Gabriel Dumont: Métis Political Organizer and Military Strategist

Story by Morgan O’Neal

Of Gabriel Dumont the world has never heard enough. Skilled, strong, brave, gentle to weakness, durable as rawhide, inflexibly faithful to his people and to Riel, whom he worshipped, he not only saw more plainly than most the desperate situation of the Metis, but he was their most capable leader and their most redoubtable champion. It was Dumont who rode a round trip of 700 miles from the North Saskatchewan to Fort Benton to visit Riel and ask his aid in the fight against Ottawa’s implacable stupidities. It was Dumont …who beat the Mounties at Duck lake, forced the abandonment of Fort Carlton, whipped Middleton’s column at Fish Creek, disabled the steamer Northcote that was coming downriver to the aid of the militia besieging Batoche, and finally, against heavy odds and the overwhelming firepower of repeating rifles, 7-pounders, and one of the new Gattling guns graciously donated on a test basis by the United States, was driven out of Batoche and into hiding in the Birch Hills. (Wolf Willow by Wallace Stegner)

Gabriel Dumont is best known as the man who led the small Métis military forces during the Northwest Resistance of 1885. He was born in the Red River area in 1837 and died near Batoche, Saskatchewan on 19 May 1906. He was the son of Isidore Dumont, a Métis hunter, and Louise Laframboise, and the grandson of French Canadian voyageur Jean-Baptiste Dumont. Brought up to the free prairie life before central government entered the West, Dumont was introduced early to plains warfare when, aged 13, he took part (at Grand Coteau) in the defence of a Métis encampment, against a large Sioux war party. Yet in 1862, with his father, he concluded a treaty between the Métis and the Sioux, and later one with the Blackfoot, that helped ensure pacification of the Canadian prairie.

Although unable to read or write, Dumont could speak six languages; he was a good shot with both the bow and the rifle, a splendid horseman and canoeist and an unrivalled guide. These abilities made Dumont a natural leader in the large annual Buffalo hunts that were an important part of Métis culture. His skill as a buffalo hunter led to his election in the summer of 1863 (when he was 25), as permanent chief of the Métis hunters on the Saskatchewan. Until the virtual elimination of the buffalo, he led the Métis on the hunt; the last time was in 1881.

When a provisional government was declared in 1885, Dumont was named “adjutant general of the Métis people.” He proved himself an able commander and his tiny army experienced some success against government forces at Duck Lake and Fish Creek. The Canadian militia, however, proved too large and too well equipped for Dumont’s army, which collapsed on 12 May 1885 after four days of fighting near Batoche.

By the 1860s, Dumont was the leader of a group of hunters living in the Fort Carlton area. Dumont apparently took no direct part in the Red River rising of 1870, though he made an offer – rejected by Louis Riel – to lead Métis resistance against Wolsely’s expeditionary force. It is obvious in retrospect that he recognized the great changes coming to the prairie due to the decline of the buffalo and the spread of Canadian influence. In 1872, he took advantage of the growing traffic on the Carlton trail and opened a ferry across the South Saskatchewan River and a small store upstream from Batoche. Gabriel’s Crossing is an important historical site now, the original house having been restored under the stewardship of Metis elder and author Maria Campbell.

In 1873 Dumont became president of the commune of St Laurent, the first local government between Manitoba and the Rockies. Taking its form from the organization of the buffalo hunt, the commune tried to establish a system of landholding, since Dumont recognized that when hunting ended, his people would have to turn to farming. But in 1875 the commune confronted the newly arrived North-West Mounted Police and the attempt at local government was crushed. Metis concern over land did not diminish, however, for like vultures government surveyors and land speculators now began to flood the West.

Gabriel Dumont was forced once more to lead the Métis in agitating for full legal recognition of their rights. His leadership role in the South Branch community continued throughout 1877 and 1878. Dumont chaired the meetings which drew up various demanding the federal government provide for representation on the Territorial Council, farming assistance, schools, land grants, and title to already occupied lands. When this political campaign made no progress, Dumont was one of the delegates who sought Louis Riel’s assistance. Negotiations with the government foundered, and when Riel declared a provisional government at Batoche, Dumont became “adjutant general” in charge of the tiny Métis army of 300 men formed at the beginning of the rebellion.

During the subsequent clashes known as the North-West Rebellion Dumont proved himself a remarkable guerrilla leader. He won the first battle against the NWMP at Duck Lake in March 1885 and then halted General Middleton’s army at Fish Creek on Apr 24. But Riel did not allow Dumont to continue his successful guerrilla campaign. Batoche was therefore besieged and captured, despite the resistance Dumont organized on May 12. Upon learning that Riel had surrendered, Dumont fled to the US where he plotted to rescue Riel, but the latter was too carefully guarded.

Having avoided capture by escaping to the United States where, in 1886, following Riel’s execution, Dumont accepted an offer to demonstrate his marksmanship by performing in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show. After the amnesty for rebels, he returned to Canada in 1888. He hunted and traded a little, and then visited Quebec (where he apparently dictated two vivid oral memoirs of the rebellion.). Finally in 1893 Dumont returned to his old homestead near Batoche where he lived quietly until his sudden death of heart failure in 1906.

Gabriel Dumont was a man of great courage and chivalry, superbly adapted to the pre-settlement prairie life into which he was born; in the world that followed, however, his skills quickly lost their relevance, and were reduced to entertainment equivalent to the reality television shows of our present cultural wasteland. The qualities of intelligence and his mastery of the many necessary skills of surviving and thriving as a natural inhabitant of the prairie landscape he loved were ultimately insulted by the greed and hype so typical of American imperialism. As Daniel Francis writes in The Imaginary Indian in describing the context of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show,

“The show purported to be much more than simple entertainment. Cody and his imitators claimed to be presenting actual events, as fresh as yesterday’s headlines. Not only that, they were using actual characters, notorious for the part they played in the events they portrayed.”

Among those native heroes reduced to parodies of themselves by the circus act created by Bill Cody was Gabriel Dumont who along with Sitting Bull and the Sioux holy man, Black Elk gave an air of historical authenticity to a show which was otherwise pure and unadulterated fiction.. After the disturbances at Wounded Knee in 1890, for example, the government forced thirty Native malcontents to join the Wild West Show or face going to jail. They re-enacted the famous Battle of Little Big Horn. The Indians entered, pitched their camp and performed a war dance. The cavalry burst upon the scene, a skirmish followed, the Indian left a heap of dead cavalrymen and their horses on the ground to emphasize the myth of the savage primitive which would maintain the degradation of the Native population of the Western Hemisphere for the centuries to follow.