The following guest post article has been kindly contributed by Geoffrey A. Pocock, author of Outrider of Empire: The Life and Adventures of Roger Pocock (University of Alberta Press) and One Hundred Years of the Legion of Frontiersmen (currently out of print). His own blog can be viewed at www.frontiersmenhistorian.wordpress.com and his website is www.frontiersmenhistorian.info
The story of Custer’s Last Stand and the massacre of his men at the Battle of Little Big Horn in the Sioux Indian Wars is a well-known story. What should be emphasized is that the Sioux took up arms against the U.S. Army because of the serious ill-treatment and oppression they received at American hands. It is said that the Indian agents working on behalf of the U.S. could make so much money by cheating that they could afford to retire after a very short time. Gold and silver were found in the area where the Sioux had settled, and a small army of prospectors and miners descended on the land causing much discord. The United States authorities had decided that armed force was needed to suppress the Sioux and engaged in military action against them. Because of all this, the Sioux decided that they should seek sanctuary across the border in Canada ruled by the “Great White Mother” and her representatives, the men in the scarlet coats, the North-West Mounted Police who could be trusted to behave with fairness. That was more than they felt could be said for the “Long Knives”, the United States Cavalry.
And so, in the last half of the 1870s, men, women and children sought British justice and asylum from war. One hundred and forty years later there are many who still seek asylum and the rule of British justice. Now they seek asylum from wars in the Middle East; then they sought asylum from American injustice. What a strange thought!
Earlier the Sioux had attempted to persuade the Blackfoot tribe, living contentedly in Canada, to take the warpath with them. Crowfoot, the senior Chief of the Blackfeet, immediately sought the advice of Colonel Macleod of the N.W.M.P. and then declined the invitation. Macleod and the N.W.M.P. had the confidence and goodwill of the Blackfeet to a remarkable degree. A good example of the respect in which the Mounted Police were held can be seen on an occasion later in the 1880s when a band of Canadian First Nations, mainly Crees, fearing punishment for their share in the Riel Rebellion, decided to cross the border into America, where they were not welcomed. Two hundred disgruntled Crees with four hundred and fifty horses were rounded up and escorted to the border by a a strong force of the United States Cavalry. They were met at the border by three Mounted Policemen, one corporal and two troopers. The American commanding officer was most taken aback.
“Where’s your escort for these?”, he asked.
“We’re here,” answered the corporal.
“Yes, but where’s your regiment of escorts?”
“I guess it’s here all right,” replied the corporal, “but the other fellow’s looking after breakfast.”
“But that means there are only four of you!”
“That’s right, Colonel, but you see we wear the Queen’s scarlet.”
The corporal and three other redcoats took over the band and escorted them one hundred miles north-west with no problems whatsoever. That was the effect of the Queen’s scarlet tunic of the N.W.M.P..
The first contingent of Sioux crossed the border and appeared near Wood Mountain. There were five hundred or so warriors with around a thousand women and about fifteen hundred children. They brought with them three thousand five hundred horses. In the spring of 1877 very many more came with their famous chief Sitting Bull, who was also revered as a skilled medicine man. There were now over six thousand mainly Sioux with some Nez Perces. The Sioux had never been defeated in battle. They were dependent for survival on Canadian buffalo or whatever bounty they could acquire. The United States’ relief at their departure was matched by the dismay of the Canadians. Assistant Commissioner Irvine of the N.W.M.P. was despatched to parley with Sitting Bull. This was the first time a white man had ever been allowed near to the great chief. Irvine found a middle-aged man of less than medium height with long black hair. The pipe of peace was smoked and the two men seemed to get along amicably. Irvine made it quite clear that the laws of the White Mother over the sea would be strictly enforced. However much the United States were pleased to see the back of the Sioux, their seeking asylum in Canada was a great embarrassment to the U.S. government who requested their deportation but, although the Canadians would have liked to be rid of them, they politely rejected enforced deportation. The Americans made it worse by sending General Terry, who the Sioux despised, to try to negotiate direct with them. The American Sioux protested their love for the White Mother and delighted in their new home and the fact that they were cared for. They persisted in requesting a reservation, but this was always declined and it was pointed out to them that they had a reservation waiting for them in America.
There were bound to be incidents of troubles. Once a band of Blackfeet raided the Sioux camp and stole thirty horses. Sitting Bull complained to Major Walsh of the N.W.M.P. who told off six of his men to go and get the horses. These men, having no fear of the Blackfeet, had no idea which were the thirty horses so rode into the Blackfoot herd and rounded up well over a hundred horses and drove them back into the Police fort pursued by angry Blackfoot warriors. Major Walsh was far from pleased by his men who he considered had almost declared war against the Blackfoot tribe. Within an hour the Blackfeet had surrendered the thirty horses they had stolen in return for their own hundred plus and matters quietened down. The theft of horses was often a problem. Once at a place called Wood End some Sioux braves made off with a number of police horses. The trooper in charge of the horses fired warning shots over the heads of the departing thieves. Sitting Bull’s reply was to send back word that his men were not to be disturbed. Immediately Inspector Allen rode with a dozen men into the Sioux camp and told Sitting Bull to remember where he was and his braves were subject to the laws of Canada, so please return the horses. Sitting Bull was in a bad mood and said he would like to see Allen and his men take the horses. Allen’s response was that he would take any stolen horse, including the one on which Sitting Bull was mounted, if he knew it to be stolen. Sitting Bull sneered that in fact it was a stolen horse. Whereupon, Inspector Allen, a big man, rode up to Sitting Bull, lifted him off the horse, dumped his sacred person on the ground and led off the horse. The tribe were thunderstruck by this, which gave Allen and his troopers time to reach the fort, stable the horse and make ready for defence. With twilight falling, the Sioux were riding around the fort whooping and making warlike noises. Allen ordered all lights out and the fort became silent to look as if the unconcerned police had turned in for the night. The police interpreter stole out of the fort to scout. He discovered that one of the lesser Chiefs, Broad Tail, was one of a number who had grown tired of Sitting Bull’s “medicine”. Chief Broad Tail was brought back to the fort where he told Allen that some were pleased that he had pulled a few feathers from Sitting Bull’s bonnet. Allen gave him the gift of a pound of tobacco, thanked him and sent him back with the message that the sons of the Great White Mother wished to sleep so could they please have some peace. Another danger moment passed thanks to the skills of the N.W.M.P..
Sitting Bull became increasingly more difficult. He appeared at Fort Qu’Appelle with a thousand or so of his followers and demanded a reservation for his tribe. Again he was told that he had one waiting for him over the border. He then appeared at Wood Mountain demanding ammunition. When told he could not have any, Sitting Bull replied that he would get his braves to help themselves from the police stores. “Come in”, said the inspector in charge, Inspector Macdonnell. The gates were thrown open and hundreds of warriors rushed in eager to loot. Macdonnell and an n.c.o. were stood by the store door, but the braves also saw rifle muzzles pointing from holes and windows in the buildings all round the central square. The warriors decided to leave in a hurry. That was probably the beginning of the end for Sitting Bull. The police dealt with the lesser chiefs individually, encouraged by Chief Broad Tail, and Sitting Bull’s influence dwindled as small groups of his followers slowly trickled back over the border. In December 1880 Sitting Bull and his remaining settlers left for the United States, escorted to the border by Inspector Macdonnell.
Thanks to the skills and diplomacy of what was a very small number of the men in scarlet coats, the affair of the asylum seekers from America concluded safely with the Sioux returning to their home. Were they then treated as well by the American authorities? That is for others to comment and decide.
Note: Unless unavoidable, I have tried not to refer to these peoples as “Indians” unless using job titles. I have just referred to their tribes. In the United States they have for some years been usually described as Native Americans, and in Canada as First Nations.