Heroine of the North-West Resistance

There are many ways to view the armed conflict of 1885. Elizabeth McLean’s account of her experience as a captive of the Cree is surprisingly enlightened for its time.

by Nelle Oosterom

February 7, 2013

As writer Keith Foster explains in the February-March 2013 issue of Canada’s History magazine, the effort to crush the 1885 North-West Resistance was brief but costly in both lives and resources.

Foster’s story, “Thunder on the Prairie,” is just the latest of many articles about the 1885 event that have appeared in Canada's History (called The Beaver until 2010). Many of the archived stories reflect the biases of the period, with a strong anti-Indigenous slant.

But one first-person account by a woman taken prisoner by the Cree avoids the inflammatory hyperbole common at the time. Elizabeth McLean was sixteen when captured at Fort Pitt with the rest of her family during the resistance. In a three-part series published by The Beaver (December 1946, June 1947, September 1947.) McLean describes her harrowing experience with clarity, humour, and compassion.

Among other things, McLean relates how a group of Plains Cree women formed a “protective society” to successfully guard her and her sisters from night-time assaults by the younger men of the tribe. The article shows McLean — the daughter of Chief Trader W.J. McLean of the Hudson’s Bay Company — to be well-informed and sympathetic towards her captors, who included Wandering Spirit, the Cree leader eventually hanged for his part in the Frog Lake massacre. Both Elizabeth and her sister, writer Amelia McLean Paget, who wrote People of the plains (1909), were fluent in the Cree and Saulteaux languages.

Their sympathetic point of view of First Nations people were not widely accepted even in the early part of the twentieth century. Both women proved to be ahead of their time.

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