by Barbara Florio Graham
A version of this article has won prizes in various writing contests.
Florio Graham, All Rights Reserved. Please do not reprint, copy,
forward or publish without express permission from the author.
The story of the Sandy Lake First Nation has been told in several accounts, but I believe I may be the only individual who has actually read the transcript at the National Archives in Ottawa, as well as several other documents held in the section not open to the public.
In the spring of 1907, two North West Mounted Police constables set out from Norway House east to Island Lake and across the Severn River to Sandy Lake to arrest Jack and Joseph Fiddler for murder. The brothers were taken to the NWMP jail at Norway House and committed for trial. On September 30, 1907, Jack Fiddler committed suicide. Seven days later, at 9am on Monday, October 7, 1907, and indictment for murder was brought against Joseph Fiddler.
The original transcript of the trial can be found in the Department of Justice Archives in Ottawa. I had to obtain special permission from the Solicitor General to be allowed access to the closed section of the archives. I was fortunate that the person assigned to safeguard the papers was interested in my reasons for investigating this, and let me make photocopies of selected pages so I didn't have to copy everything by hand.
This is what was revealed by that transcript and other documents the archivist also allowed me to read.
Nobody knows exactly what happened. The facts, as related by elders over the decades, seem simple. A woman named Wa-sak-apee-quay was deathly ill. Her father-in-law, Joseph Fiddler, and his brother Jack, the Chief of the Red Sucker Clan, brought the sick woman from the clan's summer camp at Red Deer Lake to the winter encampment at Big Sandy Lake.
She was laid on a piece of white cotton cloth, and cared for by her mother, mother-in-law, and other members of her family, who held her down when she rolled around on the ground, moaning, delirious.
The men made a shelter for her for the night, beside a campfire in an area of bush and willow near the large birchbark wigwam that housed the clan.
The next day, Jack Fiddler, the Chief, and his brother, Joseph, put a piece of the white cotton around the sick woman's neck, wound a heavy string over it, and strangled her. The body was then sewn up in the cotton cloth, and carried to the Hudson's Bay post where it was buried.
There is no record of what illness she suffered from, her age, or the duration of her sickness. More importantly, it is unclear who made the decision to kill her. Was it the consensus of the clan, or of her immediate family, or the personal resolution of the Chief and his brother?
The following spring two North West Mounted Police constables set out from Norway House east to Island Lake and across the Severn River to Sandy Lake to arrest the Fiddler brothers for murder.
Who notified the police? No one seems to know.
Despite their grim mission, the constables were received warmly by the Red Sucker Indians, several of whom provided an extra canoe and accompanied the policemen from Sandy Lake to Deer Lake.
At the settlement, Constables O'Neill and Cashman attended a council meeting, at which Jack Fiddler's son, Robert, was elected chief, and the policemen explained to the band the reasons for the arrest. Several of Robert's descendants have served as Chiefs over the years.
The prisoners were taken to the NWMP jail at Norway House and committed for trial. On September 30, 1907, Jack Fiddler committed suicide. Seven days later, at 9am on Monday, October 7, 1907, and an indictment for murder was brought against Joseph Fiddler.
The original transcript of the trial can be found in the Department of Justice Archives in Ottawa. Commissioner A.B. Perry of the NWMP presided, in the Council Chamber of the Hudson's Bay Post at Norway House, in a Stipendary Magistrate's Court of the North West Territories, before a special jury of six men.
Joseph Fiddler pleaded guilty, but the Crown Counsel requested that a plea of Not Guilty be entered, and the trial began.
Called as a witness was Normal "Owl" Rae, also known as Na-po-quan-ias, a member of the Little Crane clan from Goose Lake, near Sandy Lake. His wife, a member of the Red Sucker tribe, was Joseph's daughter. He described the time of the strangling as being "when the berries were all ripe," and told the Court that Wa-sak-apee-quay, wife of his brother-in-law, was carried to the birchbark wigwam on an improvised stretcher.
"She was delirious," the interpreter translated as Norman testified, "and she could not keep quiet." He added that she was too weak to attempt to hurt anyone, and she didn't struggle when the Chief and Joseph put the string around her neck.
Norman witnessed the actual killing, having been recruited by the Chief to hold the sick woman's hands while the string was being pulled.
"After they strangled the woman, the prisoner and the Chief were talking, saying that they would do the right thing by the woman and would bury her right," Norman testified.
The next witness was Angus Rae, a Red Sucker who lived at Little Trout Lake, south of Big Sandy. Angus, whose Indian name was Man-awa-pait, described the time of year as "after the hottest of the summer had gone," and simulated the moaning sound made by the sick woman as she rolled on the ground.
He also claimed to have heard her husband, Thomas, say that she would not live. "They were saying that they were going to strangle her and put her out of her misery," Angus testified.
When questioned as to who, specifically, said those words, Angus replied, "Jack said it."
Although Angus denied being present when the actual strangling took place, he told the Court he heard Joseph say "If we do not strangle her she will turn into a cannibal."
The word Windigo was never used at the trial, but this reference to the cannibalistic giant of Woodland Cree legend provides the best indication of the motive behind the murder. The Cree believed that if someone were incurably ill and became delirious, his or her teeth would begin to grow, and the person would chew on his lips, fingers and hands. These were the signs of transformation into the evil Windigo, who would kill and eat all of the tribe.
The Indian Affairs archives for the period from 1900 to 1915 show numerous arrests for murder in northwestern Ontario. Were these individual crimes of passion or self-defense? Accidents? Euthanasia? Infanticide? Or were they ritual killing of the insane, performed by tribal chiefs and medicine men at the request of the entire clan, in order to protect them from the ravages of the cannibalistic Windigo?
The trial testimony of the Rev. Edward Paupanakiss, a full-blooded Indian who had become a Methodist missionary, conflicts with the diary of F.G. Stevens, another Methodist missionary who kept a written record of his experiences between 1987 and 1943 with the people of the area around Sandy Lake.
Paupanakiss was born at Norway House, a sister reserve to Sandy Lake, and although he never traveled to Big Sandy, he told the Court that he met the Sandy Lake Indians twice a year for seven years when they took their furs to the trading post at another sister reserve, Island Lake.
He claimed to have met Jack Fiddler three times during these summer excursions, and on one occasion had "a long talk at Island Lake" during which Jack "stated that they believed their dreams."
Paupanakiss had heard from his own people about delirious patients becoming cannibals, relating to the Court that he first heard of actual cases of the killing of Windigos at Nelson House in 1877.
At the end of his testimony, Paupanakiss revealed that he had not been to Island Lake for eleven years, and his last contact with the Sandy Lake Indians had been in 1896.
In 1897, Rev. Stevens first heard of Sandy Lake and attempted to make contact from his posting at Oxford House, another sister reserve. Stevens' diary records that the Sandy Lakers wanted to hear the Gospel, and invited him to meet them at Island Lake. Stevens set the date for August 12, but the Hudson's Bay factor, Robert Whiteway, told the Sandy Lakers the date was August 17, successfully keeping the Indians and the missionary apart.
The following year, Stevens heard that the Sandy Lake Indians were starving. He set out in a birchbark canoe and, after crossing six lakes and seven portages, came upon a small group of Indians dressed in ragged rabbit-skin clothes, emaciated from lack of food.
When Stevens and his companion finally reached Big Sandy Lake, he found the area deserted, and could not plan a return trip until the following year. He finally made contact with the destitute Red Sucker clan in the winter of 1899. They were subsisting on boiled jackpine bark and the occasional fish. Women suckled three or four children of different ages, in order to stop their incessant crying.
Yet no mention was made by anyone at the trial of Joseph Fiddler of the desperate conditions Stevens observed. In fact, Constable O'Neill's report mentions an ample supply of fish and game in the area, and he dismisses as a "superstitious belief" the practice by Island Lake and Sandy Lake Indians of tying their dogs' mouths with string in order to keep them from eating fish bones.
O'Neill attributed the "emaciated and starved condition" of the dogs to this practice, ignoring the possibility that the dogs had been reduced to eating the inedible remains of fish because other food was so scarce.
Why Stevens was not called to testify at Joseph Fiddler's trial is a a mystery, as his diary reveals much more recent contact the Red Sucker Indians of Sandy Lake than Paupanakiss had. It is also strange that Robert Whiteway's name was never mentioned at the trial.
O'Neill's report mentions that several members of the Red Sucker band told him they had been threatened by the Company agent at Island Lake because they were "trading with the opposition," but when he pressed them for details, "none of them would admit having heard the agent say this, or disclose the names of the Indians who had told them."
After Stevens heard of the arrest of Jack and Joseph Fiddler, he describes the killing of "Wedigo" as "a well-known and regular custom of the Pagan Indians... The safe way was to kill before possession was complete. Most of those who were killed were mothers. You will remember that when at Sandy Lake... I noticed the insane look of nursing mothers. Sad indeed that these had to be killed."
Joseph Fiddler refused the opportunity to testify in his own defense. Mr. Calverley, acting for the Indian Department, addressed the jury on Joseph's behalf, but his words were not recorded by the Court Reporter.
The Judge's Charge to the Jury was strict. "You cannot find anything but that Joseph Fiddler killed this woman," he said at one point. And later, "We questioned both the Indian witnesses as to...[the law of the land]...and the impression left on my mind is that they do know what the law forbids...In any event, ignorance of the law is no excuse."
At 9:20pm, on October 7, 1907, twelve hours and twenty minutes after the trial of Joseph Fiddler began, Jury Foreman Charles A. Wilkins read the verdict: "Verdict of guilty, with a strong recommendation for mercy on account of the prisoner's ignorance and superstition."
At that point, Joseph Fiddler, also known as Pe-se-quan, medicine man of the Red Sucker Indians of Sandy Lake and brother of their respected Chief, made the only statement he was to give in the trial which declared him guilty of murder in the first degree.
"I did not know better. I was angry. I was in high hopes I would be let off without being punished. I do not want my life to be taken away until my death comes. I wish that God had blessed me. I have no wish to say any more."
Since there is clear evidence that the killing of his daughter-in-law was a rational act carried out with reverence and after much deliberation by a tribe who have always made all decisions by consensus, Joseph's statement that he "did not know better" and "was angry" quite likely refers, not to the crime of which he was accused, but to his reaction to the verdict.
Commissioner Perry, acting as Judge in the Stipendary Magistrates Court, then pronounced the sentence:
"The evidence which has been given before the Court disclosed that this is not the only case in which human beings have been done to death by yourself and other members of the Sucker Clan. The law says that this must not be. The object of punishing you is not to revenge a death so much as it is to be a warning to the other members of your tribe that human life is sacred and cannot be taken.
"The sentence of the Court is upon you the said Joseph Fiddler, an Indian, and known among the Indians as Pesequan, that you be taken to the place from whence you came, namely the Royal Northwest Mounted Police guard room at Norway House in the Northwest Territories, and that you be taken from thence on Tuesday, the seventh day of January next ensuing the date hereof between the hour of six o'clock in the forenoon and twelve of the clock of that day, to the place of execution there, and that you be then hanged by the neck until you are dead; and may God Almighty have mercy on your soul."
But Joseph was not executed on January 7, 1908.
File 386A at the Department of Justice Archives contains two petitions sent to the Ministry of Justice in Ottawa and to the Commissioner of the Royal North West Mounted Police. A letter pleading for Joseph's pardon is also in the file.
The petitions were sent to Ottawa in June of 1908. On September 4, 1909, two years after the trial of Joseph Fiddler, the Secretary of State, under the authority of the Governor General, sent a message granting Joseph's release to the warden of Stony Mountain Penitentiary in Manitoba.
Four days later, the warden answered, "In reply I beg to state that this convict died of consumption on September 1, at 8:15am, after being in the penitentiary hospital for 18 months."
Jack had died, by his own hand, a year earlier, shamed by his arrest and thinking he could absolve his brother and his people by taking his life before a trial could be held. And now Joseph was also dead.
Approximately 2500 people now live on the 4,266 hectares granted by the Crown to the Sandy Lake First Nation. An invisible provincial boundary divides them from their sister reserves in Manitoba, but their kinsman, the late Elijah Harper (of Meech Lake fame), is a descendant of the same Red Sucker tribe as Joseph Fiddler.
Robert Fiddler was succeeded as Chief by his son Thomas, and one of Tom's descendants has served as Chief at various times in recent years.