Solemn anniversary of 1885 Battleford hangings marked at Wanuskewin
- Andrea Ledding | November 30, 2018
On November 27th, people gathered at Wanuskewin to commemorate the 133rd anniversary of the public hanging of eight Indigenous men at Fort Battleford in 1885. Known to colonial history as “the perpetrators of the Frog Lake Massacre” for the deaths of six white men including a corrupt Indian Agent and farm instructor, and an abusive priest; these eight men thrown into a mass grave were in fact noble warriors defending their people from crimes against humanity, according to various knowledge-keepers. The event was a project of the Office of the Treaty Commissioner (OTC), in partnership with the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN), and the Saskatchewan Indigenous Cultural Centre (SICC).
Knowledge-keeper and translator John Spyglass brought stories from Mosquito Grizzly Bear’s Head Lean Man, telling the story in the original language, then English. The children of the Battleford Industrial School and all surrounding reserves were forced to watch the public hanging alongside curious settlers from the surrounding area. According to the firsthand account of Spyglass’ great-aunt, who was 13 at the time, said they were brought to the Fort very early in the morning. “We were all told to stand and watch, we were standing up in front but the RCMP said go back more because you won’t like the sound of when they would drop,” said Spyglass. “Those ones hung from our reserve did not even commit a murder…that [15-year-old] young boy before he was taken up to the gallows, one of his final words was that he was told by his parents when he was born, “If anything goes wrong and you are there you will end up paying for it. This is probably what they meant.””
Crooked Legs, Ikte, is spelled wrong it is actually “Heektay” — the hair that falls, he was actually Dead Hair. The children were told not to go near the bodies after they dropped the men because they immediately cut them off their ropes still alive and threw them into the back of the wagon to be secretly buried. “We weren’t allowed to say goodbye to our relatives, we weren’t even allowed to see our relatives.”
After the hanging the kids, who had been told “this is what happens when you disobey,” were walked back up to the school; as his dad told these stories to Spyglass, it was hard because his dad had witnessed his auntie and moshum crying as adults over the painful memories. The entire reserves were denied rations, their five dollars a year, and all things made of metal were taken away. “They took away our axes, our knives, our guns, everything metal. One man had hid an axe, and at night we’d use it to get our fuel and in the morning hide it again. One axe for the whole reserve.”
People would scatter to the States, Alberta, and surrounding reserves to hide over this time, if they did not starve to death first, decimating the population. Mosquito’s reserve lost 50 children in one-year, Grizzly Bear and Lean man lost 80, to starvation. “Nine out of ten people on our reserve suffered,” said Spyglass. “On November 20th, 2018, our reserve received a per capita payment of $250 each. This was our back payment from 1885 to 1889...that’s only a half payment, not even the full amount of $500...our people suffered, they had to hang for this money. I don’t know how to make people understand how our people suffered for that money.”
He emotionally added the hardest thing was that money could have saved those people. Five dollars bought a lot in those days.
“People were starving, and when the Riel Rebellion happened, they took part in it, not because they wanted to but because their children were dying, they were starving.”
“We have to start recording our histories and events like this, educating not only ourselves about events but the general public as well,” said OTC Commissioner Mary Culbertson, who remembers having it drummed into her every day as a child that “1885 was one-sided, and Louis Riel was an evil man, and those Indians fighting deserved what they got. That’s what I was taught in Grade 4.”
She noted that their burial site is a mass grave, but the language at the monument calls it a common grave; the use of language tries to soften what she identifies as genocide.
“When we have shared histories, we have to find a common goal of being better neighbours in the future. Those histories are not always nice...it’s not always romanticized. They’re shameful and ugly, and we have to make sure in our lifetimes...that we have good histories to talk about.” Culbertson then read an account from 1972, the third volume of Saskatchewan Indian. “The children from the Battleford Industrial school were taken out to witness the event.to remind them what would happen if one made trouble with the crown, and to make a lasting impression of the white man’s power and authority,” read Culbertson, adding that the mass grave remained hidden for years until students following old Fort plans located the gravesite.
Fifty-four people were sentenced after 1885, including the 8 who were hung; 6 of them were from Big Bear’s band. Wandering Spirit for the killing of Thomas Quinn, the Indian Agent; Walking-the-Sky for the killing of his father, the Roman Catholic priest; Bad Arrow and Miserable Man for the death of Charles Goving, Quinn’s interpreter; Iron Body and Little Bear for the death of a trader; Crooked Leg for the death of Payne, the Stoney Farm Instructor; Man-Without-Blood for the death of a rancher out of Battleford. C.P. Rouleau, the magistrate who sentenced them, had had his house burned down during 1885 and was heard to say he was going to make everyone pay with their lives. Seven of the eight men spoke in the ten minutes given to them to do so, most of them singing songs. Wandering Spirit did not, but knowledge-keepers confirmed it was his cousin with terminal cancer who looked alike and took his place.
“These hangings are a shame for all Canadians, not only for how they were carried out, but for the shameful events that led up to this. Historians don’t record the starvation and disease that plagued our people a century ago. As Indian people we must seek to restore our lost history and honour those who fought for their people’s rights and pride,” read Culbertson, adding that First Nations people deserve their own historical sites, museums, and stories. “Hopefully this is where people start talking about this, the first of many discussions we’re going to have about this hanging.”
Chief Sylvia Weenie said we need to unravel the past before we can move forward, where mutual respect and validation happens.
“Reconciliation can’t happen without the presence of Indigenous people and non-Indigenous people,” said Weenie, observing it is the largest mass hanging in Canadian history. “Before reconciliation can happen we need to visit the truth, like Mary did with her readings from history.”
Indigenous perspective and all knowledge systems are equal, added Weenie. Reconciliation is an on-going process establishing and maintaining respectful relationships; a critical part of the process involves repairing damaged trust and following through with concrete actions. This includes history with an Indigenous lens so that stories and oral traditions are validated.
“The non-Aboriginal world has a lot to learn from the way First Nations people look at the world,” said Chief Commissioner of Human Rights and former Treaty Commissioner, David Arnott. He added that the treaties were a blueprint for respect and harmony with mutual benefits and respect, which were lacking as in 1885. “A treaty relationship has not been implemented according to the spirit and intent of treaty.”
He added that the Marquis of Lorne, Queen Victoria’s son-in-law, was here so she certainly knew that the treaties weren’t being implemented and horrendous acts including starvation were occurring.
“When the treaties are implemented, we will know that reconciliation is happening,” said Arnott, adding there is a strong relationship between treaty rights, Indigenous rights, and human rights and it affects all Canadians negatively when the treaties aren’t honoured. “Those linkages show up in health, education, justice, child welfare, housing, employment and education.”
Everyone in this country has not only rights, but responsibilities which include knowing citizenship rights so that you don’t knowingly transgress the rights of others; a fundamental responsibility to the treaties; and a duty to respect every citizen without exception.
“Respect is everything, and it’s mandatory, and it’s a duty of Canadian citizenship,” said Arnott. “Every human being deserves equal moral consideration.”
Knowledge-keeper Peter Gladue from Moosomin First Nation shared some of his reflections on going to boarding school at Duck Lake. He contrasted the love and gentleness of his family with the whip at school, but he used to steal bread and lard at night for the other students, regardless. He said he knew hunger, just as the people did at the time of the hanging. He spoke about still feeding anyone in need on the streets.
“The thing about hanging, when they hung those people, two of them I was related to,” said Gladue, asking why that took place. “My grandfather’s last name is Myo and my dad’s side was a Gladue…he had an Indian name, Top Sky, Walking on the Sky...that was his cousin.”
Just like stealing the bread at age 9, with pity for their crying at night for hunger and the love of their parents, these men were trying to feed all of their families and band from the corruption of the men holding back the rations and creating starvation and hardship. Little Bear and Crooked Leg had descendants Gladue has met, just like every one of the men hung, and had care for their relations, children, women, and people that were around. He was often told about the men who were hung, especially from the children who had to watch their relatives executed.
“To me in my heart they were warriors,” said Gladue. “Our stories, we inherit them...There’s a story behind that song, there’s a song behind that story.”
Gladue noted that justice was not served. “There not even any lawyers, nothing,” he said. “They told them ahead of time that they deserved to be hanged for what they did. But they were used to it, they were warriors.” He said that every camp of varying tribes had to have their own warriors to protect them. If not, the whole camp would be wiped out by a different tribe.
“And so those ones that got hanged, every one of them — their stories, every one of them had something to say. Their sacred bundles, they burned them all up. They didn’t go to their children, none of them. They had long hair and it was taken...but the greatness of them as they stood there, because as warriors, they had to be willing to die every day,” said Gladue. “They were willing, they had a lot of heart to do that. But there was a lot of misunderstanding, misinterpretation, some of the books you might read are not the real stories, what we inherit.”
Their family weren’t allowed to take home the bodies, and nobody told them where the bodies were buried. (In fact, the condemned men were forced to dig their own graves in the frozen ground before the hanging.)
“It got reported that they took some people hostage, but they didn’t do anything to the people,” said Gladue, adding that Big Bear tried to hold the men back from violence but was nonetheless imprisoned afterwards simply for being Chief. “The thing about [Big Bear] was they put him down in a damp hole and he got sick, nobody cared for him. He died of pneumonia.”
He added there’s a reason for everything, including why those men got hung: all they want is for the young people today to hear the truth, and that racism ends.
“When is it going to change, how is it going to change? I cannot say they deserved it, just like the people that went to war overseas.” He noted the government promised veterans many things that they never got because they were Indigenous. They killed for the Canadian government and were still punished afterwards.
“Some people will be blind-folded and believe what they want to believe, some people are narrow-minded, I was taught to surround yourself with everything so that you may know,” said Gladue. “Those eight men, they were warriors to protect their people.”
Terry Atimoyoo from Little Pine First Nation spoke about being part of the Big Bear Cultural Society.
“Once 1885 happened, everybody scattered,” said Atimoyoo, listing BC, Manitoba, and Montana as just some of the places people went. “A young boy about 15 years old, his dad was hung as well as him. His dad told him before this hanging to go, get away from here, they’re going to kill us. But the young boy said no, I’m going with you...they were found guilty. As he went slowly up the steps, singing his death song, the saddest song. I know because I heard it, in 1967.”
At the Battleford pow-wow he was brought by his father from the concession to meet people from the Smithsonian Institute from Washington recording old songs, including the song the boy sang as he was going up the gallows. He heard it played on the radio as recently as ten years ago.
Atimoyoo was the first to tell the story of Wandering Spirit’s cousin, who looked like him but had terminal cancer, who hung in his place while he went to Rocky Boy in the US, and was known as Big Wind. He was thought to be buried there, but a later speaker said that he wanted to be buried by the Battle River, so he returned across the border to die and someone else is in his marked grave at Rocky Boy. One photographer got pictures of the men before they were brought to the fort, and pictures of them just before they were hung. He went to the head officer at the Fort, and showed him the pictures, and they agreed that the wrong man was hung, and suppressed it.
“They could see that although they were similar, it wasn’t the same man, so he gave the order that nobody was to say anything,” said Atimoyoo, adding that he’s heard stories from many people about this. “We weren’t just a bunch of savages that went around killing people for no reason at all. There were reasons these people were killed at Frog Lake.”
There was starvation, abuse, and false charges of people who would be jailed for no reason, right up until the early 1960s, when Indian Affairs allowed Indian leaders to see the Act and what authority the Agents actually had, which was found to be far less than claimed.
The rations guaranteed by treaty were held back by the Frog Lake Indian Agent, Quinn, and Wandering Spirit fired the first shot because he was abusing his authority and exchanging rations for sex, so that women had to help their families to survive.
“This happened to Wandering Spirit’s niece and the first one to get killed was that Indian Agent because of the way he was abusing women. The next one was that Farm Instructor, again the same reason because he was abusing Indian women the same way,” Atimoyoo said. “With the Farm Instructor it was the woman’s husband that shot him. The priest that got shot, you’ve heard about priests getting away with all kinds of things, well in Frog Lake the priest that got shot was abusing youth, [it was his son he fathered that shot him]. It was a matter of justice.”
He said the history books that get their information from the Northwest Mounted Police or Indian Affairs do not have the actual stories from an Indigenous perspective.
“The history books say we’re a bunch of savages...but it’s not true, the things that happened a long time ago, there were really good reasons for happening the way they did.”
The next step is a gathering in North Battleford so that shared histories will continue to be acknowledged and talked about; Culbertson said this is the first of many conversations, because these events had national and international implications.