murder, rather than treason, a change that resulted in death penalties. No evidence was presented against one of the hanged other than that he had been present at the event. Judge Rouleau, who had been stung by the burning of his house at Battleford, wasted little time in sentencing the defendants to death. Mitigating factors such as the suggestion that the initial intent of the Indians was simply to hold the Whites as hostages, and that it was only after the starving captors got access to the Hudson’s Bay Company store’s cache of liquor that events turned violent, were not taken into account. Local bands were brought in to witness the event, in the belief that this would discourage further trouble.

The federal government declared that twenty-eight First Nations bands had participated in the Resistance. This conclusion was questionable when it became clear that either these First Nations had been coerced into participating and become involved by circumstance rather than intent, or that their absence from their reserve had been misconstrued. In the end, not a single chief supported the Resistance, all opting instead to live up to what they perceived as sacred treaty commitments; further proof of adherence to the treaties lies in the many statements of loyalty made by chiefs. Today, the sentences against First Nations leaders made during the Resistance still stand despite ample evidence that they were wrongly convicted.

Blair Stonechild

Further Reading

Stonechild, B. and B. Waiser. 1997. Loyal Till Death: Indians and the North West Rebellion. Calgary: Fifth House.