While researching material for my current novel, I did a lot of reading about the Metis and Cree resistance, referred to in our history books as the Northwest Rebellion. Resistance or rebellion is a matter of perspective. Like all reading about First Nations history, it was heart-breaking and gripping and I felt that it should be as well known as other critical historical events, like the wars of 1812 or the American civil war. Unfortunately I’ve had to cut the material from my novel. It’s a tangent. I’m prone to tangents. Whatever grabs my attention and interest and emotion ends up in my work. Some of it stays and can be worked in. But much of it has to go because it isn’t really a part of the story. Now, though, in the blogosphere, there is a place for it. So here is an excerpt that introduces Gabriel Dumont, a hero whose name should be better known. The Metis are descendents of French-Canadian and Scots fur traders who married Cree and Anishnaabeg women, best known for marksmanship, inventing the Red River cart, and fiddle playing.
The last battle between the Métis and the Lakota, called by their enemies the Sioux, took place in Grand Coteau in the 1850’s. The Métis were following the buffalo, whose millions had diminished to a few scarce and mangy herds, and all the people of the Prairies were hungry. Commercial hunters had killed off the buffalo, taking the skins and leaving the meat to rot, encouraged by the federal government as this cleared space for the railroads and because hungry Indians were easier to conquer. That spring the Métis were travelling in two camps, the smaller with about eighty families, south to the Cheyenne River in North Dakota, sending horses back and forth between them in case of attack. There were rumours that the Sioux were angry about the incursion into their territory.
When the first party reached Grand Coteau, their scouts rode up a bluff and spied a large camp of Sioux warriors, thousands of them. They rode back down to warn their party, who sent word to the other Métis. In the meantime they made a circle of their big heavy carts, which the Métis had invented for travelling the Prairie. They placed the Red River carts wheel to wheel with the shafts upward, facing the enemy, piling packs, skins, saddles, between and under to make the barricade solid. The women and children dug trenches just behind the carts, leading their oxen and horses into the centre, tying them up to stakes there while the men were digging rifle pits a few yards out from the barricade.
Five scouts were sent to parlay with the Sioux. What kind of negotiation could there be between thousands of warriors and a few families? Two of the Métis scouts managed to escape but the others were held prisoner while Sioux representatives came to speak with the Métis, pacifying their fears, saying that their prisoners would be freed in the morning. The Métis held council. If they shot at the Sioux when they met the next day, the prisoners might be killed. But chances were good that the Sioux scouts had come only to survey the Métis strength, of which there was little. They’d seen the small camp, easily overrun if the Sioux got close enough. It was a hard decision to risk their kinsmen’s lives. But they decided to fight even if it meant the three prisoners would be killed. Better to sacrifice three than everyone. The campfires crackled, the smell of kindling rose in the prairie wind.
The ponies of the Sioux were piebald and pintos, and in the morning the sun glinted on the spears and rifles of mounted warriors, the sun as hot as snow was cold out there where nothing stood in the way of wind or sun. The Sioux rode out, two thousand warriors along with the prisoners, hands tied behind their backs. A group of Métis men went out to meet them, playing along as if they believed that the Sioux would simply hand over the hostages, while in the firing pits, marksmen readied their rifles. Then one of the prisoners kicked his horse and broke free.
As the Sioux charged, the Métis raced back toward the barricade, barely reaching it in time. Leaping down into the trenches, they grabbed their rifles. Fire. Re-load. Fire. Make every shot count. Volley after volley. The Métis were great marksmen. It was said that you would see nothing but a puff of smoke before your death. They pushed back the Sioux, horses wheeling as they regrouped and charged. Again the Métis fired. Every bullet took down a man and the Sioux couldn’t break through the line. They withdrew for the night. In the Métis camp, a child whimpered. One of their seventy-seven gunmen had died.
The next day the Sioux came again. Warriors fell off horses. Sometimes the horses fell, though the Métis tried not to harm them, for horses were valuable. The Sioux were fighting an invisible enemy shooting from the pits they’d dug, unseen aboveground. So quick were they that the warriors with rifles couldn’t mark them. As soon as a man aimed, the target had disappeared. But surely two thousand warriors could take the Métis. How long could they hold out? Then from a distance came the thundering approach of horses. The larger party of Métis was arriving and they’d brought reinforcements. The Saulteaux had joined them.
The Saulteaux were the plains branch of the Anishinaabeg, also called Ojibway or Chippewa. They’d once held the territory around Sault Ste. Marie, or Pawating as it was in their language. Many bands of Saulteaux had moved west, away from the European newcomers and toward the buffalo, allying themselves with the Métis, the mixed people, descendents of French and Scots fur traders and their Anishinaabeg or Cree wives.
With the arrival of the Saulteaux and the larger Métis party, the battle was decided. The Sioux made peace. It was the last great battle between the Native peoples.
Among the Métis gunmen was a thirteen year old boy. His name was Gabriel Dumont. Thirty years later, in 1885, he was one of the leaders of the Métis who decided to resist the breaking of treaties and expropriation of their land in what would become Saskatchewan. They had had enough, their children hungry, unable to grow. The women hid old people and children by the bluffs, melting lead lined kettles to make bullets. The men fought until they ran out of ammunition and they kept fighting, firing pebbles from their rifles, the great Métis marksmen.
But this time they were brought down by the Gatling gun, firing two hundred rounds a minute and easy to use by a man with little skill. The soldiers had come west by train and by sleigh, travelling for a month, arriving with spring. They were cold, poorly supplied, not dressed for winter. And they had to walk where the railway lines ended, portaging over land until they reached another train line. Those who could had got their own rifles because government issue were thirty years old and useless against the Métis sharpshooters. And there was the Gatling. For years afterward the Grenadiers voluntary regiment sang:
They’ve had a wash since old Batoche, they look so spruce and clean,
They daze your eye, as they pass you by, with a daze of soldier sheen,
They are not toys, these soldier boys, they were not made for show,
For they can fight with all their might, when the bloody bugles blow!
The ladies’ hearts go pit-a-pat, as the drums go rat, tat, tat, tat, tat,
And the brassy bugles blow!
Their base was the old armory, a ten minute drive from my house.
Even to this day the Grenadiers in Toronto annually celebrate their victory in the west. Dumont escaped and was part of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show for a while. He was the only one of the leaders to get his land back and die of old age.
For more information: Gabriel Dumont Institute and Virtual Museum of Metis History and Culture