THE MASTER DIPLOMAT
AND THE TREATY OF 1817
by George Siamandas
Chief Peguis signed the landmark treaty on July 17, 1817. He was thought to have been born in the early 1774 in the Sault St Marie area Peguis led a group of Salteaux or Ojibwa west for more abundant supplies of game and fish. His group eventually settled in the Netley marsh area originally called the Death River, located 14 km south of Lake Winnipeg in the 1790s.
Several other Indian tribes had been decimated by disease in the area. Two remaining camps of Cree and Assiniboine did not feel threatened because Peguis' people were not buffalo hunters. The HBC had also wisely established good relations with Peguis and Peguis had ignored the North West Company's warnings that once the colony was established that they would eventually take away their lands.
PEACEFULNESS & ASSIMILATION
Over the years Peguis formed strong relationships of trust with the Selkirk settlers welcoming them on their arrival. On one occasion offered he transported the settlers' children to Pembina were they wintered for the first few years. Peguis has always been associated with peacefulness and reconciliation. He tried to calm things during the HBC-NWC wars. The master diplomat listened patiently and resisted taking sides and came to the defense of the Selkirk settlers. When issues of who owned the land came up it was Peguis' view that it belonged to the Great Father. But that it could be loaned to Selkirk for a while. Shortly after the settlement was established Peguis decided that the issue of land should be settled and pursued the matter.
Selkirk obtained access to 300,000 square kilometres. He now controlled a 2 mile strip on both sides of the Assiniboine and red Rivers extending to Lake Winnipeg, Grand Forks, and Portage La prairie. The annual fee would be 100 pounds of tobacco paid to the Cree and Salteaux tribes. Peguis received a silver medal and red coat trimmed with gold braid which became the chief's most prized possession.
By 1829 after the aboriginal hunting grounds had been destroyed by agriculture. An agricultural program was initiated for the Salteaux. The aboriginals remained sceptical about the value of farming. And indeed the series of floods, droughts and grasshopper infestations discouraged the Indians. Gradually the cultural changes came forward, and Peguis had doubted his people would warm to them. Indians were expected to become farmers, the kids would go to school, and that they would become Christians, in part requiring the men to take only one wife.
Peguis retorted that he could see little harm in an Indian having two wives when a certain settler he knew was already keeping two. But on October 7 1840, Peguis agreed to give up three of his four wives to be baptized a Christian. He took on the name William King and his wife Victoria. Peguis's descendants took on the surname Prince. As a result of this cultural betrayal, Peguis lost support within the native community and there were efforts to make his eldest son chief. Peguis, however remained firm in embracing Christianity and this early mission became St Peter's Parish.
LAND RIGHTS REVISITED
During the late 1850s and the through the 1860s the original nature of the 1817 treaty became hotly debated. Peguis argued the HBC had no right to sell land and that it still belonged to the Indians. It had only been loaned for a time. Andrew McDermot argued that the land had been sold. Donald Gunn sided with Peguis.
The cut-nosed chief as he was called because he had part of his nose bitten off in a fight, continued to exercise his oratorical skills. He continued to be an ardent defender Indian land rights right into his 90s arguing the land had never been sold. He died Sept 25 1864 and was buried at St Peter's churchyard with the highest of tributes.
His children carried on his leadership and indeed his son Henry Prince was the first native to sign treaty No 1 in 1871. Both of his sons became men of the cloth and William Henry Prince became a missionary teacher at St Peter's.
His great grandson Albert E Thompson became Chief in 1953, and helped organize the Manitoba Indian Brotherhood.