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Something truly Maple Creek

Posted on February 16, 2023 by Maple Creek

Often described as truly “Maple Creek”, the Battle of the Little Big Puck reaches a 40-year milestone on Saturday.
The event celebrates a relationship dating back to the 19th century between the Nekaneet band, independent people who wished to remain in the hills, and local cowboys.
Mutual respect, fellowship and sportsmanship have been the hallmarks of this gala occasion, which has grown into a major fundraiser for healthcare causes.
This year, proceeds will be split between Sandy Cooper, the 16-year-old who suffered a spinal injury during a Brooks rodeo on December 30, and the Southwest Healthcare Trust Fund.
In today’s edition, we trace the Battle’s history.
, and speak to some of the key figures that have helped it rise to prominence as Maple Creek’s premier gala event.
This year, the action starts at 7.30pm in the Maple Creek Community Arena. Along with traditional ceremonial activities surrounding the game, tributes will be paid to those we have lost recently, including Robert “Rubberjack” Anderson and Billy Mosquito.
There will also be a few surprises recognizing the 40th anniversary.
At the outset, it is believed Nekaneet children will sing O Canada in Cree and English, capturing the multi-cultural spirit of the evening.
A Nekaneet man closely associated with the Battle over the years is Dale Mosquito, who plans to be playing again on Saturday.
After veteran cowboy Jim Montgomery released the organizing reins in 1999, it was Mosquito who took up the challenge, along with Bobby Maines. He has been heavily involved ever since.
To Mosquito, the game fits into the theme of truth and reconciliation.
“It really hits the nail on the head,” he said.
As both a proud Indian and member of the Southwest community, Mosquito remains passionate about the Battle, saying it showcases the special history between the Nekaneet and Maple Creek.
In a 2009 interview with Maple Creek News-times, he elaborated on this history.
“We weren’t recognized as a reserve until 1953. What happened prior to that was how did Nekaneet people get along in the hills? Well, it was easy, they just worked for the local ranchers in the area. We were the labour force in the area. Nekaneet have always been here in the hills and they don’t mind sharing and this event actually brings that point across.
“We are part of the community and for me to help organize it, I have just carried on the groundwork of our forefathers.”
Fourteen years on, Mosquito believes the Battle’s cultural significance remains as powerful and meaningful as ever.
“We are in a battle to keep our cultures alive,” he said. “We do it in a unique way. Other communities have tried to do it, but probably don’t have our history.”
One of Mosquito’s joys, even as a competitor, is to look at the excited faces among the crowd at the community arena.
“I am really going to enjoy it on Saturday,” he said. “It gets competitive, of course, but I love to look at people’s expressions. I also like the conversation and hearing all the ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’.”
Another person synonymous with the Battle of the Little Big Puck is Joe Braniff.
Since getting his rodeo card in 1986, Braniff has played in Maple Creek’s premier gala event so many times, he has lost count, reckoning the number must be about 30.
Through the years, he says, his passion for the occasion remains undiminished.
In the days preceding it, he always feels a buzz – and this year, the 40th anniversary of the game – is no different. Its significance elevates it far beyond a hockey encounter between Cowboys and Indians.
“It is a celebration of two communities that makes the game,” he says. “It brings these two significant cultures together in a celebration.”
While the hockey is intense, and both teams want to win, Braniff says, there remains an underlying spirit of mutual camaraderie and respect.
Of course, it is the third period that visually represents two cultures most strikingly.
“That is when we wear our regalia,” Braniff says.
For the Cowboys that means iconic hats, buffalo coats, big chaps and western shirts, while the Indians emerge from their dressing room in full buckskin and beadwork, headdresses and ceremonial face paint.
The spectacle incorporates integral parts of Maple Creek’s identity. It also provides thrilling entertainment, even for non-hockey fans.
“This may be the only time in the year that a lot of people step into a hockey arena,” says Braniff.
Part of what makes the event so great, adds Braniff, is the bond between all the players. Many players have a relationship stretching back generations.
“We are friends with each other, and so were our parents, grandparents and, in some cases, great-grandparents.”
Colin Oakes, a regular player on the Nekaneet benches, also spoke about the deep bonds between both teams.
Come Saturday, he says, there will probably be three generations of players on the ice.
It is as if the Battle has become a reunion of an extended family.
Oakes expressed pride in the cultural importance of the Battle and its unique status.
In a world blighted by strife and conflict, the event was an example of how two communities can come together in a spirit of harmony.
“I am proud to boast about it,” he said.
One of the more colourful characters in the Battle of the Little Big Puck is Bobby Maines.
In fact, if there was prize for the most prolific winner of best dressed cowboy category, he would get it. How many times has he won?
“I don’t know – must be about 20 times,” he says.
Some of his appearances at the game have entered into folklore: he once came in a cardboard wagon and with papier mache horses.
Like Braniff, Maines has Metis blood in him, and could play for the Nekaneet.
“My blood line goes to the Dumonts, and my great, great grandmother was a native lady,” he said.
Maines has played in the Battle since the early years.
“I do it for fun,” he said. “I do it for charity.”

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