By Dianne Meili
Windspeaker.com Archives 2009
"Nehiyawak oma kiyanaw. We are Nehiyaw, Nehiyawak. We are the Plains Cree."
The old man telling the children gathered around him about their proud ancestry and the spirits who worked for them now leaned forward to check their faces for signs of understanding.
Some were asleep, others yawned. He sought out the boy who had caught his attention earlier. This child had luminous eyes. This child was already showing wisdom beyond his years and the old man knew he would grow to be a great leader.
Years earlier, in 1816, this boy had been born on a night when the people said the stars blanketed the sky, more numerous and brighter than usual. He was given the name Ahtahkakoop, the Cree word for Starblanket and his mother wrapped him in a blanket sewn with pointed stars.
There were at least five brothers in Ahtahkakoop's family. The third brother, Sasakamoose, was a natural leader and a more respected shaman than Atahkakoop, but he was a small man and quick in both speech and temper. A beard and hunched back were his most notable features.
The youngest brother, Napeskis, was dashing and handsome and favored by the Hudson Bay Company to the point he was given credit across Rupert's Land.
It was Ahtahkakoop, however, who emerged as the leader of the people. By the 1830s he had grown into a superior young man, standing six feet, three inches in height. Capturing attention wherever he went, he had the intellect to go with his looks.
He had also listened well to his Elders and learned from their sacred stories and teachings. Transitioning from boy to man, he had spent time alone in the hills with nothing to eat and drink, waiting for a vision and hopeful that the spirits would pledge to help him in his life.
He must have been successful. His prowess was in hunting, horse stealing and warfare. He became a Worthy Young Man early in life, and then was asked to join the Warrior Society. People noticed he had an extraordinary ability to know the best places to camp, and where to find buffalo. When he went on raids in Blackfoot territory, he generally returned home with the same number of warriors he left with, and many horses.
To round out his leadership grooming, Ahtahkakoop was also made a member of the midewiwin, the highest order of individuals devoted to healing and sacred ceremonies. They strengthened communication with the Creator and his helpers to maintain health and harmony amongst the people.
Ahtahkakoop soon became chief and was adept enough to know he would have to make shrewd decisions if his people were to survive in the world quickly changing around them.
Stories told by his youngest brother, who travelled to Ottawa and Montreal with (it is thought) George Simpson, governor of the Hudson's Bay Company, concerned him. Napeskis related troubles eastern tribes were having with encroaching settlers, miners, and soldiers on their lands. Railways, large towns full of buildings made of wood, stone, and brick had astounded him, not to mention the fenced farms harbouring cattle and ox.
Ahtahkakoop knew it would not be long before he would be seeing the same kind of rapid development in the west. He spent long nights in his lodge with Mistawasis, a close friend and chief of another northwest band, talking about the future.
They knew about the transfer of Rupert's Land to the Dominion of Canada, and that the Canadian government had sent troops to the Red River Settlement to intimidate the Métis to ensure the orderly transfer of jurisdiction. Their people were dying from either drinking the liquor given them by the traders, or from the violence that usually broke out during drinking binges.
In 1870, Ahtahkakoop's people cried as they buried family members who had died from a smallpox epidemic. At Fort Carlton, where Ahtahkakoop had established good relations with the traders, exchanging meat and hides for European knives, axes and dry goods, 28 of 70 people living there died of the dreaded disease. Anger flared; after 200 Indians died near Fort Pitt, survivors brought their dead and threw them against the stockades to infect the whites.
Ahtahkakoop went on a hunting trip and, saddened by the decimated buffalo herds, fasted and prayed to the Creator for guidance and help. Irreversible changes were coming and he had to find someone who could teach his people how to survive in this new world.
His prayers were answered in the person of Anglican missionary John Hines, who would teach his people to farm, and the children to read and write. He invited Hines to settle at Sandy Lake, a traditional camping ground of his Plains Cree.
Even though it was difficult to exchange the old ceremonies and spiritual supplications for Christian baptism and the Bible, Ahtahkakoop embraced white religion. After a long discussion with Hines, the chief finally accepted this new way of worship as just another way of having a relationship with the Creator.
Hines established a missionary school for the children, and soon some students were going on to study at Emmanuel College in Prince Albert to become teachers and ministers.
On Aug. 23, 1876, Ahtahkakoop joined a dozen other chiefs and 44 headmen in signing Treaty Six. Ahtahkakoop received land around Sandy Lake and his people prepared to trade exciting days on the hunt for long hours of toiling in the field sowing seeds.
The first planting years were frustrating as early frosts and delays in receiving seeds and equipment conspired to ruin crops. Hunger, cold, sickness and death amongst his people weighed heavily on the chief's mind, but he felt he had no choice but to continue urging his people to have faith in the treaties and white man's ways.
Ahtahkakoop remained loyal to the government during the North West Rebellion of 1885.
By the mid-1890s, Ahtahkakoop's patience and optimism paid off. His band was the largest in the area and was attracting new members. The people had prosperous farms and many of their children travelled to study at the new Battleford industrial school.
Prolonged satisfaction was not to be his, though, for on Dec. 4, 1896 he died of a heart attack while walking with his grandson on the way to a feast.
But his aspiration of paving the way for his people in the new world lives on in the first school built on the Ahtahkakoop reserve. Named after the great chief, the school boasts a mural memorializing Ahtahkakoop in his glory days, riding a swift horse and hunting buffalo.