PEYASIW-AWASIS (Thunderchild, also known as Kapitikow, meaning “the one who makes the sound”), Plains Cree chief; b. 1849, probably along the South Saskatchewan River; m. Mamchwasis and then Ka-kwa; he had several children; d. 29 June 1927 on the Thunderchild Indian Reserve, Sask.
In 1923 the Reverend Edward Ahenakew* recorded Thunderchild’s stories of his early life, when his family belonged to the band of Mistawsis, one of the more important Plains Cree chiefs and the first to sign Treaty No.6 in 1876. The stories tell of buffalo hunts, of hunger when the buffalo disappeared, of raids against the Blackfoot, of sports and entertainment, and of tribal justice and customs. Treaty No.6 marked the end of this existence. Initially, Thunderchild rejected the treaty and joined Big Bear [Mistahimaskwa*] and others who hoped to negotiate better terms. The destruction of the buffalo forced them to change their strategy and in 1879 Thunderchild, who had achieved a certain status and a small following, accepted the treaty. He first appears in treaty paylists as the opening entry in a group of nine families paid at Sounding Lake (Alta) in August 1879.
His band, which spent some time on the reserve of Mōsōmin*, settled permanently on its own reserve west of Battleford (Sask.) in 1883. By early 1884 the Department of Indian Affairs had recognized Thunderchild as a chief. That year, with him setting an example, band members began to farm. At first they were successful, particularly in stock raising, but in the 1890s their progress and size (177 members in 1891) would stall as a result of crop failures, deteriorating health, and departmental policies that limited their market and access to agricultural machinery.
Thunderchild had not played a prominent role in the movement to unite the Cree in 1883–84. When men from the band of Poundmaker [Pītikwahanapiwīyin*] urged him to join them in 1885, he crossed the North Saskatchewan to avoid becoming involved in the unrest. Although hunger eventually forced him to move to Poundmaker’s camp, his loyalty during the North-West uprising was subsequently recognized.
Nonetheless, Thunderchild was a tenacious defender of treaty rights and Indian land. In 1889 he refused to transfer ground for a Roman Catholic school on his reserve, arguing that it already had an Anglican school. When a school was built without his permission, he protested for two years to no avail. Finally, flying his treaty flag and wearing his treaty medal, he led his supporters in tearing down the building. Although the Indian department believed that he was within his rights, it eventually pressured him into accepting the school. He was not opposed to education, however. In 1910, when the band was without a school, he argued that it was entitled to one under treaty and that one was essential to the band’s advancement. After years of bureaucratic delay, the band itself built a schoolhouse and the department agreed to pay a teacher.
Thunderchild believed that whites and the Cree followed the same God but had been taught different ways of worshipping. He supported traditional religious practices, argued that treaties did not limit his religious rights, and opposed government efforts to outlaw age-old ceremonies. On one occasion he outwitted the Indian agent by gaining the backing of both the Catholic missionary and the Protestant missionary for a Sun Dance. In 1897 he was imprisoned briefly for participating in a Give Away Dance. As late as 1922 he was warned that if he did not stop supporting traditional ceremonies, he would be removed as chief.
The Thunderchild Reserve was on good land, and from 1902 rumours circulated that the band would be moved and the reserve sold to settlers. With both government officials and missionaries urging his band to surrender its land, Thunderchild reluctantly agreed to negotiations in 1908. After three votes his band remained evenly divided on the government’s offer. Thunderchild broke the tie, voting to sell the reserve and use the proceeds to purchase another. In 1909 the band moved to a new reserve near Brightsand Lake, but the full implementation of the agreement dragged on until after the chief’s death in 1927.
Thunderchild had known the old way of life but he accepted the necessity of change and tried to adapt to the new way. When his efforts met with only the smallest success, he continued to defend his band’s rights with the limited resources at his disposal.
[For assistance on Thunderchild’s names, the author thanks Blair Stonechild. a.b.mcc.]
NA, RG 10, 1017; 3563, file 82–11; 3664, file 9834; 3668, file 10644; 3682, file 12628; 3710, files 19550, 19550-4; 3817, file 57562; 3825, file 60511–1, 2; 3964, file 148285; 6294, file 623–1; 7541, file 29105–13; 7626, file 17105–9; 7795, file 29105–9; 9412–13; 9417–19; RG 18, 134, file 189–1897. Edward Ahenakew, Voices of the Plains Cree, ed. R. M. Buck (Toronto, 1973). Can., Parl., Sessional papers, Report of the Dept. of Indian Affairs, 1880–1928; Report of the Indian branch, Dept. of the Interior, 1879. Canadian annual rev., 1927/28. Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (Saskatoon), Research report on the administration of the Thunderchild band lands. Jack Funk, Outside, the women cried: the story of the surrender by Chief Thunderchild’s band of their reserve near Delmas, Saskatchewan, 1908 (Battleford, Sask., 1989). Robert Jefferson, Fifty years on the Saskatchewan . . . (Battleford, 1929). Katherine Pettipas, “Severing the ties that bind”: government repression of indigenous religious ceremonies on the prairies (Winnipeg, 1994). Blair Stonechild and Bill Waiser, Loyal till death: Indians and the North-West rebellion (Calgary, 1997). J. L. Tobias, “Canada’s subjugation of the Plains Cree, 1879–1885,” in Sweet promises: a reader on Indian-white relations in Canada, ed. J. R. Miller (Toronto, 1991), 212–40