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The Half-Breed Scrip Commission.

The adjustment with the half-breeds depended, of course, upon a successful treaty with the Indians, and, this having been concluded, the latter at once, upon receipt of their payments, left for their forests and fisheries, leaving the half-breeds in full possession of the field.

It was estimated that over a hundred families were encamped around us, some in tepees, some in tents, and some in the open air, the willow copses to the north affording shelter, as well, to a few doubtful members of Slave Lake society, and to at least a thousand dogs. The “scrip tent,” as it was called, a large marquee fitted up as an office, had been pitched with the other tents when the camp was made, and in this the half-breeds held a crowded meeting to talk over the terms, and to collate their own opinions as to the form of scrip issue they most desired. In this they were singularly unanimous, and, in spite of advice to the contrary urged upon them in the strongest manner by Father Lacombe, they agreed upon “the bird in the hand” viz., upon cash scrip or nothing. This could be readily turned into money, for in the train of traders, etc., who followed up the treaty payments, there were also buyers from Winnipeg and Edmonton, well supplied with cash, to purchase all the scrip that offered, at a great reduction, of course, from face value. Whether the half-breeds were wise or foolish it is needless to say. One thing was plain, they had made up their minds. Under the circumstances it was impossible to gainsay their assertion that they were the best judges of their own needs. All preliminaries having at last been settled, the taking of declarations and evidence began on the 23rd of June, and, shortly afterwards, the issue of convertible scrip certificates, or scrip certificates for land as required, took place to the parties who had proved their title.

This was a slow process, involving in every case a careful search of the five elephant folios containing the records of the bygone issues of scrip in Manitoba and the organized Territories.

It was necessary in order to prevent the issue of scrip to parties who had already received it elsewhere. But to the credit of the Lesser Slave Lake community, few efforts were made to “come in” again, not one in fact which was a clear attempt at fraud, or which could not be accounted for by false agency. Indeed, a high tribute might well be paid here to the honesty, not only of this but of all the communities, both Indian and half-breed, throughout these remote territories. We found valuable property exposed, everywhere, evidently without fear of theft. There was a looser feeling regarding debts to traders, which we were told were sometimes ignored, partly, perhaps, owing to the traders’ heavy profits, but mainly through failure in the hunt and a lack of means. But theft such as white men practice was a puzzle to these people, amongst whom it was unknown.

The most noticeable feature of the scrip issue was the never-ending stream of applicants, a surprising evidence of the growth of population in this remote wilderness. Its most interesting feature lay in the peculiarities and manners of the people themselves. They were unquestionably half-breeds, and had received Christian names, and most of them had houses of their own, and, though hunters, fishermen and trippers, their families lived comparatively settled lives. Yet the glorious instinct of the Indian haunted them. As a rule they had been born on the “pitching-track,” in the forest, or on the prairies in all sorts of places, they could not say exactly where and when they were born was often a matter of doubt as well. [With reference to these nondescript birthplaces, the wonderful ease of parturition among Indian women may be referred to here. This is common, probably, to all primitive races, but is perhaps more marked amongst Indian mothers than any other. The event may happen in a canoe, on the trail, at any place, or at any moment, without hindering the ordinary progress of a travelling party, which is generally overtaken by the mother in a few hours. But nothing I heard here equalled in grotesque circumstances occurrences, whose truth I can vouch for, many years ago on the Saskatchewan River. In 1874, if I remember aright, a great spring freshet in the North Branch was accompanied by a tremendous ice-jam, which backed the water up, and flooded the river bank so suddenly that many Indians were drowned. On an island below Prince Albert, a woman, to save her life, had to climb a neighbouring tree, and gave birth to a child amongst the branches. The jam broke, and, wonderful to say, both mother and child got down to firm ground alive. Another case, even more gruesome, happened on the Lower Saskatchewan not so many years ago. A woman and her husband were hastening on snowshoes from their winter camp to the river, in order to share in the usual Christmas bounty and festivities at the Hudson’s Bay Company’s post. The woman was seized with incipient labour, and darting from her husband, with whom she had been quarrelling on the way, pushed on, and, in a frozen marsh, amongst bulrushes, on a bitterly cold night, was delivered of a child. Grumous as she was, she picked herself up, and, with incredible nerve, walked ten miles to the Pas, carrying her live infant with her, wrapped in a rabbit-skin robe.] It was not in February, but in Meeksuo pesim, “The month when the eagles return”; not in August, but in Oghpaho pesim, “The month when birds begin to fly.” When called upon they could give their Christian names and answer to William or Magloire, to Mary or Madaline, but, in spite of priest or parson, their home name was a Cree one. In many cases the white forefather’s name had been dropped or forgotten, and a Cree surname had taken its place, as, for example, in the name Louis Maskegosis, or Madeline Nooskeyah. Some of the Cree names were in their meaning simply grotesque. Mishoostiquan meant “The man who stands with the red hair”; Waupunekapow, “He who stands till morning.” One of the applicants was Kanawatchaguayo, or “The ghost-keeper.”

[It may be mentioned here that this half-breed’s “inner” name, so to speak, meant “The Ghost-Keeper,” for the name he gave, following an Indian usage, was not the real one. Kanawatchaguayo was the one given by the interpreter, but accompanied by the translation of the inner name, to wit, “The Ghost-Keeper.” This curious custom is more fully referred to in a forthcoming work on Indian folk-lore, traditions, legends, usages, methods and manner of life, etc., by Mrs. F. H. Paget, of Ottawa. This lady is an expert Cree scholar, and her work, which I have had the pleasure of hearing her read, is the result of diligent research and of ample knowledge of Indian life and character.]

But others were strikingly poetical, particularly the female names. Payucko geesigo, “One in the Skies”; Pesawakoona kapesisk, “The silent snow in falling forming signs or symbols”; Matyatse wunoguayo, or rather, for this is a doubtful name, Powastia ka nunaghquanetungh, “Listener to the unseen rapids”; Kese koo apeoo, “She sits in heaven,” were all the names of applicants for scrips, and many others could be added of like tenor. In a word, the Christian or baptismal names have not displaced the native ones, as they did in Wales and elsewhere, and amongst some of our far Eastern Indians. But there were terrifying and repulsive names as well, such as Sese kenapik kaow apeoo, “She sits like a rattle-snake”; and one individual rejoiced in the appalling surname of “Grand Bastard.” These instances serve to illustrate the tendency of half-breed nomenclature at the lake towards the mother’s side. Here, too, there was no reserve in giving the family name; it was given at once when asked for, and there was no shyness otherwise in demeanour. There was a readiness, for example, to be photographed which was quite distinctive. In this connection it may interest the reader to recall some of the names of girls given by the same race thousands of miles away in the East. Take those recorded by Mrs. Jameson ["Winter Studies and Summer Rambles,” 1835.] during her visit to Mrs. McMurray and the Schoolcrafts, on the Island of Mackinac, over seventy years ago: Oba baumwawa geezegoquay, “The Sounds which the stars make rushing through the skies”; Zaga see goquay, “Sunbeams breaking through a cloud”; Wahsagewanoquay, “Woman of the bright foam.” The people so far apart, yet their home names so similarly figurative! The education of the Red Indian lies in his intimate contact with nature in all her phases a good education truly, which serves him well. But, awe-struck always by the mysterious beauty of the world around him, his mind reflects it instinctively in his Nature-worship and his system of names.

In speaking of the “Lakers” I refer, of course, to the primitive people of the region, and not to half-breed incomers from Manitoba or elsewhere. There were a few patriarchal families into which all the others seemed to dovetail in some shape or form. The Nooskeyah family was one of these, also the Gladu, the Cowitoreille, [A corruption, no doubt, of “Courtoreille.”] and the Calahaisen. The collateral branches of these families constituted the main portion of the native population, and yet inbreeding did not seem to have deteriorated the stock, for a healthier-looking lot of young men, women and children it would be hard to find, or one more free from scrofula. There were instances, too, among these people, of extreme old age; one in particular which from confirmatory evidence, particularly the declarations of descendants, seemed quite authentic. This was a woman called Catherine Bisson the daughter of Baptiste Bisson and an Indian woman called Iskwao who was born on New Year’s Day, 1793, at Lesser Slave Lake, and had spent all her life there since. She had a numerous progeny which she bore to Kisiskakapo, “The man who stands still.” She was now blind, and was partly led, partly carried into our tent a small, thin, wizened woman, with keen features and a tongue as keen, which cackled and joked at a great rate with the crowd around her. It was almost awesome to look at this weird piece of antiquity, who was born in the Reign of Terror, and was a young woman before the war of 1812. She was quite lively yet, so far as her wits went, and seemed likely to go on living. [This very old woman died, I believe, at Lesser Slave Lake only last spring (1908). The date of her birth was correct, and we had good reason to believe it, she must have been far over 100 years old when she died.]

There were many good points in the disposition of the “Lakers” generally, both young and old. Their kindness and courtesy to strangers and to each other was marked, and profanity was unknown. Indeed, if one heard bad language at all it was from the lips of some Yankee or Canadian teamster, airing his superior knowledge of the world amongst the natives.

The place, in fact, surprised one no end of buggies, buckboards and saddles, and brightly dressed women, after a not altogether antique fashion; the men, too, orderly, civil, and obliging. Infants were generally tucked into the comfortable moss-bag, but boys three or four years old were seen tugging at their mothers’ breasts, and all fat and generally good-looking. The whole community seemed well fed, and were certainly well clad some girls extravagantly so, the love of finery being the ruling trait here as elsewhere. One lost, indeed, all sense of remoteness, there was such a well-to-do, familiar air about the scene, and such a bustle of clean-looking people. How all this could be supported by fur it was difficult to see, but it must have been so, for there was, as yet, little or no farming amongst the old “Lakers.” It was, of course, a great fur country, and though the fur-bearing animals were sensibly diminishing, yet the prices of peltries had risen by competition, whilst supplies had been correspondingly cheapened. It was a good marten country, and, as this fur was the fad of fashion, and brought an extravagant price, the animal, like the beaver, was threatened with extinction, the more so as the rabbits were then in their period of scarcity.

There were other aspects of Lake life which there is neither space nor inclination to describe. If some features of “advanced civilization” had been anticipated there, it was simply another proof that extremes meet.

Whatever else was hidden, however, there was one thing omnipresent, namely, the mongrel dog. It was hopeless to explore the origin of an animal which seemed to draw from all sources, including the wolf and fox, and whose appetite stopped at nothing, but attacked old shirts, trousers, dunnage-bags, fry-pans, and even the outfit of a geologist, to appease the sacred rage of hunger.

It was believed that over a thousand of these dogs, mainly used in winter to haul fish, surrounded our tent, and when it is said that an ordinary half-breed family harboured from fifteen to twenty of the tribe, there is no exaggeration in the estimate. They were of all shapes, sizes and colours, and, though very civil to man, from whom they got nothing but kicks and stones, they kept up a constant row amongst themselves.

To see a scrimmage of fifty or sixty of them on land or in the water, where they went daily to fish, was a scene to be remembered. They did not bark, but loped through the woods, which were the camp’s latrines, as scavengers by day, and howled in unison at regular intervals by night; for there was a sort of horrible harmony in the performance, and when the tom-toms of the gamblers accompanied it on all sides, and the pounding of dancers’ feet for in this enchanted land nobody ever seemed to go to bed the saturnalia was complete.

It was indeed a gala time for the happy-go-lucky Lakers, and the effects of the issue and sale of scrip certificates were soon manifest in our neighbourhood. The traders’ booths were thronged with purchasers, also the refreshment tents where cigars and ginger ale were sold; and, in tepees improvised from aspen saplings, the sporting element passed the night at some interesting but easy way of losing money, illuminating their game with guttering candles, minus candlesticks, and presenting a picture worthy of an impressionist’s pencil.

But the two dancing floors were the chief attraction. These also had been walled and roofed with leafy saplings, their fronts open to the air, and, thronged as they generally were, well repaid a visit. Here the comely brunettes, in moccasins or slippers, their luxuriant hair falling in a braided queue behind their backs, served not only as tireless partners, but as foils to the young men, who were one and all consummate masters of step-dancing, an art which, I am glad to say, was still in vogue in these remote parts. “French-fours” and the immortal “Red River Jig” were repeated again and again, and, though a tall and handsome young half-breed, who had learned in Edmonton, probably, the airs and graces of the polite world, introduced cotillions and gave “the calls” with vigorous precision, yet his efforts were not thoroughly successful. Snarls arose, and knots and confusion, which he did his best to undo. But it was evident that the hearts of the dancers were not in it. No sooner was the fiddler heard lowering his strings for the time-honoured “Jig” than eyes brightened, and feet began to beat the floor, including, of course, those of the fiddler himself, who put his whole soul into that weird and wonderful melody, whose fantastic glee is so strangely blended with an indescribable master-note of sadness. The dance itself is nothing; it might as well be called a Rigadoon or a Sailor’s Hornpipe, so far as the steps go. The tune is everything; it is amongst the immortals. Who composed it? Did it come from Normandy, the ancestral home of so many French Canadians and of French Canadian song? Or did some lonely but inspired voyageur, on the banks of Red River, sighing for Detroit or Trois Rivières for the joys and sorrows of home give birth to its mingled chords in the far, wild past?

As I looked on, many memories recurred to me of scenes like this in which I had myself taken part in bygone days Eheu! fugaces in old Red River and the Saskatchewan; and, with these in my heart, I retired to my tent, and gradually fell asleep to the monotonous sound of the familiar yet inexplicable air.