North to Cree Lake

Cree, Chipewyan and Breeds.


Barrenland Caribou. Barrenland Caribou.

Old Red Iron was a Swampy Cree. I first met him on a cold sunny day in midwinter when he snowshoed up to our cabin on Rat Creek. He had killed a moose down the creek, he explained and wished to borrow some salt. Red Iron was a very old Indian of medium height and lean of frame. He carried himself very straight and erect. His skin was deeply lined and the colour of old spruce root. His beard consisted of a few dozen course grey hairs, about six inches long, which were scattered about the face and more concentrated on the chin. His grey hair hung well down his shoulders. His eyes were bright and keen and expressed the dignity and pride of his race. His outer dress was entirely of tanned deerskin and he wore moose-hide moccasins and mitts, light, warm, and serviceable in cold dry winter weather. Red Iron. Red Iron was among the last of his kind. He spoke only a few words of English and French, reverting to the Cree language as soon as English or French failed him so that a sentence might have parts from three tongues. He had accepted practically nothing of the white man's ways. I have reason to believe that he had never accepted Monias-the white man-at all. He lived as had his ancestors before him. I once accidentally came upon one of his winter overnight camps-a primitive hovel built of logs chinked with moss, and with a flat earth-covered log roof. Inside, a baked mud and grass fireplace had been built at one end. A thick bed of spruce boughs lay on the earthen floor at the other end. Entrance to the hut was effected by crawling through a hole cut in one wall at ground level, after which the hole was plugged from the inside with a hay-filled sack to keep out the cold. So small was this hovel inside that it was impossible for me to stand up; I must kneel, sit, or lie down. Yet old Red Iron could live here, dragging long poles through the aperture that served as a door, burn off the ends in the fireplace and replenish the fire merely by pulling the logs forward so that chopping and sawing fuel was eliminated. He could sit in front of the fire, make tea and roast his moose meat. He could roll into his rabbitskin sleeping robe and sleep in comparative comfort on his spruce bough bed. This was all he now required of life, therefore he did not aspire to things that he did not use. His pipe was filled with kinnikinik, the inner bark of the red willow which grows profusely along Rat Creek.

Red Iron had long ago learned to use his resources to the full. Examination of one of his moose kills revealed that he had packed away everything except the contents of the alimentary canal and a piece of skin that hangs from the neck which on a moose is called the bell.

Red Iron possessed most of the ancient skills of his people. He could build a fine birchbark canoe using only the birch tree for ribs, planking, and the outer bark covering all secured with fibres of spruce roots and the seams sealed with spruce gum. Only a few primitive tools were used. The canoe parts were secured with wooden pins, rawhide, and sinews and there was not one metal nail in the finished product. Measurements were made using the breadth of the hand, the length of the arm from elbow to wrist, and so on. He made excellent Cree snowshoes, paddles, and toboggans, all with fine craftsmanship.

On an April day while trapping muskrats on lower Rat Creek, I saw Red Iron suddenly appear at the creek bank from out of the bush. Then he forded the creek up to his waist in icy water. As he stepped ashore on the opposite bank, with one fluid motion he gathered up a large handful of the coarse dry dead grass at the creek's edge and as he sat down on a dry log the grass took fire from his match, so that all he had to do was to pile on some of the dead branches that were scattered about and thus make a campfire.

Old Red Iron is dead. Never a man to talk a great deal in life, there is buried with him a wealth of information of the Cree People in this part of Canada and certain secrets of the woods, the birds, animals, and fishes that as yet may be undiscovered by white men. Since even at that time the younger generation of Crees would not revert to such a primitive and lonely life as was Red Iron's they did not learn all his knowledge and his crafts and consequently these were lost when he died.

Red Iron was at his bed in summer when hunting moose on some secluded lake. Sitting in the centred of his small hunting canoe, he screened himself among the rushes, reeds, and wild rice, paddling very close to feeding moose in lush water-lily beds, so that his battered old Winchester carbine barked only once. With a supply of fresh moose meat, his wants would be met for some time. His only purchases at Green Lake Trading Post consisted of minimum amounts of flour, sugar, lard, tea, and occasionally a box of cartridges for his Winchester.

"I wish I knew what that old rascal knows about the bush," remarked Ab to me one day.

At Cree Lake Outpost one day, I saw the man they called Long Haired Cree. This Indian wore his hair in braids that hung down his back. By this token, he told the world that he had not accepted Christianity and was, therefore considered to be a pagan in the eyes of the cropped-headed Indians and those of mixed Indian and white ancestry who were all Roman Catholics.

Long-Haired Cree was a loner. He had little to do with white men and took no part in the discussions of the other Indians present that day. He was the most striking in appearance of them all for he was tall and straight and dignified. When he spoke, or you spoke to him, he looked you right in the eye.

Julian was a middle-aged Chipewyan, short stocky, and wrinkled, and looked more like an Eskimo than an Indian. He was by far the most effective hunter among a band of Chipewyans that ranged generally northward of the Cree Lake country. Usually, in such a group, there is a man of outstanding hunting ability to whom the people look to provide meat. Such a man was Julian. A dead shot, he used a rifle with a slide action for he could manipulate this weapon much more effectively than a lever-or bolt-action rifle on account of his handicap. His left hand was off at the wrist, the result of an accidental shotgun blast. The accident had occurred when Julian had been a young man. It was said that Julian had been a poor hunter, shiftless, and lackadaisical up to the time of the accident.

Our first awareness of the presence of Julian occurred at the time Ab shot the big bull moose in our first autumn at Cree Lake. When we returned to the site of the kill next day to pack out the meat, we discovered, on arriving at the spot in the deep bush, that half the rib cage had been cut away with a sharp instrument, probably a belt axe. On a nearby jack pine, the bark had been neatly blazed off and a legend in the Indian script was pencilled upon the white wood. Being unable to read the message, I made a copy on paper. Not until I showed it to Indians at Cree Lake Outpost in the following winter did I learn who the author had been and his message. It stated, in effect, that Julian had been on the trail of the same moose, but Ab had come upon the fresher trail and had killed the moose before Julian could do so. Finding himself a long way from his hunting party and being almost without food, he had taken away a piece of meat. It occurred to us that Julian may have been two or three days on the trail because he was a long way south of his usual hunting grounds. Somewhere to the south, he had heard the shot and even though no snow was on the ground had, by some uncanny instinct, found the kill.

One summer, Ab and I joined Henry Weitzel's brigade of riverboats at Meadow Lake for the return trip to Cree Lake. In this brigade were eight large wooden boats, powered with outboard motors with which we ripped the river and lake silences in a deafening staccato of exhausts-the mufflers had all been removed to get maximum power. At Patuanak, we were joined by several Chipewyan, on their way to the northern caribou grounds and their winter traplines which were scattered all the way to Lake Athabasca. Henry was well aware of the abilities of these men in white water. The racing waters of Drum and Leaf rapids were a menace to the heavy boats and their cargoes of trade goods and winter food. When we reached the Drum, the boats were run through one at a time, the "Chip's" shouting and laughing as they were drenched by the spray on the way down. All boats were run through without damage. The process was repeated at Leaf Rapids.

Proceeding up the Deer River day after day, I had the opportunity to observe these people as never before. Their canoes were tied to the boats and were towed along. There was much laughter about their camps in the evenings and one felt that these people lived one day at the time and worried not at all about tomorrow. They did not have adequate food supplies of their own for this trip but augmented the store grub that Henry doled out to them with fish and such game as they might obtain. One day I observed one of the women clubbing to death a big fat porcupine. In short order, the animal was prepared for the pot. Surprisingly, the meat was little more than brought to a boil, when it was cut up, still red, and fed to the children. Above Grand Rapids on the Deer River, as we set out early one morning, with our boat in the lead, Ab shot a moose where it stood on the riverbank. The kill divided among each Indian family and the white men of the party. This helped sustain the Indians for the balance of the trip.

The children were cute though somewhat dirty, according to the standards of the white men of the party. Little Francois was the cutest of them all. About five years old, he was everywhere on the portages and often underfoot. However, in skidding the heavy boats when dragging them over the ground, all the children assisted as did Francois by stoutly pushing at the flat stern of the boat since he was not tall enough to grab hold of the gunwale. One quiet evening as we camped on a small lake in the upper Snag River region, I heard a splashing noise in the river, such as a dog makes when he wades out into the water and laps up a drink. When I stepped over to investigate, I saw Francois's mother pull him from the water. He had fallen in and thus received an accidental bath.

In one family there was a girl of sixteen or seventeen. She was well-favoured, tall, and healthy-looking. She smiled easily and flashed white teeth. Henry said she was to marry George, a young Chipewyan, tall, thin, and suffering from active tuberculosis of the lungs. Henry had known these people for many years.

One of the married women was called The Queen by the white men. She sat, when they camped, in front of her tent, and smoked one hand-rolled cigarette after another from a foot-long wooden holder. Rumour had it that she had once been married to a white man. While travelling, she sat well in the front section of her Chipewyan husband's canoe, with the inevitable long cigarette holder very much in evidence. I never observed her touch a paddle at any time. Nor did I see her chop wood and carry water in camp as did the other women. She was an adept seamstress. When I called on her to sew up a rip in the canvass of our tent, I found the inside of her tent unexpectedly very clean and well ordered.

In the party was a partially paralyzed old man. One of the younger married couples assumed responsibility for his welfare and gave him meals in one corner of their tent. All his movements took about four times as long as it takes a normal person. Thus in quiet water, on a windless day, he was sent out to tend the fishnet with the canoe. Paddling deliberately, terribly slow strokes, he reached the net finally and did the work there. The children, of course, thought him great fun and pushed at him from behind to hurry his steps, thus making him run, yet I did not see him fall. With great difficulty, he fed himself, pushing the food into his mouth with his fingers so that much of it dribbled onto his chin and into his lap. Henry said that the man had been in this condition for about twenty years since he had a near-fatal attack of influenza just after World War I.

We were much impressed by the respect shown by the Chipewyans for their dead. Ornate wooden crosses carved by hand and neatly painted were to be found along some of the lonely beaches of Cree Lake. The graves were fenced with carved and painted wooden fences and kept painted and in good repair. One of these tiny cemeteries stood well into Long Bay in our hunting and trapping grounds. Located on a level spot above a cut bank the dead were placed so that the grave faced out onto the lake. Ab, while examining the location, allowed that this was as good a spot as any for a man to be buried. We found two such graves on the Highland Portage about halfway across. I asked Ab, "Do you think that the dead were buried here because this is approximately the highest point in the area?"

"My guess is that they got tired of packing the corpses and decided to bury them instead of talking them all the way across," he said.

"Bum" Edward was a trading post Indian. He admitted quite readily to me that he was a failure as a trapper and hunter or at any work where he must think for himself, yet he was quite capable when working under the direction of others. So he forsook the wilds and worked for the outpost manager at Cree Lake for a time as a guide and general handyman. He set a good deal of store by the healing qualities and medicinal value of tea. The new manager, John Lawrie, told us that one day when he and Edward were on a long hunting trip, one of the sleigh dogs became acutely lamed with a frostbitten foot, whereupon Edward administered to the stricken beast a drink of hot tea. The foot eventually healed by the process of allowing the animal to ride in the toboggan and then rest at home for some weeks while natural healing did the job.

Throughout the North the people of mixed Indian and white ancestry are called breeds by white men. They generally congregated in groups near the trading posts all summer long, and "pitched off" in small parties in the autumn to their remote trapping grounds. Occasionally, you saw some of them travelling with Chipewyans, and with white men on other occasions. Not entirely accepted by Indians or whites, theirs was the curse of belonging to no one. They were, therefore, destined to a lonely life by circumstances and not always by choice.

Celestine was half Cree and half French. When others of mixed Indian and European ancestry dallied about the trading posts in summer, Celestine moved his family to faraway places where he lived off the country, lived the good life, faring well where there was no competition for the fish and game that he was expert at taking. His relatives did not at this season elect to follow him and eat the meat that he shot. We found him to be frank and straightforward and quite reliable.

Joe was said to be a man with "long fingers." I met him one day on my trapline early in the trapping season where he was setting his traps alongside mine. Then I noticed his snare hanging in a game trail. I did not like it at all, but under the existing game laws, Joe could set his traps any place that pleased him. I made no issue with him and eventually he lifted all his traps and moved to another location. He was not so particular with his snares. He left several which I found in the following autumn, one of which contained a summer caught cross fox.

Abraham was versatile. A big man physically, he had been employed by Hudson's Bay Company. He was outpost manager at Cree Lake when Ab and I left the country. Abraham could trap, hunt, fish, run white water, and get along as well in the bush as anyone. He could administer the affairs of the outpost. He was vocal and persuasive and a good salesman. By no means, the last of his accomplishments was that he was a linguist, for he conversed fluently in English, French, Cree, and Chipewyan.

Solomon was half Jew, half Chipewyan, and the only breed I ever saw who had a full black beard. I have seen these people with red hair and dark skin. Over Lac La Ronge way there were breeds with the blonde hair of their Scandinavian ancestors and they all chewed snoose, or snuff.

The debris lying about a long-time winter camping area is something that must be seen to be believed. The whole place is littered with wood chips, heaps of deer and moose hair, paunches of animals, gnawed bones, antlers, legs, and scraps of the hide. As the weather warms, all this garbage that has been worked over by the dogs is scattered through with dog faeces and the whole mass begins to stink. Blowflies are everywhere. The Indians solved the sanitation problem by moving to a new site on the lake.

These people must have been the inventors of the idea of disposable diapers. Since dried sphagnum moss has great moisture-absorbing qualities, moss bags for the babies were much in evidence in their camps. The washing of diapers was therefore not necessary. Chipewyan Women with babies in moss bags. They lived, for the most part, a hard life. They endured the intense cold and often near starvation in far off and lonely places. At Christmas time most of the men made the over four-hundred mile round trip to Ile-a-la-Crosse, a feat not attempted by the white men in the dead of winter. Some of the Indians from our region ventured as far as the Arctic tundra to the northeast in winter. In summer they endured the heat, flies, and mosquitoes that one cannot escape in the North. They suffered terribly from the white man's diseases such as syphilis, gonorrhoea, tuberculosis, and glaucoma. The hospital at Ile-a-la-Crosse served the entire area. The ordinary childhood diseases such as measles and whooping cough killed off the children. On our way Outside one spring, we were hailed by Bernard, a breed from Patuanak. We pulled in to the riverbank and visited with him. He told us that forty children had died in the past winter, along with several adults. He concluded with the remark, "No one white man die!"

The Indians and breeds were forever and always in debt to the Hudson's Bay Company. Their furs, for the most part, were applied against the debt so that they were always at least a year behind the white trappers. Most of us paid cash for our grubstakes. The Government "handout" had not yet caught on.

At the trading posts in summer, the young men wore blue serge trousers, white cotton shirts, and red bandana kerchiefs knotted around the neck. They took great pride in keeping the trousers pressed so that the creases stood out "like a knife," they said. The young women wore long dresses of vividly coloured cloth and bright shawls on their heads.

All the trading posts stocked canned extract of malt. At first, I thought this was used as a food supplement but I was enlightened when first introduced to Indian homemade beer, a cloudy yellow liquid whose after-effects included the sensation of dry sand being dribbled on the top of the head.

In those days certain white men established commercial fishing camps on the most productive lakes in the Churchill River chain. Permanent camps were built for winter operation and supplies freighted in, usually just before freeze-up, on large wooden scows built and loaded at Big River. The white men coming out with their canoes and outboard motors sometimes brought with them one or more Indians to assist in freighting the supplies through the river rapids. George, a Chipewyan from Buffalo Lake, was one of these.

George had never before been Outside. He spoke no English. I saw him standing on a small rise near where a steam locomotive was shunting boxcars to the Waite Fisheries warehouse. All at once I realized that this Indian was looking at his very first steam locomotive. He stood quite rigid and very still. His mouth hung partly open and his eyes never left the engine and he stood there until the engine pulled out. There was no telling what was in his mind. Perhaps he thought the same as did a Chipewyan with whom I once talked.

"The devil helps the white man!" he stated.



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"Date Modified: 2019, January 24."


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