Book casts new light on Cree chief

Wandering Spirit has long been viewed as a major

villain from the early years of Western Canada for his role in the Frog Lake massacre in 1885.But the mantle of murderer hung on the Cree Chief was one Yorkton writer Garry Radison said he never felt was fair. So, he went looking into the Chief's history for a clearer picture of the man.

The result of Radison's efforts Ka-pepamahchakwew - Wandering Spirit, was released under his own imprint Smoke Ridge Books.

Radison said the book really had its roots in his own readings.

"This one came about when I started reading about the Frog Lake Massacre," he said, adding he quickly came to recognize the existing history appeared somewhat skewed.

"Everything I read was mostly from the white man's point of view," he said.

Radison said the incident of Frog Lake was one which seemed out of place.

"It would have fit into the American west, but here it was out of place," he said, adding that piqued his interest. "It needed explaining."

Radison said his reading didn't supply the explanation he sought.

"I found five different explanations and none of them satisfied me," he said.

That was when Radison turned to the war chief Wandering Spirit.

"If there was an explanation at all it would come through him," he reasoned.

However, learning about Ka-pepamahchakwew (Wandering Spirit) was a challenge of its own.In terms of history "nobody wanted to talk about him," said Radison.

The opening paragraph of the book's introduction explains the situation Radison found.

Following the bloody events that occurred at Frog Lake in 1885, Ka-pepamahchakwew (Wandering Spirit), war chief of Mistahimaskwa's (Big Bear) band, has been either vilified in the accounts left by the survivors and the apologetic statements of native leaders, or lionized in the oral traditions of a defeated people. Neither perspective is completely true. Ironically, this man, who began the killing at Frog Lake, has been condemned for his virtues, praised for his excesses. He was a warrior, caught in the dying traditions of his culture, unable to discard his upbringing and unwilling to abandon his responsibilities to protect his people.

Radison said even among the Cree Ka-pepamahchakwew was not well understood in the sense the woman and children who were left behind would not have been part of the acts of war.

"Only the warriors would have any understanding of what they were doing at Frog Lake," he said, suggesting others " were as surprised and befuddled as everybody else."

And the warriors who did survive would have spoke guardedly of the event because right up until the 1920s and '30s "they feared the government might come and pick them up."

But Radison was not deterred. He read what books existed on the event, including William Bleasdell Cameron's Blood Red Sun, and then digging through provincial archives, seeking information."I started picking out things that had to do with Wandering Spirit specifically," he said.

Over time Radison said he believes he was able to draw a clearer picture of the man Wandering Spirit than any previous author has managed.

"I may not have everything right, but I think I have it more right than anybody else," he said.Radison said in the process, his personal view of Ka-pepamahchakwew changed.

"I went into this thinking he was a bad guy," he said. "Everybody said he was a bad guy," he said.However research didn't support that view.

"I couldn't find the bad guy," said Radison. "Everybody was saying it, but when I looked at what he did, the few things I did find on his life, he wasn't a bad guy."

Radison said that realization led him to a difficult decision regarding the book, namely looking at Ka-pepamahchakwew from a different angle than previous writers had.

Radison said he chose to look at the possibility if Ka-pepamahchakwew was a responsible leader within his culture leading up to Frog Lake, then what happened at Frog Lake was not out of character.

"If he was a responsible character in his culture, then he must have been responsible at Frog Lake too," he said. "As soon as I asked that question everything fell into place."

Radison said he realized the book had to be written from Ka-pepamahchakwew's perspective to work, and that was the perspective of a war chief.

"I knew if I was going to write about this guy I had to see things from his point of view. I had to put value on what he put value on," he said.

Radison said the treaties had been signed a decade earlier, and that meant no need for war chiefs like Ka-pepamahchakwew.

"At Frog Lake he was once again a war chief," he said.

Radison said while the Cree were living on Reserves their culture and beliefs were still those of the Cree before the white man arrived, so when they were threatened they did what they had always done, turned to a war chief for leadership.

To understand the cultural significance of the warrior society of the Cree was paramount to understanding Ka-pepamahchakwew and Frog Lake, said Radison.

"I spend the first chapters discussing the warrior society, their values," he said.

For example one thing which enraged white people at the time was that the nine men killed at Frog Lake were all unarmed, said Radison.

But, researching back to the Blackfoot Wars of the 1860s, Radison said he learned it didn't matter if an enemy was armed.

"It was a valued coup to kill an unarmed man," he said.

The viciousness of the Frog Lake attack was created by the white man's vision of it, said Radison.Radison was asked what the reaction of Cree readers have been?"They aren't saying

anything," he said, adding "I know some have bought it."

So does that reflect an issue with him being yet another white writer telling the story of Frog Lake?

Radison said it is a story which might have to have been told through white eyes.

"It might be best that a white guy did it," he said, adding a Cree writer might be accused of being apologetic of Ka-pepamahchakwew, or of making excuses for the events of Frog Lake."I just wanted to understand what happened at Frog Lake," he reiterated.

And, now that the book is done, Radison said he believes Ka-pepamahchakwew needs a better fate from history than he has gotten. He is likely more Cree hero than murdering villain, he added. Radison said he wasn't a political leader of his people. He was named war chief to deal with a given threat and situation."He went into action when the camp was threatened," he said, adding it was his given responsibility to protect and defend his people. " He didn't make the decision. The group decided they needed a war chief, and they usually picked the most experienced warrior "He was in a difficult situation, he had to do what the group wanted done."

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In the end though, he would still hang for his role at Frog Lake, a fate Radison said the warrior chief may not have understood, a paragraph from the final chapter of the book telling of the chief's likely view of event.

By refusing to make a political statement Ka-pepamahchakwew revealed his view of himself as a soldier, not a politician. Once a course of action had been decided upon, he led the warriors and provided the necessary tactical expertise and leadership to deal, first, with an offensive campaign and, later, with the defense and retreat. But once hostilities began, the political issues of the Cree were of no concern to the Canadian government. The Cree leaders were left mainly with military concerns and thus relied on their war chief to find the best solutions. By deferring to Lit-Ahwah-Ke-Ni was acknowledging there were better reasons than his for the Cree's declaration of war.

Radison said he looks at the book as not just one of his best to-date."I think it might even be an important work," he said.

The book is available locally at and at Kahkewistahaw Gas & Convenience Store in Yorkton.

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