Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version



Published in Great Plains Quarterly6:4 (Fall 1986). Copyright © 1986 Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln.


Like his previous publications on Crowfoot (1972), Charcoal's World (1978), and Red Crow (1980), Hugh A. Dempsey's Big Bear: The End of Freedom (1984) makes extensive and effective use of Indian legends and oral data. Who knows if the visions and mystical experiences of Big Bear, as told to Dempsey by native informants, are true or accurate; and who cares? The stories are entertaining, illuminating, probably possess the substance of truth, and would certainly be as authentic as much of the written records of those days. The Indian oral reminiscences are more than complemented by a careful research of the standard primary and secondary sources for the period. The focus of the book is a finely crafted character analysis of Big Bear, the spiritual and political leader of a band of Canadian Plains Cree during the 1870s and 1880s. Irretrievably wedded to the traditional nomadic way of life of the Plains Indians, yet confronted by the disappearance of the buffalo, starvation, the intrusion of the railroad and the inexorable advance of settlement, Big Bear tried to ensure the future survival and prosperity of his people through a united Indian confederation and a peaceful accommodation with the new Dominion government. A sage, impressive, stubborn, and patient leader of great stature, Big Bear fully understood the significance of the events overtaking him and his people.