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KEESEEKOOWENIN (Kesekoinin, Kitche kah me win, literally “skyman” or “sky chief,” baptized Moses Burns), Saulteaux chief, trapper, hunter, and farmer; b. c. 1818 in the Bow River region (Alta), son of Chief Okanase (Michael Cardinal) and an Orkney mixed-blood woman probably surnamed Burns; m. a Cardinal relative, and they had three sons and seven daughters; d. 10 April 1906 on Keeseekoowenin Reserve near Elphinstone, Man., and was buried there.

Keeseekoowenin’s father, Chief Okanase, whose name means “little bone,” was of the historic fur-trading Cardinals who over several generations worked their way westward from Quebec to the Rockies, usually marrying native or mixed-blood women. As was customary among prominent native men, he had more than one wife. Sons of his Stoney wife included Louis O’Soup*, St Paul (perhaps Jean-Baptiste Lolo*, also known as St Paul), and Mekis (Eagle); to his Métis wife were born George, John, William, and Antoine Bone. Keeseekoowenin’s full brothers were Yellowhead (Wabaso, Blonde) and Baptiste Bone (Baptiste Okanase). At least five of Chief Okanase’s sons played significant roles as chiefs on the prairies, and the dynasty of leaders has continued to the present.

Chief Okanase’s sister Margaret married Hudson’s Bay Company trader George Flett. Soon after Flett’s transfer to Fort Garry (Winnipeg) in 1822, Chief Okanase and his band moved from the Bow River to the southwestern slopes of Riding Mountain (Man.). Under his progressive leadership, the band lived well by hunting, trapping, and trading with the HBC posts of Fort Ellice and Riding Mountain House. When he died about 1870, his son Mekis succeeded him as chief.

At Manitoba House on 21 Aug. 1871, Mekis signed Treaty No.2 on behalf of the band. Their reserve was to be situated in the region of the Turtle and Valley rivers near Dauphin Lake, but at the band’s request it was moved in 1875 to a location near present-day Elphinstone. Portions of the treaty involving the band were renegotiated as an adhesion to Treaty No.4 on 9 Sept. 1875 at the Qu’Appelle (The Fishing) Lakes (Sask.). Keeseekoowenin and Baptiste Bone signed for their band because Mekis had just died. O’Soup strongly opposed the move and left for what is now Saskatchewan; Yellowhead also moved westward.

Hunting and fishing were much better northeastward towards Riding Mountain, where the band had long roamed. Since the land, located along the western shore of Clear Lake, belonged to the crown, the federal government allowed residents of the reserve to continue using it. The custom was eventually formalized on 3 July 1896 by an order in council establishing the Clear Lake Reserve, to which the band added 320 acres by purchase about 1904. Residents of the original reserve considered Keeseekoowenin their chief and only occasionally used the Clear Lake Reserve, while about a quarter of the band lived permanently at Clear Lake and called Baptiste Bone chief. The Department of Indian Affairs administered the reserves as one, and listed Keeseekoowenin as chief of both and Baptiste Bone as councillor.

The band had absorbed some aspects of the Roman Catholic faith through ancestors of the Cardinals and from a Catholic mission near Riding Mountain House. On his deathbed Chief Okanase had predicted that a religious leader would soon come to live with the band and strongly urged its members to heed his words. In about 1873 the Reverend George Flett, son of the HBC trader, established Okanase mission on the original reserve and his cousins welcomed him warmly. Soon band members converted to Presbyterianism. Keeseekoowenin held out longest, but was eventually baptized Moses Burns by Flett. The Clear Lake faction remained Catholic, however, and the two groups began to grow apart. Helping to widen the rift were government and church officials, as well as journalists, who promoted the larger group as exemplary native Christian farmers in contrast to the smaller, more primitive group of hunters and fishermen at Clear Lake. The situation was the source of much heartache for Keeseekoowenin, who wanted his people to enjoy the benefits of Christianity and education while retaining the best aspects of their traditional way of life. Furthermore, by 1906 intimations in political circles of the steps that would be taken to close the Clear Lake Reserve were already giving him concern. These measures resulted in the establishment of Riding Mountain National Park in 1929, and eventually produced an Indian land claim.

Keeseekoowenin is described as over six feet tall, of magnificent physique, an excellent buffalo hunter, trapper, and farmer, and an outstanding runner. A true Christian, he also retained his native belief in the Great Spirit. He revered wildlife and promoted native pow-wow ceremonies. His mixture of traditional and Christian religious beliefs harmonized with the teachings of Flett.

Keeseekoowenin’s children continued the family’s colourful history. Harriet Burns married Glen Campbell, and together they enlivened the social scene in Winnipeg and Ottawa during his terms as a legislator. Solomon Burns became a deeply respected Presbyterian elder and religious leader. Victoria Burns married Walter Scott who, with her brother David, played a key role in Campbell’s famous trek to the Yukon during the Klondike gold-rush. Keeseekoowenin, who had become blind shortly before his death at age 88, was succeeded in the chieftainship by his half-brother George Bone.

Peter Lorenz Neufeld

NA, RG 10, 3706, file 18809; 3939, file 121698-6; 7764–66; D10. Private arch., P. L. Neufeld (Winnipeg), Interview with Walter A. Scott (Rapid City, Man.), grandson of Keeseekoowenin, 2 Oct. 1988, and follow-up letter, 26 March 1989; Letter from Randall Barnhart, Treaties and Hist. Research Centre, Indian Affairs Canada (Ottawa), 26 July 1979. UCC, Manitoba and Northwestern Ontario Conference Arch. (Winnipeg), J. A. Donaghy, “Okanase Indian mission”; “The work of the early Presbyterian Church among the Indians in Canada from its inception to the present.” Manitoba Morning Free Press, 29 Oct. 1897. Minnedosa Tribune (Minnedosa, Man.), 21 March 1895, 6 Aug. 1981. [J. W.] G. MacEwan, Metis makers of history (Saskatoon, 1981). P. L. Neufeld, “The notable Michael Cardinal family,” Indian Record (Winnipeg), January 1986: 20–21; “Painful affairs; Indians played role in Manitoba park history,” Western People (Saskatoon), 15 Aug. 1985: 7–8. R. B. Sparling, Reminiscences of the Rossburn pioneers (Rossburn, Man., 1951). W. [J. S.] Traill, In Rupert’s Land; memoirs of Walter Traill, ed. Mae Atwood (Toronto, 1970).

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Peter Lorenz Neufeld, “KEESEEKOOWENIN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed November 22, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/keeseekoowenin_13E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/keeseekoowenin_13E.html
Author of Article: Peter Lorenz Neufeld
Title of Article: KEESEEKOOWENIN
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1994
Year of revision: 1994
Access Date: November 22, 2014