Glenbow Museum - Where the World Meets the West

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Title: Big Bear's Dilemma, Paper Promises

Date: 1998

Creator: Frederick R. McDonald

Additional Creator Information: Néhithawak (b. 1957)

Medium: acrylic on canvas

Frederick McDonald's painting honours the Plains Cree chief Big Bear (Mistahimaskwa), and the challenges he faced negotiating land rights with the North-West Mounted Police in the 1880s. McDonald sees Big Bear as an important individual who served as a key spokesperson and politician for the First Nations people. Big Bear advocated for the resolution of conflict through mutual respect, rather than through acts of violence. McDonald's painting offers a First Nations perspective on the history of treaties signed between First Nations and European communities in the nineteenth century. Blank floating papers in the sky operate as a metaphor for empty promises made to First Nations people.

-Quyen Hoang

This painting is a response to the idea of a frontier here in Western Canada. When you consider all the perceptions and stereotypes of Aboriginal people in the Wild West, then it is easy to see how the frontier perspective still exists. In reality, this land has always been the home of the Aboriginal people since time immemorial, and it is not a frontier to us!

Just over a hundred years ago, Big Bear, a leader of one of the largest groups of Plains Cree, was considered an influential spokesman in dealing with the whites from the east. [Big Bear] knew that his best course of action was not to make war, but to be diplomatic and try to talk and work with this new government. In this respect, he thought he might be able to make a treaty that would give his people good, arable land. Land with a lot of big game animals, especially buffalo, on it. But, in 1885, the North-West Rebellion occurred and the Cree and Métis people lost a major battle at Batoche, Saskatchewan. Even though Big Bear was not there, he was considered a major player and was incarcerated for three years.

This is the point in our history when the land changed from open to one which saw fences criss-cross, closing off the country. Big Bear eventually signed for a bit of land but it was not what he envisioned. Today we know that what was promised to him and to other leaders were just promises floating in the wind.

-Frederick McDonald

Collection Area: Art

Rights Holder: Collection of Glenbow Museum; Purchased, 1998

Catalogue No: 998.041.001

Image No: P0012296

Learn More:
This artwork can be used in conjunction with Honouring Tradition: Reframing Native Art education guide from the online teacher's resource series 21st Century Learning: Links to Our Collection.


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