An Opinion of the Frog Lake Massacre


by Rev. Dr. Edward Ahenakew
with foreword by Alex E. Peterson
Courtesy of Alberta Historical Review. Summer 1960

A Cree Indian well known in the religious and educational life of western Canada, and an outstanding figure in the Anglican church, is the Rev. Dr. Edward Ahenakew. Born in 1885 on the Sandy Lake Reserve near Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, he attended the local day school there. At the age of eleven he was admitted to the Prince Albert Boarding School where he completed his high school training with distinction. After two years study at Wycliffe College, Toronto, he returned west to complete his course in theology at Emmanuel College, Saskatoon, graduating in 1910 with the degree of L. Th. It is interesting to note here that Dr. W. Everard Edmonds, for many years President of the Historical Society of Alberta, and past Editor of this magazine, was at this time a professor at Emmanuel, and one of Mr. Ahenakew's teachers. Following his ordination to the priesthood, Rev. Ahenakew was appointed a traveling missionary to many scattered Indian and white settlements in northern Saskatchewan.

In his travels he found the general health and living conditions of his people deplorable, and, to assist in alleviating these conditions, he felt that a knowledge of medicine was essential to his work. To this end, and with a view to obtaining his M.D. degree, he entered the University of Alberta as a student in the Faculty of Medicine. Unfortunately, ill health prevented him from completing the course and so at the end of the third year, he returned to the mission field.

In 1923 he was appointed General Indian Missionary, Diocese of Saskatchewan, but his ability as a preacher also took him to many other parts of Canada. In collaboration with Archdeacon Faries he edited a Cree dictionary and for over thirty years published, in syllabics, the Cree Monthly Guide. In recognition of his outstanding services to the church and the Indians of Canada, Emmanuel College in 1947 conferred upon him the degree of Doctor of Divinity. Now, at the age of 75, and after almost fifty years as an active clergyman and student missionary, he is living in semi-retirement at Fort a-laCorne, Sask.

The Frog Lake Indian Mission came under the jurisdiction of Dr. Ahenakew, and in my position as the reserve overseer and day school teacher, it was my pleasure to know and work with him for close to twenty years. During this time I found him to be a most faithful and dedicated worker in the cause of Christianity. In all matters pertaining to the general well-being of his people he was always to the fore, and he never lost an opportunity to speak on their behalf.

One such opportunity came in June 1925 at the Frog Lake Massacre grounds, where a memorial was unveiled in honor of those killed there in the Riel Rebellion of 1885. Present at this ceremony, in addition to Dr. Ahenakew; were Judge Howay of New Westminster; Professor Morton of the University of Saskatchewan; W.B. Cameron, the lone white man to survive the massacre; and several hundred Indian and white people who came to pay their respects. The program, in addition to the many excellent speeches, including sporting events and a sing-song. Appropriate to the occasion, my class of Indian school children sang "Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus," and Vesus Loves Me, This I Know."

But the highlight of this memorable event was the address of Dr. Ahenakew, published here for the first time. This remarkable and thought-provoking address sets out the Indians' defence against the generally accepted causes which led to this painful episode in our history. Standing upon a rock overlooking the site of that awful deed, he interpreted, in no uncertain manner, the Indian mind. His forceful, but sincere speech left a deep impression on everyone present, many of whom had come long distances to commemorate this tragic event.

The story of the 1885 massacre of the white men at Frog Lake is not so far removed from the past as to make it impossible for one to obtain an authentic account of what really did happen on that unfortunate day. Many are still alive who were present and were eyewitnesses of the happening. Some, of course, may have done a little more than merely look on, but that need not be pried into unnecessarily at this late date, since the government undertook at that time a most thorough investigation, and the Indians who took active part were all brought to judgment.

It is true the Indian versions of the story vary somewhat as to detail, but it is only natural that this should be so, since the events happened so quickly and not all at the same place; besides, excitement was so intense that much is liable to have escaped the notice of some men. After carefully listening to different eye-witnesses among the Indians, putting what they told together, eradicating all that does not seem to fit in with the most probable and true line of the story, making due allowance for any natural accretions, I feel that I have a very reliable account of the event as it is remembered by the Indians.

Often when I drive through the place of massacre and see the eight mounds with their black iron crosses, marking the place of repose of those killed on that unfortunate day, I feel sorry that such a thing did ever happen. But, because I know the Crees, I do not put it down to mere blood-thirstiness. I know that, in his own way of thinking, the Indian man felt himself provoked to it. He had been used to shooting his hereditary enemy, the Blackfoot, at sight, because if he did not, he would get a bullet himself. The feud had been between the two ever since nobody knows when, but anyone who was not an enemy was ordinarily safe with him. Despite the fact that there was no law, there had been very few murders committed among the Crees, so few that with them the Eighth Commandment was almost unnecessary. So while I allow that the massacre is a sad blot on our history and I certainly am not aiming to justify it, I feel that I should mention what extenuating circumstances there may have been.

So, as I drive past, I think about the events of 1885 at Frog Lake; I think of the blood that was shed, not in cold murder, but in the heat of a great excitement. I imagine that I can see that great camp, hear the tom-tom of the drums at a dance at night which lasts till morning and then the fatal shots! The sun certainly rose on a sad spectacle!

"You ask me," replied a step-son of Big Bear to my questions. "I will tell you. It might never have happened had it not been for some of our band from the southern plains. Blood was spilled and it darkened the sod of the Frog Lake Reserve, and Christianity only can ever heal the wound made."

Imagine a people, who had lived and roamed over this great north-western land, breathing in the freedom of the prairie at every breath, their will never called into question, kept within bounds only by the teaching and exhortations of the old men of the nation, knowing most exactingly the ways of the country, skilful in all things pertaining to the making of a livelihood, conquering the necessarily hard conditions under which they lived, feeling manhood that coursed through their physical bodies; such a people must love freedom as their God-given animals, the noble bison, did. They must resent anything that tended to bring that freedom to nought, or even to restrict it. It is only nature- it were unnatural if it were not so.

Here we will digress and consider the Hudson's Bay Co. during their regime. They knew the Indian. It was to their own interest to be respected by the various bands and at the same time to be friendly with them. They took a rough paternal interest in them and they kept good order and as far as it was possible, peace, for a long time. Today they are respected and liked by the Indians.

Then the Government of Canada took hold of the West. It made treaties with the Indians whereby the latter gave up the whole land with the exception of tracts here and there that were reserved and wherein they could settle down and become farmers. That may sound easy enough, but for a people who had been nomadic for goodness only knows how many thousands of years to settle down to an agricultural life meant the complete reversal of those habits which had been bred into them by their former modes of life. Also remember that in those days, farming meant something different from what it does today. There were no towns or railroads; there was not much equipment. There were no houses to speak of, apart from those in the few settlements. It is easy to see that the Indian would be discontented and look back with longing eyes to the days when everything came readily to his hand, and that feeling would be lodged within him, awaiting, to be brought to a head by anything provocative that was liable to happen.

Then again, although there were not so many actually dissenting voices worthy of notice, many were not in agreement with the treaty made with the Crown. The righteousness or otherwise of this I am not discussing, I am merely putting things down as they appeared to the untrained mind of the Indian of those days. It is said that the liberal distribution of money and the consequent easy buying of so many things in the Hudson's Bay Co. posts made such a pleasing impression on the people that even the feelings of the dissenters were temporarily mollified.

In any case, they failed at the time to realize what signing over the land was to mean in the future. They did not think that it would have an adverse psychological effect on them. They did not know that they were totally unfitted by previous habits for a settled agricultural life. How were they to realize that it meant the continued application of mind and body to their work if they were to succeed, and that such a life would be just a reverse to their previous one. They did not realize that there was henceforth to be a definite systematized code of laws which would act like a fence around their spirits, within certain limits. Though they were a tolerably good-living people, they felt this unusual limitation and they resented it.

As years went by they felt this evertightening hold of the law. And, as the government kept pulling in the reins of control, the Indians began to realize many things not anticipated when the treaty was made.

It was not only the laws that were seemingly limiting their freedom; white people were coming in and introducing other customs and modes. The moral force of a superior civilization was steadily but surely asserting itself and easily pushing aside their own ways of life. They began to see that, in their own native land, where their will had always been law, that they were slowly becoming just a race of onlookers. The day was surely dawning when they would be ignored altogether and would have to sit as silent as their women folk did in the councils of men.

The times were hard even though the government helped much; the buffalo were disappearing and somehow this circumstance linked itself, in the Indian mind, with the advent of the white man.

I, being an Indian, can understand all this. I do not say that the Indian was justified in these feelings, but I do say, that for an uncivilized race to be put through similar experiences, it was according to nature that he should feel resentment. What people, unless totally devoid of spirit would not feel a certain amount of regret and chagrin in such a situation? What people unless previously slavish for a thousand years, would not feel like blaming the white people who were indirectly responsible for it all? The agreement had been made in due form and order and there was much justice on the part of the government, but for all that, the consequent feelings of the Indians were inevitable.

To me, the massacre at Frog Lake came in the natural course of events. The eight mounds at Frog Lake are an evidence of the last attempt of the Indian to register his disapproval of the ever-increasing power of another race in the land. Such events were necessary in order that into the Indian mind might be instilled that respect which is due to the sovereign of England and the higher order of life he represents. Let me make myself plain. I am anxious that the Indian be given justice in connection with that fell deed which so startled Canada and which today looks like an old- time curse upon one of our reserves. I write because I feel it is up to me to speak for my race, when they are obliged, though lack of education, to sit like a dumb nation, while 'opinions concerning them are being formed throughout the country. Those opinions are very often the product of startling magazine writers and of others more literally gifted but who see only the surface part of Indian life.

You, who are of the Anglo Saxon race, who have never called any nation "Master", and who since the days of William of Normandy have never had other manners and customs supersede yours — you do not know the feelings of our race. We, too, loved our ways, humble though they were. We, too, liked to run the affairs of our own land, though we ran them but poorly. We, too, loved our freedom. Can you conscientiously blame the feelings which those uneducated Indians, fresh from the prairie, entertained in those early days? I know now that it was to our ultimate welfare that you took over our land, and that by rights we should have gone down on our knees and thanked you for doing so. Likewise, it was to the welfare of England that the Normans came. But did the Saxons drop on their knees to thank them? They certainly did not and I venture to say that you would not be the people you are now, had they done so. Rightly conscious of your knowledge and civilization, sometimes you are not able to see why other people do not readily accede to dropping their former life in order to take yours. That love of freedom which has flowered forth so spendidly in your national life is to be found in the breasts of humbler peoples, and they love it equally as did your forefathers in the days of the Norman, William.

"But the Indians have freedom," perhaps you think. That may be true, but ask yourself this question: "Was the Indian, not so much as he is now, but as he was then, in a position to recognize and to appreciate your (what may be called) most complex and highly systematized freedom?" The best and highest exhibition of freedom, seen through ignorant eyes, may look like something else. The Normans introduced good into England — better than there was in the country before — but the Saxons failed to appreciate them. They wanted their own ways and it was natural that they should. Nations, like individuals, do not always take readily to those things that are best for them and the Indians of 1885 were no exception to this rule. The unconscious feeling of discontent was in their hearts. It is because of inability on my part if I have failed to show the fundamental reason for the participation of some of the Crees in the rebellion of 1885.

The massacre at Frog Lake was only a part of the rebellion, an incident in it. In those days Frog Lake was in a comparatively flourishing condition, I have been told. The Indian Agency and the Hudson's Bay Co. were there, and a mill was in the course of construction some two miles west. All these are now gone, the only relics being the old cellar- holes, more or less covered with vegetation, burnt pieces of brick and logs, and a ponderous wheel which was said to have been a part of the mill machinery.

The chief of the reserve at the time was Chas-cha-kiskwas, whose son was Nepowehao, a chief who died some years ago. He was a Bush Indian as were many of his band. They were a quiet, friendly and peaceable people. At this time, however, there were five bands altogether, each under its own chief, encamped at Frog Lake. The prairie Crees, from the south, under their noted chief, Big Bear, were there. They were fresh from the prairie, long used to bloodshed and brought up from their childhood to look upon warfare as the highest occupation. This was natural, since they were in constant touch with the Blackfeet and the Bloods. Their feud with these people, which entailed shooting to kill at sight, had eliminated all ideas of chivalry from warfare. When they went out to kill, they killed without much ceremony, and in the most convenient and practical way that presented itself to them at the moment.

The rest of the Indians, those who had always lived in close proximity to the Hudson's Bay forts, were, in character, something halfway between these and the peace-loving Bush Indians. Such were the Indians who were in the encampment at Frog Lake in the winter of '84 and '85.

Now I will briefly enumerate the causes of the massacre. I have already mentioned the half-conscious feeling of discontent and resentment. This was the foundation of it all. At this place, chance had brought many Indians together and they were finding it very difficult to secure enough food; they were stirred up by rumors of a possible up rising of the half-breeds who did all they could to enlist the Indians' sympathy. What made possible the massacre here, as an immediate cause, was a dislike some of the Indians had for some of the white men in the settlement. One or two of the men, especially, had a grudge which, however, they had kept to themselves, because a personal quarrel was a dangerous thing in Indian life. It always meant, not a bleeding nose or a black eye as in white life, but death to one or both unless the men who fought were overpowered by others and persuaded to desist. For this reason, the Indians had kept quiet and white people concerned must have thought that all was right and that the Indians were friendly.

The reasons for the bad feeling entertained by some of these individual Indians I need not mention at this late date. It is enough to say that there was some slight reason for trouble at this particular point. I do not say that anything would ever have happened, because of these things, had there not been the spirit of unrest that prevailed throughout the West; but even seeming insults sustained become intensified at moments of great popular excitement. Such was the case that night preceding the morning of the massacre.

A message had come from Fort Pitt in a letter to the Indians, that the rebellion had broken out at Duck Lake, and advised them to remain quietly together and they would receive rations of food. Aymisees, son of Big Bear, advised that the chiefs of Onion Lake, Keheewin, and Long Lake should be sent for to attend a council meeting where the advisability of staying out of the trouble could be discussed quietly. So far all was good.

Big Bear has been greatly blamed for all the happenings of 1885 in these parts. After hearing the stories told and thinking over them carefully I have come to the conclusion that he was not responsible for the massacre. It was true he was chief, but when you come to consider that, as such, he was only the leading man with no actually stated powers, you can imagine how easy it was for any reckless spirits to go against his wishes in a time of excitement. At the first shot, standing near the door of the Hudson's Bay Co. store, he gave a loud yell to stop the deed, but it was too late! The Indians were past obeying any voice.

The day before the massacre, all was quiet. There were preparations for a feast and a dance. Nobody knew that within a few hours there would be trouble. Still there seemed to be an unnatural lull, as if in anticipation of something. Dogs howled every now and again as if they sensed something. The spirit of unrest that was in the West had infected the Indians. They talked about the rebellion. The feast and the dance was held. It was not a war dance, but with so many Indians congregated together, recklessness began to show itself among the young men. Some men have told me they felt the general excitement and restlessness that prevailed. Towards midnight things began to look alarming.

The first act of hostility was the taking of a horse belonging to one of the white men by an Indian. By this time the young men were feeling reckless enough to do anything. Some rode to the mill further west and brought in all the white men from there. Mounted as they were they hurried back to camp at full speed and this had the additional effect of exciting the people. By now it was daylight. All walked to and fro. The more responsible Indians gave advice to the white men, but it was not taken. From the Agency six white people were walking across the yard. The agent would not go. Wandering Spirit, whose wife was the sister of the Indian Agent's wife, advised the agent to go, presumably in hopes of saving him. The agent was a determined man. Wandering Spirit, seeing his good intentions frustrated, repeated his advice. Still the agent remained obdurate. "Once more" said Wandering Spirit, "I ask you to go." Still the agent would not. "Die then," said Wandering Spirit, shooting him dead. The shot had the effect one would naturally expect it to have under the circumstances. The mob spirit took hold and the slaughter began. The white men tried to escape but were shot down as they were overtaken. All was over in a short time. The only white man to escape death was taken prisoner. Two white women were also made captive but given fair treatment.

It was sad for the killed. It was sadder for the slayers. Everything seemed to conspire towards the bringing about of the deed. Had the white men exercised more tact in their dealings with the Indians, as did the old Hudson's Bay Co. men before them, the Indians would have been friendly and the deed might never have taken place. The accumulative force of everything that came into touch with the Indians at this time seemed to have worked towards some such thing.

The deed was done, never to be undone. Murder was committed and human blood unlawfully shed on Frog Lake soil, and as the Indian said, "The curse can never be lifted except by the power of Christianity." The reserve, once full of promise, has never made much progress. Only within recent years has a school been opened on it. A church was built by the Anglican church a few years ago.

It is to be hoped that as time goes on, the seeming misfortune that has lain, as a pall, over this place, may gradually be removed and that a time will come when the sin that took place in 1885 will have been purged and the people be free to go on with other reserves, in the slow but steady progress they are making towards better things.

Courtesy of Albert Historical Review Summer, 1960.


After Edward attended the Prince Albert boarding school he returned to the Sandy Lake Reserve to assist his father with his small farming operation. He was later invited to teach on the John Smith Reserve.

After receiving his theology degree in 1910, he found himself in missionary work in a church field of 50,000 square miles, covering the area by canoe and dogsled. In the 1918 influenza epidemic he nursed the sick, and buried the dead. This experience, no doubt, helped him decide to study medicine.

As we have already seen, he had to give up his medical studies and return to missionary work. He received calls from all across Canada to speak on Indian problems. One of them he helped to solve with his work on syllabic Cree characters and a dictionary for his people. In 1947, when he received the Doctor of Divinity degree, he was the second Indian to do so.

William B. Cameron told a story of how the Ahenakew family got its name. A Cree, named Crowskin, was hit in the thigh by a Blackfoot bullet. When the other Crees saw his wound they said, "Hahai-nakew" (Oh, they stopped him!) He was given the new name by the Cree leader, and it later became Ahenakew. Edward remembered that his grandfather was lame. He had been shot in the leg!
Reverend Ahenakew had never married. He died in July 1961.