Louis Riel

In 1878, Louis ‘David’ Riel was recruited from Beauport Asylum, Quebec, for a position at Standing Rock, Dakota, a reservation assigned to the Catholic Church under President Grant’s 1870 Peace Policy. Riel began assisting the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions in resolving a problem: the Sioux tribes, for whom the reservation had been designated, were in the British Northwest Territories, refugees from an army bent on avenging Custer’s death.

Riel took action. He travelled west and, in late 1879, settled with the Métis community of Milk River, Montana, opposite the camps of the exiled Sioux. Riel worked tirelessly through the bitter winters of 1880 and 1881 negotiating surrenders.

In March 1880, Riel, speaking as advocate for the capitulating Brulé Sioux, was respectfully welcomed by Colonel Henry Black at the new Fort Assiniboine. Brick building 26 housed the military press, where Orders of the Day were printed. Here Riel spent spare time handsetting apprentice texts, printing them on the backs of discarded proofs of military orders. Two variant copies of a surviving text show Riel’s typesetting and choice of fonts. His composition ‘Spots of the Sun’ referenced a topic which, by June 1881, was the most intriguing scientific and military issue of the day: massive solar storms were disrupting telegraphic transmission. Riel’s enthusiasm for presswork led to a grander idea of establishing a Catholic press at St. Peter’s Mission, Montana, where, now an American citizen, Riel had been hired by the Jesuits as catechist. Riel assembled land-claim certificates of the mission Métis and, as power of attorney for the final sale and liquidation of their Métis rights, left for Manitoba in 1884, by way of Batoche, N.W.T.

Sir John A. Macdonald had other ideas. Riel was hanged, branded as a megalomaniac and venal rogue, in November 1885.

The Devil's Artisan would like to acknowledge the generous financial support of the Canada Council for the Arts and the Ontario Arts Council.

Louis Riel Magnify

Louis Riel

Credit: Saskatchewan Archives Board, R-A2294.