Chief Smallboy: In Pursuit of Freedom


235 pages
Contains Photos, Maps, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 1-894856-78-3
DDC 971.23004'9323'0092





Reviewed by Keith Thor Carlson

Keith Thor Carlson is an associate professor of history at the
University of Saskatchewan. He is the editor of the Stу:lo-Coast Salish
Historial Atlas.


When 70-year-old Bob Smallboy and his followers broke away from the
Ermineskin Reserve in 1968 to establish a “traditional”
self-governing, largely self-sufficient community in the rugged
foothills of Alberta’s Rocky Mountains, the elderly Cree Chief caught
the attention of Aboriginal people, the Canadian government, and the
1960s counterculture generation alike. This biography situates this
transformative event within a rich context that illuminates the key
historical events and personalities that inspired Smallboy, as well as
the events Smallboy himself subsequently participated in and inspired.
Entire chapters are devoted to retelling the stories of Smallboy’s
famous great-uncle Big Bear, Big Bear’s son Little Bear’s exile and
tribulations in Montana, and the life story of the prophet Yellowface
(including an intriguing anecdote describing Yellowface’s encounter
with a bishop from the Mormon Church). Smallboy’s controversial
“scab” work with corporations intent on flooding Blackfoot lands is
covered, as well as his redemptive 1982 sojourn to London and Rome where
he petitioned the British House of Lords to entrench Aboriginal rights
in the soon-to-be-repatriated Canadian Constitution and had an inspiring
audience with Pope John Paul II.

Smallboy is an important historical figure who deserves a biography.
Botting is to be commended for reviving and supplementing the draft
memoirs he and Smallboy had initially (and unsuccessfully) submitted to
the University of Toronto Press prior to the chief’s death in 1984. In
addition to situating Smallboy within a historical context and
explaining Smallboy’s contribution to history, Botting’s book does a
wonderful job of interpreting the man who throughout his life
consistently refused to speak anything but Cree, and whose life was a
rejection of modernity and what he considered its hollow secular

The book has weaknesses, however. Too often, especially in the accounts
of Smallboy’s mentors and inspirations, it is impossible to determine
whether interpretive comments and editorializing are Smallboy’s (as
presumably found in his original memoirs and interviews), or
Botting’s. Botting, who shares how Smallboy cured his supposedly
incurable Méniиre’s disease while connecting his non-Native friend
to Aboriginal spirituality (admirable achievements both), simply injects
too much of himself into the main text. While the expanded book is
informative and engaging, one hopes the original memoir is being
preserved in an archive.


Botting, Gary., “Chief Smallboy: In Pursuit of Freedom,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 24, 2024,