Big Bear  (1998)




Director:     Gil Cardinal.

Starring:     Gordon Tootoosis (Chief Big Bear), Tantoo Cardinal (Running Second), Lorne Cardinal (Little Bad Man), Kennetch Charlette (Lone Man), Patrick Bird (Kingbird), Michael Greyeyes (Wandering Spirit), Simon Baker (Horsechild), Gail Maurice (Nowakich), Ben Cardinal (Miserable Man), Blaine Hart (Peter Erasmus), Mel Melymick (Thomas Quinn), Billy Morton (John Delaney), Diane Debassige (Sits Green on the Earth), Michael Obey (Iron Body), Victoria Sanchez (Kelly McLean), Lorne Duquette (Round the Sky), Rob Roy (William McLean), Mishi Donovan (Mrs. McLean), Robert Hoek (He Speaks Our Tongue), Iain MacLean (John McDougall).

mini-series about Plains Cree Chief Big Bear in Canada of the 1880s and 1890s; whites want to put the chief's people on a reservation, but he won't sign the treaty which leads to his people starving



Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film. 



"This program is based on historical fact. It depicts events that occurred in western Canada in the late 1800's that changed forever the way of life of the Cree People."  [In the United States, this Algonquian-speaking people historically lived from Lake Superior westward. Today, they live mostly in Montana, where they share a reservation with the Ojibwe (Chippewa) . Some 200,000 members live in Canada. The major proportion of Cree in Canada live north and west of Lake Superior, in Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and the Northwest Territories.]

Chief Big Bear puts his war paint on. He rides out with a small group of Cree warriors. They knock down the survey sticks in the area. Then they ride up to a tent where white civilians are working. Two white men, one with the Royal Mounted Police, the other an interpreter named Peter Erasmus, ride a short ways to meet with Big Bear. Big Bear asks who gave these white men permission to put up survey sticks on his people's land? The white man says the government has given permission to survey the land.

Through the translator the policeman says his name is Crozier and he is the big chief of all police here. The government wants these white men to measure the land.

Big Bear replies: "Land is for buffalo, not measuring. "

So Crozier has the white men pack up their encampment and leave.

Back at the village, Big Bear says that the white men are like mosquitoes which are everywhere. And now they are here.

Southern Saskatchewan, Canada, 1875. Two Cree warriors have snuck up on the buffalo close enough to kill some of them. But a wagon with two men on it starts coming toward the buffalo. The buffalo get scared and run away.

The Cree warriors are mad and ride over to confront the white men. It turns out that the two white men are ministers. Little Bad Man, older son of Big Bear, says that they don't want anymore of the Jesus talk around here. The older minister says that he has a letter for Chief Big Bear. So Little Bad Man figures he has no choice but to lead the ministers back to the village.

Mrs. Big Bear is giving bird to another child. At the same time the men are talking with the ministers. The younger man says that Queen Victoria is the great grandmother of us all. The policemen says the Queen protects her red children.

Big Bear replies: "How is it I am suddenly her child? We ride where we wish. We protect ourselves." The older minister pulls out the letter for Chief Big Bear. They younger minister says this letter says that "grandmother's councilors will come, make treaty with you. They will explain everything." And these councilors will bring many more gifts for the Cree.

Big Bear says they don't need more gifts. They don't want more gifts. He tells the ministers to let the government men come and talk to the Cree. The pow-wow breaks up as the Cree warriors walk away. Big Bear says the ministers are welcome to his village. The ministers get up to leave.

Big Bear gives his new baby a name: Horse Child. That night he dreams about the buffalo. He sees the buffalo fall into a huge hole on the prairie and simply disappear.

"Articles of treaty 6 explains to the Cree Indians at Fort Pitt, this 13th of September, 1876. Signed by Alexander Morris, Lt. Governor, Northwestern Territories. " Chief Sweetgrass makes his mark to agree to the treaty.

Big Bear with a small group come late to the treaty ceremony. Sweetgrass is given a British red coat to wear. He is also given a big medallion with the queen's bust on it. The Lt. Governor places it around the chief's neck.

Big Bear arrives to speak to the other chiefs who all have on red coats. He says that who is this governor they speak of? And will they ever see this governor again? The translator says that the queen loves all her people, both red and white. And she has long arms that can embrace them all. Big Bear asks: "She may have long arms, but are her breasts big enough to feed us all?" This causes laughter among the Cree.

Big Bear says he feels as though there is a big rope around his neck choking him. He wants freedom for his people.

The lieutenant governor asks Big Bear if he will sign the treaty? They will not change the negotiated treaty just for Big Bear. And more and more settlers will be coming onto their lands, regardless if he accepts the treaty or not. With this, Big Bear sits down apart from his fellow Cree. He later talks with the lt. governor.

Winter comes and with it comes great hardship. The buffalo have gone south far from Big Bear and his people. The chief and his sons discuss what they should do. The sons decide they need more horses to reach the buffalo and they are going to steal them from the Black Feet.

Two of the sons go down to Black Feet territory. The youngest son, King Bear, is going along to prove that he is now a man. Big Bear tells him to use caution for there will be many opportunities to prove his manhood.

Big Bear goes to the fort where money is handed out to the Cree to help them buy food. There the official says since Big Bear is here, maybe he should sign the treaty. This will help Big Bear feed and clothe his people. Big Bear is too proud and maybe too stubborn to accept that his people will have to learn to live without the buffalo.

The village needs horses.  King Bear sneaks up on a group of sleeping Black Feet. Right from under their noses he steals a horse and rides off. The Black Feet jump up and try to shoot the thief, but the boy gets away.

The two sons return to their camp with four horses. His brother says that King Bear "is a worthy young man". He will sit in the Rattler Lodge. King Bear gives the one white horse to his father as a gift. Big Bear now tells his people that they are plains people and they will follow the buffalo south.

Montana, four years later. Big Bear and King Bear are sorry to see so few buffalo in Montana. King Bear goes to tell the other braves to come hunt the buffalo. They use their rifles and horses to kill the buffalo. Big Bear kills a buffalo with his bow and arrows. He sits before the dead buffalo and asks its forgiveness. He also says he is filled with gratitude to the buffalo spirit.

Big Bear has a change of heart. This nomadic life is too hard on his people. They are exhausted from moving around all the time. He says that they must go back north and somehow learn to live with the great grandmother.

Little Bad Man does not like this at all. He argues for continuing to move around. The chief says: "Today I ran my last buffalo."

So the family starts on the long trek back into Canada and to their traditional place. A woman kills a dog to get some food.

Big Bear is now back at the fort. He speaks to the official representing the government program, who tells him:  No sign treaty, no food aid. Sign treaty, get food now and six years of back pay.

There is a burial ceremony for one of Big Bear's relatives. The dead person is a young woman. Starvation has taken many people from Big Bear's family. So Big Bear is forced to go to the fort and sign the treaty. He is very upset about having to sign, but the alternative for him would be to watch more and more of his people die of starvation.

Big Bear decides to go to a village of his friend, against the orders of the military. Things don't look good for the villagers. Big Bear asks some children where is the house of his friend? They point in the right direction.

Big Bear finds his friend and hears worse news from him. The friend says that the government has gotten a lot harder since Big Bear was gone. They assign an agent who tells you what you can do and cannot do. Government is like a hangman's noose around all their necks.

Big Bear wants to call for a big meeting with the representatives of all the tribes bound by Treaty Six. "We will seek guidance for all our people."

Three white men, trappers probably, arrive on the day of the big meeting. Little Bad Man welcomes Mr. Dumont to the meeting. They will talk first before doing anything else.

Big Bears says that like the buffalo herd they too must make a big noise and speak with one united voice. He wants one reserve for all the Cree people. The Chief tells the men that they must tell their own people about this plan for unity. And then when the next spring comes, the chiefs can go together to Ottawa, Canada to see this big white man.

[The Métis people of the Canadian prairies were much united under the leadership of Louis Riel (1844-1884). The Métis people were called  derogatory names as Bois-Brűlés, Mixed-bloods, Half-breeds, Bungi, Black Scots and Jackatars. In 1885 Riel led what came to be called the North-West Rebellion.]

The three white men at the meeting are Métis people. They talk with Little Bad Man. Dumont says that Riel will talk to the government. "He speaks white." The fellow also talks about how the Métis and the Cree people should resist with force if that is the only thing that will work with the government.

Big Bear leads the group to the place where they will put up a big meeting lodge. King Bird rides his horse around a young woman six times and then picks her up and puts her on the horse behind her now husband.

Big Bear is going to start building the lodge when the police and white officials come out to see them. The head man says that Big Bear and his people have stayed too long. They must continue north on their journey to Frog Lake. Crozier says the First Dance is illegal and it must stop.

All the Cree people gather behind the chief to show they are all united in their wishes. Big Bears continues his prayer. Then he leads in the singing of an Indian song. The officials leave, but the police remain behind.

The mean agent watches as He Speaks Our Tongue comes up to him to show him something. The agent pushes He Speaks Our Tongue down. The Cree warrior throws a stone and hits the agent in the left shin. He goes down in pain. He Speaks Our Tongue takes a knife and threatens to kill the agent, but he only sticks the knife blade into the porch floor boarding near the agent's head.

The agent complains to Crozier who speaks with the Cree. He wants to see He Speaks Our Tongue in the office tomorrow early or he and his police will come and forcefully grab He Speaks Our Tongue from his people.

The next day a large crowd of Cree plus some members of the Métis people come to toward the office. From a ridge they see a large number of policemen saddling up ready to move out. Crozier and the police move toward the Cree.

Crozier wants He Speaks Our Tongue handed over to him for the crime of striking a government official. There's a showdown between the two forces. Crozier backs down.  But on his next try he pulls He Speaks Our Tongue away from his brethren.

The Cree are still starving and the agent says he can't give them any reserves because Big Bear sits around on his ass doing nothing about going to Fox Lake. The wife of King Bear trades sex for food from one of the white men at the office.

Another Cree shoots the white horse belonging to Big Bear. But at least Big Bear's family can eat. Big Bear says he will go to the office tomorrow to speak with the new agent.

Big Bear asks the new agent to help him feed his people so they do not starve. Already this winter they have had 22 deaths. The new man asks if Big Bear doesn't want his people to starve, then why doesn't he choose a reservation?

Another funeral is held. One of his sons gives Big Bear a dirty look. He shows the dead woman's face to Big Bear. He then cuts off her braids, holds them up and says: "I will not forget."


Big Bear tells Little Bad Man that he is going to tell everyone that they will be moving out to the east end of Sounding Lake, as soon as grass is available for the horses. He says he is also going to Ottawa.

Little Bad Man holds a meeting with the rattlers and without Big Bear. A chief from Another Cree group has been chosen to be the new war chief for their group of Cree.

Big Bear learns that messengers from the Métis that the government has ordered Crozier to arrest Riel. A man named Gabriel Dumont went out with about a hundred men to stop Crozier from accomplishing his mission. A fight broke out. Gabriel's brother was killed. Gabriel himself killed twelve policemen. It is said that Crozier ran from the battle field. And now Gabriel has sent a message asking for Big Bear's support in the fight against the government.

[The Métis had some early victories at Duck Duck Lake, Fish Creek and Cut Knife.]

Frog Lake Settlement, N. E. Alberta, 1885.

Big Bear goes to speak to Mr. Quinn, one of the agents. He tells Quinn that Dumont told Little Bad Man that there will be blood and this has already started at Duck Lake. Big Bear says it's dangerous for everyone, both Cree and white men. He and his son suggest that Quinn leave for Fort Pitt immediately. [Fort Pitt was established in 1830 where the territories of the Cree, Assiniboine and Blackfoot converged on the North Saskatchewan River in Canada.]

Quinn says no damn Indian is going to scare him. And he's not going anywhere.

At Big Bear's encampment some of the warriors put on war paint and dance around a bonfire. They will fight tomorrow.

April 2, 1885. Battle of Fort Pitt. Big Bear is going to try to stop any fighting. Little Bad Man and his group demands ammunition and black powder from the suttler. The white man says he has only the little bit of black power a in small keg. So Little Bad man threatens him with his hunting knife. At this moment Big Bear comes in. He tries to assure the white man's safety. The Indians take what they want from the store.

One of the Cree speaks to Quinn and some other white men. He maintains that they have come to protect Quinn. So Quinn says since the Cree are protecting him, they may as well have breakfast with him.

At breakfast the Cree say that when the bell rings, Quinn and his family and the others must go to church. The church bell rings. The Cree stand in the back of the church. Big Bear comes into the church. The Cree now tell the whites to get out of the church for all the white people are now the prisoners of the Cree.

The Cree bang on Quinn's door. They tell Quinn to unlock the door to the supplies and distribute them among the people. Quinn says they will have do that themselves. Four times Quinn says no to He Speaks Our Tongue. So the warrior says he will have to kill Quinn for that. Quinn doesn't seem to take He Speaks Our Tongue seriously. The Cree fellow is now very angry and he shoots Quinn with his rifle. The other whites start running away and the Cree shoot them down.

King Bear lets the suttler and his mother sneak out of the store around back. Little Bad Man shoots the white fellow who had sex with a Cree woman in exchange for meat. Then the reverend is shot. He is still alive so he is shot in the head.

The young son of Big Bear walks through the massacre sight. A white woman is given to the Cree women. Mrs. Big Bear balls out the warriors for killing unarmed people.

A wagon comes into the village filled with supplies. Big Bear's son is with him. The white driver is not happy to hear that there are no whites here anymore. Big Bear tells the man that none of this was his doing. The white man says that Big Bear will still have to take the responsibility for what happened here.

The local Cree will now ride to Batoche, Saskatchewan to meet up with others in rebellion.

But first the Cree go to Fort Pitt to talk with the agent there. The agent's half-white daughter says that her father will send all the police away and let the Cree come into the fort. The agent and his family will stay at the fort too. In exchange, they only ask that there not be any killing.

Little Bad man goes to tell the war chief, Wandering Spirit, what the agent has said. Big Bear looks quite forlorn and lost. The Cree come into the fort and start taking away a lot of things belonging to the police.

The agent and his family start to pack up supplies to leave the fort. The half-white young Kitty starts to dance with some of the Cree when one fellow starts pounding on the piano. The agent and his family leave Fort Pitt.

The Cree along with some whites pulling a large wagon and the agent's family accompanying them head for Batoche.

At an encampment for the night, Little Bad Man tells his people that some says that Poundmaker was attacked by the whites. But Little Bad Man says he was not and that Poundmaker is heading to Batoche to fight for Riel. He says they will kill any white people they find along the way as they head for Batoche. Wandering Spirit threatens to kill the whites in the encampment.

Big Bear gets up and says they should have pity for the whites with them, because never before have they known such deprivation and hunger, as the Cree have. Another son of Big Bear gets up and says he looks upon these whites as children of the company and he doesn't want to see them harmed.

Big Bear says that the young men were too eager and in a hurry to start trouble. But now they wait here having no idea of what will be coming their way. He says they better save the whites for long columns of soldiers will be coming for the Cree. And the Cree here may want these white people to have something good to say about the Cree when the white soldiers arrive.

[Battle of Batoche. On May 9, 1885, Middleton attacked Batoche. The greatly outnumbered Métis ran out of ammunition after three days of battle and siege. They were forced to retreat when Middleton's soldiers advanced in force. Riel surrendered on May 15. Gabriel Dumont and other participants escaped across the border to the Montana region of the United States.]

And now comes a long column of white police and soldiers.

Battle of Frenchman's Butte, Saskatchewan, May 28, 1885. The Indians have thrown up a low fence of logs and they hide from the enemy behind these logs. The Canadians have brought an artillery piece with them. The men start moving toward the top of the hill. A shoot out begins The first artillery shot goes way over the heads of the Cree warriors. The only Cree threatened by the artillery are the women, children and older men along with the whites. Big Bear has the people move farther away from the fighting.

Finally a shell lands just behind the logs and explodes. One of the Cree warriors is killed. The whites now move back. And now the Cree see the whites in full retreat. Little Bad Man wants to chase down the whites, but Wandering Spirit says they cannot fight the artillery piece that threatens their women and children.

Little Bad Man finds some of the run aways and tells them to stop for the danger is gone. The whites have run away. He says they will just exhaust themselves if they keep running away. Big Bear and his wife both yell at their son saying that he is just playing the big shop, but how will they live in this woody area? Mother tells him to go find food for the people.

Many people start abandoning the warriors who want to continue the fight.

Big Bear tells Kitty that Low Man will see that they all get back to their people. Kitty says she wants to be like Big Bear.

King Bear's wife is about to deliver her child. She finally learns that King Bear knew about what happened when he tells her that the baby will be white. She says the baby will not be white.

Another son of Big Bear brings news of Fort Pitt. The area where the fort stood is now covered with the tents of the white men. The fat general in charge is the one who defeated Poundmaker and Dumont at the Battle of Batoche. Wandering Spirit has already turned himself into the soldiers. The soldiers called out many names and these men were put in chains. Little Bad Man said he was heading back to Montana.

Big Bear's wife tells him that the soldiers and police will be looking for him. He replies: "I'm so famous everyone wants to meet me." She says he should go with her and the others where it is safe.

[Battle of Loon Lake. On June 3, 1885, a small detachment of North-West Mounted Police under the command of Major Sam Steele caught up to a band of Cree led by Big Bear who were moving northward after their victory at Frenchman's Butte. The Cree were almost out of ammunition, and were forced to flee after a short exchange of fire and the release of their hostages.]

Big Bear returns to the place where Fort Pitt once stood. He has his long hair cut short. He is put in chains and has to attend a trial. He is charged with choosing to make war against the Queen of Britain. In the cold jail cell he develops a bad cough.

Regina, September 25, 1885. Big Bear is allowed to speak to the court. He says it is wrong to say that he chose to go to war with the Queen. He threw his war paint away long ago and nobody has said they saw him in war paint during the Northwest Rebellion.

He goes on to say that once this was his land. And once he was a free man. But with the coming of the white man, he is no longer free and no longer has his land. "There is nothing left now."

In prison Big Bear sees the hanging of some of his Cree warriors. He becomes a Christian in prison.

[In 1885 the sixty year old chief was sentenced to three years in Stony Mountain Penitentiary, but was released from prison before serving his complete sentence as a result of failing health, and died shortly afterward.]

Poundmaker Reserve, January 17, 1888. Big Bear looks sick. A young boy helps take care of him, but he dies on this day.


The Canadians do seem to be less harsh on its native peoples as compared to the United States.  Yes, maybe so, but the two stories are both very similar.  The native peoples were screwed in both places.  As settlers moved westward, the time came for the native people to move out of the way.  They were to be put on reservations.  Some moved somewhat willingly while others fought against the moves.  It's not that hard to go to war, especially when the natives were very warlike.  What was harder was convincing people to move to the reservations because reality declares that they either move or die. 

One of the Cree chiefs, Big Bear, decided not to sign Treaty 6, but his people paid a big price for this decision.  He lost a lot of his people to starvation.  This helped to discredit Big Bear as a leader.  And when war clouds arose, they ousted Big Bear and put Wandering Spirit in as the war chief.   That part was just as well because Big Bear did not want to fight the whites in battles.  The hot heads of the tribe wanted to fight literally.  And their fate was the fate of most tribes that fought against white men: hunger, starvation and death or severe wounding in battle.  The end result was always the same.  The native peoples had to live on strictly defined pieces of land. 

Gordon Tootoosis was very good as Big Bear.  His character was a good, decent man, but a bit stubborn and hard-headed.  Also good was Lorne Cardinal as Little Bad Man. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


Return To Main Page

Return to Home Page (Vernon Johns Society)