The Willow Cree Version of The Duck Lake Battle
(from The Indian View of the 1885 Uprising by A. Blair Stonechild for the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College, May - 1985)
Although there is no shortage of written material on the Northwest Rebellion of 1885, Indian Elders have said that the full story of the Indian involvement has yet to be told.
As one Elder put it, This story was told only at night and at bedtime. And not the whole story. No way. They did not want to tell on anyone who was involved. It is like when something is covered with a blanket and held down on the ground on all four sides. They talked about it in parts only. And they got nervous telling it. They were afraid of another uprising and more trouble. And they were also afraid of getting the young people into trouble.
Some elders did not like to tell the stories simply because it made them sad. Other Elders did not tell their stories to any white person, even priests, as they were afraid that these stories would be used for the profit of others.
Most historians have used only written documents and official interpretations in their research. After the Rebellion the Indian people did not have the freedom or luxury of doing their own research and putting forward their own views. As a result, contemporary interpretations of the Indian role have remained very biased.
First Nation involvement in the Resistance is said to have started at the Duck Lake Battle on March 26, 1885. A few First Nations were among Gabriel Dumont's group of about 30 men; but then, considering that the battle itself occurred on Beardy's Reserve, it should not be so surprising that they were present at all. One of the least understood aspects of the Duck Lake Battle is why one of Chief Beardy's Headmen (Assiyiwin) was shot during the purported parley preceding the fight. How did an old, half-blind, unarmed Headman of the Band become involved in the fracas?
What does Willow Cree oral history have to say about this? The following story is told by Harry Michael of the Beardy's and Okemasis Willow Cree First Nation. Harry Michael's grandfather was the nephew of Assiyiwin:
Assiyiwin had gone to town, to Duck Lake to visit a friend, a half-breed by the name of Wolfe. Over there he heard that there was going to be some trouble. Something very bad was going to happen. He had gone to town on horseback and he bought some goods from the store in Duck Lake which he tied on his saddle. He then started walking home. The town of Duck Lake was not too far from the camp.
The old man had very poor eyesight - he was almost blind. And as he was approaching the reserve and the camp he noticed something. He heard a lot of voices, a lot of talking. But he could not see anything until he came near the people.
It was then a half-breed spoke to him - called in Cree and said, "Stop! Don't you know what is going to happen?"
Assiyiwin answered, "Yes, I heard about it."
The half-breed replied, "You have walked right into it. Turn back where you came from."
Assiyiwin answered, "Ha! I cannot turn back. I'm going home. This is my reserve land. If you are going to have a battle, if you are going to spill blood, you cannot do it on our reserve land." And he remained standing there with his horse.
The half-breed threw his coat to Assiyiwin. His name was Joe McKay. He said, "Step over my coat....I'll shoot you."
That was the time when Assiyiwin heard someone saying while he was standing there, "Don't shoot each other. Don't shoot." It was said in Cree.
It was a half-breed. He must have been very brave, coming in the centre of the two sides of the people on horseback, half-breeds and Indians on one side and the Northwest Mounted Police on the other side. He was trying to tell the people not to shoot each other. He came running from the half-breed side. He did not know the name of this man. He was waving his hands shouting "don't shoot each other! People are trying to find a way on how they can get along better. Don't try and kill each other." He got as far as their location.
It was then Assiyiwin stepped over and passed the coat of McKay and said, "I am going home."
Assiyiwin performed some brave acts when he had the strength and power in his legs. He had some scalps in a wooden box. He had fought and killed in battles and scalped: this was a brave man. That is why he did not back out from Joe McKay's orders. He refused Joe McKay and stepped over past the coat and said he was going to go on home. He was not about to get frightened. His bravery must have returned to him in spite that he was an old man.
The gun went off and fired. McKay shot the old man Assiyiwin down, hitting him in the stomach. Then there were blasts of gunfire coming from all directions.
They later came after the old man. He didn't die right away that night. He died at sunrise the following morning. He was the first Cree Indian killed. That's how my grandfather told this story.
The official interpretation of the event at Duck Lake was that Beardy's Band had joined the Resistance. The story of Assiyiwin, however, presents an entirely different view. An older man, with poor eyesight, Assiyiwin was hardly likely to be associating with young fighters. Moreover, as one of Beardy's Headman, he probably shared Beardy's disassociation from Riel's activities and Beardy's dislike of outside intruders on their reserve land.
It appears that Assiyiwin's mistake was being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and being too bold in asserting his dignity at what was occurring. Gabriel Dumont did not see his brother Isidore or Assiyiwin approach Crozier and McKay. What was probably not so much a parley as an effort to defuse a tense situation turned into a senseless slaughter when Joe McKay pulled his trigger.
It later became clear that Chief Beardy had not ordered his men to support the resistance, yet through the incident at Duck Lake the Willow Cree people were fully implicated.
Sketch of Chief Beardy
1885 Resistance - The Duck Lake Battle