Sakitawak, land of four rivers. Always, your waters have yielded food for us. Your forests have kept us clothed and warm through the fury of winter's North Wind. We dwelt in your heart and took what was needed to live. Then came the "White" man. Sakitawak, your name has been changed; but still you give to your people and the strangers. For two hundred years we have tried to strip bare the land in the quest for more of the "new" world. Thankfully, we failed to rob you of everything. As in your yesterdays, you still give birth to the fish, the fur, and the forest.
Even the strangers came to worship your bounty. Fame spread like a prairie fire, calling the lusty trappers and traders to your beaches. Trains of winter sleighs came to feed the fish hungry south. Yes, you were the master giving enough to live, yet keeping enough for your own life.
Twelve thousand fur pelts of the beaver from this Churchill River country started the "White" quest for a post in this country. Joseph Frobisher and Alexander Henry knew that a post inland from Hudson's Bay house at Cumberland Lake would yield them uncounted riches.
Fur alone could not make life inland a successful venture. Food had to be available for survival. Time, after time, after painful time, fish proved to be the only reliable meal and the lakes and rivers were the only reliable larder. As David Thompson stopped at the post in Ile-a-la-Crosse, he wrote in his journal:
"On the evening of June 6th we arrived at the old trading post of Ile-a-la-Crosse, famous for its fine whitefish, which is a fish peculiar to the Northern Lakes in this Continent."
Famous already, and the year was only 1799. Listen now to the words of our people!
Scraping a Moose Hide - Metis Women
(Courtesy: Leo Belanger)
Tom is an eighty-six year old man, who is now a resident of Snake Lake.
"As far back as I can remember, I was about twelve years old, when we used to come to Sakitawak by dog sled. We used to come far to go to midnight Mass. We didn't use tents, we slept out in the open. There were only about three houses. We never used to have houses, just tepees. They didn't want to make houses. The people who lived in houses were called "house people". They couldn't believe we lived in tepees. Later, some old men started building houses until, finally, everybody had a house".
(Photo Courtesy: Ile-a-la-Crosse Mission)
"There was a small church. At times, it couldn't fit everybody because then, the people didn't die. Too many people used to come to church. We used to come here only for summer and for midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. There was only one priest. We used to get him to come for baptizing or to say Mass for the deceased. We used to have one big Mass in the big house".
"There used to be a school in the mission where they taught only French. I ran away from there. I went there in the fall and walked into the school. I never saw anyone, so I took off. I know this guy who was sent there, and today he knows how to read. If I had seen one person, then today I would be a good writer".
"About my grandparents . . . the men used to trap only. They never used to fish. Only the women did that. The women also got the wood. The men had to trap and hunt. the men had to have strong bodies in order to pull all their pelts and their belongings. We took the women along just to where we settled. When we used to move on, the women came along on snowshoes".
"The dogs were no good. The animals that carried our food and blankets were only pups. There were no sleds".
"Trapping was the only way of life. There was no other work. We used to trap only for beaver. At times it was poor. We used to chop the ice which was really thick, and put the traps under".
"We also used to keep baby foxes, which is called "hidden trapping". We used to build houses; put the baby foxes in them; feed them until they were old enough; hit them on top of the head. Their fur used to cost a lot. We used to dig the foxes out of their homes".
"Later, they started keeping wolves in packs. You could just hear them howling. Then they used to sneak up on them during feeding time. Those were doings of long ago. We also smoke fish which was the number one thing. We all used to gather and smoke fish in contests. Trapping was good. The price was low, but so was the cost of living".
"It was hard . . . life was. But today, you live like kings. Ever since you young people were born, life was easy. We never used to wear parkas, just thin coats. We adapted to the cold weather because of our diet which consisted of only meat and fish. We weren't cold, no matter if blizzard or the north wind. Although we used to freeze our faces. But now, I am making up for it. I don't lack anything because I get a pension. Life is easy now, but it was hard then".
Fred is a retired mink rancher and former trapper.
Fred Darbyshire At Poorfish Lake - 1927.
Fred and Nora Darbyshire - Reindeer Lake, 1945
"I've been around and passing through Ile-a-la-Crosse, oh, since about 1925. That would be just over 50 years. The town at that time wasn't very large. Mostly, there was a few shacks outside the mission. The Hudson's Bay store was the only building down in the lower village or "Snob Hill". I don't suppose there would be more than a hundred people that lived in Ile-a-la-Crosse, including the kids".
"There was a good deal more game in those days than there is at the present. So, most of us around Ile-a-la-Crosse spent our time hunting. There was no other work to be had anyway".
"There weren't so many forest fires in those days. By golly! It's funny eh? There's so many forest fires now".
"The Department of Natural Resources had a building right across the mouth of the Beaver River when I first came here. I was looking for the site not too long ago, but everything seems to have been obliterated. There is not a sign of anything left there. You could hardly find where the building used to be".
"We used to paddle. If there was a fair wind, we put up a sail. Nobody had any outboard motors. The first time I came up this lake, I came down from Souris. Souris is down on the Churchill River on the north end of Snake Lake. I came up the river to Ile-a-la-Crosse Lake on a Tuesday evening. The wind was blowing from the south. It took me until Saturday to reach the mouth of the Beaver River. I had no grub. That's how I remember going up to the DNR office that was there. I had supper with them, and I got grub from them".
(left) Ed Theriau, in a canoe rigged with a sail. . .
(right) Scow rigged with a sail.
Photographs courtesy: Public Archives of Canada,
PA 18051 and Fred Darbyshire.
Nap was born November 30th, 1915, at Sucker Point (Treaty Land).
He grew up in the area of Ile-a-la-Crosse.
"There was Samuel Mispounas. my great grandfather, my mother, and I. They were paddling as we went down the Churchill River until we got to Souris River. It wasn't a village, just a few people stayed there. We spent the winter there before moving on to the south end of Snake Lake. There, I remembered, the freighters came. It was the end of January. These freighters came in only once a year. They came in through Dore Lake, La Plonge Lake and across land to Pinehouse, from Big River. It was quite a distance. From Pinehouse, they followed Pinehouse Lake to the north end which was the Souris River".
Winter Freight 1946
(Photo Courtesy: Ile-a-la-Crosse Mission)
"Already, then, I had seen people making home brew. They used sugar, along with the rest. When they ran out of sugar, they used syrup. That meant they didn't have any sugar or syrup left throughout the year".
"When it was time to come back. my uncle, Abraham Mispounas, met us at Pinehouse. He was coming from Highrock Lake with his wife and child. There were no maps to follow. We had to go on the direction the river flows, and to follow the sun's directions. Coming down the river we only had muskrats to eat, and we were getting tired of eating the same thing over and over. Abraham killed an otter, for we wanted something fresh and new. But, to our surprise, no one could eat it. It had a strong taste and was tough. Next he killed a young calf (moose?) that was just born. Then we had jackfish. Abraham killed them by spearing them. The river was shallow since it was spring. Every curve of the river, we'd see porcupines sitting up in the willow trees. This was something else we ate. Finally we arrived at Patuanak".
"At Patuanak they paid in furs, for the goods they had taken early in the fall. This is the way most people made their payments. In the summer, each family was given about $200 worth of goods. The people made sure they made everything last. In June, the Indian Affairs agent came in to give the people a couple of things along with a $5 allowance to each person. Some of the things that they brought were gunpowder, shot, and empty shells and caps. For one net, they gave 3 rolls of twine. Also, they gave twine sideline and other strings to make a net".
"In the summer people didn't stay together. You would generally find two or three families living together for awhile in June and July. In August, they go in the bush for hunting, because the moose go into the bush in late August. The moose no longer stay in the water. When they killed a moose, they would clear a trail for the other people to come. They kept the meat long if they dried it well. Some chopped the dry meat until it was flaky."
"In August the bulls, and cows and calves are fat. When they killed these fat moose, they kept the fat in a bag - the bag where the moose has urine. They washed the bag out filled it with air, and kept it this way until it dried - a couple of days. When it was dried, they opened it to let the air out. The bag stayed the same. In this, they kept the fat along the back. This fat is always soft, it is never frozen or hardens. When they want to have a little lunch, they squeeze on this bag and the fat comes out onto the dry meat.".
"For soap to wash clothes, the livers of the catfish, the ashes of poplar wood, the duck's grease were used. To kill the ducks, people at times used arrows. Often ducks were caught in nets. Not everyone had enough shells to shoot ducks then. The soap was dark coloured. It was real soapy and didn't smell bad. It was all they used.".
"As I grew up, I saw people live in town, mostly older ones, or the ones with cattle and horses. They all had gardens then, about one acre each. They grew potatoes, carrots, turnips, corn, and cabbage. They had large families. They couldn't afford to move around".
Hudson's Bay Garden
PA 18068 Public Archives of Canada
"There was no stealing ever done then. People left anything anywhere. It was never taken. When a man came back he found everything. People were honest and fair with everything. Now if you even leave a car out on the road, you get it wrecked, lose parts off it, or even lose the whole thing. Same with a boat. Even a house out in the bush, your bound to lose something out of it".
"For Mass, especially during the Christmas season, people came up from as far as Cree Lake. These people didn't come for drinks, just for Mass. The odd person would take back a couple a couple of things when going back from relatives. The holy days were sacred to them. They had to come to church on these days. Now when the holy days come, people just take a holiday. They don't care for anyone anymore. They don't help each other. They don't have respect for others".
"I used to go to Patuanak with my mother who was Treaty. But I wasn't, for my father was a lost whiteman. So I couldn't even go to treaty school. She used to collect her $5 each year. Every few years, she used to get a Hudson's Bay blanket like everyone else. Also, three pounds of salt pork for each family, enough string for two nets, and two hooks. We used to take two days to paddle to Patuanak in a borrowed canoe".
"At twelve years of age, I started to trap. Once, I remember I went up north. I cannot remember the year. Harry MacDonald was here then. I went up the Haultain and Deer Rivers. We were trapping. There were men from Beauval and Green Lake. We trapped together, at times we used the same trapline. We couldn't expect a cheque from the government. Earning a dollar then meant a lot".
Nap Johnson worked for the Hudson's Bay as a clerk for a while. Later in the thirties he worked for the RCMP as a special constable. After the RCMP, he worked for the Department of Natural Resources as a patrolman until he got hurt in 1963. In 1968, he was a field man for the Department of Social Services. Today, he is a tourist outfitter and has a number of hand-built cabins on various northern lakes for his business. Also, he is presently a member of the local school board and has helped to acquire a new school for the children of the town of Ile-a-la-Crosse.