This Plains Cree Indian chief is best known among other Native peoples of his era as the chief who urged his people not to accept the terms of a land settlement treaty that the Canadian government was offering to Native Peoples in western Canada during the last twenty-five years of the nineteenth century.
Under the terms of these treaties, Natives were given a reservation of land for their own exclusive lease in return for giving up claim to all other land. This was a difficult concept for many Native people, because their traditional lifeways involved hunting and gathering. That is, they used a large amount of territory to make their living, and did not think of any of it as exclusively their own property.
Big Bear saw that treaty terms would lead to poverty for his people. He was also alarmed by the disappearance of the buffalo in his lifetime, and the increasing numbers of European and European-Canadian settlers. Big Bear resisted signing Treaty No. 6 from 1876 to 1882.
After seeing the poor conditions in which some Indians were living in Saskatchewan, he tried to unite all Northern Cree people so that they could argue together for the Canadian government to provide better terms of settlement of all treaties.
One of the meetings that Big Bear organized drew 2,000 people to Battleford SK in 1884. No violence erupted at it, but, soon after, Big Bear, who always advised against the use of violence, lost control of the more radical, younger Cree men. They were responsible for killing nine white people at Frog Lake AB in 1885.
Soon after this massacre, Big Bear was arrested and tried on charges of treason. He was found guilty in court, and sentenced to three years in prison. After serving two years of the sentence, Big Bear was released in March 1887, but died ten months later.