By Gary Wilson
Once the Teton Sioux (Lakota) were on the Standing Rock Reservation in the Dakota Territory, the military turned its attention to the "Cree problem" in Montana. They and other Canadian tribes had only recently moved south when the buffalo ceased their northward trek and the Canadian government wasn't providing adequate rations.
One of the prominent Plains Cree (Nehiyawak) band leaders was Big Bear (Mistihai'muskwa), and Ayimasses (or Little Bear). Big Bear also was allied to the Sweet Grass and Little Pine bands. They lived along the north fork of the Saskatchewan River where there was plenty of game and Hudson's Bay Company (H.B.C.) trading posts. Joining them from the eastern woodlands were Assiniboine (Nakota) and Objibwa (Chippewa).
All was well with these people until the H.B.C. sold their lands to the Dominion of Canada in 1869, and the buffalo gave out by 1879. The government began pressuring the bands to move onto reserves in the river country by 1874. Big Bear had signed a treaty, but had not selected a homeland.
Instead he lead his people across the border south of the Milk River country where the buffalo still roamed. This didn't end their problems, however, because the whiskey traders dispensed their destructive goods freely, plus the land by treaty belonged to the Gros Ventre (White Clay People) and Assiniboine.
The Crees' southern route was across the Big Bend of the Milk River at a solid bottom crossing that became known as Cree Crossing. In this area were Mtis (European-Indian) villages where necessary goods could be obtained.
In the next two years the chief moved his band farther south with the buffalo to the Missouri and Judith Rivers and gave up ever returning to Canadian soil. But trouble soon erupted when his people were accused by ranchers and treaty Indians alike for both trespassing and killing their cattle. These complaints soon reached Washington, D.C. and passed from the Department of Interior to the Army.
Big Bear tried to defend his people by visiting the commandant at Fort Assinniboine, but it was to no avail.
Finally, the Army decided to act against all the Cree and Mtis peoples in northern Montana in the spring of 1882. A combined force of the 18th Infantry and 2nd Cavalry regiments with cannon and gatling guns set out from Fort Assinniboine under Major Jacob Kline to accomplish the mission, one way or another.
On March 15, a Mtis Milk River camp was found, and the occupants fled north across the border to the Wood Mountain area. Two days were spent burning the 150 cabins (probably in the Frenchman Creek area).
Next, the troops moved westward to Little Pine's camp at the Big Bend of the Milk River (NW of Malta). The Plains Cree also retreated north; casualties are unknown, if any. Runners from Little Pine managed to warn Big Bear of the impending attack at their encampment in the Little Rockies. Wandering Spirit, leader of the warriors society, now took command. He moved the camp to the Missouri River badlands over hard trackless ground. Big Bear's 150 lodges had disappeared!
The soldiers gave up and returned to the Fort, and the Crees moved to a new camp on Beaver Creek (east of the Little Rockies). But knowing it was only a matter of time before the military found them, Big Bear decided to return to Canada and headed for Fort Walsh in the Cypress Hills. By the time Big Bear decided on a reserve site, it was too late as he had become enmeshed in the Mtis (Riel) North West Rebellion. Big Bear went to prison for what Wandering Spirit and Little Bear did at Frog Lake, and Little Bear, Little Poplar, Lucky Man and followers fled south to Montana.
Big Bear's band lost their reserve rights and were absorbed into other bands. Little Bear in combination with Rocky Boy's (Stone Child) Chippewa band eventually obtained some 55,000 acres in the former Fort Assinniboine military reservation in 1916.