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How Medicine Hat was Named

The following is an excerpt from Indian Tales of the Canadian Prairies (1894) by James Francis Sanderson.

How Medicine Hat was Named

There is a certain part of the South Saskatchewan River about a mile and a half from Medicine Hat, on which, even during the most severe winters, no ice forms. This opening in the river is regarded with great interest by the Indians, as it is believed to be the breathing place of the Great Spirit who lives in the river and who, when he shows himself, assumes the form of a serpent. As an indication of the widespread interest of the Indians in this particular spot, it may be mentioned that, during last winter which was more than usually severe, I was asked by the Blackfoot Indians whether it had frozen over. On learning that the opening was still there, the Indians evinced great delight. Had it been otherwise, they would have taken it as proof that the Great Spirit had either dried or gone elsewhere to some other breathing place.

Far back in Indian tradition, it is said that one of a hunting party of Blood Indians was sent forward to reconnoiter the country and see if buffalo were to be met with in any numbers. He was accompanied by his newly-married wife and a favorite dog, the latter bearing the travois- a crosspole arrangement to which the dog was harnessed- for the purpose of carrying some share of the travelling outfit.

One evening, the Indian camped by the river side and, as he was walking along near the opening in the river referred to, the serpent appeared to him and told him that if he would throw the flesh of his wife into the opening, he would become a great warrior and medicine man. The Indian returned to his tepee and repeated to his wife the words of the serpent. His wife at once expressed her willingness to die for the good of the tribe and in obedience to the call of the Great Spirit. Her husband, however, was reluctant and instead of his wife killed the dog. Carrying its carcass to the opening, he threw it in with the request that the Spirit might be pleased to accept from him his dog as a substitute for his wife. The Spirit refused to accept, and declared that, unless the Indian would sacrifice the wife, he could do nothing for hi. The man returned and informed his wife accordingly, and she again expressed her willingness to comply with the demand.

Finally, she was sacrificed and her flesh given to the Spirit, who then directed the man to stay all night on the island near by, to rise early next morning, and, as the sun rose, to proceed towards the cutbanks lying to the east. At the base of one of the cutbanks he would find a bag containing medicines and a hat trimmed with ermine. He was instructed to bring back the medicine bag and the hat with him to the Spirit who would explain the purpose of the hat and the efficacy of the medicines. The hat, he was told, was to be worn only in war, and would ensure victory to the wearer. The tradition had it that the Indian became famous as a medicine man and warrior.

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The Prediction

The following is an excerpt from Indian Tales of the Canadian Prairies (1894), by James F. Sanderson.

The Prediction

There were two noted chiefs of the Crees who were brothers-in-law. One was named Eh-kaka-putta-what, or The Man who didn’t Miss, and the other Pas-ki-si-ka-nis, or Little Gun. The latter was not only a brave warrior, but a great medicine man and an expert at stealing horses.

In the year 1872, the two chiefs left the Moose Jaw valley on the warpath for the West, going by way of the Cypress Hills to the Sweet Grass Hills. Their party numbered sixteen all told. After crossing the Milk River, the runners whom they had sent out to reconnoiter returned and reported having found a camp of over 100 lodges of Peigans. Little Gun, having made medicine, told the young men that if they preferred to avoid a battle they could make a detour and pass the camp of the enemy. The young men replied that they had come out to follow his lead, and that they would be satisfied to do whatever he advised. The Man who didn’t Miss, however, spoke up and said that he had come out to have what, with grim humor, he called “some fun”, and did not propose to miss any chance of having it that might offer. He had come out, he added, to kill or be killed. When his only boy had died the previous winter he had made a vow to the Great Spirit that he would seek out his enemies on the first opportunity to have revenge for the death of his boy. “Therefore,” he said in conclusion, “I will not go around the camp of the Peigans, but will go right to it, even if I have to go alone.”

On hearing this, Little Gun asked the young men if they were willing to go and attack the enemy, and they said they were. “Then,” said Little Gun, “half of us will never see our homes again or, if over half of us should return from the fight, every one will be wounded. I am no coward, as you know, and I will go with you, but I think my brother-in-law has done wrong in inducing you to undertake this fight. This I know- that neither he nor I will ever see our campfire again.”

The party made ready and started for the enemy’s camp. The very first two shots that were fired by the Peigans killed The Man who didn’t Miss as he sat on top of a hill overlooking the camp. Finding himself mortally wounded and unable to take any further part in the battle, he passed his gun to one of the young men, telling him to make good use of it and in case he should be shot, to pass it to another so that it might do effective work in the fight. “As for me,” he said, “I am going to see my boy.”

Notwithstanding that they were so much outnumbered, the Crees maintained the fight all day, but Little Gun and five more of their braves were killed. There were 13 men of the Peigans killed, but only one scalp was taken by the Crees, and that was taken by Is-pish-koos, or The Ant. Of the nine who returned under cover of the night, there was not one who was not wounded. Thus was the rashness of one man punished and the prediction of the other literally verified.

The Sutherland Boys

The following is an excerpt from Indian Tales of the Canadian Prairies (1894), by James F. Sanderson.

The Sutherland Boys

Two of the finest young warriors the Crees ever had were two Scottish half-breeds, sons of a Highland Scot named Hugh Sutherland, a Hudson’s Bay Co. employee. One was called Oo-sa-us-tik-wan, or Yellow Hair, and the other, Tip-oo-es-tik-wan, or Curly Hair. They were tall, strapping young fellows, very fair and blue eyed. They had a great reputation which they fully deserved as warriors, and absolutely without an atom of fear in their composition.

When the report went abroad that they were to go on the warpath, the young Cree braves flocked to them from every quarter, assured that under the leadership of the Sutherland boys, they would return victorious, bringing back many ponies and plenty of scalps.

In the winter of 1869, a band of mingled Crees, Saulteaux and Young Dogs (a cross between the Crees and the Assiniboines) had gathered at the call of Yellow Hair and Curly Hair, at the Red Ochre Hills, to make a raid on the camps of the allied Blackfoot, Bloods, and Peigans. They numbered between 500 and 600 warriors and were the pick of the tribes.

I met them at the Red Ochre hills just as they were about to start. I took occasion to say to Yellow Hair that it would be better for him to be between the stilts of a plough than to be dressed in his war clothes and preparing to fight the Blackfoot and Bloods. “I have never been taught anything but fighting,” was the reply. “I suppose I have relatives beyond the Big Water who would be sorry to see me leading this kind of life, but how can I help it?”

The party started up the South Saskatchewan on the ice, for it was the winter time. Finally they reached the place where the town of Lethbridge now stands. There they halted and sent runners or scouts to find out where the camp of the enemy was and what their strength might be. Those scouts were not sufficiently careful in their reconnaissance, for they reported a camp of only about 60 lodges, never having noticed that there were about 200 more lodges scattered over the adjoining country within easy reach of signal or other means of alarm.

The place where the Blackfoot, Bloods and Peigans had pitched their camps was just above Fort Whoop-Up, a trading fort built by an American named Healy.

Acting on the information brought by their scouts, the Sutherland boys attacked the enemy with every prospect of an easy victory. However the noise of the firing in a very short time brought the other Blackfoot and their allies to the scene, and the Crees were completely outnumbered. Nevertheless, they kept their ground, fighting with the courage and desperation of lions at bay until the approach of night, when they retreated, still fighting, until they crossed the Belly River at a point opposite to where Lethbridge now stands. There they were completely surrounded and before they succeeded in cutting their way through and escaping, both Yellow Hair and Curly Hair had fallen and between 60 and 70 of their men. The two brothers made a grand stand before they fell, fighting with their knives after their lower limbs had been rendered powerless by the bullets of their enemy, and only yielding up their scalps with their lives.

The Blackfoot and their allies were led in this battle by three half-breeds, Jerry Potts, who commanded the Bloods, and two brothers, Alex McKay or Mak-kaw, meaning Unborn Calf, and Charley McKay, or Ky-u, or The Bear, who led the Bloods and Peigans. To this day the Blackfoot will tell you that they never saw braver men than the two Sutherland brothers. Two large piles of stones were raised by their enemies to mark the spot where they fell. Those cairns are still to be seen on the west side of the Belly River, on the old bull trail, leading to Macleod, and no Blackfoot, Blood or Peigan passes them without adding a stone to the pile.

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The Gros Ventres’ Raid

The following is an excerpt from Indian Tales of the Canadian Prairies (1894), by James F. Sanderson.

The Gros Ventres’ Raid

It was about 1868 when a terrible battle took place in the Medicine Hat district, between a party of Gros Ventres and a strong body of Blackfoot. The Medicine Hat vicinity seemed to have been a favorite one for hostile tribes to meet and settle their differences with gun or bow, tomahawk and scalping knife, and it undoubtedly had every natural requisite for a battlefield.

A war party of Gros Ventres had halted at the head of the Cypress Hills. Their chief, White Calf, sent forward runners to Medicine Hat to see if there were any Blackfoot or other hostile Indians encamped there, and to report as to the prospects of making a successful attack on them. The scouts reported that there was one small camp on the side of the river, and that there would be no difficulty in surprising and wiping them out. White Calf took his measure accordingly, and, the following day, in the grey of the morning, his 400 Gros Ventre warriors surrounded and attacked the handful of Blackfoot.

They would have made very short work of their surprised and outnumbered enemies, had it not been that the noise of the firing attracted the attention of a more numerous band of Blackfoot and Bloods, who were camped near the junction of Seven Persons Creek and Bull Head Creek. These immediately came to the aid of their relatives, and White Calf and his warriors found themselves caught in the trap in which they had expected to catch the others.

The battle raged most fiercely at a point about two miles up Seven Persons Creek from its confluence with the South Saskatchewan, and the Gros Ventres were utterly routed and chased by the victors clear into the timber on the Cypress Hills, at what is now Gros Ventre Creek. Out of the 400 that formed White Calf’s following, only about 300 returned, the bodies of the rest being left either on the battle ground or along the line of their flight, and their scalps in the hands of the Blackfoot and Blood warriors. White Calf himself escaped, but was badly wounded and had, among other injuries, a broken arm.

The leading warrior of the Blackfoot at that time was Buffalo Back Fat and among those with him in this engagement was The Swan, a Peigan chief who, as far as I know, is still alive on the reservation. He was, at least, the last time I was there. This was the severest defeat that had been inflicted on the Gros Ventres for years, and put an effectual check to their forays, probably for all time.

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Red Ochre Hill

The following is an excerpt from Indian Tales of the Canadian Prairies (1894), by James Francis Sanderson.

Red Ochre Hill

About 26 years ago, as near as I can come to the date in my reckoning, a party of Crees and Saulteaux numbering 900 lodges, were camped at a place 40 miles east of Swift Current and some distance to the northward of Old Wives Lake. It was known as Man-ea-man-an, or Red Ochre Hill. A war party of the allied Bloods, Blackfoot and Peigans got wind of their whereabouts and sent runners to reconnoiter so as to make sure whether they might venture to attack them with a fair prospect of success.

The runners, having been deceived by the nature of the ground, which did not permit of their seeing but a portion of the lodges, returned and reported that the Crees were but a handful and would easily be overcome and killed. The Blackfoot and their allies, numbering between 700 and 800 braves in all, in accordance with their information, advanced confidently to the attack and reached the camp of their enemies just as day was breaking. There, in the brush, they surprised and captured two Saulteaux girls, daughters of a man named Na-im-a-tup, or The Man Who Sits, while they were engaged in cutting wood in the brush. Then began the attack.

Naturally, the Blackfoot did not find it such an easy matter as they had expected to overcome the Cree warriors and take their hair. In the contrary, after fighting all day, they had to retreat with heavy loss and their enemies finally got them hemmed in in a coulee, where they were shot down by their pursuers from the vantage ground of the sides of the narrow canyon, in great numbers. So thick, indeed, was the pile of corpses that at least one Blackfoot brave is reported to have thrown himself on the ground, as if wounded, and covered himself with the dead bodies, thus evading death or capture until he escaped under the cover of night.

Altogether over 300 Blackfoot fell, the rest escaping with great difficulty from the corpse-filled coulee, while only 15 of the Crees fell. So thorough was the defeat that, to this day, no Blackfoot, Blood, or Peigan will stand any reference to the No-tin-tu-in, or battle of Man-e-a-man-an. The Saulteaux girls who were captured by the Blackfoot were carried away and sold by their captors to one of the young chiefs of the Bloods, for ten head of ponies. He afterwards, in 1872, returned them to their father.

The chiefs of the Blackfoot party were Pu-aps-gu-bachk-a-bachk-wan, or Iron Shield, and Ka-kwis-ki-ka-pu-it, or the Man who Turns his Back. The Crees were led by Ka-nacha-stya-pe-u, or Good Bow; Kus-ko-tchayo-mucka-sis, or Little Black Bear; and Ki-sa-kan-a-tchach-kus, or Day Star.

Kin-u-sayo’s Death

The following is an excerpt from Indian Tales of the Canadian Prairies (1894), by James F. Sanderson.

Kin-u-sayo’s Death

Some years ago, how many I cannot exactly say, a war party of thirteen Cree braves, led by Pish-eesh, or Little Link, a Saulteaux Indian and a noted chief, came on a foray to the plain of Medicine Hat from the direction of Qu’Appelle. They were, as usual, after the ponies and the scalps of the Blackfoot.

They came on a camp of their enemies, situated at a point about three miles from Medicine Hat, and succeeded in stealing all the ponies by daylight and got away without being discovered. There is no doubt but they could have secured such a start as to have easily distanced any pursuit, had it not been for an act of bravado on the part of a young Cree brave (afterwards a prominent figure in the rebellion of 1885) named Kit-u-way-py, or Jingling Thighs. He was spoiling for a fight and when the rest of the band started off with the horses, he lingered in the rear and fired off his gun two or three times to give the Blackfoot the alarm. He succeeded in producing the desired effect and soon every brave in the Blackfoot camp was in hot pursuit of the raiders.

They overtook them within half a mile of where the town now stands. The Crees were making hard for cover in a patch of timber that then grew along the bank of the river. They did not, however, succeed in making cover before their pursuers were upon them and a stubborn stand was made in a coulee, some distance from the timber.

Pish-eesh, seeing that his men would be soon surrounded and almost certainly either killed or captured unless they got into the timber, told them to make a dash for it. He said that he, together with Jingling Thighs and a warrior named Kin-u-sayo, or The Fish, would stand off the enemy from the shelter of the coulee until the others should reach the timber. The braves, accordingly, started for the cover, but before they reached it, three of their number fell by the bullets of the Blackfoot.

Pish-eesh and his two companions began to be sore pressed and were in momentary danger of having their retreat cut off when Kin-u-sayo, seeing that the rest of the Crees had reached shelter, told his comrades to break for cover and he would keep the foe in play until they were in safety. Very unwillingly they finally agreed, and started for the timber. They had only gone a short distance when a bullet broke Kin-u-sayo’s left thigh and he had to drop to the ground. Straightening the broken limb as best he could, and flinging his gun away, his ammunition being spent, he dumped his quiver by his side. Then, shouting to his friends that he would not travel alone to the happy hunting grounds but would have an escort of Blackfoot, he sent arrow after arrow with deadly aim, into the crowd of enemies. This discouraged them from making what was regarded as a great coup, namely, scalping him alive.

Three Blackfoot fell by the arrows of Kin-u-sayo, before he had exhausted the quiverful. Then he threw his bow aside and drew his knife. He shouted to his assailants that he had only that to defend himself with now, and that they had better come on and make short work of the affair, for they would never get his hair while he was alive. Then they shot at him from all directions. Such was the fear with which he had inspired them by his dauntless bearing that not one of them dared tackle him at close quarters, crippled though he was. At last Kin-u-sayo fell, literally riddled with bullets, and they took his scalp.

Pish-eesh and Kit-u-way-py reached the timber and joined the rest of their band. When night fell, they got safely away, taking the ponies of the Blackfoot with them. But they returned to their lodges without scalps and left those of the three braves who fell as they were making for the timber, and that of the dauntless Kin-u-sayo, in the hands of the Blackfoot.

Loud Voice’s Raid

The following is an excerpt from Indian Tales of the Canadian Prairies (1894), by James F. Sanderson.

Loud Voice’s Raid

It was only a short time after  the occasion on which Kak-she-wey, or Loud Voice’s medicine was marred by the rashness of a thoughtless boy, that he resolved again to set out on the warpath. He had between 60 and 70 warriors in his party and they took their line of march on the south side of the Cypress Hills, or Min-ach-ta-kan, making for the Sweet Grass Hills, Weech-ka-skotch-e-ya.

When they reached Milk River the young men asked Loud Voice to make medicine or conjure. This he did and, after he had finished, he announced that on the following day, when the sun would be half way through his day’s journey, they would find their foes on the north side of the westernmost butte in a certain valley which he described to them.

“If my young men,” added he, “do not wish to meet the enemy, they can avoid so by keeping away from that valley, and going around another way.”

Then one of the young braves, Ki-chap-a-ho-wess, or The Man that Picks your Eyes Out, arose and made a speech to the band of warriors. He said he did not see the use of going round that valley in which the enemy were, in search of whom they had come from home. That was the game that he had started out to hunt and, for his part, he was prepared to follow his father. Actually, Loud Voice was his uncle, but he always called him father. Thereupon all the party agreed, as one man, to follow Loud Voice into the valley, and share his fate whatever it might be.

They marched on throughout all that night, and at midday reached the valley, finding the enemy just where Loud Voice had said. There was a camp of over 100 lodges of Peigans. No time was lost in beginning the attack and the fighting continued without intermission until darkness fell. Loud Voice’s party came off victorious, having slain 20 of the Peigans, most of whom they scalped, and carrying off over 50 head of their horses. Loud Voice lost six men, three of whom where scalped.

Thenceforth, the skill of Kak-she-wey, as a great medicine man, high as it stood before, was considered as unequalled by that of any other conjurer of his own or any other tribe.

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The Conjuring of Loud Voice

The following is an excerpt from Indian Tales of the Canadian Prairies (1894), by James Francis Sanderson.

The Conjuring of Loud Voice

Kak-she-wey, or Loud Voice, was one of the most noted chiefs that the Crees ever had. Certainly he was the most noted of those who led their young men on the warpath within recent years. He was distinguished no less for his bravery than for his sagacity and the sound judgment he showed in avoiding a contest where defeat was likely to be the result of battle. His particular following consisted of the Pot-eh-p’wayu-seepe-eh-new-uk, or Qu’Appelle Indians.

About the year 1857, Loud Voice left Qu’Appelle with a war party for the west. His band consisted of the chosen warriors of his tribe and they set out on the expedition full of hope of returning in triumph with the scalps of many Blackfoot at their belts. Not only was their leader a warrior of approved skill and courage and one well worthy to be followed on the warpath, but he was a great medicine man as well, and one whose divinations, when he made medicine, always came true. But on this occasion they were doomed to disappointment, even though the failure of the expedition was not due to any fault of Loud Voice’s, either as a warrior or a medicine man.

When the party reached Old Wives Lake, Loud Voice chose for his conjuring as medicine man, a spot on the east side of the North Lake, where a fine spring rises near the summit of a small butte and runs eastward in a little stream over the prairie. The spot is known to this day among the Crees as Ka-ke-mun-too-kasuchk, or “the place where the medicine man conjured”. The Canadian Pacific Railway runs today within half a mile of the place.

Having finished his medicine-making or divination, Loud Voice announced the result to his young men. It was to the effect that, as their Blackfoot foes were close at hand, none of the party should leave the camp next morning. If anyone should be foolhardy enough to do so, Loud Voice assured them that the man would pay the penalty with his life.

There were a few Assiniboines in Loud Voice’s band, and one of their number, a hotheaded young brave, either doubting the truth of the prediction made by the chief, or anxious to show his daring and disregard for the risk he ran, mounted his horse at daybreak and rode off from the camp. Striking out to the westward, he came to some buttes in the neighborhood of Rush Lake. Riding towards the nearest one with the intention of ascending to the top to reconnoiter, he suddenly saw the figure of a warrior shown on the summit. Instead of turning round and making all haste to the camp he had left, the young brave, trusting to the speed of his horse, approached nearer to the butte in order to assure himself of the identity and number of the enemy. As soon as he came within gunshot, the Blackfoot opened fire on him and one bullet broke the foreleg of his horse, bringing him, with his rider, to the ground. The Blackfoot braves then rushed at him and, before he could make any defence, dispatched him with their tomahawks. The spot where he was slain is called, to this day, by the Crees, Oop-wassie-mu-ka-ke-ouk-a-ma-hucht, or “the place where the Assiniboine was killed with the tomahawks”.

When Loud Voice learned of the fate of the rash young brave, he knew that his “medicine” was broken. He realized that his followers, even if he asked them, would not have the heart to advance on the enemy, so he retired with his party to Qu’Appelle. But, though this raid ended unsuccessfully, it is said that within a week after, Loud Voice was on the warpath again.


White Elk Horn

The following is an excerpt from Indian Tales of the Canadian Prairies (1894) by James Francis Sanderson.

White Elk Horn

White Elk Horn was the greatest chief and the bravest warrior among the Blackfoot. He was regarded as proof against arrows of the best marksmen of the Gros Ventres, Sioux, Crows, and Crees; it was even alleged that a great medicine man had predicted that he would not be dead until he had been five times slain. It was further foretold that he would be killed by the hand of a Saulteaux brave.

The Saulteaux Indians were a branch of the Chippewa tribe that had wandered to the west from their native haunts on the shores of Lake Superior, and between them and the Blackfoot there existed the deadliest kind of feud.

It happened, one day, that White Elk Horn, accompanied by only seven Blackfoot, camped for the night by a spring three miles below the forks of the Red Deer and the South Saskatchewan. They camped without discovering the fact that a band of Saulteaux, under the leadership of their chief, Goosefoot, were encamped behind the ridge which intervenes between the hollow where the spring is, and a deep coulee. The Saulteaux were equally unaware, of the proximity of their enemy.

In the dusk of the evening, a Saulteaux woman came to the spring to draw water and, on her way, met a Blackfoot brave, some say White Elk Horn himself. The brave addressed her in Blackfoot but she, recognizing the enemy of her tribe, made no answer. She passed on to the spring and, having filled her vessel, returned by a circuitous route to the camp of her friends, to whom she announced the presence of their archenemy at the spring.

Goosefoot and his braves, by careful reconnaissance, ascertained that White Elk Horn had only a handful of warriors with him. He speedily drew a cordon of his men around the little band of Blackfoot and, when morning dawned, the hitherto unvanquished chief found himself outnumbered and outgeneraled. He had no chance of escape and only the grim solace left him of dying, as an Indian chief should, fighting to the last, and sending as many as possible of his foes before him to the happy hunting grounds, as heralds of his coming.

The opposing chiefs parleyed, but Goosefoot, sure of his advantage, would listen to no terms of surrender by which his enemy might go free, and the two bands at last fell to. As may be supposed, the great war chief of the Blackfoot justified his reputation. Marvellous were the feats of valor he performed and many a Saulteaux brave trod before him the long trail to the happy hunting grounds. But against fate and numbers, even his mighty arm could not prevail, and at last he fell, pierced with many a wound, but unyielding to the last.

Only one of the Blackfoot braves was left alive when the chief fell. He managed to escape while the victors were congratulating themselves on the death of White Elk Horn, slain, as had been predicted, by the hand of a Saulteaux.

Goosefoot and his men gratified their hate by dismembering the body of their enemy and it is said that after they were severed from the bleeding trunk, the quivering limbs made spasmodic movements as if they would seek to be reunited with it. The victors then flayed him, and underneath the skin they found two live snakes, which they only killed after a prolonged struggle. They took out his brisket, and found his heart beating as regularly and as strongly as when he was alive and it continued to beat for a long time after they had hung it on the branch of a tree and stood watching it. Indeed, it was only when it had ceased beating that they became satisfied White Elk Horn was really dead and that there was not the slightest chance of his returning to life. They too had heard of the prediction that he would have to be killed five times before he would stay dead.

The solitary survivor of White Elk Horn’s little band made his way home to his tribe and when he told his sad tiding, there was grief in the lodges of the Blackfoot. Only the chief’s wives, of whom he had ten, refused to believe the bad news. Obstinately they persisted in the belief that he would return again to his lodge as strong, as brave, and as invincible as before. White Elk Horn was killed in the spring, but it was not until the winter had come that his faithful widows accepted the fact of his death and mourned for him whose return from the warpath or the chase they would never again greet with rejoicing and with pride.

Indian Tales of the Canadian Prairies

Indian Tales of the Canadian Prairies


By Hammerson Peters

Imagine that it is the spring of 1876. You’re lounging on a bench on the deck of your family’s log cabin, which doubles as your family’s trading post, enjoying an evening smoke with your swarthy mustachioed brother-in-law. It is sundown in the Cypress Hills, and the lodgepole pines which crown the surrounding slopes are fading into dusky silhouettes against a crimson sky.

As you draw on your pipe, you and your companion spot a lone rider in the distance- an Indian approaching the palisaded walls of nearby Fort Walsh. The rider is hailed by the guards and ushered inside the fort. Just as you begin to replenish your dwindling bowl, he emerges again, this time accompanied by an officer of the North-West Mounted Police. Taking the lead, the policeman spurs his horse to a brisk trot and heads straight towards you.

The Indian, you soon learn, is the advance scout of an Assiniboine band which is in the process of making camp on Battle Creek about three miles to the southeast, at the edge of the prairie. Buffalo are harder to come by these days, and with their winter pemmican stores all but exhausted, the Assiniboine are in desperate need of food.

The band intends to camp outside the fort tomorrow, but refuses to complete the journey until morning. If they proceed up the trail any further, they will come to the spot at which several dozen of their kin were killed three years prior in the event which has come to be known as the Cypress Hills Massacre. Anyone who travels through that haunted valley at night, the Assiniboine believe, runs the risk of encountering those spirits of the dead who have yet to make the journey to the Great Sand Hills- the final resting place of all Plains Indian souls north of the Medicine Line.

The red-coated Mountie informs you that, although the band will be properly treated in the morning, he has been tasked with bringing some bacon and a few sacks of flour to them tonight as a gesture of goodwill. His own knowledge of the Assiniboine language is rudimentary at best, but doubtless most of the Indians speak the Plains Cree tongue- a language in which you are perfectly fluent. Would you consent to accompany him to the Assiniboine camp and lend him your interpretive services tonight?

You agree. You grab your rifle and your woolen Hudson’s Bay Company blanket and hitch your horse up to your two-wheeled Red River cart, the latter being less cumbersome than the heavy NWMP wagon which the Mountie might have otherwise employed. After taking on some provisions at the fort, you and your two new companions head down Battle Creek. The Red River cart is a two-wheeled all-wooden wagon invented by the Metis people of what is now Manitoba, and was originally used to transport goods associated with the 19th Century fur trade.

The journey takes about half an hour, bringing you past the charred remains of the American whisky forts outside which the aforementioned massacre took place. Mercifully, your excursion is devoid of any encounters with the spectral residents whom the Assiniboine say haunt those grounds.

From 1869-1874, dozens of fur traders from Fort Benton, Montana, established quasi-legal trading posts in what is now Southern Alberta and Southwestern Saskatchewan and began trading goods to the local Blackfoot in exchange for buffalo robes. One of the chief commodities peddled at these forts was a rotgut concoction consisting of diluted whisky, tobacco, molasses, red ink, and other ingredients, which many Blackfoot found irresistible. The destructive effects of this whisky trade on the Blackfoot Nations was one of the major impetuses behind the creation of the NWMP.

It is dusk by the time you reach the Assiniboine camp, situated as it is at the edge of the open prairie. In typical Indian fashion, the Assiniboine have pitched their smoke-stained teepees in a large circle, in the centre of which they have tethered their horses as a precaution against potential Blackfoot horse thieves. Half-starved Indian dogs bark as you approach the camp, and shy Assiniboine children peek out from behind their mothers’ skirts as your red-coated companion hands sacks of flour to their grateful fathers and brothers.

“It is too dangerous for you to return home tonight,” the band’s chief says to the Mountie after the last of the provisions have been unloaded. “The ghosts don’t know the difference between Red Coats and wolfers. They will shoot you with their night arrows all the same. You had better stay in my lodge tonight.

The Mountie, having anticipated such a request, had already secured permission from his superior to spend the night in the Assiniboine camp. As your red-coated friend would have some difficulty communicating with his native hosts without you, you also accept the chief’s hospitality.

Later that night, you find yourself seated cross-legged on a buffalo robe in the chief’s teepee next to your red-coated friend, sharing a pipe with a handful of Assiniboine braves. Aside from the crackling of the buffalo chips in the centre of the lodge, which have been set ablaze to drive away the spring chill, and the distant, mournful howling of a pack of prairie wolves, all is quiet.

Once every man in the lodge has had the opportunity to smoke, your taciturn host breaks the silence. Using soft tones so as to not wake the women and children who are sleeping behind him, he and his men begin to converse in Plains Cree for your benefit and that of your white companion. The conversation ranges from the agreement which the Great White Mother hopes to make with the Cree and Assiniboine nations in the near future to the war being fought between the Sioux and the blue-coated Long Knives south of the Medicine Line.

When talk turns to the rumour that the great Sioux chief Sitting Bull hopes to make peace with the Blackfoot Confederacy, his people’s ancient enemies, an old grizzled warrior seated to your left begins fingering a greasy scalp lock stitched to the shoulder of his buckskin shirt. “It is a good thing that our people made peace with the Blackfoot,” he growls. “They were powerful enemies. Even if I live to see a hundred summers, I will never forget that battle on the Belly River. They shot us down like so many buffalo.” Without further ado, the old warrior launches into the tale of the world’s last great intertribal Indian battle, fought six years prior on the shores of a westerly waterway.

This hypothetical scenario serves to illustrate the manner in which James Francis Sanderson, the author of Indian Tales of the Canadian Prairies, may have heard some of the tales he put to paper in 1894.

James F. Sanderson

James Francis Sanderson was born on March 23, 1848, in the fur trading town of Athabasca Landing, the site of the present-day town of Athabasca, Alberta, situated on the Athabasca River about 115 kilometres (72 miles) southeast of Lesser Slave Lake. His Scottish-Cree father, James Sr., worked aboard the Viking-style York boats of the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), spending much of his time in York Factory, the Company’s headquarters, located on the southwestern shores of Hudson Bay. His mother Elizabeth, on the other hand, was the daughter of an Orcadian Scotsman named James Anderson- another HBC employee- and a Saulteaux woman named Mary.

Shortly after taking up residence in the Red River Valley, James Sr. drowned in a boating accident on Lake Manitoba. James Jr. and the rest of his family subsequently relocated to the Metis village of Portage la Prairie to the northwest, where Elizabeth’s family, the Andersons, had also decided to resettle. In addition to receiving a basic formal education there, teenaged Sanderson accompanied the local Metis men on a number of buffalo hunts on the eastern prairies in the late 1860s, during which he acquired both an insatiable appetite for frontier life and perfect fluency in both French and Plains Cree.

In 1934, 1935, and 1936, George William Sanderson, James’ elder brother, recounted his childhood experiences to his niece, Mary Sophia Desmarais Campbell, who published them in a piece entitled Through Memory’s Windows. Of the Metis buffalo hunt, in which he was unable to participate on account of a childhood medical condition, George said:

“Buffalo meat was our chief article of food. Every summer for weeks at a time the settlers moved to the plains and killed buffalo, dried the meat and made pemmican of some of it. They sold the robes to the Hudson’s Bay Co. I have been told that when the hunter first began to chase the buffalo any old horse would do, but in later years one had to have a very swift horse. It took a good rider and a man had to be quick too to kill a buffalo. The guns were all muzzle loaders and the rider carried a powder horn on his right side, a shot or bullet pouch on the other, and the gun caps in his waist coat pocket. The bullets for immediate use he held in his mouth. The horses were well trained and could be guided by the motions and gestures, or leaning of the riders’ body


The Red River Rebellion

In the wake of Canadian Confederation (1867), a large force of French Metis from the Red River Valley refused a Canadian government survey party entry into the region, fearful that Dominion agents would force them to abandon their homesteads on the Red River, which they did not legally own, and relinquish their Michif language and Roman Catholic faith, to which they strongly adhered. Immediately after repelling the survey party, the Metis rebels seized Upper Fort Garry- an old HBC trading post situated at the site of what is now Winnipeg, Manitoba- completely without bloodshed. This uprising, called the Red River Rebellion, was led by a well-educated Metis revolutionary named Louis Riel.

While Riel negotiated with Donald Smith- an HBC representative and future railway magnate who would come to be known as Lord Strathcona- hoping to transform the Red River Valley into a Metis province within the framework of the Dominion, fourty-eight pro-Canadian counter-revolutionaries, most of them of Scottish, Irish, or Anglo-Metis pedigree, plotted to overthrow the new provisional government that Riel had established. Before they could execute their scheme, however, they were arrested by Riel’s men and imprisoned at Upper Fort Gary.

Major Charles Boulton, a member of the Canadian government survey party that Riel had repelled, subsequently organized a militia with which to rescue Riel’s captives. Among the men he recruited were 20-year-old James Sanderson and his elder brother, George. Like the counter-revolutionaries before them, Boulton and his militia were captured by Riel’s Metis and imprisoned in Upper Fort Gary, where, according to the official history books, they languished in cold, cramped cells, forced to endure a month of privation and malnutrition.

Said George William Sanderson of the event of their capture:

“When we came near the Fort, a man on horseback shot out of the gate like an arrow, then another, and so on until ten or twelve came out. One rode towards us and stopped to speak. He held up a white handkerchief in his right hand… Old Mr. Pecha walked up to the rider and said in French, “Good day. What do you want?” The man answered, speaking in French also, “our leader, Louis Riel and his officers, wish you all to come into the Fort and have dinner with them.” Well, that was very acceptable. We wouldn’t dream of refusing such an invitation, as we had not too much to eat since we left home. We were all ushered into the Fort where we had to stay more than a month.”

Of their stay at Fort Gary, George Sanderson said:

“We were all put into a large room to sleep. There were no beds, so we just bunked on the floor and benches. Most of us had a buffalo robe of our own. My brother Jim and I slept together. We would have been quite comfortable had it not been for that man [Thomas] Scott making such a racket. He would kick the board partition, yell and curse, and was most impudent to the guard.

“One night when Scott was especially troublesome and noisy, a guard walked in and asked what all the trouble was about. He said, ‘Now you fellows had better be quiet. If I have to come in again tonight, I will bring a billy with me, and the man who is making the noise will get it over the head’.

“On the whole, we were used fairly well. We had all the pemmican we could eat, and tea to drink. The Frenchmen themselves had nothing else except that they had sugar in their tea, and we had none

“The Roman Catholic priest made a special intercession for us to Riel and his guards. He asked them to use us as well as they could as we were just poor natives like themselves and it was not our fault we were captives

“When we were in prison a few days, some of the town folk came in and asked Riel if they could supply us with one meal a day. Riel told them they could do so. They could give us whatever they wished. They raised a subscription among the inhabitants as the town was very small. They must have all given something, for after that we got one good meal a day, cakes, pies, bread, and butter and sugar for our tea.

“Some years ago, I picked up and began to read a history of the Manitoba Rebellion, the story told of the great hardships we endured as prisoners and how we were starved. It must have been written by someone who knew nothing about it, for it was nothing but a lot of damned lies. We were well-treated.”

During the Sanderson brothers’ imprisonment, one of their fellow pro-Canadian counter-revolutionaries- the troublesome aforementioned Thomas Scott, who was a staunchly Protestant Irishman- was executed by firing squad on Riel’s orders, apparently for the sole purpose of forcing the Canadian government to take the Metis seriously. The Dominion responded by sending a military expedition west to the Red River Valley to enforce peace in the region, prompting Riel to flee south to Dakota Territory in the United States and ending the Sanderson brothers’ month-long incarceration.


Heading West

In 1872, James Sanderson married Maria McKay, a Metis girl who belonged to a prominent Scots-Cree family. That same year, the McKay clan relocated to the Cypress Hills- a remote oasis nestled deep in the heart of the Canadian prairies, in the midst of a vast, wild, lawless domain known at that time as the North-West Territories. James Sanderson and his new wife accompanied their family west, where they lived the traditional Metis lifestyle, roaming the prairies in the summer months in search of buffalo and spending the winter in their cabin in the Cypress Hills, combatting hibernal monotony with music and dance. When they weren’t travelling or hunting buffalo, James and Maria helped Maria’s father, Edward, run the fur trading post that he established in the Cypress Hills.

The couple would go on to have four children: Caroline, Owen, Duncan, and Mary.


The Cypress Hills Massacre

The Sandersons and the McKays were not the only fur traders plying their trade in the Cypress Hills at that time. Not far from their store were two rival trading posts separated by a small creek, one of them owned by a New York Polish-Jew named Moses Solomon and the other by a Montanan named Abe Farwell. Solomon and Farwell had both established their posts in 1871, having heard of the tremendous profits garnered by the traders at Fort Whoop-Up, an American-run fur trading post established in 1869 on the banks of what is now the Oldman River, about 215 kilometres (134 miles) to the west. The traders at Fort Whoop-Up had managed to acquire a prodigious quantity of buffalo robes through the practice of selling rotgut whisky to the local Blackfoot- a commodity for the procurance of which the natives would undergo any hardship. Hoping to replicate Whoop-Up’s success, Solomon and Farwell ensured that their stores were amply stocked with firewater.

In the summer of 1873, twelve heavily-armed American wolf hunters rode up to Farwell and Solomon’s posts and generously helped themselves to the whisky traders’ eponymous wares. They informed their hosts that they were searching for an Indian raiding party which had stolen nineteen of their horses north of Fort Benton, Montana, several days prior, from whom they hoped to reclaim their animals. After engaging in idle banter with some of the forts’ employees, the wolfers became convinced that an impoverished band of Assiniboine Indians who were camped at the edge of the nearby creek were the horse thieves. The inebriated wolvers approached the Assiniboine camp with their rifles at the ready, prompting the natives, many of whom were similarly intoxicated, to take cover. Assuming that the Indians were preparing to fight them, the wolfers raised their guns and opened fire. After a brief exchange of gunfire, twenty-two Assiniboine- including several women and children- and one wolfer lay dead.


Fort Walsh

Since the year 1870, the Canadian government had been toying with the idea of sending a mounted police force west to suppress the illegal whisky trade in what is now Southern Alberta, the rumours of which they had learned from HBC employees stationed at trading posts along the North Saskatchewan River. Advocates of this western police force succeeded in passing a legislation allowing for the creation of the NWMP on May 23, 1873, coincidentally ten days before the aforementioned tragedy which has come to be known as the Cypress Hills Massacre. After learning of the bloody event, Canadian bureaucrats realized that they needed to form the police force quickly if they hoped to establish Canadian sovereignty on the western plains. The North-West Mounted Police was subsequently established, and less than a year later, its first officers made the long trek from Fort Dufferin, Manitoba, across the Canadian prairies to Fort Whoop-Up, located at the site of present-day Lethbridge, Alberta. A year later, the Mounties built Fort Walsh in the Cypress Hills not far from the site of the massacre, in the vicinity of the McKay trading post.

James Sanderson found work with the Mounties as soon as they established themselves in the area, serving the Force as a scout, hunter, and interpreter. The farsighted frontiersmen realized that, with the coming of the Mounties, the days of Canada’s Wild West would rapidly draw to a close. Cognizant of the possibility that the buffalo, which had dominated the North American Plains since time immemorial, might not be around forever, Sanderson rode south to Montana, purchased a small herd of cattle at the town of Fort Benton, and drove his livestock north to the Cypress Hills.

In 1878, Fort Walsh was made the new headquarters of the North-West Mounted Police (the former being Fort Macleod, built upriver from Fort Whoop-Up), its importance having been bolstered by the presence of Sitting Bull’s Sioux, who had fled into Canada and settled at easterly Wood Mountain following the Battle of the Little Bighorn. The influx of policemen to the new headquarters led to Sanderson’s acquiring a lucrative contract selling beef to the Mounties, through which he accumulated a small fortune.


Medicine Hat

In 1882, the NWMP headquarters was moved to the fledgling town of Regina, newly-established at a location to the east hitherto known as ‘Pile-o’-Bones’. The Sanderson and McKay families subsequently left the Cypress Hills and resettled at a lonely stretch of riverbank which the Indians called “Saamis”, or “Medicine Hat”, located about 80 kilometres (50 miles) to the northwest on the shores of the South Saskatchewan River. The frontiersmen knew that the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR)- Canada’s first trans-Atlantic railroad- was to cross the South Saskatchewan River at Medicine Hat, and surmised that the CPR worksite would grow into a thriving community. Sure enough, when the CP Railway reached Medicine Hat in 1883 and construction of the bridge over the South Saskatchewan commenced, a town sprang up in the vicinity of the work camp.

James Francis Sanderson quickly established himself as one of Medicine Hat’s most prominent citizens, working variously as a freighter and general contractor for the CPR, a buffalo bone collector (due to their high phosphorous content, buffalo bones were used to make fertilizer at that time), an interpreter for the local Mounties, an agent for a local coal mine, and a regional wolf inspector. Eventually, Sanderson operated a bull herd for local cattlemen, herding bulls from the surrounding ranches onto his own property every spring and fall. Later on, he established his own livery herd and his own cattle ranch on a flat bordering the South Saskatchewan River, which came to be known as Sanderson’s Point, and became an ardent proponent of horse racing.

In 1894, James Sanderson wrote a series of articles for the Medicine Hat News entitled “Indian Tales of the Canadian Prairies”, in which he recounted some of the stories he heard from his Metis and First Nations friends during his days as a trader and buffalo hunter on the Western Canadian frontier. Most of these stories appear to be based on events which took place from 1850-1870.

In 1896, Sanderson sent a shipment of cattle across the continent and the Atlantic Ocean beyond to England. A reporter for the Montreal Herald who encountered him during this journey described him as “a stalwart Scotsman with the frame of a Hercules, and the suspicion of a strain of the Cree chieftain’s blood in his bearing”.

James Francis Sanderson passed away in Medicine Hat, Alberta, on December 8, 1902, at the age of 54, leaving behind four children, a foster daughter, and an invaluable piece of Canadian literature offering a unique glimpse into the history, folklore, and character of Canada’s Wild West. He was buried in Medicine Hat’s Old Hillside Cemetery, where he lies today beside his wife and his son, Owen.

In the summer of 1965, Indian Tales of the Canadian Prairies was republished in the Alberta Historical Review, supplemented with eight excellent illustrations by Calgary-based artist William B. Fraser. That same year, the piece, complete with Fraser’s illustrations, was republished by the Historical Society of Alberta.




  • “Sanderson, James Francis” (2003), by L. J. Roy Wilson in Volume 13 of the Dictionary of Canadian Biography
  • The Andersons: A Hudson’s Bay Company Family (ca. 1985), by Theresa Schenk
  • James F. Sanderson (1957), by E.G. Luxton; from the Southern Alberta Research Project
  • Through Memory’s Windows, as told to Mary Sophia Desmaris Campbell by her uncle George William Sanderson in 1934, 1935, 1936
  • “About the Author” section of the 1965 publication of James F. Sanderson’s Indian Tales of the Canadian Prairies, issued by the Historical Society of Alberta


Indian Tales of the Canadian Prairies

White Elk Horn

The Conjuring of Loud Voice

Loud Voice’s Raid

Kin-u-sayo’s Death

Red Ochre Hill

The Gros Ventres’ Raid

The Sutherland Boys

The Prediction

How Medicine Hat was Named

How Seven Persons Creek was Named


Iron Shield’s Fall

Joe Tanner’s Daring