NATIVE LEADERS OF CANADA
excerpt: Piapot by Robert A. Innes
I have no doubt he has been too harshly dealt with. He had been a celebrated old chief for many years—and a great warrior in his time. (Lord Minto)
Piapot (also spelled Payipwat or Payepot) was born in eastern Saskatchewan or in western Manitoba and became a highly respected warrior, religious person and political leader among the Cree, Assiniboine and Saulteaux people. Originally his name was Kisikaw-awasis (sometimes spelled Kisikawasan) meaning ‘Flash in the Sky,’ referring to a lightning storm that occurred the day he was born. In his childhood years, the Dakota captured him and his grandmother. There is some disagreement about how long he lived with the Dakota; he nonetheless lived among them for many years until he was later taken by the Cree and returned to his people. Upon his return, he was given the name Piapot, which has been translated as meaning ‘Hole in the Sioux’ or ‘One who knows the secrets of the Sioux,’ because of his knowledge of the ‘secret’ Dakota cultural ways.
In his adult years he gained a reputation as an exceptional hunter and warrior. This led him to become the leader of the Young Dogs, a mixed Assiniboine and Cree band. The Young Dogs territorial range stretched from the Qu’Appelle Valley in Saskatchewan into North Dakota and Montana, where they hunted for buffalo and warred with the Dakota and Blackfoot. Since the Young Dogs were fiercely independent of the Hudson’s Bay Company, the fur traders labelled them troublemakers and refused to recognize Piapot’s leadership. According to fur trader Isaac Cowie, Piapot responded to the company’s rejection of his authority by sending it a letter in which he stated, “I am Piapot, Lord of the Heaven and Earth.”
In 1870 some eight hundred Cree, Saulteaux, Assiniboine and Métis warriors led by Piapot, Little Popular, and other major chiefs set out from Cypress Hills on a major offensive against the Blackfoot. Piapot embarked on the journey; however, a few days before he dreamt that the battle would turn into a disaster. He decided his band would not take part in the battle but was unable to convince the other chiefs. Unfortunately for the Cree, Piapot’s dream proved to be correct, as the Blackfoot were alerted to the attack and easily defeated the Cree and their allies.
Piapot signed an adhesion to Treaty 4 in 1875, as he had not been notified of the treaty negotiations that took place the year before. By the late 1870s, many of the chiefs who were not satisfied with the terms and implementation of Treaty 4 and Treaty 6, signed in 1876, lead their bands to the Cypress Hills. At Cypress Hills, Piapot had selected his reserve, and some members of his band began to farm. However, the government feared a large concentration of people would lead to the creation of an Indian confederacy it would be unable to control. The Indian Commissioner, Edgar Dewdney, instituted a starvation policy—no food rations were to be distributed at Cypress Hills—in an attempt to force the bands out of the region. Piapot was one of the last chiefs to leave. Many of his band members succumbed to illness and starvation. However, Piapot was not happy with the situation as he is reported to have handed his treaty flag and medal back to the Indian commissioner. He eventually settled on his new reserve in the Qu’Appelle Valley.
Piapot did not take part in the 1885 Métis conflict lead by Louis Riel. This was not necessarily an indication of either his loyalty to the Crown or his satisfaction with the treaty implementation. The government had stationed an army garrison on his reserve during the conflict, which all but assured that Piapot would not participate in the conflict.
Between 1885 and until Piapot’s death, the Canadian government through the Indian Act implemented many policies meant to assimilate First Nations people. Piapot resisted many of these policies and was critical of Indian Affairs officials’ treatment of First Nations peoples. He is reported to have said that the Indian Agent was “so mean he carries a linen rag in his pocket into which to blow his nose for fear he might blow away something of value.” When William H. Graham, who had lost one of his legs, was appointed Indian Commissioner, Piapot was quick to point out that, “Now I know the Government is going to break the Treaty because when it was signed it was understood that it would last as long as the grass grew, the winds blew, the rivers ran and men walked on two legs, and now they have sent us an Agent who has only one leg.”
His resistance lead the government to depose him of his title as of band chief and send him to prison. In 1894 the government banned several aspects of the Sun Dance ceremony. Piapot, who was a Sun Dance leader, refused to stop performing the ceremony stating: “I will agree that my people not pray to their God in their way, if the Commissioner will agree not to pray to his God in his way.” A few years later he was arrested on grounds of public drunkenness, but he believed it was really because he had not stopped performing the ceremony. He was later arrested again for apparently interfering with police attempting to arrest a band member. Commissioner Graham, who considered Piapot to be obstinate and a troublemaker, claimed he was not popular with other Indians and moved to depose him as chief. He finally convinced Ottawa that Piapot’s continued adherence to the Sun Dance was an impediment to Indian assimilation, and in 1902 Piapot was deposed as chief of his band.
Although he never fully accepted Christianity, he was open to discussing Christian beliefs but told the priest that, “I will only accept half of your religion because you may turn out to be wrong after all and I would have nothing to fall back upon.” Upon his death, Piapot had a Christian style funeral as he was buried in a coffin, but his knees, in Indian tradition, were brought up against his chest.
Robert A. Innes
Plains Cree warrior chief at age 24
Fluent in five Native languages
Signatory of Treaty Number 4 and Treaty Number 5
Strong supporter of aboriginal spiritual practices
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