Memory Browsing in Cypress Hills

RCMP October, 1942

Memory Browsing in Cypress Hills 162-172

By A/Sgt D. A. Fleming

After the white man came the Indian experienced a difficult transition period during which his freedom and natural instincts were sharply curbed. From these reminiscences in the Cypress Hills we gain a realization of the Indian’s diligence and perseverance in the ways of the white race. He accepted the changed conditions with good grace and today there is no citizen more loyal to the Empire.

One day last summer I stood on the top bench of the Cypress Hills and watched a trans-Canada plane wing its way north-west. Directly to the north I saw smoke billowing from a west-bound C.P.R. locomotive. A vast expanse lay before me, a land in which an incredible change had taken place in a comparatively short time. Here the great buffalo herds had wandered at will; the red man had been lord supreme. Later had come the explorer, and not long afterwards the hunter, the trapper and the trader. Here and there, following the coming of the Mounted Police, small settlements had sprung into being. Like a rolling snowball that gathers unto itself and grows rapidly, so the West had experienced cumulative changes and sustained a great transformation.

Scattered about, at old camp sites, can be found Indian relics – war clubs, stone hammers, stone spearheads and arrow points – symbol of an era that has gone. Often of skilful workmanship, they had been made by the Plains Indians, a resourceful and warlike people – tall, manly, with bold, prominent features, wide faces, high cheek-bones and raven braids decked with eagle feathers – physically superior to all the American aborigines.

* * *

Through half-closed eyes I contemplated the slopes in dreamy speculation and conjured up a vision of the days when the Plains Indians had fought wars and hunted the buffalo. They had lived a simple life, the buffalo supplying them with practically all necessities, for the hides when sewn together constituted their lodges, and the flesh together with roots and berries was their food. The berries were generally eaten as found, or pulverized and added to dried and pounded buffalo meat which was then mixed with fat into a delicacy known as ‘fine’ pemmican, as distinguished from ordinary pemmican.

The Indian’s nature was hard. From childhood he was taught to despise any show of pain and fear. His education


consisted of learning to ride the wiry ponies, of indulging in mimic warfare, of acquiring skill with bow and arrow and the hunting spear. All heavy and menial work was performed by the squaws; in addition to their household tasks the women, aided by the aged men, cripples and youths of the camp, followed the hunters and completed the work on the fallen animals, carrying the spoils back to their lodges. When buffalo were killed by stampeding huge herds over cut banks and slaughtering them en masse, the camp was moved to the scene of the kill.

These Plains Indians had their own loose system of government, and all ‘affairs of state’ were left to the chiefs and their councillors. In peace time the chiefs, medicine-men, sub-chiefs and councillors all had their say at the council, but in war time the tribal direction and control was in the hands of the war chiefs, men of outstanding valour and strategy.

The Plains Indians knew no boundaries except that they realized the danger of encroaching upon the territory of an enemy tribe, or that, when weakened by disease or war, it was wise to remain in home pastures.

They lacked the craftsmanship exhibited by the Aztecs or Inca. They were not builders, and unlike the southern natives, left nothing behind in the way of monuments or buildings. The workmanship in their pottery was inferior to that in the south. As far as is known they made no attempt to construct any musical instrument other than the bone whistle, the raw-hide tom-tom, and the rattle; the latter was usually made from the outer shells of buffalo hoofs. Unlike the early Peruvians, the Plains Indians possessed no skill in surgery; their medicine-man’s scope was limited to herbs and other simples which he administered with weird incantations.

In keeping with his mode of living, the Plains Indian’s religion was simple. He believed in the Great Spirit and was a sun-worshipper, but he didn’t practice the vicious human sacrifices indulged in by his southern neighbours.

True enough, in war he was savage. That he was ferocious and cruel has been stressed by many authorities and is revealed by numerous tales of raids on encampments and slaughtering of men, women and children. But the quarrels and fights he did have were usually with people of his own origin. It seems to have been overlooked that when the white men came to the West, the Plains Indian was, in most cases, exceptionally hospitable and courteous.

* * *

This man of the great buffalo pastures had his ambitions – to be a wise councillor, a good hunter and great warrior. The vast outdoors was the school where he learned to track game and foe; to acquaint himself with the habits and favourite haunts of various wild creatures. All this he had to know; his life depended upon it. Later he entered the warrior class where he learned to see without being seen; to hear without being heard; to take advantage of any natural cover; to travel long distances on foot; to back track; to avoid ambush; to attack at the right moment; to have complete control of his facial expressions; above all, to scorn fear and die valiantly. His life accustomed him to hardships and at times to extreme exertion. Many instances are recorded of the Indian travelling hundreds of miles on foot, before the coming of the horse – the great boon he received from the Spaniards.

At the council fires he listened attentively and from his elders received advice on politics, strategy, methods of procedure; from them came words of wisdom and eloquence. Here the young warrior learned about things he should and should not do; about the history of his people, their friends and enemies, the hard times endured and good times enjoyed by his forefathers. Few questions 166 were asked; the knowledge was acquired by listening.

On his own initiative he absorbed this information, for he was not compelled to listen or to educate himself. Yet instinctively he realized that his future welfare as well as that of the band was the concern of the council. His own principal desire was to be an asset to the tribe, and he knew there were three courses open to him: to be strong in the hunt; mighty in battle; wise in the council.

Little is known of the Indian before the advent of the white man on the North American continent; most of the available data spring from legend and mythology. But since the arrival of the white man, the Indian and his history, his activities and his troubles have become better known.

The Indian knew neither the strength nor the weakness of the new-comers. He knew nothing about firearms until the white man brought them, and upon being shown the effectiveness of this new weapon, the Indian burnt with the desire to own one. He learned that they were obtainable through trade and it was through trade that the white man with a most evasive, ever-moving table of trade-and-commerce values, established his influence over the Indian.

Henceforth the Indian’s perspective of life changed – traders, hunters and trappers began to push westward from the East. This influx was gradual because of the continuous friction between French and English; exploration was actually done more by individuals than by the great powers whose rulers were content to disregard everything except their profit from the fur catch. The buffalo, the deer and the birds had been always with the Indian; there was nothing to warn him they might become scarce or extinct. The rifles, ball and powder of the white man could be obtained for pelts and hides, so without stint the Indian hunted and killed, little realizing the disaster that lay ahead. Soon, the buffalo were gone. Too late the Indian discovered there was nothing left to hunt; too late he learned his mistake, and found himself destitute except for land which he knew not how to turn to his use.

I reflected on all this as I stood there in the Cypress Hills, and tried to picture to myself the discussions that must have taken place around the council fires after the catastrophe had fallen. It is doubtful if any race in the history of the world had had its source of livelihood wiped out so irrevocably. The Plains Indians were without sustenance and had to rely on the white man who was making such extended inroads into their territory. Yet through it all the Indian was amicably disposed towards the white race. He had been enticed to trade his heritage for a pittance, yet, except in a few isolated cases, he showed no desire for revenge.

Not until the Metis question arose, in 1869 and 1885, did the Plains Indians question the white man’s law, and even then only part of their number joined the rebels. After the rebellion of 1881 the Indians turned to agriculture – a 167 disagreeable step for them, as hunting is hereditary in their make-up – and they are gradually adapting themselves to this new life. Much has still to be done before they will be completely self-supporting, but there is every indication that in time they will be. The Indian has remained true to the various treaties signed by him. He is loyal to Canada. I often wonder if sons of our white inhabitants are as loyal. History has been unkind to the red man, yet he has submitted to a great transition and accepted the new life with a grace and dignity that would tax many of us to emulate.

* * *

During the present crisis Canada’s Indians are upholding nobly the loyal traditions of their gallant ancestors. According to preliminary figures compiled by the department of Mines and Resources at Ottawa, over twelve hundred Indians have already enlisted in the armed forces in Canada. This figure is expected to be increased considerably when all the agencies throughout the country have reported. There are, no doubt, many Indian enlistments which have not been reported to the department. Some Canadian Indians have enlisted in the American Air Force and may now be striking down the enemy with winged Tomahawks instead of the tomahawks which their forebears used in days gone by.

According to the official records of the department more than four thousand Indians enlisted for active service in the Canadian Expeditionary Force during the last war. This number represented approximately thirty-five per cent of the Indian male population of military age in the nine provinces. The fine record of the Indians in the last war appears in particularly favorable light, when it is remembered that their services were entirely voluntary as they were exempted from the provisions of the Military Service Act.

The Indian soldiers gave an excellent account of themselves at the front, and their officers commended them most-highly for their courage, intelligence, efficiency, stamina, and discipline. In daring and intrepidity, they were second to none. Many of them were hunters in civil life and in consequence were expert marksmen. Because of their experience they were able to render valuable service as snipers, and in this branch of fighting were unexcelled. They displayed characteristic patience and self-control when engaged in this work and were known to sit for hours at vantage points waiting for a chance at enemy snipers. In this way they did much to demoralize the sniping system of the enemy.

Today, the Indians of Canada are found in almost every branch of the armed forces, and may be relied upon to follow the example of courage and devotion to duty set by their fathers a quarter of a century ago.

* * *

The Metis differed from the Indian in many respects. Neither red or white man, he was an opportunist who used his own camp or lived with the Indian as it suited his purpose. The fire 168

of resentment towards the white intrusion that had burned at Fort Garry in 1869, was the result of misunderstandings on both sides, and it smouldered for years. The Metis, in many instances better off in worldly goods than the white settlers, constituted the main opposition to the new order. They were more mobile than the whites; they recognized few laws; unhampered by any colonization scheme, they roamed, hunted, trapped and traded at will. And to add to the general unrest, the whites themselves often fought with each other. Everything at that time portended what was to happen, but the authorities, despite warnings from the Mounted Police, ignored the growing spark of rebellion. Through all that happened afterwards, the Indian, though a pawn in the game, remained loyal to the Queen.

Before me was the stage where all this took place. Before me stretched those same plains upon which the Indian had oriented himself to the white man’s way of life. Here and there an occasional knoll, ridge or hill loomed up.

A blue haze hung suspended in the north marking the location of the South Saskatchewan River. To the north-east the land appears to rise slightly – the great Sand Hills embracing the ranches of the Martins, Millies, Mackenzies and Minors. This was the shadow land of the Blackfoot where they lived as shadows after death. To them it was known as a territory afar off, but to the Plains Crees it was a familiar ground in which they hunted. Even today their camp sites, circles of stones, and fireplaces can be found. The east side of a small lake is drab grey in colour from the buffalo bones which litter it.

The Sand Hills are not high, but they are quite rugged and there is a fascination about them. They appear to be immovable, yet some of them are slowly and continuously shifting. Although too arid for the homesteader, the Sand Hills are not, as many would assume upon first seeing them, desert land. Water is close to the surface, and there are several springs in the vicinity. White-faced Herefords graze peacefully in this last stronghold of the Saskatchewan rancher. Poplar, black birch and berry bushes are fairly plentiful, and here too is the home of the prairie chicken and antelope.

To the south once stood Fort Walsh, erected in 1875 by Inspr James Morrow Walsh of the North West Mounted Police. In my mind’s eye I saw ‘B’ troop with its mounted men, ox carts and wagons trooping down off the bench into Battle Creek Coulee and splashing through the creek at a spot later known as the Macleod Crossing. This trail led from Fort Macleod, for several years the headquarters of the Force. The logging industry sprang up as the erection of the Mounted Police stockade, guard-room, prison, store-rooms, men’s quarters, stables, shops and hospital progressed. At Fort Walsh vital decisions were reached, and assistance was rendered to Indian and white men alike. On the little flat below the fort was where Piapot received a cast-off team and wagon stuffed with provisions, and was sent on his journey to a reserve near Fort Qu’Appelle with his tribe of several hundred.


Piapot was as wily a beggar as ever lived. Old Paul Lavielle, late scout of the N.W.M.P., once remarked, “Piapot could take a dead man out of his moccasins.” No wonder Fort Walsh breathed easier when it saw the last of him and his band.

Fort Walsh is no more. On the little parcel of land that is occupied, now marked by four cement blocks, the decision was made in 1876 to advance and meet Sitting Bull, Chief of the Sioux, who came to Canada after defeating Custer at the Little Big Horn River in Montana.

The Plains Indians, or the Horse Indians as they were often called, when aroused, were exceptionally savage. Commissioner Macleod of the Mounted Police had acted wisely when he laid down the law and made a friend of Crowfoot, the chief of the Blackfoot Confederacy which consisted of the Blackfoot, Bloods, Piegans and Sarcees.

Tribal discipline was strong among the Blackfoot and their allies; and, when Crowfoot gave his word in the treaty of 1877, his followers, to their ever-lasting credit, honoured it. But the chief was confronted with a difficult situation. His people were hounded by runners who endeavoured to talk them into rebellion. He disliked the coming of the white man as much as any Indian, but a fearless, armed constabulary had convinced him that here was a power greater than his own. After witnessing the white man’s swift justice, he believed that in it was something that would protect him and his people against unscrupulous persons who roamed the territories.

Among other matters that cropped up and kept the police and loyal chiefs busy, was the stock question. The law of the white man was at odds with the Indians’ very nature. Hitherto the Indian had treated as his right anything foot loose on the prairie; it was his for the taking. To steal from his own people was a crime, but to steal from other tribes was considered a paramount virtue, even though such action resulted in a return raid by the enemy and the killing of his own brethren. That was the Indian’s life; he knew no other. It was an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth – usually a scalp for a scalp. But things changed after the white man came: when the Indian helped himself to the horses or cattle of settlers on the prairie the Mounted Police intervened.

The police would first call on the chief, thereby placing on his shoulders the burden of producing the guilty person. Sometimes this was a ticklish


undertaking, especially if the braves were in a warlike mood. However, once the police were certain they were on the right track they pushed things through to the finish with courage and tenacity. The annals of the Force are studded with examples in which the police executed their duties unhesitatingly in the face of superior odds. The Indians recognized the courage of the redcoats and they were impressed with the fact that the policemen kept their word, even when confronted with great danger. Bravery was the Indian’s stock-in-trade; he was pleased to see it in others. It drew his admiration.

Some Indian camps were quite large. Piapot’s camp at Davis Lake (now Cypress Lake) was probably five hundred strong. Sitting Bull’s camp when he crossed into Canada was 350 lodges, despite the loss of about four hundred lodges that he had sustained while crossing the Missouri on his hurried departure for Canada.

The Indians could move from place to place with surprising speed when it was necessary; for instance, the Sioux were able to escape capture by the U.S. Cavalry after the Custer Massacre. One reason that such swift flight was possible was because the Indians used the simple travois: two trailing poles, serving as shafts for dog or horse, and bearing a platform of buffalo skin for the load.

On the little eminence to the northeast of the fort site a Blackfoot war party had ridden pell-mell through a Cree camp, leaving a trail of death behind them as evidence of their audacity. Other spots are fading reminders of bitter clashes among the Indians, and of interventions by the custodians of the law.

It is with pride that we honour such men as Macleod, Irvine, Walsh, their officers and men, who in such dangerous situations gave the correct decisions and acted at the right moment. Tactful direction was certainly needed in helping the Indians to adapt themselves to their new mode of life, and to assign them to their proper reservations to suppress their inborn liking for travel was no small task and it was made more difficult by the activities of the Metis. But in the main, the Indians of the Canadian plains submitted with good grace to the restraint of law and order, and any trouble that was experienced with them was usually fomented by the Metis or other outsiders.

Still looking towards the south, I caught sight of the low, dim outline of Signal Butte, a very old mass of slate,


sandstone and lignite that was pushed up ages ago by some great geological upheaval. Beyond it I could see the Bear Paw Mountains of Montana. To the east and south-east the Old Man On His Back Plateau thrust its dull form against the sky. Simmering in the heat to the south-west lay that long stretch of prairie along Milk River from the Wild Horse Flats to the Sweet Grass Hills.

In former days Indian signal lights on the Butte were visible from the Cypress Hills, the Bear Paw Mountains, the Little Rockies and the Old Man On His Back. Plentifully supplied with buck brush and soft coal for fires, Signal Butte was an ideal point from which to send signals, lying as it does on the south side of the Sweet Grass Hills, overlooking the Wild Horse Flats on Sage Creek, the breaks above the site of vanished Fort Walsh, and the hills around old Fort Assiniboine in Montana. Although there is nothing majestic about it, with its head rising just above the surrounding haze, it has a greater altitude than one would think.

The telegraph line that ran from Montana to the N.W.M.P. detachment at Ten Mile on Battle Creek followed the old Fort Assiniboine-Fort Walsh bull trail and skirted the base of Signal Butte. Many people living in the neighbourhood of the butte do not know its name; to them it is just another prairie knoll.

To the north-west of Signal Butte is Willow Creek Valley which leads towards the west end of the Cypress Hills. Bare Coulee runs off at a tangent just where the disappearing bull trail crosses the creek at Griffiths’ ranch. Despite the belief of many, the name has no connection with bears – black, brown or grizzly. The coulee was so named by a police patrol under Reg. No. 899, Sgt Jack Richard, because they came across a settler there in a skimpy state of dress.

Far beyond Bare Coulee and slightly to the right, three hills thrust their heads up through the summer haze. These are the Sweet Grass Hills and one, the West Butte, which stands out more prominently than the others, is known as the ‘weather vane’ for when it wears its cap the wise motorist leaves ‘Old Lizzie’ in the garage. This peak and the two adjoining hills, Gold Butte and East Butte, are visible for miles. On a clear day it seems but a short distance off, yet in reality it is ninety miles away. On a hot day, when the haze is exceptionally heavy, the peaks look as though they were more like 190 miles distant.

Between the Cypress and the Sweet Grass Hills lies a basin that is a regular storm centre. Here clouds often gather and start on turbulent journeys. At first rain seems imminent, and in a short time, certain. But it doesn’t come, and the clouds continue to drift overhead. The wind grows stronger. Small spirals of dust whirl across the prairie. And just when a terrific downpour again seems inevitable the clouds alter their course. Upon approaching the summit of the Cypress Hills, they veer off. The wind dies down, the summer heat again settles on the plains. But a change takes place in the Cypress Hills. The clouds, in passing, have chilled the atmosphere, and the hills, because of their altitude, retain the pleasant coolness.

* * *

I lift my head to inhale the freshness, and in my mind’s eye see a herd of buffalo thundering from Egg Lake towards Pendant d’Oreille. Elk graze in the coulee below me. At Davis Lake beyond, smoke rises from an Indian camp.

Something flashes in the distance. I lean forward to see what it is and discover that the windshield of a car on No. 13 highway has reflected the sun’s rays. The thundering buffalo, the grazing elk, the encamped Indians all fade into nothing. I am back to the present. My vision is gone – gone like the traders, the hunters, the liquor pedlars who lived here before I came. Gone too are the 172 early police forts and most of the personnel who manned them; the old-time hitching posts in the villages, the buckboard, the bull trains and the prairie schooners.

North of me a locomotive steams by; a plane soars overhead. The old order changeth. Towns, villages, railways, highways, and fields of grain have altered the prairie’s face, but the same old hills are there. Today ‘Thar’s gold in them thar hills’ all right. Not the gold we know, but the gold of ranches that nestle in the coulees. The strong hard grass, so closely linked with the south-west, still grows as in the past; the deer and antelope and elk still roam the Cypress Hills, in the sanctuary of the Forest Reserve. But the buffalo and the free Indian are gone forever.

Yes, the old order changeth. But not entirely. For you still receive a hearty welcome in the hills: “All right, stranger. Come in and eat.”

One feels at home in the Cypress Hills.

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