Early life and leadership
Big Bear(Mistahi-maskwa) was born in 1825 in Jackfish Lake, near North Battleford, Saskatchewan. His father, Black Powder, was the chief of a tribe of 80 Plains Cree-Saulteaux people who were deemed to be “true nomadic hunters”. Little is known about Big Bear’s mother. When Big Bear was old enough to walk on his own he spent his time wandering the camp socializing with many people, from the women to council members. In the spring of 1837, smallpox struck Big Bear’s community and caused the quick departure of the Cree from the plains.Big Bear was infected with the virus but unlike many in the community, after two months of suffering he overcame it although it did leave his face partly disfigured. After his recovery from smallpox, Big Bear began to spend a great deal of time with his father, including a journey by the two of them to Bull’s Forehead Hill, where they spent a great deal of time reflecting and offering to their gods and spirits. Upon his reflection, Big Bear was visited by many spirits, but the bear took great prominence in his mind. After his reflection was complete he created a fur necklace in the shape of a bear paw with five ivory claws hanging from it, which he called the Chief’s Son’s Hand. This necklace was the source of his nickname “Maskwa”, meaning bear, and “Mistahi”, meaning much.
It is reported that over the course of Big Bear's life he took several wives, in turn producing at least four male children who would carry on his name. However, there is little documentation to support the names of these individuals.
Before becoming a great leader, Big Bear became a great warrior, taking warriors under his fathers command on missions which he described as “haunting the Blackfoot”. Upon the death of his father Black Powder in the winter of 1864, the Cree band with over 100 members was in need of a new chief. Big Bear was 40 years old and was the obvious choice as the next leader of the Cree people.
The Western Plains Aboriginal population underwent a cultural, environmental and structural change starting in the mid 1870s and continuing into the late 1800s. The Dominion of Canada was attempting to cultivate the land that the indigenous population occupied for European settlers. The treaties were the method of choice by the government to gain rights to the land; all Aboriginal groups were given the opportunity, according to the government, to sign and receive the benefits of the treaty terms. However the Aboriginal groups who did not want to sign were ultimately forced to sign because of environmental and cultural changes in 1870-1885. The largest contributing factor to this was the disappearance of thebison which created a region-wide famine; in addition to this there was the emergence and widespread epidemic oftuberculosis which had a devastating effect on the indigenous population. The disappearance of the bison has been explained to some extent by the over hunting by white settlers and Aboriginals to supply the fur trade which ultimately lead to the famine. There were some attempts by the Canadian government to conserve the bison but the measures were not enacted in time to stop the drastic depletion of the bison food supply. In the early 1880s tuberculosis was the main killer of the Indigenous people on the reserve, this disease was brought over by European settlers and spread through coughing and the sharing of pipes during tobacco-smoking ceremonies. The disappearance of the bison was devastating to the Indigenous population because hunting allowed them to be self-sufficient and free from the dominion government; once the bison disappeared their need for assistance was imperative. The Canadian government was the only option of survival but this meant signing the numbered treaties which would change their culture indefinitely. During this time Big Bear tried to withhold his signature from the treaty so that his people might get better terms but by 1885 malnutrition was severe and the meager rations given by the dominion government did not supply enough food. Big Bear was ultimately forced to sign the treaty to save his people from starvation and disease because the dominion government would not help unless they signed. These factors contributed to the many deaths of Aboriginal leaders leaving tribes without their history, which was taught by the elderly, and without men to lead their tribes changing their life from that point on.
Conflict with other aboriginal tribes
To be a Plains Cree aboriginal man it was an expectation to be an accomplished hunter and warrior, Big Bear was no exception to the rule. Big Bear was known to be a strong warrior and was often, as an adult, called upon to defend the community. A Cree man, to raise his position in the community, participated in raids and or attacks of enemy tribes which meant stealing of horses, land and food from their enemies. Big Bear’s main responsibility was to be a hunter and provide for his family but he was involved in attacks against the enemies of the Cree Aboriginals. The battle of the Belly River was one of the largest battles the Cree Aboriginals were involved in. A constant enemy of the Cree was the Blackfoot tribe and in 1870 Big Bear was involved in an attack against the Blackfoot near present-day Lethbridge, Alberta. The Cree band lost between 200-300 warriors while the Blackfoot only lost 40, it was known to be the largest Indian battle to be fought on the Canadian Plains.
As the 1870s began, Big Bear and his tribe had reached the high point of development for their Band. It started to become more and more apparent as time passed that these conditions would not remain the same forever. Disease had begun to ravage his people and the declining numbers of Buffalo threatened their food source and economy. This was quite worrisome for Big Bear as both a father and a chief, and he knew something was needed to be done. On 14 August 1874, The Hudson Bay Company visited Big Bear and his fellow Cree people. This was seen as peculiar to Big Bear and his people as the Hudson Bay Company would have had to travel 7 days from the nearest trading post to visit their camp. The Hudson Bay Company arrived with four wagons full of supplies. Factor William McKaycame along for the trip, (as he was an old friend with Big Bear) and while he was there he warned Big Bear of the establishment of the North West Mounted Police in the area. McKay told Big Bear of how the North West Mounted Police were here to preserve the west as Canadian and how they were not to interfere with but to protect aboriginal interests. At the end of the visit, McKay and the HBC distributed gifts to the 65 tents of Big Bear`s people, however some were reluctant, they viewed the gifts and the North West Mounted Police as a means of appeasement and incentive to start the treaty process with Canada.
Big Bear began talks with the Canadian government in the 1870s in an attempt to work out a treaty. Big Bear was never open to the idea of reserve life, as he feared his loss of freedom and identity as a hunter. But he knew as food sources grew weaker, and the best way for him and his band to avoid starvation was to sign a treaty with the Canadian government. By 1876, all major Plains Cree chiefs had signed Treaty 6 except for Big Bear. Big Bear stalled signing as he believed that the Canadian government would surely violate the treaty upon its signing. Big Bear said "we want none of the Queen’s presents: When we set a fox trap we scatter pieces of meat all around but when the fox gets into the trap we knock him on the head. We want no baits. Let your chiefs come like men and talk to us.” Big Bear strongly believed that the Canadian government was simply telling him and his fellow chiefs what they wanted to hear. This led Big Bear to resist signing as well as pursue better terms for Treaty Six.
Big Bear made several attempts to warn the others against signing Treaty 6, at one point Big Bear rode by horse back to each lodge in the area urging people not to sign the treaty and not to give up the land, because it was so rich in natural resources. Big Bear also resisted publicly at both Fort Carleton and Pitt, where the treaty was being signed. Big Bear understood the importance of making the best of this treaty as it would have implications on the generations to come. Big Bear also questioned the Eurocentric world view and new order being brought forth with these treaties.
There were also attempts made by others to discredit Big Bear in his attempt to pursue/change Treaty 6. John McDougall tried on several occasions to discount him. He claimed Big Bear was an outsider, that he was not of the area and did not deserve the esteem he carried among the people of this area. This was not true as he was a Cree but also his father was Saulteaux (the other aboriginal group present in the signing of Treaty 6). He was not an outsider but rather leader of a group of people who had elements of both cultures.
Big Bear resisted from signing from as long as he could but eventually had to sign treaty six in 1882. He did so because he believed he had no other choice. Big Bear believed he was betrayed by the other chiefs as they signed the treaty after all of his warnings. Big Bear's hope of negotiating a more favourable treaty for his people was over.