By Morgan O’Neal
According to the most recent numbers, by 2017, there will be 1.39 million to 1.43 million aboriginal persons (4.1 per cent of the Canadian population) in Canada. The country’s aboriginal population is expected to grow by 1.8 per cent annually, more than twice the rate for the general population. The aboriginal birth rate is now 1.5 times the Canadian birth rate. These statistics are extremely significant, for if such a trend continues and greatly alters the demographics of the nation, problems now existing in isolated communities of the interior and the far north will no longer be able to be ignored. More and more displacement to the urban centers is predictable, as individuals, families, and entire groups of indigenous peoples flock the center where false advertising promises a better life through education and jobs.
It is now over a century since the great Plains Cree Chief, Pitikwahanapiwiyin, better known as Poundmaker, was alive and leading his people in similar negotiations and struggles for social justice. He was known in his own time as a visionary peacemaker and a great orator in defense of his people’s survival and progress. It is fitting that during this the first decade of millennial indigenous celebrations in 2007, that Poundmaker be remembered, as one who brought people together in peace and dialogue. The great Chief was born in 1842 and died on 4 July 1886. His name derives from his special ability to attract buffalo into pounds or corrals. Sometimes, these great beasts would be drawn in quietly by a person like Poundmaker, who would dress in a buffalo pelt and use a bell to capture the herd’s attention. Oral history has it that on one occasion he lured 500 buffalo into his pound; therefore, he was given the name Poundmaker. But he became a great peacemaker also.
During the North-West Rebellion, Poundmaker’s followers were falsely accused of attacking Fort Battleford. In actual historical fact most of the looting alleged to have occurred was actually done by whites, according to an observer at the time. Nevertheless, a military force led by Lieutenant-Colonel William Dillon Otter used this false information to justify a wrongful attack on Poundmaker’s camp near Cut Knife Hill. The military was forced into retreat. And still, Poundmaker shrewdly prevented his warriors from pursuing the soldiers, so that no more blood would be shed.
On the basis of a letter written by Louis Riel, bearing his name, Poundmaker was still convicted of treason in 1885 and sentenced to four years in Stony Mountain Penitentiary At his trial, he is reported to have said: “Everything that is bad has been laid against me this summer, there is nothing of it true. Had I wanted war, I would not be here now. I should be on the prairie. You did not catch me. I gave myself up. You have got me because I wanted justice.” Poundmaker was released from Stony Mountain Penitentiary after serving a year, but he was so weakened in spirit and in such poor health that he died of a lung hemorrhage at Blackfoot Crossing, Alberta on July 4, 1886, four months after his release. In a civilized country these circumstances would constitute ample reason for an inquiry into the kind of justice Poundmaker received in the Canadian Courts of law, and the most cursory medical examination would have shown that his imprisonment amounted to a death sentence in the first place. Therefore if one of the mandates of current ‘modern’ regimes of power in Canada is indeed to uncover and pay restitutions to the victims of false accuses and incarcerated citizens, the time has come to exonerate Poundmaker and clear him of any wrongdoing in these surprisingly recent historical events. Not only exoneration, but also celebration of his strong productive struggle in defense of his land, his people, and for the peace and security of Humanity as a whole.
As the indigenous population continues to grow in the urban centers of Canada, the memory and example of great leaders like Poundmaker will solidify as the rock upon which all future defenses of native integrity and dreams of progress in the building of safe and healthy communities in which the increasing numbers of native children can grow and thrive and achieve their dreams with the support of solid basis in their elders’ collective pasts as the original inhabitants of this land, and the strength to meet the changes of the increasingly more rapidly changing world in which we all must maintain our human traits of tolerance and compassion in order that everyone is treated with the respect they deserve, and that everyone is given the opportunity to develop in themselves the gore of their human experience in a positive way which can contribute to solving the many problems and issues that will emerge in the future.