Yellow Calf Protest


On February 18, 1884, long-standing and unresolved grievances with government policy forced Yellow Calf and approximately 25 of his band members to request a formal meeting with Hilton Keith, their farm instructor. The band had been facing starvation and were told that their rations were being further cut. Dewdney had been attempting to enforce a policy of “sheer compulsion,” which dictated that Indigenous people must work for their rations or starve. Not surprisingly, this policy caused hardship for Indigenous people and frequently triggered violence, and as a result, it was only pursued for a few months in 1884. Yellow Calf and his men expressed that their women and children were starving and demanded that they be supplied with flour and bacon, or they would take what they needed. The men also stated that they would rather fight to the death rather than allow themselves to be arrested. Keith responded with a refusal to be flexible on government policy. He threatened the party by informing them that they had broken the law, and that by resisting they were making consequences more serious for themselves, as well as their women and children, and that the Queen might stop giving food to any of them if they “misbehaved themselves.” Keith also said that all he could give them at present was a half a pound powder, a pound of shot and a box of caps to each man to hunt for their own food, but that “...before I had time to fulfill my promise they made a rush for the warehouse, I followed them and tried to defend our stores, whereupon I was knocked down kicked and bruised, and struck at with a knife, by many of them, the knife ran across my leather coat thus saving me. They then all swarmed in like bees into a hive and stole right before my eyes, about sixty sacks flour and twelve of bacon….The instructions I received from Mr. Assistant Indian Commissioner Reed, more especially the cutting down the rations to such a fine point, so suddenly then only to be given to a few, I fear accounts for the raid of yesterday...I fear if something is not done to punish the offenders they will try the game again, they are very determined.” Yellow Calf and his band members occupied the storehouse for several days, barricading themselves in the building before the matter was solved through negotiation with a contingent of North-West Mounted Police. A letter from superintendent commissioner W.M. Herchmer to the NWMP described the situation: “After a great deal of talking and promises being made to them that their care would be fully enquired into - that the Charge of resisting the Police would not be brought against them and that three or four of them giving themselves up for trial would be sufficient - matters were arranged and four voluntary handed themselves over to us, namely “Yellow Calf,” “Penny-nay-kee-sick,” “Moise”, “Canawas” and we proceeded with them to Regina where they are now awaiting trial…”

This event was seen by the government as evidence of an incorrect perception that Aboriginal peoples were "violent in nature," and the difficulty inherent to governing them. As well, there history shows that the Agency perceived Aboriginal peoples were "lazy by nature," as correspondence from 1880 records the residents “loitering” while the farmhouse was kept in a very filthy condition. This was reiterated in a letter written by Indian Agent MacDonald on January 7, 1884: “There is no starvation, very little. Bacon has been issued during the last month, owing to the fact that a very large number of rabbits were caught and also fish. This month and February will be the most trying for the indians. The fish do not take bait as in other months, and the rabbits are very poor, and the Crees will not take the trouble to find them.” This demonstrates a tendency to blame Aboriginal peoples for issues beyond their control, despite acknowledging that the month of February would be “most trying” in regards to finding food. ---------------- Following the incident, a letter from the Commissioner of Indian Affairs states: “After a close inspection of every family I decided that with two or three exceptions Yellow Calf’s band should not draw rations except as above mentioned as they were better circumstanced than any of the rest, having better chances for both fish and game as well as being fairly well provided with grain which was about being groomed into flour at a mill just about to start - Yellow Calf himself being better off than many white farmers - therefore it was not starvation which caused the band to commit the overt act of which they are accused.” The Commissioner’s letter is indicative of the overarching federal narrative that Aboriginal people were entitled, deceptive, obstinate and rebellious. -------------------- Notably, this governmental dialogue has an absence of first-person narrative from the Aboriginal participants in resisting the cutting of rations and demanding better government support. Euro-Canadians were notoriously unfamiliar with patterns of subsistence living and were likely unaware of the nuances of such lifestyles, such as demonstrating respect for animal populations by not exploiting or over-hunting to ensure that said population survived a season of low numbers.

Andrews, Isabel. “Indian Protest Against Starvation: The Yellow Calf Incident of 1884.” Saskatchewan History 28.2 (1975). 41-51.