Deborah Rose Peña

The Power to Punish: Conflicts of Authority in the Case of Jack Fiddler


To be possessed by the Windigo,1 an evil and cannibalistic spirit that haunted the northern indigenous tribes of North America, was to receive a sort of death sentence, to be lost in the eyes of your people, and to be taken by an all-consuming evil counter to the benevolent giving spirit of Manitou. The threat of such possession was never too distant for the northern tribes, including the Algonquin-speaking Cree nations of Canada. A possessed person posed a threat to the entire clan, and had to be gotten rid of somehow. Though it was possible with the right treatment and within the right conditions to cure the afflicted individual, the possessed did not always want to be cured and would often request euthanasia, which was granted as it would only prolong their agony to keep them alive in such a state.

That individuals within a clan had the power to euthanize was problematic for French colonists, who tried to impose a belief in the authority of a single ruling figure on native peoples and nations such as the Cree. These conflicting views of authority presented themselves directly in the case of Jack Fiddler, a shaman, or ogema, and leader of the Sucker clan, a group of Cree living in the boreal forest off of Sandy Lake in northwestern Ontario. Along with his brother Joseph, who assisted Jack’s mercy killings, Jack Fiddler was brought to Canadian court in 1907, when authorities heard of the death of Wasakapeequay, a woman in danger of turning Windigo who was euthanized nearly two summers before the trial. This would be Canadian law’s first visit to the Cree, and a turning point for the formerly isolated indigenous nation.

Until this point, the Sandy Lake Cree lived apart from Canadian influence, according to their indigenous belief systems. According to author James Stevens, who visited the Sandy Lake Cree in 1971 and wrote a book with Jack Fiddler’s grandson, Chief Thomas Fiddler, it was partly due to the relocation of a fur trading post at Island Lake in 1833 that the clan remained so isolated from the outside world. It wasn’t until around 1864 that the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) sent someone to re-open the older post, where Jack Fiddler would come to get goods. At the time of the initial relocation, the Cree in this area were under the leadership of Porcupine Standing Sideways, a powerful shaman who protected his people from the Windigo long before his son, Jack Fiddler (He Who Stands in the Southern Sky), would take up this task.

In Porcupine’s time, the HBC enlisted the help of many indigenous clans to do their fur trapping in exchange for goods such as weaponry, clothing, and alcohol. This latter good was included in many of the Cree’s rituals and healing practices, and was a powerful incentive for the Sucker Clan and others working for the HBC. Over the course of roughly three decades, the Sucker people depleted their game, causing a shortage of both furs and food. Aside from those who ventured out to trading posts, few of the clan members ever came into contact with white settlers, and the Sandy Lake Cree as a whole were left alone to deal with chronic famine, nascent alcoholism, and severely depleted natural resources.

Within this context Windigo legends flourished among the Sucker clan. In general the Windigo could be viewed as an evil counterpart to Manitou, the all-giving spirit, though this relationship was in no way a strict dichotomy, and the Windigo was but one of many manifestations of evil or misfortune. Porcupine Standing Sideways notoriously defeated a Windigo sent from a rival clan along the White Pine Narrows—in this case the Windigo was an agent of externally inflicted starvation and his defeat an act of protection for the Sucker clan. As famine led to greater and greater loss of life, tales proliferated wherein the Windigo, manifested as a possessed individual or an abstract threat, was defeated by clan members.

“Red Tail and the Windigo” is one such story. The story begins with the imminent threat of the Windigo, felt throughout the camp in the form of a sudden physical and mental depression that was accompanied by portentous meteorological conditions (a darkened sky) and a frightening, audible presence in the distance. Despite the efforts of the clan’s medicine men to abate the evil presence, the howling winds and oppressive atmosphere persisted, and the clan knew it would be a short time before they were defeated by the Windigo. Red Tail, an outcast with no wife or children, claimed that he had the power to defeat the spirit but would only succeed with the help of offerings from the medicine men. His clan mocked him for his nerve, and the medicine men continued to fail at their efforts against the Windigo. Eventually they gave in to Red Tail, who defeated the Windigo by smoking a sacred pipe that gave him the power to overcome the monster. The corpse of the beast was found floating face down in the river. Red Tail performed a ritual in a shaking tent, which caused the corpse to disappear. The camp bestowed upon him their most beautiful woman and their utmost respect.

Another tale, told in Steven and Fiddler’s book, concerns an individual who worked as a trapper for the HBC. According to the story, the trapper took his wife and children trapping with him during the winter and failed to return before sunset. When he did return, he killed and ate his wife and children. Sensing that something was wrong, an old man at the camp, John Doggy, prepared to deal with the possibility of a Windigo by procuring tarps, chains, and ropes from the HBC trading post. John Doggy and a team of men went to confront the trapper as he returned from another trip. The men successfully trapped the trapper, who began to transform into the monster, growing larger and larger and emitting noise “that sounded like pieces of ice grinding together.” The men also discovered that a bucket he was carrying contained his children’s feet. John Doggy and the other men took the Windigo back to the HBC lodge, where, interestingly enough, it was the white men who revived him with whiskey. When questioned as to the whereabouts of his family, the Windigo replied: “They are still living. No. I killed them,” at which point he began to cry.

This story does not end with the typical defeat of the Windigo by a wise shaman or another powerful clan member. Rather, the Windigo was taken to a mental hospital where he perished, distraught at the knowledge of what he had done to his family. Here the presence of the white man is directly incorporated into the story. The HBC traders were well aware of the Windigo phenomenon, in fact, and were witness to the measures taken by the Cree to deal with the monster, including the killing of those thought to be Windigos. During Porcupine’s time, authorities were alerted to such a case and, rather than take action as they would later on, the Lieutenant-Governor of a nearby district dismissed the events, stating that “while he regretted to hear of the murder he hoped there would not be any expense incurred,” and took no further action. The postmaster at Island Lake, the closest trading post to Porcupine’s clan, decided it was best to ignore the problem of the Windigo in the interests of continuing the fur trade.

While not typical of the Windigo tales that would be spread in the time of Jack Fiddler, the above narrative is important to his case, as it depicts the relationship between the Cree and the white traders as largely non-confrontational. The first story related here illustrates another important aspect of the Windigo narrative, which is that it takes wisdom and courage, as well as the support of the clan, to defeat such a monster. The shamans, who were able to heal and cure, procure food, and defeat adversarial shamans, often became the leaders of their clan. In the case of Jack Fiddler these abilities came along with the power to defeat the Windigo, which became a primary source of his authority over the Sandy Lake Cree.

It is important to understand that, to a certain degree, the Sucker people needed a strong defender like Jack Fiddler because of the increasing influence of the HBC. The Suckers brought the constraints of the White Man’s demands into their worldview; increased Windigo attacks were the result of this inclusion, and their beliefs adapted to the hardships that ensued. The incidence of Windigo possession was usually correlated with the abundance or lack of provisions that the land provided. Cases of famine cannibalism were seen as the incipient form of Windigo possession, and someone who consumed human flesh was in direct danger of becoming fully possessed, which entailed a whole host of physical transformations including massive growth, hairiness, and eventual self-consumption beginning with the lips and hands. To be turned Windigo in the warmer months was nearly inconceivable, as to become fully Windigo precluded the presence of a warm, beating heart—it was believed that the Windigo possessed a heart of ice.

Illustration by Tom Tian

Given that winter famine was exactly when the Windigo presented itself, it follows that human activity resulting in overfishing or overhunting would affect the frequency of such phenomena. But despite the alarming death rate among the clans, the HBC repeatedly refused to acknowledge that the clans were in any trouble. The Sucker clan went through roughly three generations of endemic starvation and increased cases of Windigo possession before the case of Jack and Joseph Fiddler was brought to court in 1907 and the two men were charged with murder.

The conflicts inherent to this case are self-evident. As First Nations people, the Cree were living under their own law and, more importantly, were entirely oblivious to the law of the White Man regarding murder. To prosecute in the face of such ignorance seems abhorrent to a modern audience, especially given the willingness of both Jack, now in his mid-eighties, and Joseph Fiddler to acquiesce to whatever the soldiers demanded, even offering to completely change their offending practices. Both men requested that the Canadians not “be too harsh on them,” insisting that they “wouldn’t have done it if they had known it was wrong,” and that they could return to their clan and teach them what was right. Indeed, most accounts of the case focus on the injustice borne upon the Cree who were robbed of their leaders in the name of the White Man’s law without being given forewarning or a just explanation.

Another problem presented by the process of the trial was the portrayal of Jack and Joseph Fiddler, and by extension the Sucker clan, as bloodthirsty, savage murderers, willing to dispose of clan members on a whim and without reason. This opinion, spread primarily via newspaper headlines, made it difficult for the men to receive pardons once convicted, despite several attempts on the part of missionaries and traders who were sympathetic to the Cree and understood that “[this] condition is the hell of those Indians.” The blind use of Canadian law against the indigenous people in this instance is exemplary of the kinds of trials brought to court without real precedent; more than a simple homicide case, this case represents a conflict between two cohabitant moral structures and, more saliently, different distributions of authority, in particular of the authority to kill.

A more complex reading of this conflict would take into account the fact that underlying the conflict between the Cree and the Canadian ideas of what actions were morally correct were different moral and spiritual understandings of authority and moral accountability. For the Sucker clan, the threat of the Windigo is constant, and defeat of the Windigo a necessity. The threat of the cannibal is not proclaimed by a religious leader, but is understood through common wisdom that is spread throughout the members of any given clan. It is not the authority of a shaman that dictates the killing of an individual, but an obligation to a larger cosmology that he works in deference to.

As such, it is not necessarily the role of the shaman or chief to execute, or euthanize, an afflicted individual. If there is a threat to the community, it is the responsibility of the community to rid themselves of that threat. In the case of the Sandy Lake Cree, this task fell to Jack Fiddler, whose wisdom and spiritual strength gave him the power to deal with what was generally a traumatic duty. In this regard, killing the Windigo was not an explicit act of authority, but rather the result of a system of power and authority that functioned externally to the clan members, shaman included. The shaman acted as a conduit for the spiritual realm. While he was the one to carry out its requirements, this did not necessarily give him the authority to do something like kill another clan member. Rather, he was called on to perform a duty for the collective. This singular expression of authority was a necessary aspect of an external cosmology that dictated interactions between clan members.

This collective implementation of authority did not fit into the system established by Canadian authorities, largely because their legal structure was based on a moral code rooted in the teachings of Christianity. This manifested itself hierarchically, with individuals like those involved with law enforcement acting simultaneously as moral police. The distance between religious teachings and Canadian law was practically non-existent; during the trial the defendants were asked if they had ever been taught “the difference between right and wrong” and a native-born missionary was called to the witness stand in order to establish the degree of contact between the Cree and the Christian belief system. Right and wrong under the dictates of Canadian law were conflated with those of Christian teachings in this case, and along with these teachings and subsequent laws came an understanding of authority as both a moral and legal construct.

The Cree had no such concept of legality, and morality was intrinsic to the Sucker clan’s engagement with its land and constituents. Because of this, authority was disseminated throughout the clan rather than localized in an individual’s ability to rule. The wisdom and power attributed to the Shaman and chief were not the same as the authority granted to a Canadian judge or soldier: it was not within the scope of the Shaman or chief’s power to punish. In the eyes of the Cree, punishment was an expression of the laws of nature, the inevitable materialization of the laws of cause and effect. When questioned by prosecutor D.W. McKerchar, Angus Rae, a son-in-law of Jack Fiddler, gave the following testimony:

McKerchar: Did you object to their putting her to death?
Angus Rae: No.
McKerchar: Did you say anything?
Angus Rae: I did not say anything. They were all older than I was and I did not say anything.
McKerchar: Would you be punished if you objected to anything that the ogema suggested?
Angus Rae: I do not know. They might.
McKerchar: Is a member of the band bound to obey the ogema, bound to do what the ogema says?
Angus Rae: Yes. If the ogema tells me to do a thing I must do it.
McKerchar: What would happen to you if you did not do what the ogema told you?
Angus Rae: Something would happen to me.
McKerchar: Of what nature, of what kind?
Angus Rae: I do not know what would happen. Something would happen anyway.
McKerchar: Good or bad?
Angus Rae: Bad.
McKerchar: From what source?
Angus Rae: I do not know what would happen. Something would be wrong.
McKerchar: Would it be bad medicine?
Angus Rae: I will be punished in some way but I do not know how.
McKerchar: By whom?
Angus Rae: I do not know by whom but I will be punished, however, some way.
Angus Rae’s testimony demonstrates that while Jack Fiddler held power in this situation, any punishment enacted upon a dissenter would be beyond the control of any one individual, including the shaman. This belief relies on the assumption that killing the Windigo was right, and to interfere would be wrong—thus placing Jack Fiddler in a position of authority insofar as he was capable of executing what is right. Furthermore, his actions were supported by the clan, who trusted him based on previous incidents wherein he had proven himself.

Ostensibly, Jack Fiddler’s power is equivalent to that of the inspector or judge who presides over his case: both are enacting the “will” of the collective as it is grounded in their respective belief systems. The difference, however, lies in the conceptualization of power and its use. To kill a Windigo is not to punish the individual for what he or she has done. To prosecute a murderer, on the other hand, is to proscribe punishment in proportion to the crime. In a preliminary hearing regarding the case of Jack Fiddler, it was decided that the two men could be punished regardless of their orientation with the law or willingness to change their ways. Rather than come to terms with a system that bestowed authority based on a separate set of criteria from their own, the Canadians who brought the Fiddlers to court attempted to negate the shaman’s authority and to ignore the tenets of a belief system that had long co-existed with their own, even if only because of its extreme isolation. Because it was not based in the same teachings or beliefs as their own, the Canadians could not accept the method by which Jack Fiddler came to act on what he deemed “right.”

Likewise, Jack Fiddler could not accept the authority of the Judge to exercise control over his fate, and he committed suicide one afternoon, more than three months into his imprisonment and after the preliminary hearing that ruled him a murderer. Less than a month later, Joseph Fiddler was brought to trial in the court of Commissioner Aylesworth Bowen Perry, where the jury ruled him guilty of murder but with a recommendation for mercy, “on account of the prisoner’s ignorance and superstition.” The judge replied that “The law does not permit me to exhibit any mercy” towards Fiddler, who was told that he would under no circumstances receive pardon. In 1909, sick and incarcerated, Joseph Fiddler died. Not three days beforehand, however, he had been officially pardoned after three separate petitions had been sent to the Minister of Justice, the first of which had been issued by Commissioner Perry himself, thirteen days after issuing the conviction. Word of this never reached Joseph before his death.

1 I use the spelling “Windigo,” though there are several others—Witikow, Weendigo, etc. George Nelson, a fur trapper who recorded much of his interaction with the Cree in his journals, uses Windigo, “according to the French pronunciation, which is more correct than the English, in this word.”