Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor

POUNDMAKER (ca. 1842-1886)

Poundmaker, a leader of the Plains Cree First Nation (Image courtesy of the National Archives of Canada, C-001875)

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Poundmaker, whose Indian name was Pītikwahanapiw īyin, was born around 1842. The son of an Assiniboine Indian and a mixed-blood mother of French descent, he was a member of a prominent Plains Cree family from the House Band in what today is central Saskatchewan.

Poundmaker was destined to become an influential leader. In 1873 he was adopted by Crowfoot, head chief of the powerful Blackfoot nation of southern Alberta. This happened during a brief truce in the wars between the Crees and the Blackfoot, when Poundmaker visited Crowfoot's camp for the first time. One of Crowfoot's wives, who was grieving the loss of a son in battle, was struck with Poundmaker's resemblance to her dead son and prevailed upon the chief to adopt the Cree as a replacement. For his part, Crowfoot was greatly impressed with Poundmaker's statesmanlike bearing and commitment to peacemaking, and so he readily agreed. The adoption invested Poundmaker with the attributes of a Blackfoot family member; it bestowed new wealth on him in the form of horses gifted by his adoptive family; and it conferred upon him a new Blackfoot name, Makoyi-koh-kin (Wolf Thin Legs). When Poundmaker returned home, he was accorded special standing because of his personal connection to a nation that traditionally had been an enemy of the Crees. Within a few years he was elevated to the rank of a councilor, or minor chief, in the River People Band led by Chief Red Pheasant.

Poundmaker proved to be a strong critic of government policy. In 1876, during the negotiation of Treaty Number 6 at Fort Carlton, he took exception to the very notion of confining Indians to reserves. "This is our land!" he protested to the government commissioners. "It isn't a piece of pemmican to be cut off and given in little pieces back to us." He also insisted that the terms offered did not provide adequately for agricultural assistance or for famine relief during hard times. He eventually signed the treaty but remained resistant to taking up reserve life. In 1878, when Red Pheasant agreed to move onto a reserve, Poundmaker formed his own band and made a lastditch effort to hunt down the few remaining buffalo. A year later he and his starving band accepted a reserve some forty miles west of Battleford, Saskatchewan. Although he made efforts to master farming, he nevertheless remained a determined critic of the government, which routinely ignored both Indian treaty rights and the starvation that stalked the reserves.

Owing to circumstances beyond his control, Poundmaker was implicated in the North- West Rebellion of 1885. Like most Indian leaders, he did not want to join the disaffected Metis who had clashed with government forces at Batoche and elsewhere. While he was known to criticize government policy and the deplorable conditions on reserves, his main aim was to achieve reform through peaceful means, particularly the renegotiation of Treaty 6. However, soon after the outbreak of hostilities, Poundmaker progressively lost control over his camp, which came to include dissident Metis and a number of Assiniboines who had murdered a farm instructor. At Battleford he was unable to prevent his warriors from looting homes and offices that had been abandoned when the occupants fled for protection to the police barracks nearby. Later, Poundmaker's authority was preempted by his band's warrior society, which, at Cut Knife Hill, Saskatchewan, resisted an assault by government forces led by Lt. Col. William Dillon Otter. Throughout these events Poundmaker cautioned restraint and took steps to protect prisoners. He is also credited with preventing the warriors from inflicting heavy losses on Otter's troops as they retreated in disarray.

Nevertheless, Poundmaker was blamed by a government determined to cripple Indian society by removing its leadership. He was subjected to a humiliating surrender at the hands of Gen. Frederick Dobson Middleton, placed on trial in 1885 for treason, and sentenced to three years in Stony Mountain Penitentiary, Manitoba. He was granted early release in 1886 but died of tuberculosis four months later, on July 4, while visiting Crowfoot. Initially buried at Blackfoot Crossing, Alberta, his remains were reinterred at Cut Knife Hill in 1967.

See also WAR: North-West Rebellion.

F. Laurie Barron

University of Sasketchewan

Jefferson, Robert. Fifty Years on the Saskatchewan. Battleford, Saskatchewan: Canadian North-West Historical Society, 1929.

Sluman, Norma. Poundmaker. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson Ltd., 1967.

Stonechild, Blair, and Bill Waiser. Loyal till Death: Indians and the North-West Rebellion. Calgary: Fifth House Ltd., 1997.

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