Editor’s note: In this letter, writer Barry Degenstein quotes W.B. Cameron, author of Blood Red the Sun, from a book written in the 1920s, telling the story of his experiences at the time of the Frog Lake Massacre, for which Wandering Spirit was hanged at Battleford. Indigenous oral history has now suggested it was not Wandering Spirit at all who was hanged, but someone who volunteered to take his place.
I am writing this letter in response to Rose Roger’s letter “Next generation key to reconciliation” in the June 27 News-Optimist. The story she reiterates about Wandering Spirit (Kahpaypamahchakwayo) is likely that of pure fiction given rise by emotions and the embellishment of oral history over time. I heard a version of this story many years ago, only it was a very old and sick Indian that traded places with Wandering Spirit at the last moment because he was soon to die from some disease. This story says that Wandering Spirit escaped to the United States and changed his name to Iron Stump. This account can be debunked as the eight prisoners were in shackles at all times and only had them removed immediately before they ascended the scaffold. The latest version is that his brother-in-law took his place. I noticed that this brother-in-law has no name, but I am sure that there soon will be one. Could this new version in today’s terminology be classed as some sort of conspiracy theory? Another attempt to rewrite history?
Wandering Spirit was the well-known war chief for Chief Big Bear. It is unlikely he was mistaken for someone else. Many people knew him well, especially W.B. Cameron, a survivor of the Frog Lake Massacre, in which Wandering Spirit played an integral part. [In his book, Blood Red the Sun, which he wrote about his experience] Cameron comments, “I knew all the Indians well, for I had met them almost daily at the trading post during the winter.”
On April 1, 1885 Cameron was summoned to Agent Thomas Quinn’s. Cameron states “Wandering Spirit grinned as I entered.”
Cameron was present when Wandering Spirit killed agent Quinn and described how he ran up to Father Fafard, shooting him in the neck. “He (Wandering Spirit) raised his rifle and shot the priest through the neck. Father Fafard fell on his face.” Cameron states: “Wandering Spirit feared that the ball and chain of which he complained would impede his progress to the Indian Nirvana. On a bright moonlight night soon after the executions I was shot at by an Assiniboine Indian as I came out of my house in Battleford. I expect he had observed me as one of the coroner’s jury.” Being on the coroner’s jury, I am sure Mr. Cameron would have noticed if anything was awry.
Cameron’s description of Wandering Spirit – “Perhaps it was because I came to know him so well and witnessed the ferocity of his wild, complex nature when roused, that Wandering Spirit has always filled the place in my memory among the many Indian chiefs I have met. An odd thing about him was his hair. Whereas the hair of the ordinary Indian is as straight as falling water, the plaits of the war chief, while long and black like any other Indian’s, stood about his head in thick curls, forming a somber background for his dark piercing eyes. And those eyes! Shall I ever forget them? I can see them yet, in all their burning intensity, flashing here and there, seeing everything as though it were yesterday. His nose was long and straight, his mouth wide and lips thin and cruel. He had a prominent chin, deep sunken cheeks and features darkly bronzed and seemed about the and mouth with sharply-cut lines.” Does this sound like an individual who could be mistaken for someone else, especially by a person like Cameron, who knew him so well?
Cameron writes that he visited Wandering Spirit many times while he was awaiting justice in jail within the barracks of Fort Battleford. I doubt that Cameron could have been fooled by such a switch, thus it is very unlikely that they hanged the wrong person.
Cameron refers many times in his book to the hanging of Wandering Spirit.
Patrick Gammie Laurie, editor of the Saskatchewan Herald, interviewed Wandering Spirit. Father Cochin converted Wandering Spirit to Christianity in the days leading up to his execution. I am quite sure both of these individuals knew exactly who Wandering Spirit was. Many people from Frog Lake likely attended the hangings. They, too, would have known the identity of Wandering Spirit.
There is no evidence to indicate that Wandering Spirit does not lie with his seven companions. The evidence is overwhelming that Wandering Spirit was the man who was hanged.
W.B Cameron was the author of Blood Red the Sun, a story he lived. He describes Thomas Quinn as “my brave friend.” I doubt if Cameron would have let Wandering Spirit get away with the murder of his friend.
I have no other comments on Rose Roger’s letter except to say that she should read more about the history of Battleford. If she knew the crimes of the eight “warriors” buried on the hillside she may have a different opinion.
Author/Compiler of The Pursuit of Louis Riel