Chief Payepot

Payepot, also known as Payipwat, (born Kisikawasan or Kisikaw-awasis circa 1816 and died in April 1908) was a leader from the Cree-Assiniboine, Young Dogs Band. He was one of the top five leaders of the Plains Cree after 1860. His birth name, Kisikawasan means “Lightning in the sky” while the name by which he is known, Payepot means “A hole in the Sioux.” He is known to have resisted the efforts of the Canadian government to assimilate Native Americans in the 19th century. Chief Payepot has been recognized as being a person of national historic significance in Canada.


Chief Payepot was born around 1816 in what is now eastern Saskatchewan near the border with Manitoba . His original name was Kisikawasan, also spelled Kisikaw-awasis, which means “lightning in the sky”; which refers to an electrical storm that occurred at the time of his birth. At a young age he was kidnapped, along with his grandmother, by the Sioux (or Dakotas). He grew up among this tribe for several years before being taken over by the Cree who handed him over to his people. At the time of his return, he received the name by which he is known, namely Payepot; which means “A hole among the Sioux” or “Someone who knows the secrets of the Sioux” in reference to the fact that he knew the “secret” customs of the Sioux.

As an adult, Payepot was known to be a very good hunter and warrior. At the age of 24 he became the leader of the Young Dogs Band, a mixed band of Cree and Assiniboine whose territory stretched from the Qu’Appelle River Valley to what is today Saskatchewan to the territories that became North Dakota and Montana . He spoke a total of five indigenous languages. The main activity of the band was buffalo hunting. The band came into conflict with the Sioux and Blackfoot tribes. In addition, he refused to enter into relations with the Hudson’s Bay Company which earned him to be known as troublemakers. Moreover, the company refused to recognize the authority of Payepot, which the fur trader Isaac Cowie, have replied in a letter that he was “Payepot, Lord of heaven and earth.”

In order to expand their bison hunting grounds, a group of about 800 warriors led by Payepot, Little Poplar and other chiefs made up of Cree, Saulteaux, Assiniboine and Métis launched an offensive on Cypress Mountain (Cypress Hills) against the Blackfoot. However, Piapot had had a vision in a dream of the Cree defeat. He was unable to convince other leaders, but he refused to participate in the battle the next day, which is known nowadays under the name of the Battle of the Belly River, against a village Kainai where the Cree suffered a major defeat and lost a third of their warriors putting an end to the invasion.

Figure 1The Montreal garrison with Piapot and five other Native American chiefs in Regina circa 1885

In 1875, Payepot met William J. Christie, a Canadian government commissioner, who wanted him to ratify Treaty 4 which had been negotiated the previous year without Payepot being made aware of. Payepot demanded several amendments to the treaty and, mistakenly believing that they had been made, signed the treaty on September 9, 1875. However, many of these requests were ultimately made by the government as they were part of subsequent treaties, including Treaty 6 signed in 1876, but many went unanswered. Thus, Payepot felt betrayed by the Canadian government and continued negotiations over the next decade.

Payepot and other Cree chiefs refused to sign other treaties with the Canadian government since they demanded that the Crown guarantee them autonomy and grant them a united territory; which was refused. Thus, they directed their bands to establish themselves at the mountain of Cypress where they asked to have reserves which were all adjacent. The government eventually agreed, giving the tribes a united territory.

However, in the early 1880s, the government began to fear that such a large concentration of Native Americans could lead to a confederation that would be impossible to control. Thus, the Indian Commissioner, Edgar Dewdney, put in place a policy of famine which ensured that no ration was distributed to the mountain of Cypress in order to force the tribes to disperse. Payepot was one of the last leaders to leave after several members of his band died of starvation or disease. Before leaving, he presented his treaty flag and medal to Commissioner Dewdney. He moved to establish his band on a new reserve in the Qu’Appelle River valley. He continued his efforts to establish a united territory for the Crees by establishing his new reserve adjacent to an existing Cree reserve and joined other chiefs who pressured the government over treaties.

Although Piapot decided not to participate in hostilities in the wake of the North West rebellion led by Métis leader Louis Riel in 1885, the Canadian government was still suspicious of his loyalty and established a military fort near his reserve where troops were stationed permanently for the duration of the conflict. Several other Native American chiefs were arrested by the North West Mounted Police. Payepot was the only leader to survive and he was constantly watched by the police and the army.

Payepot continued to demand greater autonomy from the government and promoted the preservation of Cree culture in the face of Canadian government policies which, through the Indian Act, sought to assimilate Native Americans. Indeed, he continued to resist the measures introduced by the government and criticized the way in which the natives were treated. In 1902, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, William Morris Graham attempted to withdraw Payepot’s title of band chief on grounds of incompetence. Eventually he succeeded by having him imprisoned for holding a Sun Dance ceremony (also known as a Rain Dance or Big Lodge ceremony), a practice that had been banned in 1892, but that Payepot refused to stop since he considered it an ancestral rite. Payepot said: “I agree that my people do not pray to their God in their own way, if the commissioner is in agreement not to pray to their own in their own way.” Payepot was formally removed on April 15,1902 by the government on the recommendation of the commissioner because of its stubbornness in continuing the Sun Dance ceremony which was detrimental to assimilation. The following month he met with Governor General the Earl of Minto and convinced him to lift the ban on Sun Dances, but the latter failed to do so. A few years later, Payepot was arrested again; this time for intoxication on the public highway, but he believed, again, that the real motive was to continue the Sun Dance. He was later arrested again for opposing the police arrest of another member of his bank during a Sun Dance ceremony.

Ultimately, Payepot ended up converting to Christianity, but only halfway. In fact, he said to the priest: “I only accept half of your religion because if you were wrong, there would be nothing left for me to believe.” He died on his reserve in April 1908. He had both Christian and Native American funerals. Indeed, his body was placed in a coffin, according to Christian tradition, but his knees were placed against his chest, according to Native American customs.