“The Cattle Thief” begins with the chasing down, confrontation, and killing of a Cree chief by English settlers. It then shifts, as the daughter of the chief comes and rebukes the killers, undermining their ideas about the land, food, ownership, and religion.
“The Cattle Thief” by E. Pauline Johnson (Tekahionwake)
They were coming across the prairie, they were galloping hard and fast;
For the eyes of those desperate riders had sighted their man at last—
Sighted him off to Eastward, where the Cree encampment lay,
Where the cotton woods fringed the river, miles and miles away.
Mistake him? Never!—Mistake him? the famous Eagle Chief!
That terror to all the settlers, that desperate Cattle Thief—
That monstrous, fearless Indian, who lorded it over the plain,
Who thieved and raided, and scouted, who rode like a hurricane!
But they’ve tracked him across the prairie; they’ve followed him hard and fast;
For those desperate English settlers have sighted their man at last.
Up they wheeled to the tepees, all their British blood aflame,
Bent on bullets and bloodshed, bent on bringing down their game;
But they searched in vain for the Cattle Thief: that lion had left his lair,
And they cursed like a troop of demons—for the women alone were there.
The sneaking Indian coward, they hissed; he hides while yet he can;
He’ll come in the night for cattle, but he’s scared to face a man.
Never! and up from the cotton woods rang the voice of the Eagle Chief;
And right out into the open stepped, unarmed, the Cattle Thief.
Was that the game they had coveted? Scarce fifty years had rolled
Over that fleshless, hungry frame, starved to the bone and old;
Over that wrinkled, tawny skin, unfed by the warmth of blood.
Over those hungry, hollow eyes that glared for the sight of food.
He turned, like a hunted lion: I know not fear, said he;
And the words outleapt from his shrunken lips in the language of the Cree.
I’ll fight you, white-skins, one by one, till I kill you all, he said;
But the threat was scarcely uttered, ere a dozen balls of lead
Whizzed through the air about him like a shower of metal rain,
And the gaunt old Indian Cattle Thief dropped dead on the open plain.
And that band of cursing settlers gave one triumphant yell,
And rushed like a pack of demons on the body that writhed and fell.
Cut the fiend up into inches, throw his carcass on the plain;
Let the wolves eat the cursed Indian, he’d have treated us the same!
A dozen hands responded, a dozen knives gleamed high,
But the first stroke was arrested by a woman’s strange, wild cry.
And out into the open, with a courage past belief,
She dashed, and spread her blanket o’er the corpse of the Cattle Thief;
And the words outleapt from her shrunken lips in the language of the Cree,
If you mean to touch that body, you must cut your way through me.
And that band of cursing settlers dropped backward one by one,
For they knew that an Indian woman roused, was a woman to let alone.
And then she raved in a frenzy that they scarcely understood,
Raved of the wrongs she had suffered since her earliest babyhood:
Stand back, stand back, you white-skins, touch that dead man to your shame;
You have stolen my father’s spirit, but his body I only claim.
You have killed him, but you shall not dare to touch him now he’s dead.
You have cursed, and called him a Cattle Thief, though you robbed him first of bread—
Robbed him and robbed my people—look there, at that shrunken face,
Starved with a hollow hunger, we owe to you and your race!
What have you left to us of land, what have you left of game,
What have you brought but evil, and curses since you came?
How have you paid us for our game? how paid us for our land?
By a book, to save our souls from the sins you brought in your other hand!
Go back with your new religion, we never have understood
Your robbing an Indian’s body, and mocking his soul with food!
Go back with your new religion, and find—if find you can—
The honest man you have ever made from out a starving man.
You say your cattle are not ours, your meat is not our meat;
When you pay for the land you live in, we’ll pay for the meat we eat!
Give back our land and our country, give back our herds of game;
Give back the furs and the forests that were ours before you came;
Give back the peace and the plenty. Then come with your new belief,
And blame, if you dare, the hunger that drove him to be a thief.
Note: This poem was originally published in The White Wampum (Toronto: The Copp Clark Co., 1895) with broken and hyphenated lines to make it fit into the smaller printed page space (see the Canadian Poetry reprint of it in that form here.) We’ve replicated it here as a complete line, which reflects the syntax of the original poem and the form of its later editions, such as in Flint and Feather (Toronto: Musson, 1912).
- What does this poem say about colonial settlement practices and attempts to erase Indigenous culture? What does it reveal about settler-Indigenous relations?
- What are the differences between the woman and the English settlers, and perhaps, by extension, Indigenous and settler cultures more generally?
- What possibilities for reconciliation does the poem offer?