Poundmaker was chief during a time of crisis for the Cree. Deeply, personally committed to both peace with the Canadian government and the preservation of his people, he negotiated impossible choices, only to be wrongly accused and tried for treason.
He was born to a Stony shaman and a Metis woman in about 1842, near Battleford in modern Saskatchewan. By many accounts, his father was a famous bison caller – a man who drew bison into pounds. Poundmaker, like his father, is said to have possessed this skill to a high degree, and was acknowledged as an outstanding orator as well.
A bison pound is a circular, paddock-like enclosure whose opening is designed to funnel a herd of bison within. A bison caller would sing and chant, trying to attract the lead female of the herd into the enclosure, whereupon the hunters could easily slaughter the herd. It was an evolution of previous bison drive tactics (such as driving the herd over a cliff) and had the advantage of being less traumatic for the bison and easier for the hunters. Bison callers were greatly respected, with bison calling having great practical and spiritual importance to the nation.
In 1873, Poundmaker was adopted by the Blackfoot leader Crowfoot. Crowfoot had initiated a peace between the Cree and Blackfoot, bringing to an end an era of bitter wars and feuds. Crowfoot’s wife saw Poundmaker, and was struck by his resemblance to their son who had been killed recently by a Cree war party. Poundmaker was adopted by Crowfoot, and given the name Wolf Thin Legs (Makoyikohin), and for the next few years lived with the Blackfoot. This greatly elevated his status with both the Cree and the Blackfoot, and Poundmaker became an advisor and subordinate chief of the Cree.
In August of 1876, the Cree were deeply involved with the negotiation of Treaty Number 6 with the government of Canada, with the negotiations being held in Fort Carlton. Poundmaker emerged as a leading skeptic of the treaty. He objected to the terms being dictated, and pushed for the inclusion of a famine clause, as well as assistance for the Cree in learning farming and trades. He was a signatory to Treaty 6, although he continued to hunt the bison herds until 1879, crossing the border into the United States.
There in Montana, Poundmaker’s band skirmished with US cavalry forces, and the band retreated back into Canada. The band resigned themselves to a reservation at the confluence of Battle River and Cut Knife Creek. By all accounts, despite his earlier misgivings about the reservations and his reluctance to enter one, Poundmaker made every effort to learn to plough and farm to become self-sufficient, rather than rely on government rations.
In 1881, Poundmaker served as an interpreter and guide for the Governor-General from Battleford to Calgary. The viceregal party was impressed with their guide’s nonviolent philosophy and cultural knowledge. Poundmaker, for his part, seems to have recognized the potential power of the government as a force. Shortly afterwards he publically encouraged his band to remain peaceful, citing the potential power of the tide of whites moving to settle in, and the dangers of a conflict with them.
This commitment to peace was shortly tested. In 1883, short supplies to the reservations and a reduction of the staff of the Indian Department, as well as the terrible winter of 1883-1884 led to starvation and desperation. By June 1884, war bands under young warrior leaders had begun to gather, and many groups, including ones led by the Cree leader Big Bear, assembled on Poundmaker’s reservation for a Thirst Dance ceremony to discuss the situation.
The North-West Mounted Police attempted to disband the dance, but were unable to do so. Additional troopers were called in to the Battleford area. One of the First Nations men was accused of assaulting a reservation official, and the NWMP moved in to arrest him, leading to a standoff with Poundmaker and Big Bear, who refused to turn over the man while the dance was ongoing. Incidents such as these undermined trust between the Cree and the government.
And trust was in short supply, and incidents were about to become worse. In 1885, Metis leader Louis Riel returned from Montana, where he had been living in exile, and uprisings of Cree, Assinibone, and Metis bands broke out over the region. When word came of the Metis’ victory at Duck Lake, Poundmaker and the Cree were faced with a critical choice.
The warriors within the Cree wanted to join Riel in his rebellion. Poundmaker wanted to avoid being drawn into the conflict. Joining with bands of the Stonies, Poundmaker brought his band to the town of Battleford in an effort to negotiate a continued peace and new promises of rations and supplies. But Battleford had been abandoned by the settlers. Despite Poundmaker’s efforts, the town was looted, and the combined bands returned to the reservation.
On the morning of May 2nd, 1885, government forces under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Otter attacked Poundmaker’s camp, believing Poundmaker to be in rebellion. After a sharp skirmish, Otter and his men were forced to retreat. Poundmaker intervened to prevent the Cree and Stony warriors from pursuing the retreating troops, thus preventing further bloodshed. Poundmaker again intervened when his band captured a column of supplies intended for government forces, preventing the warriors from murdering the wagon drivers.
Shortly afterwards, word came of Louis Riel’s defeat at the Battle of Batoche. The North-West Rebellion was effectively over. Poundmaker sent a letter to a priest, Father Louis Cochin, and a message to the government forces indicating he wanted to negotiate for peace. On May 26th, Poundmaker and his band came again to Battleford with the intention of negotiating their surrender.
The government was not in the mood for negotiations. Upon entering the fort, Poundmaker and his followers were arrested and charged with treason against the government. He was transported to Regina, and given a cursory trial after which the jury deliberated for half an hour before returning a guilty verdict. Sentenced to three years in prison, he was paroled after a year at Stony Mountain Penitentiary. The year in prison had ruined him, physically and mentally, and he died shortly afterwards of a pulmonary hemorrhage, while visiting his adoptive father Crowfoot, on the Blackfoot reservation.
Poundmaker’s historical reputation was quickly restored after his death. His commitment to a lasting, just peace between the Cree and the government was born of foresight and dignity. During his life he had served as a personal agent of peace to end war between First Nations. He had negotiated in good faith and attempted to strike a conciliatory approach with the Canadian government. He had done his utmost to prevent desperate grievances and imminent violence with the government from spiraling into a vicious cycle of retribution. This legacy is now honored among both the Cree and Canadians today.