Big Bear

First major chief to refuse to sign Treaty No. Six

Big Bear in chains
National Archives of Canada

Born: around 1825, Jackfish Lake, Saskatchewan
Died: 17 January 1888 on Poundmaker Reserve, Saskatchewan

Big Bear (Mistahimaskwa) was the son of the chief of a small, mixed band of Cree and Ojibwa. By 1874, he was the head of sixty-five lodges and a man of considerable influence. When the Canadian government presented Treaty #6, Big Bear refused to sign. He believed that his people would lose their lifestyle and that they would be condemned to a life of perpetual poverty.

From 1878 to 1880, Big Bear travelled throughout western Canada and the United States in an attempt to establish a confederacy to negotiate with the government. This was nearly impossible so he turned his attention to uniting just the Cree people. The government still refused to negotiate however and, facing starvation and destitution, Big Bear was forced to give in. He signed an adhesion to the original treaty in 1882.

By 1884, Big Bear had begun to lose influence with his band and he was unable to keep his warriors from joining the North-West Rebellion. When members from his band killed nine white people at Frog Lake, Alberta in 1885, Big Bear was held responsible, even though he had continuously counseled peace. He surrendered at Fort Carlton on 2 July 1885 and was sentenced to three years in prison for treason. He was released early (March 1887) due to failing health and died on Poundmaker Reserve ten months later.

Additional trivia:

There is a monument dedicated to Big Bear on the Poundmaker reserve.

More information on:

Copy of Treaty No. 6 from Indian and Northern Affairs Canada
Map of the area

Suggested reading/viewing:

The Temptations of Big Bear The Temptations of Big Bear by Rudy Wiebe 

Big Bear - mini-series starring Gordon Tootoosis


By Name · B
By Province · Saskatchewan
By Claim to Fame · Law & Politics · Firsts
Group(s) · Aboriginal People

Added 14 April 2002.