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Indigenous Peoples and the Military: From the War of 1812 to the First World War by Dr. Timothy C. Winegard

Since the 1990s, the literature of Indigenous peoples and the military has undergone a much needed reinterpretation.

Book Cover For King and Kanata

I recently released two books exploring the involvement of Indigenous peoples of the British Empire during the First World War.  For King and Kanata: Canadian Indians and the First World War was published by University of Manitoba Press, and Indigenous Peoples of the British Dominions and the First World War by Cambridge University Press.

Book Cover Indiginous Peoples and the First World War

Since the 1990s, greater attention has been afforded by authors and academics to the military role, and importance, played by Canada’s Indigenous peoples during the colonial wars of North America, to the War of 1812, to the world wars of the twentieth century.  As such, this literary genre has undergone a much needed reinterpretation. The following reading list, comprised of seven diverse selections, is not itemized in order of merit or preference; rather, it is loosely chronological in context and scope. I have tried, as much as possible, to select works from across the historical timeframe, to provide for a variety of situational periods and important historical occurrences.

Skyscrapers Hide the Heavens: A History of Indian-White Relations in Canada by J.R. Miller: First printed in 1989, J.R. Miller’s Skyscrapers Hide the Heavens, is now in its third edition (2000).  I have used this book extensively as a course text for my university-level First Nations Studies classes, with the disclaimer that, “I wish I would have written this book.”  According to Miller, “If these pages succeed in persuading some people that the Native peoples have always been active, assertive contributors to the unfolding of Canadian history…indigenous peoples had in fact been active agents of commercial, diplomatic, and military relations with the European newcomers and their Euro-Canadian descendants…they will have achieved their primary objective.”  Miller writes with unbiased clarity, and his work is accessible in all aspects to scholars, students, and the public alike. He traverses more than 400 years of “Indian-White Relations in Canada,” very methodically in less than 500 pages.  When I am asked by family, friends, students, or acquaintances, if they had to read one book on First Nations in Canada, my response is always, “J.R. Miller’s Skyscrapers Hide the Heavens.”  

Book Cover His Majesty's Indian Allies

His Majesty's Indian Allies: British Indian Policy in the Defence of Canada, 1774-1815 by Robert S. Allen: There has been a recent flurry of publications surrounding the War of 1812, given the government’s tireless efforts to promote the bicentennial of this conflict. Allen’s work, His Majesty’s Indian Allies, however, remains the benchmark. The work was a revised version of his doctoral dissertation, and draws upon a wide range of archival material from the United Kingdom, Canada, the United States, as well as, provincial, state and municipal archival collections.  It is written with passion and flair, and presents an unbiased account, favouring neither the First Nations nor the colonial interpretations. Allen exemplifies the importance of First Nations peoples in the defence of Canada, while emphasizing the fact that they were not spectators in the evolution of Native-newcomer relations, or to the development of the settler-state society. First Nations were active participants, and used various strategies, including military alliances, to protect their own interests and agendas, in an effort to shape and alter their social and political realities, and to promote their resistance to cultural assimilation.

Tecumseh’s Bones by Guy St-Denis: After the siege of Fort Detroit in August 1812, Major General Sir Isaac Brock remarked that although his First Nations allies were “going and coming,” Tecumseh’s influence “has kept them faithful—he has shewn [sic] himself to be a determined character and a great friend of our Government.” At their first meeting, a month prior, Brock, who thought Canada was a backwater and distrusted Aboriginal motives, exclaimed that “a more sagacious or gallant Warrior does not I believe exist.” By all indications, he was thoroughly impressed with Tecumseh as a warrior and as a statesman. Tecumseh, a commanding orator in English and several First Nations languages who stood almost six feet with a muscular frame, sized up the six-foot-two Brock and allegedly exclaimed, “Ho-o-o-e: This is a man.” These men have been immortalized in history and are regarded as founding fathers of Canada, although, ironically, neither man was Canadian. Their relationship, however, represents the alliance between the Crown and First Nations to safeguard common interests, and also bears witness to the fact that Canada was born of Aboriginal and Euro-Canadian cooperation and blood. Since Tecumseh’s death at the Battle of the Thames (5 October 1913), mystery, rumor, and scandal have surrounded his final resting place.  In Tecumseh’s Bones, St-Denis chronologically details the facts, and claims, surrounding the ability of numerous communities in south-western Ontario to boast that the esteemed Shawnee leader, Tecumseh, resides in their midst.  The truth, however, remains a mystery. 

Book Cover Loyal Until Death

Loyal till Death: Indians and the North-West Rebellion by Blair Stonechild and Bill Waiser: A nominee for the Governor-General’s Award in 1997, Loyal till Death provides a well-researched, fresh look at the involvement of First Nations in the 1885 North-West Rebellion.  While the majority of the historical attention has focused on the Métis during Louis Riel’s second uprising, Stonechild and Waiser detail the involvement of First Nations. They provide a clear understanding as to the motivations for militant action, or conversely, for remaining peaceful and non-antagonistic. They refute the common belief of Métis-Indian collaboration in 1885, arguing instead that Indians acted independently of the Métis to promote their own interests. They also suggest that Indian actions during the rebellion were sporadic, if not accidental or Métis coerced, and unsupported by leaders such as Poundmaker and Big Bear.  Portions of treaties were not honoured, and some Cree, led by Wandering Sprit and Fine Day, viewed confrontation as a means to secure treaty rights and promote their waning interests. It is these events, which Loyal till Death so richly recounts and reinterprets.

Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden: What more can be said about Joseph Boyden’s bestselling historical fiction, Three Day Road?  Set in both the wilds of northern Ontario and in the trenches of France and Belgium during the First World War, the 2005 Governor-General’s Award nominee (his sequel Through Black Spruce won the 2008 Giller Prize), has made First Nations military service effectively mainstream.  His book has reached a diverse and broad audience across Canada.  I am frequently asked, “Have you read Three Day Road?”  Loosely based on the famed Ojibwa sniper, Corporal Francis Pegahmagabow, Boyden details the cultural and military experiences of an Ojibwa sniper team during the Great War, through flashbacks and a vivid dream-like narrative, told in part by the pair’s aging, traditional Ojibwa female guardian. Pegahmagabow, of the Parry Island Ojibwa, won the Military Medal three times (making him one of only thirty-eight Canadians to accomplish this feat) and tallied an unofficial 378 kills. Three Day Road is a masterpiece of story-telling, and Boyden will no doubt, if he has not already, enter the hallowed halls of Canada’s most accomplished and cherished authors.

Book Cover Death So Noble

Death So Noble: Memory, Meaning, and the First World War by Jonathan F. Vance: Moving away from the actual battlefields of Europe, Vance’s highly acclaimed Death So Noble instead focusses on the remembrance and legacy of the Great War, which took the life of over 68,000 Canadians.  He examines the memory and meaning of the war on various segments and ethnicities of Canadian society, including a smattering on French-Canadians and First Nations: “English Canadians confidently expected…the war’s legacy would provide the impetus for both groups to become, not Native Canadians or French-Canadians, but Canadians pure and simple.” In other words, the war would serve as the ultimate impulsion for final reconciliation and assimilation into English Canadian society. Vance asserts: “[T]he dreams of a strong and vibrant pan-Canadian nationalism built on the memory of the Great War were dashed…in the fact that its rhetoric was too often contradicted by the realities of peacetime.  The memory of the war might have been able to work its magic among immigrants, Natives, and French-Canadians if it had been accompanied by some substantive steps towards the society it envisioned.  As it was, the myth promised far more than it was able to deliver.”

Book Cover the Polar Bear Son

The Polar Bear Son: An Inuit Tale by Lydia Dabcovich: Admittedly, quite removed in topic from the books listed above, this children’s book (for ages of approximately two to six years) has captured the heart and imagination of my two-year old son.  Thankfully, I never weary of The Polar Bear Son, which is requested every evening at story-time. Dabcovich puts to paper a traditional Inuit tale (told to, and recorded by, anthropologists as early as the 1880s) about an elderly Inuk woman who adopts an orphaned polar bear cub named Kunikdjuaq, and of their enduring love and friendship. Her story telling and translation is lilting, and her personal illustrations are stunning. “In my illustrations” she explains, “I have tried to convey a mythical feeling, inspired by the simple and powerful shapes of Inuit sculpture, and to render the awesome beauty and vast space of the Arctic landscape.”  In this objective, she certainly exceeds.

Dr. Timothy C Winegard

Dr. Timothy C. Winegard, DPhil (Oxon), Capt Ret’d. received his MA in War Studies from the Royal Military College of Canada in 2006, and his Doctorate in History from the University of Oxford in 2010.  He served nine years as an officer in the Canadian Forces, including a two-year attachment to the British Army.  Tim is the author of three books, and is internationally published in both the fields of Indigenous Peoples and Military History. He currently resides in Grand Junction, Colorado. For more information about Tim and his research, see his website at:

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