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Poundmaker

by Lillian Gibbons

Manitoba Pageant, September 1960, Volume 6, Number 1

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

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

Poundmaker, a chief of the Cree nation, was born near Battle ford, Saskatchewan in 1826 . He participated in the negotiations leading to the signing of Indian Treaty No. 6 in 1879 and settled on a reserve on Battle River, Alberta. On the outbreak of the North West Rebellion he besieged Battle ford, and later commanded the Indians at the battles of Cut Knife Creek and Batoche. Following the capture of Louis Riel in 1885 he surrendered to Major-General Frederick Middleton, was tried at Regina and sentenced to three years imprisonment. He was released, however, after a year’s confinement and died shortly afterward on July 4, 1886 near Calgary while on a visit to Crowfoot, Chief of the Black-foot Indians.

When he heard the sentence, “Imprisonment for three years,” he said, “I’d rather be hanged.” Perhaps he suddenly thought of his hair, those long, black braids. To have them shaved off, as was the prison custom, would be, to an Indian, a fate equivalent to scalping.

As a savage he had torn the liver, still warm, from a buffalo killed in a hunt staged for a Governor-General. While in jail he was baptized a Christian and took an Archbishop’s name.

Such was Poundmaker, Chief of the Plain Crees, who had made peace between the Crees and their old enemies the Blackfoot and who, after defeating Colonel Otter at the Battle of Cut Knife Creek in 1885, had treated his prisoners well. Therefore, when he was tried for his part in the North West Rebellion, the charge was one of “treason felony” but he escaped being hanged. “Some thought he should be”, said the late Msgr. Antoine d’Eschambault, President of the St. Boniface Historical Society,” “but pressure was brought to bear on Sir John A. Macdonald and instead of being hanged Poundmaker was sentenced to three years imprisonment in Stoney Mountain Penitentiary. While he was there Archbishop Alexandre Tache baptized him and a large group of Indians.”

Poundmaker
Source: Archives of Manitoba

The record of this historic event is inscribed in red ink on a page of the ledger kept by the prison Chaplain Fr. Gabriel Cloutier. Yet, for a long time, it was a mystery as to which name was Poundmaker’s since all the names were in Cree. After some investigation it turned out to be the top name on the list, Pe-to-ka-on-ape-wi-yin, which according to a notation in French beside the name means “the one who sits at the gate of the park, or enclosure, or pound.” The discovery was made with the help of several Cree scholars including Ven. Archdeacon R. B. Horsfield of Pilot Mound who said Poundmaker’s Cree name was “U-pi-tu-ka-in-ap-i-wi-yi” and Mrs. A. N. Welton of North Battleford who said it was “Oo-peeth-to-kah-han-up-pie-we-yun.” These compared well with name published in Alexander Morris’s, Treaties With The Indians — “Oo-pee-too-kerah-han-ap-ee-wee-yin” and finally with other records unearthed at the Penitentiary which gave the name, “Pi-to-cah-ow-a-pi-win.”

Canon Edward Ahenakew confirmed the evidence. “I’m related to Poundmaker,” he said, “my grandmother was Poundmaker’s sister.” “Oo-pe-to”, he added “means ‘motion towards’ and Ap-ee-we-yun, ‘who sits’; thus Poundmaker’s name in Cree is translated — He sits at the place the buffalo are going towards — the buffalo enclosure or pound.”

Canon Ahenakew remembers Poundmaker’s son — Sakamataynew — whose Cree name means “tongue-tied” for it was the Canon who baptized him and gave him the same Christian name — Alexandre — which Poundmaker had taken when he was baptized by Alexandre Tache.

Poundmaker, over six feet tall, and of commanding appearance, walked with his head high and black braids proudly displayed when he met two Governors-General. In 1881, he was a guide for Marquis of Lorne on a buffalo hunt on his own reserve. In 1885, when the Marquis of Landsdowne visited Stoney Mountain the tall Indian Chief was presented to the Governor-General by the warden Col. Samuel Bedson. The Governor-General said he was sorry to meet Poundmaker under such circumstances. Poundmaker “conducted himself with stoical in-difference” wrote a news reporter of this meeting.

Poundmaker’s own rifle is on display in the Manitoba Museum, in Winnipeg. It is a Winchester, 1866, which was purchased at auction in England in the Spring of 1959. Richard Sutton, the Museum curator, saw it advertised in a catalogue and cabled his bid.

Page revised: 1 July 2009

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