The Forest by Stewart Edward White
XV. On Woods Indians.
Far in the North dwell a people practically unknown to any but the fur-trader and the explorer. Our information as to Mokis, Sioux, Cheyennes Nez Perces, and indirectly many others, through the pages of Cooper, Parkman, and allied writers, is varied enough, so that our ideas of Indians are pretty well established. If we are romantic, we hark back to the past and invent fairy-tales with ourselves anent the Noble Red Man who has Passed Away. If we are severely practical, we take notice of filth, vice, plug-hats, tin cans, and laziness. In fact, we might divide all Indian concepts into two classes, following these mental and imaginative bents. Then we should have quite simply and satisfactorily the Cooper Indian and the Comic Paper Indian. It must be confessed that the latter is often approximated by reality--and everybody knows it. That the former is by no means a myth--at least in many qualities--the average reader might be pardoned for doubting.
Some time ago I desired to increase my knowledge of the Woods Indians by whatever others had accomplished. Accordingly I wrote to the Ethnological Department at Washington asking what had been done in regard to the Ojibways and Wood Crees north of Lake Superior. The answer was "nothing."
And "nothing" is more nearly a comprehensive answer than at first you might believe. Visitors at Mackinac, Traverse, Sault Ste. Marie, and other northern resorts are besought at certain times of the year by silent calico-dressed squaws to purchase basket and bark work. If the tourist happens to follow these women for more wholesale examination of their wares, he will be led to a double-ended Mackinaw-built sailing-craft with red-dyed sails, half pulled out on the beach. In the stern sit two or three bucks wearing shirts, jean trousers, and broad black hats. Some of the oldest men may sport a patched pair of moccasins or so, but most are conventional enough in clumsy shoes. After a longer or shorter stay they hoist their red sails and drift away toward some mysterious destination on the north shore. If the buyer is curious enough and persistent enough, he may elicit the fact that they are Ojibways.
Now, if this same tourist happens to possess a mildly venturesome disposition, a sailing-craft, and a chart of the region, he will sooner or later blunder across the dwelling-place of his silent vendors. At the foot of some rarely-frequented bay he will come on a diminutive village of small whitewashed log houses. It will differ from other villages in that the houses are arranged with no reference whatever to one another, but in the haphazard fashion of an encampment. Its inhabitants are his summer friends. If he is of an insinuating address, he may get a glimpse of their daily life. Then he will go away firmly convinced that he knows quite a lot about the North Woods Indian.
And so he does. But this North Woods Indian is the Reservation Indian. And in the North a Reservation Indian is as different from a Woods Indian as a negro is from a Chinese.
Suppose, on the other hand, your tourist is unfortunate enough to get left at some North Woods railway station where he has descended from the transcontinental to stretch his legs, and suppose him to have happened on a fur-town like Missinaibie at the precise time when the trappers are in from the wilds. Near the borders of the village he will come upon a little encampment of conical tepees. At his approach the women and children will disappear into inner darkness. A dozen wolf-like dogs will rush out barking. Grave-faced men will respond silently to his salutation.
These men, he will be interested to observe, wear still the deer or moose skin moccasin--the lightest and easiest foot-gear for the woods; bind their long hair with a narrow fillet, and their waists with a red or striped worsted sash; keep warm under the blanket thickness of a Hudson Bay capote; and deck their clothes with a variety of barbaric ornament. He will see about camp weapons whose acquaintance he has made only in museums, peltries of whose identification he is by no means sure, and as matters of daily use--snow-shoes, bark canoes, bows and arrows--what to him have been articles of ornament or curiosity. To-morrow these people will be gone for another year, carrying with them the results of the week's barter. Neither he nor his kind will see them again, unless they too journey far into the Silent Places. But he has caught a glimpse of the stolid mask of the Woods Indian, concerning whom officially "nothing" is known.
In many respects the Woods Indian is the legitimate descendant of the Cooper Indian. His life is led entirely in the forests; his subsistence is assured by hunting, fishing, and trapping; his dwelling is the wigwam, and his habitation the wide reaches of the wilderness lying between Lake Superior and the Hudson Bay; his relation to humanity confined to intercourse with his own people and acquaintance with the men who barter for his peltries. So his dependence is not on the world the white man has brought, but on himself and his natural environment. Civilization has merely ornamented his ancient manner. It has given him the convenience of cloth, of firearms, of steel traps, of iron kettles, of matches; it has accustomed him to the luxuries of white sugar--though he had always his own maple product--tea, flour, and white man's tobacco. That is about all. He knows nothing of whisky. The towns are never visited by him, and the Hudson's Bay Company will sell him no liquor. His concern with you is not great, for he has little to gain from you.
This people, then, depending on natural resources for subsistence, has retained to a great extent the qualities of the early aborigines.
To begin with, it is distinctly nomadic. The great rolls of birch bark to cover the pointed tepees are easily transported in the bottoms of canoes, and the poles are quickly cut and put in place. As a consequence, the Ojibway family is always on the move. It searches out new trapping-grounds, new fisheries, it pays visits, it seems even to enjoy travel for the sake of exploration. In winter a tepee of double wall is built, whose hollow is stuffed with moss to keep out the cold; but even that approximation of permanence cannot stand against the slightest convenience. When an Indian kills, often he does not transport his game to camp, but moves his camp to the vicinity of the carcass. There are of these woods dwellers no villages, no permanent clearings. The vicinity of a Hudson's Bay post is sometimes occupied for a month or so during the summer, but that is all.
An obvious corollary of this is that tribal life does not consistently obtain. Throughout the summer months, when game and fur are at their poorest, the bands assemble, probably at the times of barter with the traders. Then for the short period of the idling season they drift together up and down the North Country streams, or camp for big pow-wows and conjuring near some pleasant conflux of rivers. But when the first frosts nip the leaves, the families separate to their allotted trapping districts, there to spend the winter in pursuit of the real business of life.
The tribe is thus split into many groups, ranging in numbers from the solitary trapper, eager to win enough fur to buy him a wife, to a compact little group of three or four families closely related in blood. The most striking consequence is that, unlike other Indian bodies politic, there are no regularly constituted and acknowledged chiefs. Certain individuals gain a remarkable reputation and an equally remarkable respect for wisdom, or hunting skill, or power of woodcraft, or travel. These men are the so-called "old men" often mentioned in Indian manifestoes, though age has nothing to do with the deference accorded them. Tawabinisay is not more than thirty-five years old; Peter, our Hudson Bay Indian, is hardly more than a boy. Yet both are obeyed implicitly by whomever they happen to be with; both lead the way by river or trail; and both, where question arises, are sought in advice by men old enough to be their fathers. Perhaps this is as good a democracy as another.
The life so briefly hinted at in the foregoing lines inevitably develops and fosters an expertness of woodcraft almost beyond belief. The Ojibway knows his environment. The forest is to him so familiar in each and every one of its numerous and subtle aspects that the slightest departure from the normal strikes his attention at once. A patch of brown shadow where green shadow should fall, a shimmering of leaves where should be merely a gentle waving, a cross-light where the usual forest growth should adumbrate, a flash of wings at a time of day when feathered creatures ordinarily rest quiet--these, and hundreds of others which you and I should never even guess at, force themselves as glaringly on an Indian's notice as a brass band in a city street. A white man looks for game; an Indian sees it because it differs from the forest.
That is, of course, a matter of long experience and lifetime habit. Were it a question merely of this, the white man might also in time attain the same skill. But the Indian is a better animal. His senses are appreciably sharper than our own.
In journeying down the Kapuskasing River, our Indians--who had come from the woods to guide us--always saw game long before we did. They would never point it out to us. The bow of the canoe would swing silently in its direction, there to rest motionless until we indicated we had seen something.
"Where is it, Peter?" I would whisper.
But Peter always remained contemptuously silent.
One evening we paddled directly into the eye of the setting sun across a shallow little lake filled with hardly sunken boulders. There was no current, and no breath of wind to stir the water into betraying riffles. But invariably those Indians twisted the canoe into a new course ten feet before we reached one of the obstructions, whose existence our dazzled vision could not attest until they were actually below us. They saw those rocks, through the shimmer of the surface glare.
Another time I discovered a small black animal lying flat on a point of shale. Its head was concealed behind a boulder, and it was so far away that I was inclined to congratulate myself on having differentiated it from the shadow.
"What is it, Peter?" I asked.
Peter hardly glanced at it.
"Ninny-moosh" (dog), he replied.
Now we were a hundred miles south of the Hudson's Bay post, and two weeks north of any other settlement. Saving a horse, a dog would be about the last thing to occur to one in guessing at the identity of any strange animal. This looked like a little black blotch, without form. Yet Peter knew it. It was a dog, lost from some Indian hunting-party, and mightily glad to see us.
The sense of smell, too, is developed to an extent positively uncanny to us who have needed it so little. Your Woods Indian is always sniffing, always testing the impressions of other senses by his olfactories. Instances numerous and varied might be cited, but probably one will do as well as a dozen. It once became desirable to kill a caribou in country where the animals are not at all abundant. Tawabinisay volunteered to take Jim within shot of one. Jim describes their hunt as the most wonderful bit of stalking he had ever seen. The Indian followed the animal's tracks as easily as you or I could have followed them over snow. He did this rapidly and certainly. Every once in a while he would get down on all fours to sniff inquiringly at the crushed herbage. Always on rising to his feet he would give the result of his investigations. "Ah-teek [caribou] one hour."
And later, "Ah-teek half hour."
Or again, "Ah-teek quarter hour."
And finally, "Ah-teek over nex' hill."
And it was so.
In like manner, but most remarkable to us because the test of direct comparison with our own sense was permitted us, was their acuteness of hearing. Often while "jumping" a roaring rapids in two canoes, my companion and I have heard our men talking to each other in quite an ordinary tone of voice. That is to say, I could hear my Indian, and Jim could hear his; but personally we were forced to shout loudly to carry across the noise of the stream. The distant approach of animals they announce accurately.
"Wawashkeshi" (deer), says Peter.
And sure enough, after an interval, we too could distinguish the footfalls on the dry leaves.
As both cause and consequence of these physical endowments--which place them nearly on a parity with the game itself--they are most expert hunters. Every sportsman knows the importance--and also the difficulty--of discovering game before it discovers him. The Indian has here an immense advantage. And after game is discovered, he is furthermore most expert in approaching it with all the refined art of the still hunter.
Mr. Caspar Whitney describes in exasperation his experience with the Indians of the Far North-West. He complains that when they blunder on game they drop everything and enter into almost hopeless chase, two legs against four. Occasionally the quarry becomes enough bewildered so that the wild shooting will bring it down. He quite justly argues that the merest pretence at caution in approach would result in much greater success.
The Woods Indian is no such fool. He is a mighty poor shot--and he knows it. Personally I believe he shuts both eyes before pulling trigger. He is armed with a long flint or percussion lock musket, whose gas-pipe barrel is bound to the wood that runs its entire length by means of brass bands, and whose effective range must be about ten yards. This archaic implement is known as a "trade gun" and has the single merit of never getting out of order. Furthermore ammunition is precious. In consequence, the wilderness hunter is not going to be merely pretty sure; he intends to be absolutely certain. If he cannot approach near enough to blow a hole in his prey, he does not fire.
I have seen Peter drop into marsh-grass so thin that apparently we could discern the surface of the ground through it, and disappear so completely that our most earnest attention could not distinguish even a rustling of the herbage. After an interval his gun would go off from some distant point, exactly where some ducks had been feeding serenely oblivious to fate. Neither of us white men would have considered for a moment the possibility of getting any of them. Once I felt rather proud of myself for killing six ruffed grouse out of some trees with the pistol, until Peter drifted in carrying three he had bagged with a stick.
Another interesting phase of this almost perfect correspondence to environment is the readiness with which an Indian will meet an emergency. We are accustomed to rely first of all on the skilled labour of some one we can hire; second, if we undertake the job ourselves, on the tools made for us by skilled labour; and third, on the shops to supply us with the materials we may need. Not once in a lifetime are we thrown entirely on our own resources. Then we improvise bunglingly a makeshift.
The Woods Indian possesses his knife and his light axe. Nails, planes, glue, chisels, vices, cord, rope, and all the rest of it he has to do without. But he never improvises makeshifts. No matter what the exigency or how complicated the demand, his experience answers with accuracy.
Utensils and tools he knows exactly where to find. His job is neat and workmanlike, whether it is a bark receptacle--water-tight or not--a pair of snow-shoes, the repairing of a badly-smashed canoe, the construction of a shelter, or the fashioning of a paddle. About noon one day Tawabinisay broke his axe-helve square off. This to us would have been a serious affair. Probably we should, left to ourselves, have stuck in some sort of a rough straight sapling handle which would have answered well enough until we could have bought another. By the time we had cooked dinner that Indian had fashioned another helve. We compared it with the store article. It was as well shaped, as smooth, as nicely balanced. In fact, as we laid the new and the old side by side, we could not have selected, from any evidence of the workmanship, which had been made by machine and which by hand. Tawabinisay then burned out the wood from the axe, retempered the steel, set the new helve, and wedged it neatly with ironwood wedges. The whole affair, including the cutting of the timber, consumed perhaps half an hour.
To travel with a Woods Indian is a constant source of delight on this account. So many little things that the white man does without, because he will not bother with their transportation, the Indian makes for himself. And so quickly and easily! I have seen a thoroughly waterproof, commodious, and comfortable bark shelter made in about the time it would take one to pitch a tent. I have seen a raft built of cedar logs and cedar bark ropes in an hour. I have seen a badly-stove canoe made as good as new in fifteen minutes. The Indian rarely needs to hunt for the materials he requires. He knows exactly where they grow, and he turns as directly to them as a clerk would turn to his shelves. No problem of the living of physical life is too obscure to have escaped his varied experience. You may travel with Indians for years, and learn something new and delightful as to how to take care of yourself every summer.
The qualities I have mentioned come primarily from the fact that the Woods Indian is a hunter. I have now to instance two whose development can be traced to the other fact--that he is a nomad. I refer to his skill with the bark canoe and his ability to carry.
I was once introduced to a man at a little way station of the Canadian Pacific Railway in the following words:--
"Shake hands with Munson; he's as good a canoeman as an Indian."
A little later one of the bystanders remarked to me:--
"That fellow you was just talking with is as good a canoeman as an Injun."
Still later, at an entirely different place, a member of the bar informed me, in the course of discussion:--
"The only man I know of who can do it is named Munson. He is as good a canoeman as an Indian."
At the time this unanimity of praise puzzled me a little. I thought I had seen some pretty good canoe work, and even cherished a mild conceit that occasionally I could keep right side up myself. I knew Munson to be a great woods-traveller, with many striking qualities, and why this of canoemanship should be so insistently chosen above the others was beyond my comprehension. Subsequently a companion and I journeyed to Hudson Bay with two birch canoes and two Indians. Since that trip I have had a vast respect for Munson.
Undoubtedly among the half-breed and white guides of Lower Canada, Maine, and the Adirondacks are many skilful men. But they know their waters; they follow a beaten track. The Woods Indian--well, let me tell you something of what he does.
We went down the Kapuskasing River to the Mattagami, and then down that to the Moose. These rivers are at first but a hundred feet or so wide, but rapidly swell with the influx of numberless smaller streams. Two days' journey brings you to a watercourse nearly half a mile in breadth; two weeks finds you on a surface approximately a mile and a half across. All this water descends from the Height of Land to the sea level. It does so through a rock country. The result is a series of roaring, dashing boulder rapids and waterfalls that would make your hair stand on end merely to contemplate from the banks.
The regular route to Moose Factory is by the Missinaibie. Our way was new and strange. No trails; no knowledge of the country. When we came to a stretch of white water, the Indians would rise to their feet for a single instant's searching examination of the stretch of tumbled water before them. In that moment they picked the passage they were to follow as well as a white man could have done so in half an hour's study. Then without hesitation they shot their little craft at the green water.
From that time we merely tried to sit still, each in his canoe. Each Indian did it all with his single paddle. He seemed to possess absolute control over his craft.
Even in the rush of water which seemed to hurry us on at almost railroad speed, he could stop for an instant, work directly sideways, shoot forward at a slant, swing either his bow or his stern. An error in judgment or in the instantaneous acting upon it meant a hit; and a hit in these savage North Country Rivers meant destruction. How my man kept in his mind the passage he had planned during his momentary inspection was always to me a miracle. How he got so unruly a beast as the birch canoe to follow it in that tearing volume of water was always another. Big boulders he dodged, eddies he took advantage of, slants of current he utilized. A fractional second of hesitation could not be permitted him. But always the clutching of white hands from the rip at the eddy finally conveyed to my spray-drenched faculties that the rapid was safely astern. And this, mind you, in strange waters.
Occasionally we would carry our outfit through the woods, while the Indians would shoot some especially bad water in the light canoe. As a spectacle nothing could be finer. The flash of the yellow bark, the movement of the broken waters, the gleam of the paddle, the tense alertness of the men's figures, their carven, passive faces, with the contrast of the flashing eyes and the distended nostrils, then the leap into space over some half-cataract, the smash of spray, the exultant yells of the canoemen! For your Indian enjoys the game thoroughly. And it requires very bad water indeed to make him take to the brush.
This is, of course, the spectacular. But also in the ordinary gray business of canoe travel the Woods Indian shows his superiority. He is tireless, and composed as to wrist and shoulder of a number of whale-bone springs. From early dawn to dewy eve, and then a few gratuitous hours into the night, he will dig energetic holes in the water with his long, narrow blade. And every stroke counts. The water boils out in a splotch of white air-bubbles, the little suction holes pirouette like dancing-girls, the fabric of the craft itself trembles under the power of the stroke. Jim and I used, in the lake stretches, to amuse ourselves--and probably the Indians--by paddling in furious rivalry one against the other. Then Peter would make up his mind he would like to speak to Jacob. His canoe would shoot up alongside as though the Old Man of the Lake had laid his hand across its stern. Would I could catch that trick of easy, tireless speed! I know it lies somewhat in keeping both elbows always straight and stiff, in a lurch forward of the shoulders at the end of the stroke. But that, and more! Perhaps one needs a copper skin and beady black eyes with surface lights.
Nor need you hope to pole a canoe upstream as do these people. Tawabinisay uses two short poles, one in either hand, kneels amidships, and snakes that little old canoe of his upstream so fast that you would swear the rapids an easy matter--until you tried them yourself. We were once trailed up a river by an old Woods Indian and his interesting family. The outfit consisted of canoe Number One--item, one old Injin, one boy of eight years, one dog; canoe Number Two--item, one old Injin squaw, one girl of eighteen or twenty, one dog; canoe Number Three--item, two little girls of ten and twelve, one dog. We tried desperately for three days to get away from this party. It did not seem to work hard at all. We did. Even the two little girls appeared to dip the contemplative paddle from time to time. Water boiled back of our own blades. We started early and quit late, and about as we congratulated ourselves over our evening fire that we had distanced our followers at last, those three canoes would steal silently and calmly about the lower bend to draw ashore below us. In ten minutes the old Indian was delivering an oration to us, squatted in resignation.
The Red Gods alone know what he talked about. He had no English, and our Ojibway was of the strictly utilitarian. But for an hour he would hold forth. We called him Talk-in-the-Face, the Great Indian Chief. Then he would drop a mild hint for saymon, which means tobacco, and depart. By ten o'clock the next morning he and his people would overtake us in spite of our earlier start. Usually we were in the act of dragging our canoe through an especially vicious rapid by means of a tow-line. Their three canoes, even to the children's, would ascend easily by means of poles. Tow-lines appeared to be unsportsmanlike--like angle-worms. Then the entire nine--including the dogs--would roost on rocks and watch critically our methods.
The incident had one value, however: it showed us just why these people possess the marvellous canoe skill I have attempted to sketch. The little boy in the leading canoe was not over eight or nine years of age, but he had his little paddle and his little canoe-pole, and, what is more, he already used them intelligently and well. As for the little girls--well, they did easily feats I never hope to emulate, and that without removing the cowl-like coverings from their heads and shoulders.
The same early habitude probably accounts for their ability to carry weights long distances. The Woods Indian is not a mighty man physically. Most of them are straight and well built, but of only medium height, and not wonderfully muscled. Peter was most beautiful, but in the fashion of the flying Mercury, with long smooth panther muscles. He looked like Uncas, especially when his keen hawk-face was fixed in distant attention. But I think I could have wrestled Peter down. Yet time and again I have seen that Indian carry two hundred pounds for some miles through a rough country absolutely without trails. And once I was witness of a feat of Tawabinisay, when that wily savage portaged a pack of fifty pounds and a two-man canoe through a hill country for four hours and ten minutes without a rest. Tawabinisay is even smaller than Peter.
So much for the qualities developed by the woods life. Let us now examine what may be described as the inherent characteristics of the people.