Thursday, August 9, 2012

Big Bear's vision against Horse Ownership


Big Bear in custody at Regina, 1885.
Credit: O.B. Buell
/ Library Archives Canada / C-001873
Big Bear (1825-1888) was a legendary Cree Chief, whose heritage was both Cree and Ojibwa.  While the Cree, of course, had their own medicine men, the Ojibwa were particularly known for their spiritual abilities.  Big Bear's visions were central to his interpretation of the world around him, and it is said he foresaw the end of the plains peoples' way of life, foretelling times even more troubling that those of frequent epidemic in the early nineteenth-century.

One dream, recounted in Hugh Dempsey's Big Bear: End of Freedom, has been attributed to Big Bear's peculiar stance against acquiring horses.  For the Cree and Blackfoot, horse theft was an art and means to status.  Capturing a herd of thundering horses from one's enemy proved a man's prowess.  Theft was a part of prairie life.  Big Bear, however, while participating in horse raiding, distributed the chargers he acquired to his family and those in need.  Dempsey notes that this was more than just the generosity of a prospective chief, but also "the fulfilment of another vision." (Dempsey, 19)

In a dream a spirit came to Big Bear and led him to a cave filled with horses.  The spirit told him to,
Go to the centre of the herd and take the horse that you find there.  Don't take any other horse, just that one.  The horses will rear up and kick at you, but if you show no fear, they will move aside and let you pass.  But if you show any fear, you won't get to the horse in the middle.  (Dempsey, 19)

Unfortunately when Big Bear neared the middle of the cave, a large black stallion reared up, making at him with its hooves and Big Bear shrunk back in defence.  The herd vanished.  Suddenly alone with the spirit man, he was told, "It's too bad you crouched.  You had your chance but now you'll never be rich in horses as long as you live."
Glenbow Museum and Archives File number: NA-1709-43
Title: Cree people at Poplar Grove [Innisfail]
Date: [ca. 1891]
Big Bear interpreted this to mean that he should never try to accumulate horses, and thereafter only kept as many as he needed for himself.  Dempsey, whose biography of the Cree chief adapted First Nations' stories from numerous reservations in the Canadian West, noted that spirituality was central to Big Bear's life, and that, "he was remembered as much for the supernatural power he possessed as for his political acumen."   His source for Big Bear's horse theft vision come from a 1982 conversation with the Reverend Stan Cuthand.

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