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Manitoba History: Review: Blair Stonechild and Bill Waiser, Loyal Till Death: Indians and the North-West Rebellion

by Frieda Esau Klippenstein
Parks Canada, Winnipeg

Number 35, Spring/Summer 1998

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct all inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

Blair Stonechild and Bill Waiser, Loyal Till Death: Indians and the North-West Rebellion, Calgary: Fifth House Ltd., 1997, illus., ISBN 1-895618-88-6, $18.95.

Loyal Till Death adds to a voluminous literature and contributes to longstanding debates on the war on the Canadian prairies in the spring and summer of 1885. Beautifully illustrated with maps, drawings and photographs and written with a refreshingly lucid prose, this book fits as easily on people’s coffee tables as on university bookshelves.

The topic is of both enduring interest and endless difficulty. Known widely as the “North West Rebellion,” the military confrontation between Canadian troops and the Métis and First Nations prairie residents is usually described as a series of battles at Duck Lake, Fish Creek, Batoche, Cut Knife Hill, Frenchman Butte and Loon Lake. In popular conception, the “rebellion” marked a watershed between two ages—that of the primitive west sparsely occupied by fur traders and Native peoples; and that of a west domesticated, ordered and developed by settlers and North West Mounted Police, by merchants and industrialists. Stonechild and Waiser point out that the historiography around 1885 has developed virtually independently from the Native descent communities and their oral historical traditions. Indeed, they quote the First Nations Elders’ direction to “lift the blanket” of the oral tradition to finally reveal the truth about the events of 1885.

Loyal till Death is billed as “the first comprehensive look at the Indian version of the North-West Rebellion” (back cover) and seems most promising for its use of new sources, namely interviews gathered in an oral history component. Partially funded by Parks Canada in 1992-94, the interview project resulted in the collection of stories of Elders on Saskatchewan and northeastern Alberta reserves. If the reader expects something very new here, however, they may be disappointed to find that this book fits into the present historiography far more than departing from it. In fact, the trend in the academic literature over the past hundred years has been a persistant though gradual movement towards a “Native perspective” on 1885 through the use of traditional historical methods and documentary sources.

It has had a long way to go. In 1885 and the years immediately following, people were most captivated by the vivid and often sensational eyewitness accounts of journalists, participating soldiers, civilian observers, and hostages in the Native camps. The actions of the First Nations players in the drama required little explanation, as at the time there was an unspoken understanding of them as natural warriors, and as morally weak, thus impressionable and easily led into deviance. The Métis are described as the lead rebels, convincing the First Nations to join them in their struggle. The “dominant society” or “whig” history, prominent until well into the mid-century, had as its underlying assumption that Canadian history unfolds as a “march of progress” in which the building of the nation is a manifest destiny. The Métis and First Nations peoples of the plains were thus necessarily cast as the antagonists in the story for their challenge to government authority and their threat to the advancement of the Dominion of Canada.

Plains leaders, including Chief Piapot (second from right), with Lieutenant-Governor Edgar Dewdney and the Montreal Artillery, 1885.
Source: Provincial Archives of Alberta

In central Canada, the view of the “rebellion” being largely a manifestation of the French-English, Catholic-Protestant rivalries prevalent there, was also popular. Adding to the discussion in 1936 was George F. G. Stanley’s book, The Birth of Western Canada: A History of the Riel Rebellions. [1]

For many decades considered the “definitive” work on 1885, Stanley’s book posited a cultural-conflict theory, arguing that the 1885 rebellion was an example of the “inevitable disorganization which is produced among primitive people when they are suddenly brought into contact with a more complex civilization.” Neither the Indians nor the Métis were able to withstand the impact of the “superior civilization” or adjust to the “new order.”

Attempts at new understandings of Aboriginal actions and motivations came in the 1960s and ‘70s. A flood of small works and biographies of First Nations leaders such as Big Bear and Poundmaker drew on oral materials usually acquired through writers’ personal connections with Native Elders. Coming sharply into focus in the 1980s and ‘90s, this revisionism moved away from criminalizing the prairie residents as violent rebels against the state and attempted to outline their positions and grievances. These writers largely rejected the concept of Métis-Aboriginal collaboration in 1885, arguing instead that the First Nations peoples acted independently of the Métis, and in their own interests. And they place the story of Native responses in 1885 firmly in the context of the treaties signed the decade before.

Plains Cree Chief Pitikwahanapiwiyin (Poundmaker), circa 1842-1886.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

Sympathetic reads of Métis and First Nations’ actions and understandings opened the door for arguing government culpability. Mounting evidence pointed to government post-treaty policies and actions directly contributing to the desperate state of the Aboriginal peoples in 1885. Rather than a “rebellion,” then, the Native side of the 1885 conflict was increasingly seen as the “resistance” to errant government action.

In the 1980s and ‘90s the swing—from the prairie residents as the villains in the story, to Canadian government as villain—became complete. Most recent studies assert the existence of a government conspiracy. In complete antithesis to the earlier mainstream writings, this argument is that 1885 was a pivotal chapter in the deliberate “subjugation” of the Plains Cree. [2] The government did not negotiate the treaties in good faith, but attempted to achieve the land transfers in a way that was least expensive, and to that end deliberately broke many of its clearly made promises. Proponents of the conspiracy theory argue that the “general native uprising” perceived by the public in 1885, and living on in history books to this day, is an obfuscation. At the time, the myth of an Indian threat was encouraged and in some cases even fabricated by government players to justify a military response and, ultimately, to evade addressing the First Nations peoples’ concerns over treaty violations.

Loyal Till Death builds on this literature, rather than departing into new territory. In fact, Waiser and Stonechild espouse the historiographic trends to an extreme: the conspiracy theory to the extent of almost complete exoneration of the First Nations peoples, and the separation of the actions and goals of the Indian and Métis peoples to the extent of polarization. The book sets out to prove that in 1885 the First Nations peoples were not rebels: they were loyal to the treaties and remained loyal throughout. To make this point, Stonechild and Waiser argue here that there was no “Indian uprising” whatsoever, only minor, sporadic individual acts of violence, unsupported by the leaders. And most of these sporadic, individual acts were a result of either accident or Métis coercion. In essence, the thesis is that despite their attempts to steer clear of the trouble, and despite their many expressions of cooperation and loyalty to the Crown, the First Nations were purposely implicated in the fray by government who used the “rebellion” as an excuse to disempower the bands in their real struggle—to get the treaties reexamined and to hold Canada to their treaty promises.

An unfortunate undercurrent in this book is that Métis people are set up as a foil to the First Nations. While the First Nations peoples avoided violence and connection with the rebellion, the Métis instigated and incited it. While the First Nations peoples remained true and loyal to the Crown, the Métis “rebelled” against it. While never suggesting that perhaps the Métis also had valid grievances or were justified in challenging government authority over their settlements, Stonechild and Waiser describe First Nations people as attempting doggedly to steer clear of Riel and the military battles, because they knew that association with the rebellion would endanger their plan to achieve better treaty terms through diplomatic means.

As absorbing and often convincing as it is, this book may leave some readers with nagging suspicions. For one, they may suspect that the arguments have ventured into the realm of overstatement. It takes considerable imagination, for instance, to see the First Nations and Métis peoples of the prairies as so completely separate. Indeed, there are few First Nations families who do not have strong affective ties to people in the Métis communities (and vice versa), either through friendship or kin relations. In light of how human relationships, loyalties and cultural identity operate, it would be strange indeed to see people of such diverse, interconnected cultural backgrounds line themselves up in this crisis according to such neat and distinct categories. [3] As well, readers may find it somewhat hard to believe that First Nations people today actually speak of their “loyalty” or “disloyalty” as a central construct in telling their version of the 1885 story. Perhaps, in essence, the book has not departed far from the dominant society thesis of the early 1900s. By framing its whole argument around proving that, unlike the Métis, the First Nations remained loyal to the Crown and were thus not rebels deserving of punishment, government authority over the land is presumed as a starting point. In 1885 the Canadian government insisted on categorizing the prairie bands as “loyal” or “disloyal,” as is vividly illustrated by an inflammatory document from the time, casually reprinted at the back of the book. But there is suggestion amongst contemporary Native Elders of Saskatchewan that this categorization—and even this document—is as repugnant to them today, as it was then. Rather than their loyalty, what they seem more concerned about explaining is that the terrible events of 1885, experienced and described to them by their grandparents, grew out of government disloyalty to the treaty promises—by Indian Agents and farm instructors leaving bands in desperate condition, and by government agents lending deaf ears to their pleas for redress. To be fair, this surely comes across clearly in the book as well, though it is sometimes obscured by the larger priority of proving First Nations’ status in 1885 as loyal subjects.

While the trend has been for the literature on 1885 to move increasingly towards a “Native perspective,” a corresponding trend has been for these attempts to fail to achieve the endorsement of the First Nations themselves. The traditions of the process and the medium itself are likely more to blame than the content of the attempted accounts. Native historical tradition has unique requirements which are not necessarily reconcilable with traditional academic historical methods. Though they are not uniform across all groups, examples of such requirements in Native oral tradition are principles like: story is always personal and includes your link to it. Story is proprietary, it is “held” or “owned” by someone, much like one would own a material object. Story will continue to be true (have authenticity and respect) only if specific protocol requirements are satisfied when it is passed on to a new owner. People can tell only the stories that are “theirs” not someone else’s. The total picture of an event arises from a collage of these tellings.

In Loyal Till Death, the authors’ training and experience in using documentary evidence clearly superseded attempts to venture into new sources or methodology. Indeed, Stonechild and Waiser explain that the interviews themselves “were lacking in specific detail and therefore of limited use,” [4] and that the Native perspective could well be discerned by available, though neglected, historical documents such as trial transcripts and First Nations’ letters to government. Not only is the book very loosely based on oral tradition, but in style, as well, it departs sharply from the mosaic of stories typifying the discourse of the Elders, instead synthesizing the material into a single, coherent, linear, authoritative storyline.

In some ways Loyal Till Death has “lifted the blanket” of the oral tradition, by making serious attempts to collect it, and by consulting it for information and for verification of information. Hopefully it will encourage others to go further in applying new methods of understanding, of researching and of presenting First Nations’ tellings of 1885 stories.

Notes

1. G. F. G. Stanley, The Birth of Western Canada: A History of the Riel Rebellions, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1961), first published in 1936.

2. J. L Tobias’s article to this effect has become probably the most widely quoted essay in the field: “Canada’s Subjugation of the Plains Cree, 1879-1885,” in Canadian Historical Review, 64(4): 519-48, reprinted in J. R. Miller (ed.), Sweet Promises: A Reader in Indian-White Relations, (Toronto, 1991)

3. Perhaps the correspondingly distinct categorization of status and non-status Native peoples today is reflected in this retrospective.

4. Blair Stonechild and Bill Waiser, “Note on Sources” at back of Loyal Till Death, pp. 264-5.

Page revised: 13 October 2012

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