1971 marked the centennial of the first of the numbered treaties between Indigenous Nations and the Crown. Eleven treaties were signed between then and 1921, covering the Prairies Provinces, northern Ontario, much of Northwest Territories and parts of northeastern British Columbia. The town of Cut Knife, Saskatchewan, is located in Treaty 6 territory.
Long before the town of Cut Knife was established, before Canada became a country, before the fur traders arrived, the territory that is now known as the Prairie Provinces was the occupied by numerous Indigenous nations, including the Nakota (Assiniboine/Stoney), Cree, Dakota, Ojibwe, Siksika (Blackfoot) and Tsuutʼina (Sarcee). The area around Cut Knife was the homeland of the Plains Cree.
In the 1840s, the Cree were attacked by a group of Tsuutʼina (Sarcee) warriors from the Siksika or Blackfoot Confederacy to the southwest. The battle was fought just to the north of present-day Cut Knife on the highest hill in the surrounding region. Under their skillful leader, the Sarcee fought hard but were ultimately defeated. The Cree, however, were so impressed by the fighting abilities of the Sarcee leader that they named the battle site after him, Broken Knife. When Europeans settlers later arrived in the area, they took a somewhat mistranslated version of the name for their townsite – Cut Knife.
In August and September of 1876, treaty negotiations were concluded between the Crown and the local Woods and Plains Cree and Nakota (Assiniboine/Stoney) nations. Pitikwahanapiwiyin (better known as Chief Poundmaker) was part of the Treaty 6 negotiations. Worried about his people’s ability to feed themselves in the future with the declining number of buffalo, Pitikwahanapiwiyin signed the treaty reluctantly at the behest of the majority of his people. They settled on a reserve north of Cut Knife now called Poundmaker Cree Nation. Little Pine First Nation, another signatory to Treaty 6 is also north of Cut Knife while Sweetgrass First Nation is to the east.
Within a decade, Pitikwahanapiwiyin’s fears were realized. The Cree were starving. The buffalo were gone, killed to clear the lands for agriculture. Government aid, as promised in the treaties, was slow coming when it arrived at all. Something had to be done.
Pitikwahanapiwiyin decided to ask the Indian Agent for help. He and a group of men traveled to Battleford on March 30, 1885. Learning of their approach, the frightened townspeople, including the Indian Agent, took refuge in the fort. For a day, the Cree waited for the Indian Agent to come and speak with them. When he failed to appear, Pitikwahanapiwiyin was unable to stop his starving men from looting the abandoned homes and businesses in search of food and supplies.
Withdrawing from Battleford, Pitikwahanapiwiyin and his men made their way to Cut Knife Hill when they set up an encampment. Shortly thereafter, Lieutenant-Colonel William Otter and his troops arrived at Fort Battleford. They had been charged with protecting the community as the area was experiencing a period of unrest later known as the Northwest Resistance.
Upon learning of the recent looting in the village, Lt-Col Otter decided to pursue the Cree and punish them. By May 2, he and 325 soldiers had tracked the Cree to Cut Knife Hill. Alerted to an attack, the Cree had divided into small groups and successfully counter-attacked. The battle lasted seven hours. Pitikwahanapiwiyin prevented his men from chasing and killing the fleeing soldiers. However, he was unable to stop his warriors from marching towards Batoche to join Riel. On route, they captured a wagon train of supplies for the army. The soldiers were taken prisoner rather than killed at the insistence of Pitikwahanapiwiyin.
After Riel’s defeat, Pitikwahanapiwiyin attempted to negotiate a peace settlement but to no avail. So, the Cree surrendered and Pitikwahanapiwiyin was imprisoned on May 26. Pitikwahanapiwiyin was convicted of treason and sentenced to three years in Stony Mountain Penitentiary in Manitoba. He was released after serving only one year. He was in ill health and died shortly thereafter from a lung hemorrhage.
On May 23, 2019, after being petitioned by Poundmaker Cree Nation, the Assembly of First Nations and Saskatchewan’s Federation of Sovereign Indian Nations, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau formally exonerated Pitikwahanapiwiyin.
The town map of Cut Knife is like a road map to the Riel Resistance. There’s Battle Avenue and Hill Avenue, reminders of the nearby Battle of Cut Knife Hill, the site of which tourists can visit. Crisscrossing Battle Avenue are several streets named after key players in the events of spring of 1885: Otter Street (after Lt-Col. William Otter), Strange Street (after Major-General Thomas Bland Strange), Steele Street (after North West Mounted Policeman Sam Steele), Orton Street (after Brigade Surgeon George T. Orton) and Irvine Street (after NWMP Commissioner Acheson Irvine).
In 1971, Cut Knife commemorated the centennial of the first numbered treaty signing by erecting on the west side of the town a large wood and fiberglass tomahawk and tipi, a symbol of “peace and unity between the white people and the neighbouring Indian reserves.”
The tomahawk, at 16.4 metres, has been recognized as the largest in the world by the Guinness Book of World Records. The handle was originally made from the trunk of a large fir tree, but in 2006, this was replaced by a fiberglass handle. The tomahawk is an axe-like weapon once used by Indigenous peoples across North America. In war councils, the tomahawk symbolized war if brandished by the chief but peace if buried in the ground – hence, the phrase ‘burying the hatchet’.
The Cut Knife tomahawk balances on a tipi, a mobile form of housing traditionally used by Indigenous peoples living on the Prairies. Indeed, tipi is the Lakota word for ‘dwelling’. The circular shape represents the Circle of Life while the poles signify the path between the physical and spiritual worlds. The tipi itself symbolizes community, faith and mutual respect.
Next to Tomahawk Park is the Clayton McLain Memorial Museum also established in 1971. Named after a local settler, the museum’s goal is “to promote an increased understanding of the diverse cultures, relationships and events that have formed the history of the Cut Knife area”. It does so through the collection, preservation and interpretation of the oral, written and material history and culture of the area.
Visitors can get a sense of what life was like for early settlers to the area by exploring the museum’s many buildings, including Carruthers Church, Raymond’s General Merchant Store, Gallivan School House, Cut Knife Train Station and a medical building.
By far my favourite building is Bert Martin’s Cabin. This tiny mud-plastered log cabin is no bigger than a garden shed, yet this small space with its small stove served as the sole protection from the cold temperatures, freezing winds and plentiful snow of a Prairie winter. It’s hard to imagine spending those long months alone with no electricity, running water, indoor plumbing or company.
So much has happened since the signing of the treaties and the arrival of non-Indigenous settlers. While many of the settlers not only survived but thrived in the often harsh conditions they initially faced, the same was not true of the Indigenous peoples. Confined to reservations, discriminated against and not allowed to practice their culture, they suffered greatly and many continue to suffer.
In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its report. It called upon all Canadians to show courage and determination to heal the relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians and to address the devastating impacts to Indigenous peoples that have resulted from the government’s policies. In the spirit of reconciliation, I encourage everyone to show each other mutual respect and kindness so there can be peace and unity as symbolized by the tomahawk and tipi at Cut Knife.