Manitoba History: In the Time of the Making of Treaties

by Margaret R. Stobie
University of Manitoba

Manitoba History, Number 10, Autumn 1985

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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It was a fine afternoon in early September of 1870 when a symbolic ceremony took place at the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine rivers at Fort Garry, the Western headquarters of the Hudson’s Bay Company. The ceremony signified the transfer of the great empire of Rupert’s Land and the North West Territories from the Company to the Government of Canada.

The legislation to prepare for the transfer and at the same time to create the Province of Manitoba had been passed by the Dominion parliament in May, and on June 23, from “The Court at Windsor” came an “Order of Her Majesty in Council admitting Rupert’s Land and the North West Territory into the Union,” the order to become effective on July 15. But the ordered moves of law and majesty were very far away from the land and the people affected by them, as the confusion and turbulence under Riel had proved. With peace restored, it was now time to give those people visible evidence of the new reality, of the fabulous purchase.

The formalities had their degree of splendid show. Some of the so-recently arrived expeditionary troops, including Sam Steele with Colonel Wolseley and his staff, made a fitting honor guard. Many of the outstanding citizens of the settlement—the Inksters, the Bannermans, the Spences, the McDermots, the Isbisters, the Bannatynes—crowded into the huge courtyard, making it gay with their Scots voices and fine clothes. Standing out above most of the gathering were two young men, both in their early thirties, both destined to be knighted, both, as Steele wrote in his Reminiscences, “of magnificent physique and almost gigantic stature.” [1] One was Lieutenant William Butler of the British army, “dark-haired and bearded,” who was to win fame for his travels and his books about the Great Lone Land, and who had lately been sent as scout extraordinary to assess the state of affairs under Riel. The other was Dr. Schultz, “golden-haired like a Viking of old,” graduate of Queen’s University and the Victoria Medical College, who had led armed men against Riel, had been imprisoned by him, and had escaped to the United States. Within a year he would be elected to parliament, and in time would be a lieutenant-governor of Manitoba.

Colonel Samuel B. Steele, N.W.M.P., 1883
Source: Glenbow Archives, Calgary

A great cheer went up from the crowd as the door of the governor’s residence opened and the two main figures in the ceremony came out: Donald Smith, later Lord Strathcona, interim governor for the Company, and Adams Archibald, lately the first Secretary of State for Canada, now the first lieutenant-governor of Manitoba. As they appeared, the third party concerned in the historic event came through the gate. A large band of Indians, on foot, decorated, feathered and painted, slowly approached the platform. In their midst, mounted on a white horse and towering above all others, was their chief. He was painted white from head to foot. The gleaming presence silenced the host as he moved forward to face the other two governors, one of a triumvirate. At the time of the great treaty, a White Man was present. [2]

A similar blending of ironic humor, dignified ritual, and artistic fitness characterized the Indians in subsequent treaties, those between themselves and the government, and in none more brilliantly than in Treaty No. 6 in the land of the Cree nation, the Plains Crees and the Wood Crees, along the North Saskatchewan river. In a setting of great beauty without boundaries, the emissaries of two nations came together to achieve an alliance, one of profound importance to both of them. It was not the Field of the Cloth of Gold, and yet there was a wilderness splendor of spectacle, a strong sense of ceremony, of tradition, of ritual befitting the solemnity of the occasion.

The time of the making of treaties has returned, but it is muted in tone. Soberly clad ministers of the Crown meet in Committee Rooms with soberly clad representatives of the indigenous peoples, all seeking a new alliance. The problems are more complex even as the numbers of people have grown enormously, but today, in the midst of the complex negotiations, it is important to recall the earlier time, the circumstances around it, the proceedings, the participants, their attitudes and what was said, the dignity and pride on both sides, and the mutual respect.

Treaty No. 6, negotiated in 1876, was an unusually important treaty, involving as it did title to 120,000 square miles of the fertile Saskatchewan Valley, and the welfare of the most populous area in the Territories. Even after the terrible devastation of the smallpox plague of 1870, William Butler estimated in his one-man government survey that there were upwards of 7,000 Indians in the Valley as well as about two thousand half-breeds gathered around the Company posts and the half-dozen missions dotted along the river. [3] Moreover, the Valley was the central line of the fur-trade from Carlton to the old fort at Edmonton, five hundred miles west. Demographically and economically, the area was of prime importance.

There was a sense of urgency on both sides—both the Indians’ and the government’s. Almost from the time of the transfer, the Saskatchewan Valley Crees had been asking for a “treaty of alliance” with the Canadian government, for there was great confusion and apprehension among them. Partly it was a question of who had authority under the new regime. Where was the government? They were familiar with the Company’s government, which was tangible in every trading post, and in time of stress or famine they could go to the Company where, if for no other reason than good business, they could at least get food, for the Company was not going to let its hunters and trappers—and with them the rich fur trade—die of starvation. There was, of course, the far-away Queen, a kind of manito, whom they revered because the Company revered her and kept her laws. But where was her presence? The Company was still the only visible form of authority, and since it had not wished to have settlers coming in to disturb the fur trade, it had ruled with a light hand. The Indians had had little sense of the land being possessed by the Company or by anyone. They had been free to ride, to hunt, to fish, to wander, to live where and as they wished. Indeed, it had been part of their conviction that the land was free and belonged to no one. But now, a government two thousand miles away and unknown claimed that the land was theirs, that the Indians could no longer use it freely. Apparently they must come to terms with this new force. But much more immediate and compelling was the spectre of famine. The buffalo had disappeared and with it the food, clothing, shelter, and livelihood of the Plains Crees. For protection against starvation they wanted a “treaty of alliance.”

Like the Indians, the Canadian government was confused and apprehensive. It had bought the great North-West from the Company—or thought it had. That purchase, fabulous as it was, was not without precedent. The United States had purchased the huge expanse of Louisiana from France as far back as 1803. Recently, it had purchased Alaska from Russia in the year of Canada’s birth, 1867. There were plenty of ambitious folk south of the border eager to seize the west and link up with the Alaska purchase. Therefore, the purchase from the Company was not only prudent but urgently necessary. But immediately it became clear that Canada had no simple title to that vastness. Apart from the repudiation of the government by Riel and his followers in the little Red River Settlement, the Indian nations claimed that the territory was theirs, that, in effect, it had not been the Company’s to sell.

Moreover, if the prospect of famine impelled the Indians to conciliation, another spectre impelled the government. That was the Indian wars south of the border. They had been raging for some years, with scores of pitched battles and, although the final battle was not until December 29, 1890 at Wounded Knee, the summer of 1876 was a climax. This was the year of the centenary of the United States, and the war with the Sioux was at its height. About a week before the celebration of the hundredth Independence Day, the greatest of all Indian victories came in the Montana territory on June 25, when Sitting Bull annihilated General Custer and his cavalry at the Little Big Horn. This was only some 200 miles below the International border and almost directly south of the Wood Mountain police post. It was dangerously close, and there were many who were eager to stir up the Canadian Indians whose leaders were well aware that they possessed a powerful weapon. The Canadian government knew that it was imperative to establish a peaceful order in the Territories.

In the general state of perplexity, and in the midst of many problems within the country and without it—including a change of government from one party to the other following a railway scandal in 1873—the Dominion parliament had been doing what it could to establish Canada’s nationhood. It had sent out a mounted police force of 300 men in June, 1874, in two sections, one to protect the Indians and the border on the south, and one to “maintain the law” and give aid where possible in the Saskatchewan country. Three hundred men to police immensity.

The following year, “The North-West Territories Act, 1875” was to give the Territories a government of its own, with its own lieutenant-governor and an advisory council with power to make ordinances on all local matters, which would have a seat of government within the area and give a visible presence of Canada’s authority. The Act was to come into effect in the fall of 1876. Earlier in that year, parliament had also passed “The Indian Act, 1876,” attempting to set up a common body of law “to apply to all the Provinces and to the North-West Territories.” It was a lengthy document of 100 articles, guaranteeing to the Indians exclusive title to reserves and all natural resources “thereon or therein,” protecting them from exploiters or trespassers, giving them immunity from oath-taking and from paying taxes on reserve property (immunity from military service came in individual treaties), and providing for regular elections of chiefs and councillors as the Saskatchewan Crees had asked, with the same range of local powers as those given by Parliament to the Territorial government. The Act showed genuine concern for the welfare and protection of the Indians, and gave at least a firm basis both to them and to the lieutenant-governor for negotiations.

Yet in any negotiations, there were still, as there had been in the ceremony at Fort Garry, three authorities, this time the Company, the Queen, and Canada. The Indians made treaties with the Queen. They did not consider themselves Canadians, and they had no part in the people or the doings of the distant federation. But the Canadian government had to fulfill obligations agreed to by the Queen’s Chief, and in particular, had to foot the bills. Canada had bought the land, and yet she hadn’t. The land was Crown land. The reserves to live on were granted and guaranteed by the Queen out of Crown lands. The Indians were her loyal subjects. The infant country of Canada was a stranger and an intruder. So was the settler.

Such was the general state of affairs on both sides when Archibald’s successor, Lieutenant-Governor Alexander Morris, set out from Winnipeg on the long trek north to undertake negotiations for Treaty Six. They were to be in two parts, the first at Fort Carlton for the easterly bands, and the second two hundred miles west at Fort Pitt for the up-river bands. Accompanying Morris as secretary and short-hand recorder for the commission was a medical man from Winnipeg, Dr. A. G. Jackes, whose presence was obviously intended to reassure the Indians as to the government’s concern for their physical well-being. It took nearly three weeks for the entourage to cover the five hundred miles from Winnipeg.

Alexander Morris
Source: Archives of Manitoba

When, on the afternoon of August 14, they arrived at Dumont’s Crossing on the South Saskatchewan, they found over a hundred carts of traders and freighters ahead of them, loaded with winter supplies for the settlements as far west as Edmonton, waiting to be ferried across the river. The ferryman was one of the most famous men of the north, Gabriel Dumont: “stout and muscular, of middle height and great strength, with a wide mouth, scanty whiskers, and dark complexion.” [4] The former buffalo hunter was now adding to his farm income with the plugs of tobacco, packets of tea and sugar, sometimes money, that he received in payment for the use of his broad-bottomed scow.

An Indian trader from the Portage la Prairie band gave Morris his place at the head of the line, and the governor and his company passed on through the late-summer-early fall afternoon with the leaves turning, the high river banks golden with poplar splashed with white birch clusters and the scarlet of rosebushes and dogwood, all set against the rich green of pine and spruce. It was a scene of great beauty.

They were joined near Duck Lake by a troop of the recently formed North West Mounted Police, including Steele who was now a sergeant-major with the force. Steele described the members of the commission. The Hon. James McKay, whom they picked up at Duck Lake, a Scotch half-breed from Prince Albert, who had been involved in other treaties, was “a man of enormous size, weighing 400 pounds, perfectly familiar with every phase of the life in the great west, who knew the Indian character intimately.” The other commissioner was waiting for them at Carlton, W. J. Christie, chief factor at Edmonton, who had spent most of his life with the Company, and who had the friendship and confidence of the Saskatchewan Crees. Both men had been born in the country and spoke the Indian languages fluently. “No better men could have been chosen to carry out the work than these able councillors of the North-West.” Also waiting for them at Carlton was the chief interpreter, “a dignified Plainsman named Peter Erasmus,” who had been chosen by the Indians from among themselves. [5]

August 18 was a fine bright day as Governor Morris and his companions rode out from Fort Carl-ton to their first rendezvous. The whole body, accompanied by the scarlet-coated, well-mounted police, made a brave show on the landscape. But the two thousand-odd Crees awaiting them put on a much grander show. Governor Morris, Dr. Jackes, and Sergeant-Major Steele all left records of it.

The Indians had set up their encampment about two miles from the Fort, and as Morris wrote, “I found that the ground had been most judiciously chosen, being elevated, with abundance of trees, hay marshes, and small lakes. The spot which the Indians had left for my Council Tent overlooked the whole. The view was very beautiful; the hills and trees in the distance, and in the foreground the meadow land being dotted with clumps of woods with the Indian tents clustered here and there to the number of two hundred.” [6] Steele gave more details of the spectacle before them as they looked down at the camp of some two thousand Indians a quarter of a mile away. The commodious tents or lodges, ranged in a great circle, were made of tanned buffalo hide painted with the figures of beasts, birds, or reptiles representing family totems, and large enough to hold twenty or thirty people comfortably. Nearby on the broad flats of the river, young men raced each other after having driven their ponies to water. The surrounding hills and meadows were covered with “many thousands of horses.” [7]

When the Union Jack had been raised, the commissioners took their places at the long table in the Council Tent, carefully pinning back the tent flaps so that everyone could see the proceedings, for there was to be nothing secret. The Indians greeted them with a great sound, firing rifles, beating tom-toms, dancing, shouting, the whole band chanting to the accompaniment of drums. The Indians, in fact, took control of the whole proceeding, and when they were quite ready, the ceremonies began.

As the host began their slow advance in a great semi-circle, they were preceded by a large number of mounted warriors giving an exhibition of their horsemanship. Steele, a fine horseman himself, was fascinated by the magnificence of it. Adding to the brilliance of the display was the appearance of the warriors. They had been painted by the women with exotic designs of zebras, leopards, and other creatures native to far-off lands that the women could not possibly have seen, “each according to the skill and fancy of the artists,” and suggesting some distant folk memory. “It was a fine show, well worth coming many hundreds of miles to see. Nothing so fine or barbaric can be seen nowadays,” Steele wrote. [8]

The entertainment over, the ceremonies became more solemn. The host approached to within fifty or sixty yards of the Council Tent, where they halted and began “the Dance of the Stem.” Young men came forward and spread blankets and robes on the ground at the front of the semi-circle, and the chiefs, medicine men, councillors, and musicians advanced and seated themselves on them. The bearer of “the stem,” which was a gorgeously adorned pipe with a long stem, “walked slowly along this semi-circle and then he raised the stem to the heavens, turned slowly to the four cardinal points, and then returning to the group on the robes, handed it to one of the young warriors who commenced a slow chant, at the same time per-forming the stately dance, accompanied by the musicians and the singing of the men and women in the semi-circle. This was repeated by the other men, the main body steadily advancing.” [9] It was a sight to fill with awe anyone who witnessed the discipline, the solemn ritual, the magnificence of the age-old ceremony, even the very massiveness of the slowly and inexorably approaching host. This was the Cree nation receiving ambassadors of the Queen in their own country.

The Commissioners left the Council Tent to greet them, and the bearer of the pipe of peace presented it to Governor Morris who gently stroked it several times and passed it to the other commissioners, signifying that the friendship of the Indians was reciprocated. The interpreter then introduced the chiefs and head-men, who seated themselves directly in front of the Council Tent as the commissioners returned to their seats within it. In a few minutes there was perfect quiet and order. Governor Morris rose to address the Indians through Peter Erasmus, who stood at the end of the table facing the assembly, “his position graceful and dignified, his voice deep, clear and mellow, every word distinctly enunciated.” [10]

Morris spoke:

My Indian brothers, Indians of the Plains, I have shaken hands with a few of you, I shake hands with all of you in my heart. God has given us a good day. I trust His eye is upon us and what we do will be for the benefit of His children.

What I say and what you say, and what we do, is done openly before the whole people. You are, like me and my friends who are with me, children of the Queen. We are of the same blood, the same God made us, and the same Queen rules over us.

I am a Queen’s Councillor, I am her Governor of all these territories, and I am here to speak from her to you. I am here now because for many days the Cree nation have been sending word that they wished to see a Queen’s messenger face to face ... I have with me two friends whom you and I have known long; one of them is of your own blood, he other has been many years amongst you.

Morris then told of the other treaties that had been made in transferred territory and also of relations with the Six Nations Indians in eastern Canada, who had been given seed, land, food, and education for their children, and who now prospered. The commission wanted the same opportunities for the Indians of the Territories.

He continued:

We are not here as traders, I do not come to buy or sell horses or goods. I come to you, children of the Queen, to try to help you; when I say yes, I mean it, and when I say no, I mean it too. I want you to think of my words, I want to tell you that what we talk about is very important. What I trust and hope we will do is not for today or tomorrow only; what I will promise, and what I believe and hope you will take, is to last as long as that sun shines and yonder river flows.

The day is passing. I thank you for the respectful reception you have given me. I hope you will speak your minds as fully and as plainly as if I were one of yourselves. I wish you to think of what I have said. [11]

The Indians withdrew to talk together in their Council Lodge. The Commissioners returned to the fort, except for James McKay, who had his own camp nearby where the Indians could come to discuss matters with him in their own tongue. So ended the first day.

On the next morning, the Indians presented the chiefs whom they had chosen the night before to be their spokesmen, and Morris gave details of the offer together with a frank warning of the urgent need for decision. Shortly, immigrants would come crowding in to settle on the land, and if the Indians had not reserved the areas they wanted, they might find them taken up. The bands should choose quickly and choose areas large enough to accommodate them. To each family of five in a band accepting the offer, the government would give one square mile, 640 acres; to larger or smaller families in proportion. Once a band had chosen their site, the government would send a surveyor to mark it off, and thereafter no one would be able to encroach upon it. By the proposal, the Indians would have permanently the land that had been their traditional home land.

To help in cultivating it, the government would give to each family agricultural implements, and to each band ploughs and oxen. To help in building houses, each chief would get a chest of carpenter’s tools and saws; for food self-sufficiency, each band would get enough potatoes and seed to plant the land broken, and a bull and four cows. When the Indians had settled on the reserves and there were enough children to be taught, schools would be provided. As the Crees had asked, liquor would be prohibited on reserves.

Then Morris spoke of payments: fifteen hundred dollars worth of ammunition and twine every year to those included in Treaty Six; a special grant on signing the treaty “to every man, woman, and child” of twelve dollars, five dollars annually thereafter; to each chief $25, to each headman $15. The chiefs and headmen would be given uniforms to show that they were the Queen’s men, even as the Governor himself wore a uniform; silver medals and a flag would also be given to each chief to mark his status.

When Morris had finished, the principal Carlton chief came forward, shook hands with him, and asked that they be given time to go away and discuss quietly what he had told them. And so the proceedings were adjourned. Since the next day was Sunday, they would not resume until Monday; but on Monday the principal chief sent a message that as the Indians had held no council either on Sunday, they wished to have Monday to themselves, and if they were ready, they would meet the commissioners on Tuesday morning. The Indians were making it very clear that they did not come as supplicants.

Alexander Morris was a man of tact and understanding and patience, but the Queen’s representative must not be trifled with. And so when he faced the assembly on Tuesday he pointed out that he had arrived at Carlton at the time appointed, that he had not hurried them, they had had two days to think, but that he had to go still further and then make the long journey home to Red River. He could not wait longer; he wanted to hear from their chosen spokesmen now.

The first to rise and come forward was Poundmaker. He was a notable chief and, like Morris, he was fifty. As W. B. Cameron later described him, “Poundmaker was an unusual Indian. Tall, dignified, deliberate in speech and manner, his striking face framed in a setting of raven-black hair hanging in two immense plaits far below his waist, with a native air of courtliness and distinction that impressed all who met him.” [12] Poundmaker began by expressing the band’s appreciation of Morris’s words, and particularly of his instruction as to how they might live by their own work. But this new way was strange, they had no skills in it, and they were apprehensive about it. They would need much help from the government, help in starting to settle on the land, help and advice in how to proceed, help for the children, to train them so that they could take their place with white men. “This is all I have been told to say now; if I have not said anything in a right manner, I wish to be excused; this is the voice of the people.”

Morris replied that he was glad to hear the voice of the people and to know that they wanted their children to be trained for the white man’s life, for that was the great objective of the government. However, he guarded against some of the other implications: the government could not take the responsibility for feeding and supporting all the Indians. Not only would that take a great deal of money, it would sap the Indians’ self reliance, “and some of you would never do anything for yourselves. What I have offered does not take away your living, you will have it then as you have now; what I offer is put on top of it.”

But there was among them great fear of two things; of pestilence which they had lately experienced, and of famine that might lie ahead. Another chief, the Badger, spoke of their anxieties. They didn’t want to be greedy, but they were concerned about how they would live while they were settling on the reserves they selected, and they were concerned about “troubles, seen and unforeseen in the future.” Several other chiefs in turn repeated what the Badger had said.

Morris replied, “I have told you that the money I have offered you would be paid to you and to your children’s children. I know that the sympathy of the Queen and her assistance would be given you in any unforeseen circumstances,” and he cited the grasshopper plague in the Red River Settlement the previous year, when the Queen’s councillors at once gave money to feed the people and seed for new crops, even though there was no treaty with them, “but that was something out of and beyond everyday life, and therefore I say that some great sickness or famine stands as a special case. All I can promise is that you will be treated kindly,” and he called on McKay to speak to them in their own language.

The great form of James McKay rose from behind the Council table; he came forward and spoke bluntly:

My friends, I wish to make you a clear explanation of some things that it appears you do not understand. It has been said to you by your Governor that we did not come here to barter or trade with you for the land. You have made demands upon the Governor, and from the way you have put them, a white man would understand that you asked for daily provisions, also supplies for your hunt and for your pleasure excursions. Now my reasons for explaining to you are based on past experience of treaties, for no sooner will the Governor and Commissioners turn their backs on you, than some of you will say this thing and that thing was promised and the promise was not fulfilled, that you cannot rely on the Queen’s representative, that even he will not tell the truth, while among yourselves are the falsifiers. Now before we rise from here it must be understood, and it must be in writing, all that you are promised by the Governor and Commissioners, and I hope you will not leave until you have thoroughly understood the meaning of every word that comes from us.

We have not come here to deceive you, we have not come here to rob you, we have not come here to take away anything that belongs to you, and we are not here to make peace as we would to hostile Indians, because you are the children of the Great Queen as we are, and there has never been anything but peace between us. What you have not understood clearly we will do our utmost to make perfectly plain to you.

The Badger rose to protest that he had been misunderstood. He had not asked that they be fed every day. It was when they settled on reserves to make a living from the ground that they needed help. Morris replied to this once-more repeated request with something of an edge to his voice. They had already been promised seed and help to get started, and training for the children so that they would be able to take care of themselves as well as the whites around them could: “You need not concern yourselves so much about what your grandchildren are going to eat.”

The two chosen principal chiefs then came forward in turn and spoke firmly, with a note of rebuke. The Carlton chief said that if they had plenty to live on from their gardens they would not insist on getting more provisions, but it was in case of disaster and because of the ignorance of the Indians in getting started in the new life that they made the request: “We are as yet in the dark; this is not a trivial matter for us.” The principal chief of the Wood Crees was more conciliatory. Morris had removed almost all the obstacles and misunderstandings—“I hope he may remove them all”—but he too reiterated the main theme of food “in the spring when we commence to farm.” In addition he opened up a disquieting vista: “according as the Indian settles down on his reserves and in proportion as he advances, his wants will increase.”

The Indians then asked for the afternoon to hold further consultations. Morris agreed, but warned them not to ask for unreasonable things: “It pains me to say no. I tell you again that I cannot treat you with more favor than the other Indians. Tomorrow, when we meet, speak out your minds openly, and I will answer, holding nothing back.

The next morning, Wednesday, August 23, interpreter Peter Erasmus read to the Commissioners the list of the things that the Indians had agreed to in council—their counter-proposals. For the most part, they asked for double what they had been offered for each family: two spades, four hoes, two scythes. They asked for a hand-mill to be given to each band and a cooking stove to each chief. They asked for medicines free of cost and that the government make some provisions “for the poor, unfortunate, blind and lame.” They asked for a school teacher for each band, and a minister “of whatever denomination we belong to.” They asked for some things that were already law—that they be exempt from military service, and for the prevention of liquor being sold “in the whole Saskatchewan.”

This time it was Morris who asked for time to consult, and so there was a recess. In the afternoon the negotiations resumed. Morris said “You have asked me now for many things, some of which were already promised. I have considered well what you have asked for, and my answer will be a final one. I cannot grant you everything you ask, but as far as I can go, I will.”

With the repeated caution that supplies and implements would be given only to those actually cultivating the soil, Morris agreed to the requests for things necessary to help the Indians begin the strange new life. Each family would receive the hoes, spades, scythes, whetstones, axes, hay-forks, reaping hooks that they had asked for. Every three families would receive a plough and a harrow. Each band, as they chose a reserve and settled on it, would get a hand-mill and livestock—four oxen, one bull, six cows, one boar and two pigs. The chiefs would be given a horse, harness, and a wagon each, but no cook stove—they would have to find a way of cooking for themselves. Carpenters’ tools and seed grain had already been promised.

Morris also agreed that the request for help during the time of planting was a reasonable one, and so for the first three years they would be given one thousand dollars to buy provisions for that period; but this help would be for three years only, for after that they should have food of their own raising. On the other hand, he refused to include in the treaty responsibility of provisions for the poor, blind, and lame. “In all parts of the Queen’s dominions we have them; the poor whites have as much reason to be helped as the poor Indians; they must be left to the charity and kind hearts of the people. If you are prosperous yourselves you can help your unfortunate brothers.” As for medical supplies, a medicine chest would be kept at the house of each Indian agent in case of sickness among the people.

For education, they had already been promised that when they settled on reserves and there were enough children, schools would be maintained, but as for clergymen, they were under the rule of the various churches, and the government could not interfere. Otherwise, “you want liberty to hunt as before. I told you we did not want to take that means of living from you,” but he cautioned them to be careful during the hunt not to trample the crop of an Indian or a half-breed. “It now rests with you, my friends, and I ask you without hesitation to take what I have offered you.”

The Wood Cree chief came forward to lead the assembly. He noted that he had not been among those who had written asking the Queen’s representative to come to them; he had stood aloof. But now he was satisfied, and he asked his people who were in favor of the offer to say so. They agreed by holding up their hands and shouting assent.

Yet not all of the leaders were satisfied. Poundmaker was skeptical and disappointed: “I do not differ from my people, but I want more explanation. I heard what you said yesterday, and I thought that when the law was established in this country it would be for our good. From what I can see and hear now, I cannot understand that I shall be able to clothe my children and feed them as long as sun shines and water runs ... I do not know how to build a house for myself; you see how naked I am, and if I tried to do it my naked body would suffer.” Particularly he was disappointed that the chiefs had not received sufficient money for their support—“this is why I speak.”

After brief consultation, however, the principal chiefs announced their acceptance of the Commissioner’s terms, and Peter Erasmus read aloud a translation of what had been written. The document, which was a Treaty between two authorities, not a capitulation, began:

Articles of a Treaty made and concluded near Carlton ... between Her Most Gracious Majesty the Queen of Great Britain and Ireland, by Her Commissioners of the one part, and the Plains and Wood Cree Indians by their Chiefs, chosen and named, of the other part ...

The Plains and Wood Cree tribes of Indians, and all the other Indians inhabiting the district hereinafter described and defined, do hereby cede, release, surrender and yield up to the Government of the Dominion of Canada for Her Majesty the Queen and Her successors forever, all their rights, titles and privileges whatsoever, to the lands included within the following limits ... embracing an area of one hundred and twenty-one thousand square miles, be the same more or less ...

And Her Majesty the Queen hereby agrees and undertakes to lay aside reserves for farming lands, to be administered and dealt with for them by Her Majesty’s Government of the Dominion of Canada ...

The terms followed, and after all had been read, the Treaty was signed by Governor Morris, the Commissioners, the Chiefs and Councillors. It was a lengthy and solemn ceremony.

During the next two days, chiefs and councillors were presented with medals, uniforms, and flags, and Christie, the one with great experience in such matters, made payments to the entire host. On the morning of the 26th, headed by the chiefs and councillors dressed in their uniforms, the great assembly went to Carlton House to say farewell. After the salutations, they gave three cheers for the Queen, for the Governor, for the Mounted Police, and for Mr. Lawrence Clark of Carlton House, and then departed, firing guns as they went.

With a feeling of achievement and of high optimism, Morris and his company started on the 200 mile trek to Fort Pitt, arriving on the appointed day, September 5. The air of rejoicing continued as they were greeted by the great chief Sweet Grass and his thirty councillors, who embraced the Commissioners in their arms and kissed them on both cheeks — a warmth of reception that, Morris said, “was novel in my experience.” [13]

Sweet Grass, one of the oldest of the Cree chiefs, and pre-eminent among them, was of small stature and slight build, wiry and active, with a highly intelligent face. A powerful councillor for his people, he had been instrumental in achieving peace between the Crees and their hereditary enemies the Black-feet only the year before, and it was he who had so urgently appealed to Christie to have a commission sent out to arrive at agreements for his people’s welfare. [14]

The assembly was much larger than the one at Carlton, with many more riders, singers, and dancers. Once more Steele marvelled: “The horsemanship of the warriors as they advanced was even more daring than at Carlton. Each Indian was beautifully painted and mounted on his war horse or buffalo runner. They formed in lines about 500 yards from the Council Tent, broke away from the flanks in a double serpentine, the horses at their utmost speed, and finally halted in line about 50 yards from the tent.” [15]

After the dazzling exhibition the Indians, following Sweet Grass, approached the Council Tent and began the pomp and ceremony of the Stem Dance. This time there were four pipes instead of one, all beautifully decorated and festooned with ermine. In the back-ground the Mounted Police band added a new note to the ritual by playing “God Save the Queen” during the exchange of the peace pipes. The ceremony over, the chiefs and councillors seated themselves in the usual semi-circle before the Council Tent which had once more been placed on a high plateau facing the Indian encampment and commanding a view of great beauty of the long sloping banks and the spacious valley of the river.

Morris addressed the huge assembly, telling them that he had come seven hundred miles at their own request, relating what had been done at Carlton, and offering them the same terms. But it was Sweet Grass who took charge of proceedings. Taking Morris by the hand, he said, “We have heard what the Governor has said, and now the Indians want to hear the terms of the treaty, after which they will all shake hands with the Governor and the Commissioners; we then want to go to our camp to meet in council.”

It took Morris about three hours to read the Carlton Treaty and explain the terms as he went along; the gathering then adjourned for the day. The next day the Indians asked for more time, and even the following day they were slow in assembling, some still in council, but eventually they formed the semi-circle and Morris asked them to speak of their deliberations.

They were not quick to respond, but presently Sweet Grass once more took charge, coming forward and standing beside Morris, taking his hand and facing the people. His particular plea, and obviously that of the assembly, was for help in the preservation of the buffalo—in effect, the preservation of the old life—but he looked forward too, promising that he and his kinsmen would begin at once to clear patches of land: “I am glad for your offers, and thank you from my heart. I speak this in the presence of the Divine Being. It is all for our good, I see nothing to be afraid of, I therefore accept of it gladly and take your hand to my heart ... I have pity on all those who have to live by the buffalo. If I am spared until this time next year I want this my brother to commence to act for me, thinking thereby that the buffalo may be protected. It is for that reason I give you my hand ... May this earth never see the white man’s blood spilt on it. I thank God we stand together, that you all see us; I am thankful that I can raise up my head, and the white man and red man can stand together as long as the sun shines. When I hold your hand and touch your heart, as I do now, let us be as one. Use your utmost to help me and help my children that they may prosper.”

As Sweet Grass finished speaking, the people shouted agreement “with a peculiar guttural sound which takes with them the place of a British cheer.” [16] Unhappily, Sweet Grass was killed in a hunting accident within the year, the buffalo could not be preserved, and white man’s blood was spilt in that land in less than nine years. But at this moment, as Morris replied to Sweet Grass and thanked the people for the unanimity of their acceptance, he stressed the permanence of what they were enacting. The Treaty was written down, it could not be rubbed out, nor could there be any mistake about what was agreed upon: “the years will pass away and we with them, but the work we have done today will stand as the hills.” The signing followed, and when Morris gave Sweet Grass his medal, the band playing, all the Indians rose to their feet. The other chiefs were given their gifts, Christie made the payments to the whole company, and Treaty Six was concluded.

Lieutenant-Governor Morris took his leave of them, assuring them that another governor would be sent in his place, who would live among them. “Indians of the Plains, I bid you farewell. I never expect to see you again, face to face. I rejoice that you listened to me, and when I go back to my home beyond the great lakes, I will often think of you and will rejoice to hear of your prosperity. I ask God to bless you and your children. Farewell.”

But it was not to be quite as easy as that. As Morris was preparing to leave Fort Pitt, a breath of the Windigo blew in. Big Bear arrived. Big Bear was an hereditary chief of the Fort Pitt area, which was his birthplace. W. B. Cameron describes him later as strong and stocky, with an enormous chest, a large head, broad forehead, and small, deep set, twinkling black eyes. [17] He had been named as the bravest of Cree warriors in his youth, and as a mischief maker always. He had a quick wit and sardonic humor.

Big Bear began, characteristically, with a protest. He claimed not to have known of the time of the meeting because he had been out hunting on the plains. He had expected that the Chiefs would have waited until he arrived. Sweet Grass, long familiar with Big Bear’s tactics, reproved him. The Queen’s representative was here, brought with great difficulty and clearly with the help of the Great Spirit, to bring life and help to their children: “Say yes, and take his hand.” The other chiefs joined in: “We have all taken it; and we think it is for our good.”

But the other chiefs were concerned with famine and pestilence.

Big Bear’s preoccupation was different. He had been in the south and had heard of the great victory of Sitting Bull. His dream was for the Indians to establish their own rule in their own home, to reclaim their land. He tried delaying tactics: “Stop! stop my friends! I have never seen the Governor before. I heard the Governor was to come and I said I will see him and make a request of him that he will save me from what I most dread, that is, the rope to be about my neck. It was not given us by the Great Spirit that the red man or white should shed each other’s blood.”

Morris retorted that he who shed his brother’s blood should have his own spilt, that if a white man killed an Indian, the rope would be around the white man’s neck, that everyone had a right to self-defence, but no man had a right to kill another in cold blood. Big Bear persisted that there should be no hanging, and Morris repeated that the Queen’s law punished murder with death, and the request would not be granted. “Why are you so anxious about bad men?”

Big Bear shifted ground and turned to taunt the other chiefs: “Then these chiefs will help us to protect the buffalo, that there may be enough for all? I have heard what has been said, and I am glad we are to be helped, but why do these men not speak?

The Chief of the Chippewayans rebuked him, “We do not speak because Sweet Grass has spoken for us all. What he says, we all say.”

Big Bear remained sitting until all the others had said goodbye, and then he rose and taking Morris’s hand said, “I am glad to meet you. I am not undutiful. I do not throw back your hand; but as my people are not here, I do not sign. I will tell them what I have heard, and next year I will come and sign.”

He left. But “next year” was long in coming.


1. Samuel Benfield Steele, Forty Years in Canada: Reminiscences of the Great North-West (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1915, facs. rpt. Toronto: Coles Publishing Co., 1973), p. 31.

2. Ibid., p. 32.

3. William Francis Butler, The Great Lone Land (London: Sampson Low, Marston, Low & Searle, 1872; rpt. Edmonton: Hurtig, 1968), Appendix B, p. 387.

4. The Edmonton Bulletin, June 20, 1885, p. 3.

5. Steele, Forty Years, p. 102.

6. Alexander Morris, The Treaties of Canada With the Indians (Toronto: Belfords, Clarke & Co., 1880; facs. rpt. Toronto: Coles Publishing Co., 1971), p. 182. To Morris’s report on the treaties at Carlton and Fort Pitt is appended “Narrative of the proceedings connected with the effecting of the treaties at Forts Carlton and Pitt, in the year 1876, together with a report of the speeches of the Indians and Commissioners, by A. G. Jackes, Esq., M.D., Secretary to the Commission,” pp. 196-244.

7. Steele, Forty Years, p. 102.

8. Ibid., p. 103.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid.

11. Jackes “Narrative.” These and all following quotations from direct speech are taken from Jackes’s verbatim report.

12. William Bleasdell Cameron, On the War Trail of Big Bear (Calgary: Kenney Pub. Co., 1926, rpt. Toronto: Ryerson, n.d.), p. 41; rev. and retitled, Blood Red the Sun (Vancouver: Wrigley Printing Co., 1950), p. 23.

13. Morris, Treaties, p. 189.

14. The Edmonton Bulletin, July 19, 1884, p. 3.

15. Steele, Forty Years, p. 106.

16. Morris, Treaties, p. 191.

17. Cameron, On the War Trail of Big Bear, pp. 45, 222; Blood Red the Sun, pp. 23, 197.

Page revised: 8 July 2010