Chief Poundmaker: Revisiting the legacy of a peacemaker

On the left of the graphic, Tatânga Mânî [Chief Walking Buffalo] [George McLean] in traditional regalia on horse. In the middle, Iggi and girl engaging in a “kunik”, a traditional greeting in Inuit culture. On the right, Maxime Marion, a Métis guide stands holding a rifle. In the background, there is a map of Upper and Lower Canada, and text from the Red River Settlement collection.

By Anna Heffernan

Pîhtokahanapiwiyin was a Plains Cree chief who was known as Chief Poundmaker in English. In 1885, he was tried and convicted of treason-felony because of his alleged involvement in the North-West Rebellion/North-West Resistance. On May 23, 2019, 134 years later, the Canadian government posthumously exonerated him and officially apologized to the Poundmaker Cree Nation of Saskatchewan, which is home to many of his descendants. His people, and other Plains First Nations who passed down accounts of his life, remember Poundmaker as a leader who remained committed to peace even when faced with dire circumstances. After decades of advocacy by his First Nation community, Poundmaker’s story is also coming to the attention of the broader Canadian public thanks to his exoneration. At Library and Archives Canada, we have many photographs and documents that help to tell this story.

Poundmaker was born around 1842 to a Stoney Nakoda father and a Métis mother of French Canadian and Cree descent, near Battleford in what is now Saskatchewan. In the early 1870s, an influential Blackfoot chief, Isapo-Muxika (Crowfoot), adopted Poundmaker and gave him the name Makoyi-koh-kin (Wolf Thin Legs), after a son whom Crowfoot had lost in battle. Poundmaker returned to the Cree after living for a time with the Blackfoot, but he maintained a friendship with his adopted father.

A black-and-white photograph of Poundmaker standing in front of a tipi wearing a fur hat, a shirt and vest, a blanket around his waist, and moccasins. Standing next to him is his wife, wearing a blanket around her shoulders over a dress.

Pîhtokahanapiwiyin (Poundmaker), right, with his wife, circa 1884 (a066596-v8)

A black-and-white photograph of Isapo-Muxika (Crowfoot), seated holding an eagle feather fan and wearing a hide shirt adorned with fur and beads or quills.

Isapo-Muxika (Crowfoot) in 1886 (c001871)

By August 1876, Poundmaker had become a headman and spoke at the Treaty Six negotiations. He was successful in having a famine clause added to the treaty, which promised that the Canadian government would provide rations to the signatory nations during times of food scarcity. Poundmaker recognized that the majority of his band favoured making a treaty, and he signed it on August 23, 1876. In 1879, Poundmaker and his band settled on a reserve about 40 miles (65 kilometres) west of Battleford.

Faced with the ever-increasing settlement of the West, which reduced the land and game that First Nations relied on to survive, Poundmaker urged his people to remain peaceful. He advised that war was no longer a feasible option, and in his words, “our only resource is our work, our industry, our farms.” In 1883, the Canadian government reduced the rations they had been providing to First Nations, and many were dissatisfied with the government’s failure to fulfill treaty promises.

In June 1884, several bands came to Poundmaker’s reserve to discuss the situation, including Mistahimaskwa (Big Bear) and his followers. With over 2,000 Cree gathered, they held a Thirst Dance (also known as a Sun Dance), a sacred ceremony in many Plains First Nations traditions. The North West Mounted Police attempted to disperse the Cree and prevent the Thirst Dance from taking place. Poundmaker and Big Bear were able to keep the peace for the time being, but it was clear that tensions between First Nations and the police were high, and it was becoming more difficult to restrain the young warriors in their bands.

In 1885, representatives of the Métis in the District of Saskatchewan, North-West Territories, wrote to Louis Riel, who was living in Montana territory at the time. They were also experiencing difficulty because of increasing white settlement and lack of government recognition of their rights, and they asked Riel to return to the region to help. Leaders of the Cree and other First Nations continued to meet with each other and discuss their worsening predicament. With buffalo herds in decline, hunting was no longer a reliable source of food. The transition to agriculture was difficult, and both First Nations and settler farms in the region were failing to yield sufficient crops. Many Cree were starving, and their leaders were desperate to find a solution.

In the eyes of the settler-Canadian press, the Métis movement and the First Nations movement were the same. In fact, although they had many of the same grievances, the Métis and First Nations leaders were far from being united. Poundmaker sought to pressure the Canadian government into honouring its treaty promises through peaceful means. But as the Métis resistance grew, some of Poundmaker’s band members joined in fighting alongside them. In papers seized from Louis Riel at Batoche, there are French and English translations of a letter from Poundmaker to Riel, in which Poundmaker responds to a letter from Riel. Poundmaker’s reply was likely translated from Cree to French for Riel.

Handwritten letter, written in English

Translations of Poundmaker’s letter to Riel, found among Riel’s papers seized at Batoche. (e011303062)

The letter is undated. Based on its contents, it was likely written after the Battle of Duck Lake, the initial engagement of the North-West Rebellion/North-West Resistance between the North West Mounted Police and commander Gabriel Dumont’s Métis forces. In this letter, Poundmaker expresses respect for Riel but also makes it clear that he is not interested in joining the fight and is ready to negotiate with the military. As the translation reads, “We have all laid down our arms and we wish that the war was finished between us and when the General arrives I am ready to treat with him (hear him literally) with the most sincere intentions of the most complete submission.”

Poundmaker saw the Métis victory at Duck Lake as an opportunity. He wanted to take advantage of the uncertain state that the Canadian government found itself in to negotiate for supplies and rations. His people desperately needed these, and the government was obliged by treaty to provide them. Poundmaker’s band and a Stoney Nakoda band that was camping with them went to Battleford to open negotiations with the Indian Agent. The white settlers had deserted the town and holed up in the fort with the Indian Agent. After waiting for a day, the starving band members looted the empty Battleford homes for food, despite Poundmaker’s attempts to prevent this action. Although greatly exaggerated by the press at the time, the “looting of Battleford” was an act of desperation, not an attempt to start a conflict.

When the Indian Agent would not agree to meet with Poundmaker, the band left the town and set up camp at Cut Knife Creek. Some of the warriors erected a warriors’ lodge at the camp, signifying that the warrior society had taken control. Meanwhile, Lieutenant-Colonel William Otter and his column of soldiers travelled to Battleford. On April 31, 1885, he set out with over 300 men to attack Poundmaker’s band in retaliation for the perceived attack on Battleford. They arrived at Cut Knife Creek on May 2. Poundmaker did not take part in the battle, which lasted for seven hours before Otter withdrew. Poundmaker convinced the warriors not to pursue the retreating army, which prevented many losses. Following this attack, many of the warriors in Poundmaker’s camp departed to join the Métis forces in Batoche. On May 12, Riel’s forces were defeated. Upon learning this, Poundmaker sent a message to Battleford offering to negotiate a peace. Major-General Frederick Middleton replied that he would not negotiate and demanded Poundmaker’s unconditional surrender. On May 26, Poundmaker obliged and came to Battleford, where he was arrested

Oil painting of a large group of First Nations people sitting and standing in a semi-circle with tipis in the background. Chief Poundmaker is seated on the ground in the centre with a ceremonial pipe in front of him. General Middleton is on the right seated in a chair, with several army men standing behind him.

The Surrender of Poundmaker to Major-General Middleton at Battleford, Saskatchewan, on May 26, 1885. Oil painting by R.W. Rutherford, 1887 (e011165548_s1)

On August 17, 1885, Poundmaker’s trial began in Regina. He was charged with treason-felony. The trial lasted for two days. In our collection, we have a written account of the testimony that Poundmaker gave at his trial. This account was found in a box of miscellaneous files in the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development fonds. Unfortunately, there is no indication of the author of this account.

A handwritten page in English.

A written account of Poundmaker’s testimony from his 1885 trial (e011303044)

Poundmaker spoke to the court in Cree, while an interpreter translated his words into English. According to the account, the Chief’s words were translated as, “Everything I could do was done to prevent bloodshed. Had I wanted war, I would not be here now, I would be on the prairie. You did not catch me, I gave myself up. You have got me because I wanted peace.” The jury deliberated for half an hour before returning a verdict of guilty. The judge sentenced him to three years in a penitentiary. The impact of this decision on Poundmaker was immediately apparent. According to the author of this account, upon hearing his sentence, Poundmaker said, “Hang me now. I would rather die than be locked up.”

For a man who had spent his life on the land, hunting and leading, the effects of incarceration were profoundly detrimental. After only one year in the Stony Mountain Penitentiary, Poundmaker’s health had declined so much that he was released. Four months after his release, he died of a lung hemorrhage while visiting his adopted father Crowfoot on the Siksika Blackfoot reserve.

Nothing can truly right the injustice of Poundmaker’s imprisonment, or reverse the damage that the loss of his leadership had on his band and the Plains Cree. However, recognizing this injustice is a step toward greater understanding between Canadians and Indigenous peoples.

This blog is part of a series related to the Indigenous Documentary Heritage Initiatives. Learn how Library and Archives Canada (LAC) increases access to First Nations, Inuit and Métis Nation collections and supports communities in the preservation of Indigenous language recordings.


Anna Heffernan is an archivist/researcher for We Are Here: Sharing Stories, an initiative to digitize Indigenous content at Library and Archives Canada.

Aboriginal syllabic scripts

Before the development of syllabic writing systems, Aboriginal peoples transmitted cultural knowledge orally, through wampum belts and totem poles, through rock engravings and paintings, and through hieroglyphs (symbols etched on birch bark or hides to represent a word or concept). Syllabic scripts were the first form of Aboriginal writing whereby anything that could be spoken in an Aboriginal language could be transcribed.

Reverend James Evans, a Methodist missionary, has often been credited with developing the first Aboriginal syllabic script in 1839 or 1840 at Norway House in what is now Manitoba. Before the use of syllabics, missionaries and linguists translated religious texts into Aboriginal languages using the Roman alphabet. Evans wanted his Cree parishioners to learn how to read and write, but he found the Roman alphabet limiting. As a result, he set out to develop a writing system that more accurately represented the sounds and words of the Cree language.

A colour photograph showing a hand holding the lower left corner of a book. The book is opened to the frontispiece showing a drawn portrait of Methodist missionary James Evans, wearing typical 19th century clothing and looking directly at the viewer.

A portrait of James Evans, creator of Cree syllabic, taken from the 1890 book, James Evans: Inventor of the Syllabic System of the Cree Language (AMICUS 6941574)

Evans derived his syllabic script from Pitman’s shorthand (a shorthand phonetic system that used symbols to represent sounds) and Braille (an embossed writing system for the visually impaired). He used nine geometric shapes to denote consonants, and their orientation suggests the vowels that follow. In addition to being the first Aboriginal syllabic script, Evans’ syllabic is also the first Canadian script and the first typeface created in Canada. He recycled metal for typecasting from the linings of Hudson’s Bay tea chests and modified a fur press (for flattening pelts) to use as a printing press. Evans and his parishioners used the script to print religious texts on birch bark, deer hide and paper.

A colour photograph of two pages of a book on Cree syllabic providing examples of syllabic characters. The first page shows syllabic initials or primals, as well as examples of syllables. The second page shows finals or terminals and examples of word formation.

Images from the 1890 book, James Evans: Inventor of the Syllabic System of the Cree Language (AMICUS 6941574) showing the syllabic geometric shapes denoting consonants and their various orientations denoting vowels.

Although originally developed to write religious materials, syllabic scripts were used by the Cree people for their own purposes. Syllabics became an important part of Cree identity, despite having been developed by a non-Aboriginal missionary, and is still used in Canada today.

Evans’ syllabic script was adapted for other Aboriginal languages, notably Inuktitut. First introduced by the missionary Edmund Peck, syllabic is still used today by thousands of fluent Inuktitut speakers.

When Nunavut was established in 1999, the territorial government commissioned William Ross Mills of Tiro Typeworks to develop digital syllabic fonts. The results included the Pigiarniq and Euphemia fonts. Euphemia, which includes the entire range of Canadian syllabics in several different Aboriginal languages, was licensed by Microsoft and Apple and is now standard on computers. This effectively enables Inuktitut speakers to sit down at virtually any computer around the world and start typing in their own language.

A colour image of a book written in Inuktitut syllabic script open to the first and second pages. The left page features the Inuktitut syllabary; the right page is text written in Inuktitut syllabic.

The first book in Inuktitut to be printed using syllabic characters, Selections from the Gospels in the Dialect of the Inuit of Little Whale River, printed by John Horden between 1855 and 1856 at Moose Factory, Ontario (AMICUS 13853827)

For more information on Canadian Aboriginal syllabic scripts, please check out the following resources. Most are available in libraries or online.

  1. Banks, Joyce M. (2004). “‘And not hearers only’: Books in Native Languages,” History of the Book in Canada, Volume 1, edited by Patricia Lockhart Fleming et al. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. (AMICUS 29599541)
  2. Bringhurst, Robert. (2008). “The Invisible Book,” The Surface of Meaning: Books and Book Design in Canada. Vancouver: Canadian Centre for Studies in Publishing Press (AMICUS 33832941).
  3. Cree Syllabics,” The Canadian Encyclopedia (2015).
  4. Edwards, Brendan Frederick. (2005). “‘To put the talk upon paper’: Aboriginal Communities,” History of the Book in Canada, Volume 2, edited by Patricia Lockhart Fleming et al. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. (AMICUS 29599541)
  5. McLean, John. (1890). James Evans: Inventor of the Syllabic System of the Cree Language. Toronto: Methodist Mission Rooms. (AMICUS 6941574).
  6. Pirurvik Centre for Inuit Language, Culture, and Wellbeing.