By James Cullingham
One Arrow First Nation Chief Tricia Sutherland says this “the right time for the story to be told.” The story concerns Almighty Voice (Kitchi-Manito-Waya) the young Cree man from One Arrow, a community near Batoche who became subject of one of the longest manhunts in Canadian history. Almost exactly 125 years ago, Almighty Voice slaughtered a settler’s cow. Months later, Almighty Voice was charged and briefly imprisoned before he escaped detention. As he set out on the lam, Almighty Voice killed a Mountie who was pursuing him. The manhunt was on in earnest and lasted more than a year.
These events occurred barely a decade after the North West Resistance as severe privation and hunger threatened Saskatchewan First Nations and paranoia of ‘savage Indians’ was rampant among newcomers. The tragedy ended in May 1897 when Almighty Voice and a couple of companions were shot and shelled to death by a contingent of North West Mounted Police. Settler townspeople gathered for the spectacle. One Arrow residents including Almighty Voice’s mother Spotted Calf were also witness to the carnage. Spotted Calf is reported to have sung a death song following the fatal cannon salvo.
It’s an epochal Indigenous – settler story. Like Louis Riel, Almighty Voice resisted and was then killed by the Canadian state. Unlike Riel, Almighty Voice, until now at least, has not been widely considered a heroic figure and his story is less well known. In this moment of proclaimed reconciliation, the violent saga of Almighty Voice, his family, his community, his wives and lovers has renewed currency.
The newest representation comes from Bill Waiser, Saskatchewan author and historian. His In Search of Almighty Voice – Resistance And Reconciliation was published this spring. Waiser’s account strives to clarify historical fact utilizing both community consultation and archival investigation. Waiser also ambitiously tells the story behind the story and how it has morphed according to the storyteller and the times.
As Waiser fascinatingly recounts, the Almighty Voice story has been bandied about in popular culture, and often severely distorted by the press, for over a century. The infamous imposter Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance spun an inventive account of the story for Maclean’s in 1929. As Waiser demonstrates, some of Long Lance’s putative facts contributed to a template that was seized upon by authors and journalists not only in Canada, but in the United Kingdom and the United States.
In the 1970s, as the “Indian movement” gained currency among non-Indigenous civil rights advocates and environmentalists, Almighty Voice experienced a different kind of resurrection. In 1974 Donald Sutherland appeared in Alien Thunder (later released in the US as Dan Candy’s Law) as a Mountie obsessed with capturing Almighty Voice. The film financed in part by the RCMP for its 100th anniversary commemoration is often cinematically woeful, but nonetheless extremely telling about this place called Canada because of the stereotypes in which it trades. Novelist W.O. Mitchell wrote the original treatment and script, but had his name removed when producers insisted on re-writes. A Saskatchewan journalist reported that Sutherland once muttered that Alien Thunder was the worst film he ever made.
In 1974, Young People’s Theatre in Toronto presented Almighty Voice, a children’s play, by Leonard Peterson. The project was eventually filmed and broadcast on CBC. Peterson, who was raised in Saskatchewan, wanted to express empathy with the plight of Almighty Voice and to strike that very 1970s chord of conflating urban environmentalism with pan-Indian spiritualism. The actors engaged with the child audience to help imagine the pressures that prairie First Nations were under.
Most significantly, the recently deceased Delaware poet and playwright Daniel David Moses took on the story in his Almighty Voice and His Wife, a play which Waiser calls, “the most inventive treatment of the story – and the most unsettling.” Moses’ play was first presented in Ottawa in 1991. I saw the 1992 Native Earth Performing Arts production in Toronto a year later.
In a collection of his essays, Moses wrote, “When I first read the story I was shocked by its arc: Kill a cow and die. I didn’t understand what had gone on; I needed to know more.”
As he conducted research Moses became fascinated with references to the teenager who fled with Almighty Voice, “I realized then that what I was looking at was like those film noir stories – love against the odds, Bonnie and Clyde, Romeo and Juliet. That sort of love story was more interesting to me than the renegade Indian one I had heard all too often before.” Equally part of the historic record and Moses’ imagination, shaped as a man from a matriarchal Iroquoian society, the character White Girl is a residential school survivor caught between worlds who opts to resist along with her lover.
Moses’s play is a poetic provocation. Its language is exquisitely crafted. The first act hints at the final tragedy, but is also a playful and romantic evocation of young love. The daring second act is mock minstrelsy with Indigenous actors in white face doing skits and songs about how the Almighty Voice saga tugs at mainstream Canadian privilege, racism and Indigenous-settler tension.
Finally the Mountie INTERLOCUTOR wipes off the white makeup and is revealed as White Girl. We in the audience come to understand that the second act is dedicated to the struggle within her to reclaim and uncover her Indigenous identity.
Moses’ play still has legs. Métis playwright, director, and actor Jani Lauzon brought it to Soulpepper Theatre in 2019. The production received admiring reviews in the Toronto press. Lauzon, who starred as White Girl in the world premiere in1991, recalled that when she was approached by Soulpepper’s artistic director for the gig, she said, “How did you know?” It had been a dream of Lauzon’s for years to direct Almighty Voice and His Wife, “there was not a moment’s hesitation.”
Lauzon thinks Moses play endures because it portrays love between an Indigenous couple against great odds during a period of overt colonial oppression. “What Almighty Voice gives us is proof. It allows us to see the details (of oppression) through the experience of a single person and a young couple in love. That makes it more palatable for non-Indigenous people. In his brilliance, Daniel showed the world that Indigenous people are capable of love.”
In Saskatchewan, the story has immediate edge. Bill Waiser’s research recovered a fragment of Almighty Voice’s skull that the NWMP had claimed as a war trophy and even displayed for a time at the force’s Depot museum in Regina. Waiser reported his discovery to One Arrow Chief Sutherland. Sutherland and community elders are now finalizing an arrangement with the RCMP to repatriate the remains. In that way this painful saga that says so much about Indigenous-settler history in Canada may also speak to reconciliation.
James Cullingham is a filmmaker, historian and journalist. He is an adjunct graduate faculty member in Canadian Studies & Indigenous Studies at Trent University and a part-time professor in the Faculty of Arts at Seneca College. Cullingham is president of Tamarack Productions based in Nogojiwanong (Peterborough) ON. His latest documentary film project “The Cost of Freedom” concerns refugee journalists in Canada.
Daniel David Moses, Almighty Voice And His Wife, Second Scene Editions, Toronto, 2006.
- “How My Ghosts Got Pale Faces,” in Pursued by a Bear – Talks, Monologues and Tales, Toronto Exile Editions, 2005.
Bill Waiser, In Search of Almighty Voice – Resistance and Reconciliation, Fifth House Publishers, Markham, ON, 2020.
Leonard Peterson, Almighty Voice, Young Peoples Theatre, 1974 and CBC TV, 1975 staged by Gregory Rogers and directed by George Jonas.
Chief Tricia Sutherland and Bill Waiser, CBC Radio Saskatchewan, interview with Stefani Langenegger, March 16, 2020.