Manitoba History: Peguis, Woodpeckers, and Myths: What Do We Really Know?
by Donna G. Sutherland
When I sat down to write this paper, a large pileated woodpecker landed on a tree outside my window. It remained for several seconds, its penetrating stare stirring me to notice it. Pileated woodpeckers are shy birds and although they do nest in my area, they are not commonly seen, so it appeared unusual, to me, for it to show itself so openly. This is not the first time a woodpecker has visited me this way. It has happened several times and it almost always happens when I am thinking or writing about Peguis.
This particular incident got me thinking about a possible connection between Peguis and the prehistoric looking bird with the bright red head. I knew that some people of long ago wore woodpecker feathers in their hair and others decorated their peace pipes with them, so evidently the bird was significant to certain groups of ancient people: was it so for Peguis? My mind began to race with thoughts of possibility. What would it be like to sit with Peguis and ask him what he thought, not only about woodpeckers, but about his life, about how he perceived the white fur traders and settlers who came to the land he called home, and ask him how his long life could be used to teach the young of today? I wish I could hear his answers and compare them to the stories written about him by others during his time and for the two centuries that have passed since. I would ask him if his soul is at peace with how he has been represented.
There is of course no way to ask him these questions, or if woodpeckers meant anything to him, so I did the next best thing in our modern way of gathering knowledge: I googled Woodpecker and Native American mythology to see what the bird symbolized. Was there purpose in the bird’s visit? A few sites suggested woodpeckers represent “opportunity knocking,” that it is a time to use one’s head, or intellect, to find solutions to our own barriers. Instead of giving up on something, breathe new life into it and be mindful of the words we use to do it. I felt that a mysterious force was at work, shaping my thoughts for this paper, giving me an opportunity to present more information about Peguis from a different perspective, and address the myth that has been created to characterize him. And so, yes, for me, there was purpose in the bird’s visit and from it came my title: Peguis, Woodpeckers, and Myth: What do we truly know?
There is one myth I know for sure about Peguis: it is how much we think we know about him. But in truth, Peguis is a bit of an enigma, a paradox with contradictory qualities whose actions on one hand were considered positive contributions to the community when he was a resource to colonists. On the other hand, when I ask modern-day people why he is remembered as a great man, people are often lost for words. Or they revert to the widely held belief that he holds a place in history only because he helped the Selkirk Settlers. And they are correct in saying that. He did help the settlers in many ways, and those contributions should not be forgotten, but why are indigenous peoples remembered primarily for their contribution to white society? Why is Peguis not better known for what he did throughout his life, for himself, his own family, his own community, and not just for his efforts between 1812 and 1817 when he filled a major void for white settlers and fur traders?
There is so much more to the man and I question now if it is possible to uncover his many complex roles as son, brother, husband, father, uncle, grandfather and patriarch of Peguis First Nation. For example, can we learn more about his contributions as warrior, mediator, negotiator, orator, teacher, protector and leader of his own people? Is it beneficial to rethink his reasons for coming to this region, for settling at Netley Creek, for aiding the settlers, for involving himself with the 1817 Treaty, for accepting European education for his children, and the children of his Band, and for embracing Christianity and a sedentary life style? My answer is yes.
I have chosen two ways to do this. The first is to dig deeply into archival resources for new information about him and “see” him from the perspective of the way an indigenous person of his time would have thought, which was very different from European world views. In 2001, I spent one year reading through archival sources gathering information on Peguis, so I know there are numerous records to study to capture Peguis’ character within his own time.
The second way to learn more about Peguis is to use a spiritual perspective to better understand his way of thinking, his core beliefs, and his philosophies. This will help us to better understand him and his reasons for doing the things he did. Peguis was a deeply spiritual man inherent since birth. Entries written by fur traders, settlers, and missionaries all note that he practised his ancestral ceremonies, including the midewiwin, sweat lodge, and drumming, and that he was a pipe carrier, smoking the peace pipe before any trade or discussion with others. I believe it was his strong spiritual beliefs that made him who he was, propelling him to do the things he did during the establishment of the Red River Settlement.
Peguis’ approach to life, his generosity and charity, his ability to lead and mediate, and his capacity to adapt and change came from his deep-rooted spiritual values. This is something white fur traders, settlers and especially missionaries, never truly understood, or acknowledged, and I am not sure that non-indigenous people today fully understand either, unless they take the time to dig deeply into the old spiritual ways of indigenous peoples.
I certainly did not understand this when I wrote Peguis: A Noble Friend. But I do now after years of listening to elders, participating in indigenous ceremonies and reading through archival records, and secondary sources, with a more open mind. I am a descendant of numerous Cree grandmothers: women who married Orkney-born fur traders, most of whom were employed by the Hudson’s Bay Company, beginning in the early 1700s and continuing throughout the generations of the 1800s. Those ancestors resided in places such as Churchill River, York Factory and Oxford House. Many of them knew Peguis. As I learn about those grandmothers, I realize that to truly understand them in their time, I must learn about their spiritual practices. It is often the root source for how they perceived, and made sense, of the world around them.
Peguis believed in the earth-based spiritual practice of animism—the belief that all things are alive with energy, with spirit—including people, all earth elements, animals, birds…everything. His religion was Nature and his belief system was based on the laws of Nature. The Creator made Nature; therefore, Nature is the Creator and thus a sacred place where people commune with their Creator. The people were one with Nature and one with the Creator. Drumming, singing, dancing, juggling, and ceremony were actions or rituals to evoke emotion within a person to enhance their ability to connect themselves with the Creator, to offer prayers and thanks for the gifts given, and for requesting guidance, knowledge, and assistance for life ahead.
The Creator gave the people dreams, visions, ceremonies, extrasensory perception, healers and spirit helpers in the form of animals, birds, rocks and spirit beings from the unseen world to help with the earthly journey. They understood the connection between the metaphysical and physical worlds. Nature showed them that everything in this world was connected and so they lived according to the laws of Nature. They went to Nature for communion with the Creator as well as for sustenance, clothing, shelter, medicines, tool and weapon technology, and teachings such as sharing, reciprocity, equality, balance, growth, change, vision, identity, and listening: to name but a few. This is but a brief overview of Peguis’ spiritual beliefs and how he interpreted the world around him, but it is enough to show that to truly understand the man, he must be studied within his worldview and not outside it.
Peguis had been a resident of the Red River region for 20 years when the first group of settlers arrived in 1812. He was then approaching the midpoint of his life, at about 38, although he lived for 52 more years, dying in 1864 at the age of 90, and had interacted with French traders since his birth in 1774 near modern day Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. According to oral stories from Peguis to the Gunn family, his father was a French-Canadian fur trader whom he never knew, but who traded in the region where his mother resided. According to his good friend, Janet Gunn Muckle, Peguis loved to tell this fact about himself and held no shame for not being a full-blooded indigenous person. He spoke openly about being fathered by a French-Canadian fur trader, although he embraced the teachings of his mother’s people.
Peguis’ great-great grandson Chief Albert Edward Thompson noted in his book, Chief Peguis and his Descendants, that Peguis’ birth mother was too young to keep him and placed him on a pile of woodchips where another woman found and adopted him: it was from this early experience that his name came.  Although it was originally pronounced differently from how we know it today, many descendants still maintain that its initial pronunciation meant Little Chip when translated into English.
According to fur-trade journals and missionary diaries, Peguis referred to himself as Saulteaux, a French term meaning people who shoot the rapids. His descendants self-identify as Saulteaux, Ojibwa, and Anishinaabee. He moved west with his family and community, some say in search of beaver as the waterways in the east were trapped out. Others say it was to escape the dreaded smallpox that had decimated large groups of people. They settled in various places including modern-day Pembina where he developed relationships with fur traders from both the North West and Hudson’s Bay companies. Peguis seemed to appreciate his interactions with traders, practising his age old custom of trading furs for goods. Peguis’ ancestors had been trading with other indigenous peoples for centuries before white fur traders arrived and so it was a completely normal thing to do. If you wanted something, you traded something. It was not white traders who taught Peguis’ people how to trade; it was the other way around. White traders may have brought new ways of doing trade, but the concept was an old one in North America among Peguis’ culture.
Near the end of the 18th century, Peguis and his Band spent time at the forks of the Red and Assiniboine rivers as well as various places further north along the shores of Lake Winnipeg. No one knows how long they had been coming to the region before white traders began writing about them. Archaeology shows indigenous peoples have been living in the region for thousands of years.
Peguis and his Band settled on a meandering creek that flowed from the west, calling it Nee-boo-win meaning, River of Death or Death River. They named it so because they found many dead belonging to a large Cree camp, who were old-time residents of the territory. Today, it is called Netley Creek. I hold a real fondness for this waterway: my mother’s parents, Hazel and George McKaughan, settled on the creek a century after Peguis. I often ride the waterway by boat and think of my grandparents and Peguis and wonder why either of them stopped along its banks for a time. What drew them to it? For my grandparents, I know the answer, but for Peguis I am still unsure. I have heard suggestions, but found nothing yet to fully explain his reason for choosing that location. Perhaps it was a combination of things: the beauty or spiritual power of the place, the shelter of the meandering creek, with its point of land to camp on and see river traffic from either direction, the plentiful fish, muskrat, and wild rice in the marsh, and its close proximity to Lake Winnipeg.
There is no known sketch of Peguis that I am aware of, but Swiss painter, Peter Rindisbacher, who visited Red River Settlement in 1821 and stayed temporarily, sketched many local people including a Saulteaux man in traditional dress who he never identified. Some scholars suggest the man in the sketch is Peguis. Sheriff Colin Inkster, a friend of Peguis and my great-great uncle (I descend from his older sister Margaret Inkster and her husband William R. Sutherland), noted Peguis as “short in stature, with a strong, well-knit frame, and the voice of an orator… clad in a cotton shirt, breech clout, red cloth leggings and over all a blanket wrapped loosely about him, his hair hung in two long plaits studded with brass ornaments, his breast decorated with medals.” One of the latter was a medal presented to him by Lord Selkirk as a confirmation of the agreement of 1817. Peguis’ appearance, however, was disfigured as part of his nose had been bitten off during a tribal quarrel in about 1802. As a result, he was known to some settlers as “The Cut-Nosed Chief.” 
Peguis was proud of the medal Lord Selkirk had given to him and he held on to it until his death. Ten years before that happened he told Rev. Abraham Cowley, the then missionary of St. Peter’s (Dynevor) Church about it. It made such an impression on Rev. Cowley, he wrote:
Peguis had traded furs with both French and English traders for many years when the first group of Selkirk Settlers arrived. By 1812, he had fallen out with the North West Company and had pledged his loyalty to the Hudson’s Bay Company. From accounts written by white traders and settlers, Peguis had no negative reaction to the newly arrived settlers and developed a good relationship with the first group’s leader, Miles Macdonell, a man who kept journals of his arrival at the Red River and his interactions with Peguis. One such entry was dated 13 October 1815 when Peguis visited Macdonell near the newly built post of Fort Douglas. Macdonell described the arrival of Peguis and his Band:
These few passages describe a fantastic scene. Imagine 150 canoes paddling along the river with people dressed in all kinds of showy décor and the sound of cannon fire and voices as the excitement of their arrival mounts. I can see the women and children working to erect their lodges while the men tended to business with Peguis smoking the peace pipe before talks between the two groups began. Smoking the peace pipe was considered a sacred ceremony by Peguis’ people, done when two groups came together for discussion, trade, or for various ceremonial gatherings. The pipe represents the universe, to the people who follow its teachings. It is like an altar that is taken wherever the people go. The pipe’s bowl represents the female powers of the universe and the stem represents the male powers of the universe. When the bowl and stem are joined together, the pipe is sacred. Tobacco is put into the bowl and when it is lit, the smoke carries the prayers to the Creator, inviting the Creator to guide the people in their decision-making, in their prayers, and in their communications with others. 
When Lord Selkirk chose to establish his colony along Red River, he was well aware that the land had long been lived on by numerous groups of indigenous peoples. Through his connection to the HBC, he knew about these groups and understood well that if he wanted his settlement to succeed, he would need their support. He instructed the leaders to make contact with indigenous leaders and to develop relationships with them. Peguis was not the only tribal leader: there were several bands of Saulteaux and Cree, and some Assiniboine, residing in the region. The Cree and Assiniboine had been residents longer and were truly more entitled to be the official indigenous leaders in their dealings with the newcomers. But Peguis became the one who formed the closest ties to Macdonell, Lord Selkirk and other white officials. Macdonell began calling him the colony chief. Why did he give him that title? Was it out of respect or did Macdonell see something in Peguis that he knew he could control or manipulate, using Peguis’ influence to persuade other leaders? Was it Peguis’ ability to mediate and orate that made him such a strong character in what would come next – the signing of a Treaty?
After much chaos and struggle for the new settlers, their leader, Thomas Douglas, Fifth Earl of Selkirk (Lord Selkirk) signed a Treaty with five indigenous leaders of the region agreeing to share the land with the newly arrived settlers. The names of the indigenous leaders include Mache Wkenesb (Le Sonnant), Mechkadewikonaie (Le Robe Noir), Kagiwoksbmoa (L’homme Noir), Peguis, and Ouckidoat (Premier). The Treaty was signed on 18 July 1817. Lord Selkirk signed his name simply as “Selkirk.” All five indigenous leaders drew the animal that represented their dodem (totem/clan), which was to them, the same as signing one’s personal name such as Selkirk did.
Initially, I thought Peguis’ drawing was of a beaver, mainly because fur trader Alexander Henry the Younger suggested he was part of the Beaver Clan from Red Lake. But based on new research, I believe the symbol is of a marten.
Peguis certainly cared about the people and the settlement. Lord Selkirk acknowledged his bravery and contribution in a letter written a few days after the Treaty was made;
In 1863, one year before Peguis died he went to The Nor’Wester newspaper and through the aid of an interpreter requested the editor write down his thoughts and beliefs about the Treaty for future generations. We are those future generations, and this is what he wanted us to know from his perspective:
Land was sacred to Peguis, given to the people by the Creator. He did not hold the concept that land could be owned by humans, who were after all, only temporarily residents. The Creator provided the land for everyone to live upon. The Treaty may have worked if there had been balance between native and newcomer—meaning everyone reaped the benefit of growth and change. But it was terribly one-sided. The indigenous people did not benefit from the Treaty. In time, they were all pushed out of the region that was, according to that Treaty, theirs to live on.
Before the whites came to this land, Peguis and his Band had been self-sufficient. They were excellent hunters and gatherers, trappers and fishers, tanners, and manufacturers. They had strong spiritual beliefs and practices, first-rate government or council, and had ways of keeping order among their society. They were fearless warriors, explorers, and seekers of adventure and they understood the landscape around them.
History claims Peguis as a leader who was non-discriminatory, courageous, and a man of peace. He was a powerful influence among his people and culture as well as among fur traders and white settlers. He never left his own people to become a puppet for the whites. He travelled with his own people always, ensuring they, too, were well fed, clothed, sheltered, and protected from the threats of outsiders, as well as supported in the spiritual beliefs of their ancestors. He encouraged them to shift their thought and task to incorporate the new technologies and education of Europe so they could thrive and survive in a world he knew was rapidly changing.
I believe Peguis saw the settlers as a group of people who were not equipped for survival in their new environment and lost among people they knew nothing about. He and his people were rich and stable in their beliefs, their habitation, their knowledge and their ability to survive on the land. A man of immense compassion and generosity, he did whatever he could to help the settlers, including sharing his knowledge, providing them with food, protecting them from enemy attack, guiding them to places for winter shelter and well-being, and most especially willing to share the land.
In my view, honouring Peguis as a person of historical significance to this region for his many contributions, to his own people, as well as those of the settlers of whom he did so much, is the right thing to do. My intention in this paper is to raise people’s awareness to what has been written about Peguis, and other historical figures, especially indigenous peoples, and to reconsider those interpretations of the last century. Before accepting something as true, ask: who wrote it, and why, what purpose did/does it serve, and is/was it a balanced account of the person’s life or just embellished bits to satisfy the needs of another person or culture. We need to remember that history is, in its most basic form, storytelling, and the status and recognition given to historical people and events comes from the one telling the stories. And so if I accept my own truth, I must ask myself: why did I write this article, what purpose did it serve, and is it a balanced account of Peguis’ life or embellished bits written to satisfy my own needs. I did not write this article to satisfy my own needs. I wrote it to raise the level of awareness for those interested in Peguis’ life. Is it a balanced account? I think so for a short article. I think Peguis would approve of what I have said, as he was well known for bringing people together in peaceful discussion to share ideas and knowledge to make the world a more peaceful place to live.
A final note on woodpeckers and their significance to Peguis—two pileated woodpeckers took up residence in the bell tower of St. Peter’s (Dynevor) Church in 2011. This is the church that Peguis helped to build in the early 1850s and where he was buried in the cemetery on 28 September 1864. The woodpeckers destroyed the bell tower and unfortunately had to be destroyed themselves. The tower was restored in 2012 just in time for the rededication ceremony that was held there on 6 September 2012, at which time the monument that was erected in honour of Peguis by the Lord Selkirk Association in 1924 was rededicated, acknowledging the crucial role that Peguis played in ensuring the survival of the Selkirk Settlers. The event opened with a pipe ceremony, followed by drumming, speeches and the rededication of the monument. I was given the honour of saying a few words about Peguis and gifting a copy of my book Peguis: A Noble Friend to The Right Honourable, The Lord Selkirk of Douglas, P. C., Q. C., the current Lord Selkirk. As I looked out at the Red River on that windy, overcast afternoon, I got the feeling that Peguis was watching over us all, and he was smiling. 
1. Chief Albert Edward Thompson, “Chief Peguis and his Descendants,” p. 80.
2. Hugh A. Dempsey, Peguis. Dictionary of Canadian Biography online, Library and Archives Canada.
3. Donna G. Sutherland, Peguis: A Noble Friend, p. 131.
4. Archives of Manitoba, Selkirk Papers (Thomas Douglas) MG2 A1 - Vol. 65, pages, 17,333 - 17,599, microfilm M186.
5. Joseph Epes Brown (editor) 1953 The Sacred Pipe: Black Elk’s Account of the Seven Rites of the Oglala Sioux, Volume 36 in Civilization of the American Indian Series.
8. Many thanks to Dorothy Long for her editorial assistance and review.
Page revised: 7 March 2023