BATTLEFORD, Sask. – An artifact believed to have belonged to a 19th century Plains Cree leader who played an important role in treaty talks and was known as a peacekeeper has been returned to his descendants.
Parks Canada has transferred a staff assigned to Chief Poundmaker from a collection of historic objects in the custody of the agency.
The staff was returned in a private ceremony Wednesday at Fort Battleford National Historic Site. It’s part of a healing journey that his family says will help Poundmaker’s spirit rest.
“In our culture, all objects have a life,” said Paulina Poundmaker, Brown Bear Woman, who is Chief Poundmaker’s great-great-granddaughter.
“There is power in these objects. This is why these artifacts have no place in museums. Sacred ceremonial artifacts should be cared for by families.
A spokeswoman for Parks Canada said it acquired the staff in 1951 from Saskatchewan. It was originally one of many artifacts that belonged to the North West Mounted Police Indian Memorial and Museum in Battleford, Saskatchewan.
Floyd Favel, curator of the Chief Poundmaker Museum, said Parks Canada mislabeled the staff as working clubs, but they were used by the chief as ceremonial staff who symbolized the conduct of his people.
“By removing the staff, what the Canadian government has done is symbolically render us leaderless,” Favel said.
Under Poundmaker Cree Nation laws, descendants are required to initiate and direct the repatriation. Poundmaker’s family members are working to bring home his belongings, which they believe were taken from him under duress.
Paulina Poundmaker said the family will lend the staff to Parks Canada. It will take place in a secure, climate-controlled location at Fort Battleford Historic Site, approximately 130 kilometers northwest of Saskatoon.
The loan is temporary until the family is able to move the chief’s belongings to a private Poundmaker Cree Nation museum. There are still dozens of his objects in museums across Canada, the United States and Europe, said his great-great-granddaughter.
His goal is to bring them all back.
“Today is the front page. There are more pages to this story,” she said.
Poundmaker — whose Cree name is Pitikwahanapiwiyin — is considered one of the great aboriginal leaders of the 19th century and played a key role in the negotiations that led to Treaty 6, which covered west-central Alberta and of present-day Saskatchewan.
He is also remembered as a peacekeeper during the North West Rebellion of 1885, making the site of Wednesday’s ceremony significant to the family, as it was the area where the Battle of Cut Knife Hill took place between soldiers of Lt. Col. William Otter’s government and several First Nations.
On May 2, 1885, Otter and his command attacked approximately 1,500 Aboriginal people, including women and children. The native groups managed to overcome the attack, and during Otter’s retreat Chief Poundmaker persuaded other native leaders to stop the fight.
Poundmaker was later convicted of treason for leading his warriors into battle against Canadian forces. He was sentenced to three years in prison, served seven months, and died shortly after his release.
In 2019, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau exonerated him.
“What is happening today is an opportunity to create new memory and move our relationship with Canada forward,” said Paulina Poundmaker.
“There must be forgiveness”.
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on May 4, 2022.