Isabelle Little Bear


by Ovi. F. Baril, Editor of The Bonnyville Tribune, 1968

Mrs. Sam Johns (nee Isabelle Little Bear) is 85 years of age and living with her relatives on the Kehewin Indian Reservation. She is the daughter of Chief Little Bear and the granddaughter of Chief Big Bear, both of whom played an important part in the Riel Rebellion. Mrs. Johns was twelve years of age when the Rebellion was touched off and was an eye witness when the first shot was fired at Fort Pitt, which shot took the life of the factor, Hank Quinn.

Upon hearing of Mrs. John's colourful past, we have been negotiating with her through an interpeter for an interview. Mrs. Johns was always reluctant to tell the White Men her personal experiences, especially her experiences during this particular era when the Indians rebelled against their white conquerors. Mrs. Johns did however, consent to tell this writer her exact story as she lived it. She however asked that her words be printed as she tells them, without embellishment, but truthfully as she herself would tell the story.

She then asked her interpreter why this writer wanted to print her story, because she felt that her experiences were not unique or a secret since the Riel Rebellion had been written often and the Frog Lake incident had hit the presses many times. When told that her story would be printed as told and that it would possibly be the first time this part of Canada's history had ever been told by an Indian and printed as such, she agreed.

We believe that we have interviewed one of the last remaining links which connects the past Riel Rebellion Era with the present 20th Century. We also believe that this is the first time an Indian of yesteryear has ever had the opportunity to tell his own side of the story which surrounds the Riel Rebellion. Finally, we are convinced that we interviewed an honest old lady, who has no wish to deceive us with a ficticious story but simply a firm wish to tell, once and for all the story from an Indian's point of view of that unfortunate era.

After Canada became a British Colony, the North American Indian did not have very long to wait before he was to see his country become an overcrowded arena. Frontiers of civilization pushed westward towards the Rockies and in their wake, eliminated the buffalo and game until the Indian race was faced with two alternatives, revolt to regain his kingdom or try and live like the White. In 1885, the Indians across Canada decided to revolt and this passage of Canadian History is now known as the Riel Rebellion.

Our story deals with a young Indian girl twelve years old, who lived during the time of the Riel Rebellion and saw how her people reacted at Frog Lake when the Indians across this nation decided to take up arms against their white conquerors.

She tells us what were the circumstances which prompted her people to go on the war path at Frog Lake. She saw her peaceloving relatives and friends go into a wild frenzy and kill, loot and burn.

Why did these people commit these atrocities? What prompted them to revolt against the Whites? Why did the Indians choose the path of terror instead of continuing to live as they had been living since the White man had taken their land? These questions can be answered very briefly, but in order that our readers get a clearer picture of the circumstances and events which surrounds this upheaval, we have (Mrs.) Isabelle Johns tell us her story as she saw it and lived through it. The reader is asked to keep in mind the fact that the Indians failed to record dates, therefore, the important occurrences, which have already been entered in history books, will suffice for reference. The Indian tells her story exactly as she remembers it, but uses historical events as guiding posts in her story. For example, when she speaks of an event which occurred before 1885, she refers to that event as being one which took place before the Rebellion.

The first part of this story begins when Canada became a British Colony and in that way this affected the Indian population. Also, the Indians' opinion of the deal their representative, Chief Sweet Grass, made with the British. (Mrs.) Isabelle Little Bear is in a position to explain how the Indian felt, thought and prayed after they lost their land. She also explains why some of the White men became very good friends while others were not acceptable. Her own experiences as revealed only begin when she was about twelve years of age; however, she heard first-hand accounts of what happened before she was old enough to remember, and so starts her story by telling us what her father and other leaders often told around camp fires of the days when the Indian was first introduced to the laws of Whites.


by Isabelle (Johns) Little Bear

My people belonged to that great race called the Plain Indian. We lived entirely on the buffalo who provided us with food, shelter and clothing. We were not trappers or growers of seeds, although we did obtain some of our food from edible roots and plants. We were not a hostile people but we were not cowards. We always made attempts to solve problems in an amicable way. We roamed the vast prairie regions of Western Canada and lived like we were meant to live until one day, our great chief Sweet Grass, the chief of many tribes of Prairie Indians was invited by the Whites to travel East where a meeting was to take place. Our Chief Sweet Grass was told through an interpreter that the Great 'White Queen, who ruled over all this land, had long arms and would, therefore take care of all her children and make sure that none of them ever went hungry.’ Chief Sweet Grass signed the Treaty and was given a beautiful gun. Upon his return to the Frog Lake area and his tribes, Chief Sweet Grass was killed by his Brother-in-law. Several reasons why were expounded around our camp fires; however, the best explanation of this unfortunate incident is that this was a way in which some of the Prairie Indians could voice their protest against Chief Sweet Grass and the deal he made. It must be further explained that the Prairie Indians were not consulted before this Treaty was signed. Therefore; it is obvious that our people resented being sold out of land which rightly belonged to us all.

Soon after the Treaty had been signed, Whites came amongst us and established agencies, from where food, clothing and supplies could be purchased or traded for. This agencies also provided an intermediary between the Indian and the White rulers and also helped the Indian become more familiar with food and cattle raising methods.

In amongst the areas served by these agencies appear churches, trading posts and the such. They tried their best teach the Indian the ways of the White Man but we were n ready to change our entire mode of life overnight. Consequently, we often went hungry because our men did not like the sudden change. Our men had only one means to earn food, and that was to chop wood for the river steamers in change for a piece of bacon or a sack of grain. There was limit how much firewood the Hudson Bay steamer (The Beaver) could use, since it sometimes made only one trip the Saskatchewan River a season. Therefore, there were times when the men of my village (Frog Lake) couldn't chop wood for food or anything. It was at this time that our chief Big Bear organized his last big hunt which ended in a near castrophe. I was an infant then (1881) but I grew up to know that during this period, my mother and sister died and it was also during this sad era of our lives that my people suffered terribly.

Prior to Chief Big Bear's last big hunt, our people realized they had lost their land and so they scattered all over like little birds. We, who lived around Frog Lake, and under that great chief, Big Bear, stayed together and decided to follow the buffalo as far south as we had to go. Many were on foot while the more fortunate ones rode horses or travois. ~ father, the third son of Chief Big Bear, had himself a wife and two daughters, my sister and myself. At the time of the last big hunt, we were both very young. I don't remember this passage in our history, but have been told very often.

Travel was slow and tiresome and often our food ran out. In spite of many hardships we reached the land of The Big Knives way down south of the great line, (Montana, U.S.A). Here we stayed a while and lived with the Big Knives, but were not welcome because buffalo were scarce and with the added number of our group it threatened to create famine. We were therefore strongly urged to go away. While awaiting to decide what we should do, soldiers (American Militia) arrived with five wagon loads of provisions for us, distributed these supplies amongst our people to make sure we would able to reach the big line (U.S. - Canada Border) and be then back on Canadian soil. To make sure we did not stop along the way, we were escorted by many militaries right up to the big line where there was one lonely Red Coat to receive us. The trek back to our former home at Frog Lake was a hard one to live through because of the lack of food and the scarcity of game. We travelled forever northwards and ran into severe storms. Deaths were numerous, we stopped only briefly to bury our dead; amongst the victims of the cold and hunger were my mother and sister. I survived and was cared for by Mrs. Peter Thunder, whom I learned to love as a second mother. My father, Little Bear performed many feats bravery which contributed greatly to some of us reaching our destination, narnely Frog Lake.

Upon arriving back at Frog Lake, we found quite a few changes had taken place during our absence. New buildings were found in which to house a few new operators. The was a Hudson's Bay Co. Store, operated by Glass Eye (Cameron, who wore glasses), a church with Rev. Marchand o.m.i. in charge and another little store, operated by the Soto(Saulteaux) Speaker Gouin. These were but a few of the buildings which existed at Frog Lake at the time we returned.

Kehewin Reserve

As I grew up and started attending school, taught to us Indian children by the resident priest, I started noticing other things that were present in the village, for example the Indian agency operated by Hank Quinn, also the farm instructor Mr. Delaney. Another young priest arrived in the village to help Father Marchand. Later, a house was built for the old people of Frog Lake. I lived with my foster parents, Mr. and Mrs. Peter Thunder and our home was in amongst the other Indian houses which constituted the Main Camp. This Indian encampment was situated a short distance north of the church, about where the cairn stands today.

Father becomes Chief

While attending classes regularly, and having reached the age of about twelve, I noticed that my people complained all the time while seated around their camp fires after sundown. I, and the other children played at our various games, but could not help hearing and seeing that our friends and neighbours were unhappy, therefore, we too felt insecure. Our chief, Big Bear, was quite elderly and always tried to tell the other men of our village to wait and be patient, that someday things would be better. The younger men of our village, including my father, Little Bear, forever bemoaned the fact that we had failed to obtain ourselves a new home in amongst the Big Knives. These remarks would cause my grandfather to feel very humble because it reflected on his in-ability to lead his people. It was at this juncture that my father quite unofficially became our leader, although Big Bear was still our chief. Around the campfires the conversation centered around the present poor supply of food, and each family would elaborate on how meagre rations were and how dark the future was. Many times, it was resolved that a delegation from the Indian Main Camp would go and see Mr. Quinn and try to obtain provisions on credit. Every such attempt failed. Mr. Quinn would always shake his head in a negative way and repeat the same words over and over again. "My orders from the government are such that I cannot let any provisions out of the agency unless I receive money or trade for them." He would then say, "Go back home and work."

Go Home and Starve

My people are not lazy because I know how hard my foster mother had to work to get enough hides ready for a tee pee. It took more than a dozen to make an ordinary size teepee and tanning twelve to seventeen hides is an awful lot of work. It is also a lot of work to keep enough food in the camp every day and prepare a supply of provisions for the long winter months. Besides that, it required much work to keep properly dressed. No, my people are not lazy, but my people have no ambition to become dirt farmers, or to raise many head of cattle. My people have not the habit either to go to school and live like the White Man. My people have the nature to roam the prairies and follow the buffalo like they did less than 100 years ago. To be told by Mr. Quinn to go back home and work was like saying, "Go back home and starve.

Runs Away from School

The morning which I shall never forget began like any other day. It was a beautiful morning and I felt free as the wind. On my way to school, I played at games only an Indian girl of twelve could imagine and before I knew it, I was quite late arriving to classes. School had started when I walked in and the priest was very angry. He wanted to give me a whipping. Before he could do so, I ran out of the church and away home to foster mother, Mrs. Thunder. There, I told her what had happened and also said I did not want to return to school, ever. She did not make me go back.

Too Late For Help

Being out of school and having plenty time to play, I wandered around the Main Camp and visited with all the people I liked. Upon coming to the house of one of our neighbours, I one day overheard my friends talking about getting food and clothing out of the agency by force if necessary. This surprised and troubled me. I did not go into that house, but continued to the agency where my grandmother worked as a char woman. There, I was surprised to see her walking out of the building. After asking her where she was going, she told me Mr. Quinn did not need her today because some important visitors were coming. News soon spread throughout the Main Camp that the visitors who were expected were various important chiefs, including Big Bear, Pakan and Kehewin. Mr. Quinn urged Big Bear to assemble the other chiefs and attempt to quell the unrest amongst the Indians. The visitors never did come because Chief Big Bear told Mr. Quinn that there was very little he could do now that serious unrest had set in. Chief Big Bear also told Mr. Quinn that he would not invite the other chiefs because these Indian leaders would not arrive in time to do any good. We did not know all this at the time because these words were exchanged privately between the agent and my grandfather, but we found out later.

Shooting Starts

On the morning of the shooting (April 3, 1885) which was a day of feast as told us by the priest (Good Friday), my people could be found in small groups all over the village. I was still living in the house of Peter Thunder and started out with my foster mother to get flour at the agency. I carried small tin pail in which we hoped to obtain flour with which to make biscuits. As we neared the agency we found that group of Indians had gathered there so we walked forward and in doing so heard of the well known young men daring each other. We did not take this as serious because such or similar dares were often made. One of the young men, the one who was being dared, his name was Wandering Spirit was standing close to his friend Memekoeso (A Bird). These two young men held a gun and quite jokingly dared each other to go ahead and fire at the agent.

It all happened so quickly that I cannot say for sure what happened other than we saw Wandering Spirit raise the gun and fire at the agent who was at the time standing in front of the agency. Mr. Quinn, who was wearing a Scottish beret. suddenly fell forward and his cap tumbled to within a few feet from where I stood. Immediately Wandering Spirit and his friend yelled "Let's all go in and get something to eat now. " All I remember is that I was then very frightened and left my foster mother's side and ran away back to our house. I was soon to learn, however, that then, my people rushed into the agency and took what they needed, including all the guns and ammunition, food, supplies and clothing. Then the building was burned.

The instant Wandering Spirit had shot Agent Quinn, whom we called The Dragon Fly, I looked at the still figure of the man, lying there at the door of the agency, and suddenly noticed that his hat had rolled along the ground to within a few feet from where I was standing. In my mind, I thought quickly how stubborn this little man was for all he would have had to do was consent to move away to the Main Camp and let my people help themselves. I immediately began to cry and couldn't stay there any longer. Before going back to the house in which I lived, I heard a woman who was standing close by me saying to Wandering Spirit, "You should be ashamed of yourself, shooting a defenceless man." The woman I was with stayed a while longer, but I ran home and cried. The last thing I saw of this horrible scene was one of my people, walking out of the agency with a new blanket over his shoulder.

It was a few hours after I had reached our home that Mrs. Thunder returned home and told us more of what was happening out there. She reported that the agency was being looted and so were the other buildings. Other Whites were being killed, including farm instructor, John Delaney; John Alex Gowanlock, William Campbell Gilchrist, George Dill, Charles Gouin, John Willscroft, Constant Gowan and Thomas Quin. She also said that the women of Delaney and Gowanlock were temporarily being spared, and that she didn't know if the two priests had been killed.

Move To Main Camp

It was only a few moments after the great trouble had started, with all the shooting and burning, that my foster father Peter Thunder came to us to the house and advised his mother, (my grandmother) to move to the Main Camp. The problem of making the move suddenly struck us because all we had for conveyance of our possessions was a dog and an old horse on which we could pack some goods. The horse belonged to Joe Dion's mother. We immediately built a travois

for the old horse and packed onto it as much as we could; we did likewise with the dog, then loaded ourselves with as much as we could carry. This took a short time to accomplish and soon we were on our way to the safety of the Main Camp.

To reach it, we had to travel a distance of about one mile and traverse a shallow coulee, then climb a little knoll. Upon reaching this knoll, curiosity got the best of us and we turned around to get a last glimpse of the village where we could see many people running about. We could also hear shots and see several buildings burning. From this vantage point which was also close enough to be within earshot of the centre of the trouble, we heard my grandfather, Big Bear yelling at the top of his voice, "Brothers, at least spare the cloth." He was astride his horse and trying as best he could to restore order, but all in vain. Before we started on our way down the little knoll, and away from the awful site, the last -words of my grandfather were ringing in our ears, "spare the cloth."


Mr J B Cameron sole white, male survivor of the Frog Lake Rebellion Frog Lake Cairn in background

Within a matter of minutes after we had wended our way toward the Main Camp, I saw The Glass Eyes, (Cameron), running towards me, and by time he had caught up with me, he quickly grabbed the bundle which I was carrying. I cried out in alarm to mother, but he reassured me that everything would be all right and that he simply wanted to help. He slung the bundle I had been carrying, over his own shoulders, then grabbed me and my sister by the hand and walked along until we reached the creek where we had decided to wait for the others who had been ordered to pack and follow us to the Main Camp. Soon, the main body of my people started arriving where we were and with them were the prisoners which they had decided to spare, (Mrs.) Therese Delaney and (Mrs.) Therese Gowanlock.

Prisoners Spared

We then started to wade across the creek and soon reached the Main Camp. There, we saw that the tents had been set in a circle and within the circle the prisoners were made secure. It was very soon after we had arrived that we were joined by the leaders of the trouble, those who had killed the Whites at the settlement and they wanted to kill the prisoners, and thus make a clean sweep while they were at it. It looked very grim for a while for these prisoners; in fact, there was very nearly serious trouble in amongst our people because the leaders of the trouble felt very strongly against the Whites and wanted to kill them all and all those associated with them. Much loud talk and arguing on both sides finally settled the matter and it was decided that the prisoners would live. The Indians who had killed already and wanted to kill more were overruled.

A meeting of the leaders was held then, within the circle of tents and it was at this council that it was decided that we move on to Fort Pitt, a distance of about thirty miles. There, it was decided, we would obtain the food and supplies within the agency, but before leaving on this long trip, we would have a feast.

A huge fire was built within a council circle and much food was brought out, food that had been taken from the agency. Accompanying the feast was the usual dancing and singing and as we watched the dancers go around the fire, we noticed a few of the young braves who had done the shooting were proudly wearing items of cloth that had belonged to the priests. It was at this time we realized Big Bear's words of mercy for the men of the cloth had been ignored. Both priests were killed and their church ornaments along with the vestments were now a part of our feast and celebration. Most of us took no pride in this crime as we felt that the killing of Father Leo Farard and Father Feliz Marchand would bring down the wrath of God. We were very sad and frightened.

Feasting Continues

The singing continued on and as it did so, gained momentum. Soon, everybody seemed to have forgotten the terrible events of the day and were immersed deeply in war songs and dancing until even the women and children sang songs of war. This procedure was repeated after the store at Fort Pitt had been looted. Huge feasts were organized, much eating and dancing took place. I remember we stopped five times and had celebrations between Frog Lake and Fort Pitt, a distance of about thirty miles. The Indians had no cares and had a lot of food and provisions, therefore it was appropriate to feast.

From Fort Pitt, we headed across the Saskatchewan River towards a place about five miles north of Frenchman's Butte where the leaders decided to call a Sun Dance. While preparations for the Sun Dance were being made, one of the men of our village who had found a spy-glass in one of the White Man's shacks at Fort Pitt, walked over to a rather high hill and lay down in the grass to search the horizon with his newly found glass. As he focussed the spy glass on both sides of the river, way up against the horizon, he suddenly detected tiny dots floating down the Saskatchewan. He recognized these as canoes and immediately crawled back down and told the leaders what he had seen. Although we were quite surprised that the White Man had come after us so soon, we had known they could be coming, but we did not know when or how. Now we knew that they were coming for us and we knew how. Instead of preparing for an attack or trying to hide, we did not stop making preparations for our Sun Dance. By that night, the celebration was in full swing and continued all night. Early the next morning, the Indian with the spy glass went back to the hill and soon returned to the camp and told the chiefs to warn everybody because the soldiers had arrived.

Many Lives Lost

Upon realizing the gravity of our situation, knowing that we were going to be punished for what we had done, the chiefs decided to retreat and not stand to fight. The sun lodge was immediately torn down, all festivities ceased and the women started to drift towards the north and into the bush. There the women were well hidden in the bush, a short distance from the site of our recent Sun Dance and it was at this point where our men had to stand and fight the military. The fighting lasted quite a number of days and our men suffered many casualties. During the battle, we pushed on our way and finally came to Loon Lake. We no sooner had reached this new place when soldiers caught up with us again and a battle followed, where many people were killed.

This last battle lasted several days and my people soon realized that we were up against powerful odds which we could never hope to defeat. It was then that we decided to turn over the prisoners to the soldiers and retreat towards Big Island Lake. It was during this retreat that our men who fought a little bit when the soldiers caught up to us, saw two Metis approach carrying a white flag. We ceased firing and heard the message from the commander of the soldiers (General Strange), ordering the Indians to stop their retreat, cease firing and sign a peace treaty.

After due consideration by my people, we decided to surrender because the odds were indeed against us. Our food supplies by then had run very low, game was very scarce and our numbers were constantly dwindling. Our chiefs ordered us to retrace our footsteps and not to worry, that peace had been established. We were told to go back to Fort Pitt and we started immediately on that long trek from Big Island Lake, to Fort Pitt.

When we reached Fort Pitt, after many days of travel, the first thing I noticed was the large camp of soldiers and Red Coats. Soldiers could be seen everywhere in groups all lined up and drilling. Many others were just marching this way and that while still others were simply standing guard around the camp. This sight impressed me very much and also the great number of Red Coats surprised me. We continued our march to within the camp boundary and there ordered to stop. The soldiers then formally arrested every one of us excepting the very old men. We were herded into a compound, and guarded night and day until the soldiers started to separate us. Those of us who had nothing to do with the uprising were eventually released while the others were detained. The soldiers kept in confinement all Indians who had committed the crimes and those who had been accomplices or even those of my people who had stolen goods from the stores or had carried rifles against the Whites. Within a few days after we were all separated, our men were held in custody and taken East (Regina) under heavy escort of Red Coats and soldiers. I shall never forget the pitiful sight my people presented that day when they were marched away. Most of them we never saw again.

Being free to move away and all our men gone East, those of us who remained decided to go away from Fort Pitt. We collected our few things and headed for Onion Lake. There were very few men left, only very old ones, but many women, therefore, the brunt of the heavy loads fell on the shoulders of the women and the young people. When we arrived at Onion Lake, there, our guns, ammunition, axes and knives were confiscated by the Red Coats. It was soon after 

this that we felt extremely hard times. With no arms or knives with which to hunt or even horses on which to pack our belongings (our horses had also been confiscated) we tried to move from place to place but found no suitable home where we could derive a living. Finally, we were told that we must not wander around the plains as we had been doing because it was against the law to do so. We were ordered to stay within the boundaries of the reserve (Onion Lake). Realizing our plight, we decided to plant little gard'e~ns and even planted small crops of grain later. After living in a very meagre way for a number of years, the authorities gave us back some of our tools. Later, they even gave us back our guns but there were some of our men which they never gave us back. Some died in prison while others were hanged and still others were released from prison but never returned to us.

The only way we could earn something with which to buy food and supplies was by chopping wood. There being few men leff, the job fell to the lot of the women and I know because I was brought up during this period. I was a strong girl and so took on my share of the job. I chopped many cords of this wood. During this period immediately after the Rebellion, while our horses were impounded, the authorities had kept them and cared well for them. After about three years, these were returned to us, a few at a time, along with the colts that had been born during that time. The atithorities, at this time, also started issuing out several head of cattle to us and with these, we began to live much better although there were still long periods when we were always hungry. We women spent most of our time chopping wood for the steamers and for this hard work, we obtained some bacon, flour, or grain as payment. The authorities brought in a grist mill where we could have our grain ground into flour, at a nominal price. My people tried to raise cattle and live like the White man but it wasn't an easy job and it took a long time before we could derive sufficient from our stock, farming operations and work.

In fact we are still trying to survive, by means of the White Man's customs, and we are not thriving yet.

Today, I am an old woman who has lived a lifetime and witnessed many changes amongst my people, I have known my relations and friends at the time when we lived like the Indian was meant to live. I saw what happened when my people tried to recapture the freedom we had lost, and lived through the awful period when the White Man retaliated with my people and showed us how we must submit to the new regime.

Now that I am old and God has blessed me with a good memory, I spend my spare moments thinking of the past years of my life and also try to peer into the future of my people. What lies ahead is not very pleasant but there are signs that the years to come will be an improvement over the period through which I have lived. I know that with a little bit of patience and kindness on the part of the Whites, on behalf of my people, a more rapid change in us will come a-bout. Patience is needed to give the Indian time to become a more suitable citizen according to White standards. This can be attained by helping the Indian attend schools and gain experience at a trade. An educated or trained Indian will do his job as well as any White. The problem, however, is for the Whites to instill a desire for education in every Indian. This can be done through kindness, understanding and encouragement on the part of the White Man.

My people are a proud race. We do not like to be treated like animals. We know we are different because our skin is a different colour. We know we are different for many other reasons, but we can, however, become as good citizens as any White Man if he, the conqueror of our land, wants to accept us along with the bargain he made for our country.

I shall never see the complete change and many of you who now have heard my story will not see it either. However, I have faith that someday, my people will work hand in hand with the White Man and it will be then that the once proud Indian of the Canadian Plains will be absorbed with his fellow countrymen, without prejudice. The past glory of my people will have long since gone out like our camp fires and all that will remain shall be contained in a short descriptive paragraph of a history book.

I hope I haven't lived in vain.