‘MY HEART IS LAKOTA’
Saskatchewan’s Wood Mountain is still home to some of the descendants of Sitting Bull’s people.
Not all of Sitting Bull’s people returned to the United States in 1881. As many as 250 remained in the Wood Mountain region of present-day Saskatchewan. Among them were Nancy Thomson McIvor’s paternal great-grandmothers.
“I am of Hunkpapa Lakota blood of the Sitting Bull tribe and very proud of that part of my heritage,” said Thomson McIvor, who was born in Wood Mountain.
One of Thomson McIvor’s great-grandmothers — Iha Wastewin (Good Laughing Woman/Alice Mary Thomson) — came to Canada with Sitting Bull’s tribe when she was a child. Iha Wastewin married North West Mounted Police officer James Thomson, who was stationed in Wood Mountain, when she was in her teens. They lived in an adobe house and raised eleven children, all of whom were given Lakota and English names.
Her other great grandmother — Tasunke Hin Hotwein (Roan Horse/Mary Ogle) — was two years old when she came to Canada. She married William Hall Ogle, an English aristocrat-turned-cowboy, and together they ran a large ranch.
Thomson McIvor’s knowledge of her ancestry did not come easily. Her father lost his First Nations status when he joined the army during the Second World War. Stationed in the Netherlands, he met and married a Dutch woman. He re-enlisted after the war, and the family spent six years in Europe.
“We thought we were little Dutch kids. No one questioned our colouring,” said Thomson McIvor of herself and her siblings. “It was after coming to Canada and kids calling me an Eskimo that I asked, am I? That was when I was told, ‘You are an Indian.’”
Later, as an adult, she asked her father why he kept their heritage a secret: “His answer: ‘I wanted you to have a better life.’ How sad is that?”
A breakthrough in Thomson McIvor’s search for her Lakota roots came in 1998, when she received an invitation to attend the opening of an exhibit at the Canadian Museum of History entitled Legends of Our Times. The story of her great-grandmothers was part of that exhibit.
“Going to this exhibit was life-changing for me,” she said. “I can’t explain the emotions — mostly love and belonging.”
About fifteen years ago, at the urging of her widowed mother, Thomson McIvor travelled back to her birthplace at Wood Mountain for the first time for an Ogle family reunion. After that, she returned regularly, and in 2007 she received her new Lakota name during a ceremony at the Wood Mountain Reserve.
“The holy man prayed over me and said I was to be given my own name, and it is Johpwampi Zintkala. It means beautiful songbird. It was a very moving experience, and I actually had a vision while being prayed over.”
In 2014, Thomson McIvor, who had lived in Ontario for much of her life, moved to Kisbey, Saskatchewan, with her husband. They purchased lots in Wood Mountain and plan to retire there. Her life has thus come full circle with her return to the land that Sitting Bull had sought as a permanent home for his people.
“My heart is Lakota, always has been. All I can think is, ‘the grandmothers shall bring them home.’ It’s a Native belief, and it happened to me.”
One of Thomson McIvor’s young relatives, Claire Thomson, wrote a master’s thesis in 2014 about the history of Sitting Bull’s Canadian descendants. In her paper, Thomson states that the handful of Lakota who stayed in Canada after Sitting Bull went back to the United States in 1881 were determined to retain their independence. Many eventually took seasonal jobs on ranches and with rodeos, hunted antelope for subsistence, and resisted government assistance.
Many wanted the right to establish homesteads but could not do so under the terms of the Indian Act. A small temporary reserve was eventually established in 1910 but was halved in size in 1919. What was left was made a permanent reserve in 1930. At this time, most still spoke Lakota and retained many of their traditions.
Today, the Wood Mountain Reserve consists of 2,376.2 hectares of rolling prairie. There are about two hundred registered band members, of whom about a dozen live on the reserve.
Edgar Samuel Paxson’s Custer’s Last Stand depicts the battle the way most of the American public wished to see it. In this painting, Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer is in the centre, wearing buckskins and a red bandana. He stands upright with brave determination, one hand holding a smoking pistol while the other covers a gaping wound in his side. None of his soldiers appears frightened. The artist spent twenty years researching the event and completed the two-by-three-metre canvas painting in 1899. He then circulated it as a travelling exhibit.
From left: Tasunke Nupawin, Okute Sika, Nupa Kikte, and Pte Sanwin, circa 1900. All stayed in Canada after Sitting Bull left.