The Forest by Stewart Edward White
XVI. On Woods Indians (continued).
It must be understood, of course, that I offer you only the best of my subject. A people counts for what it does well. Also I instance men of standing in the loose Indian body politic. A traveller can easily discover the reverse of the medal. These have their shirks, their do-nothings, their men of small account, just as do other races. I have no thought of glorifying the noble red man, nor of claiming for him a freedom from human imperfection--even where his natural quality and training count the most--greater than enlightenment has been able to reach.
In my experience the honesty of the Woods Indian is of a very high order. The sense of mine and thine is strongly forced by the exigencies of the North Woods life. A man is always on the move; he is always exploring the unknown countries. Manifestly it is impossible for him to transport the entire sum of his worldly effects. The implements of winter are a burden in summer. Also the return journey from distant shores must be provided for by food-stations, to be relied on. The solution of these needs is the cache.
And the cache is not a literal term at all. It conceals nothing. Rather does it hold aloft in long-legged prominence, for the inspection of all who pass, what the owner has seen fit to leave behind. A heavy platform high enough from the ground to frustrate the investigations of animals is all that is required. Visual concealment is unnecessary, because in the North Country a cache is sacred. On it may depend the life of a man. He who leaves provisions must find them on his return, for he may reach them starving, and the length of his out-journey may depend on his certainty of relief at this point on his in-journey. So men passing touch not his hoard, for some day they may be in the same fix, and a precedent is a bad thing.
Thus in parts of the wildest countries of northern Canada I have unexpectedly come upon a birch canoe in capsized suspension between two trees; or a whole bunch of snow-shoes depending fruit-like beneath the fans of a spruce; or a tangle of steel traps thrust into the crevice of a tree-root; or a supply of pork and flour, swathed like an Egyptian mummy, occupying stately a high bier. These things we have passed by reverently, as symbols of a people's trust in its kind.
The same sort of honesty holds in regard to smaller things. I have never hesitated to leave in my camp firearms, fishing-rods, utensils valuable from a woods point of view, even a watch or money. Not only have I never lost anything in that manner, but once an Indian lad followed me some miles after the morning's start to restore to me a half-dozen trout flies I had accidentally left behind.
It might be readily inferred that this quality carries over into the subtleties, as indeed is the case. Mr. MacDonald of Brunswick House once discussed with me the system of credits carried on by the Hudson's Bay Company with the trappers. Each family is advanced goods to the value of two hundred dollars, with the understanding that the debt is to be paid from the season's catch.
"I should think you would lose a good deal," I ventured. "Nothing could be easier than for an Indian to take his two hundred dollars' worth and disappear in the woods. You'd never be able to find him."
Mr. MacDonald's reply struck me, for the man had twenty years' trading experience.
"I have never," said he, "in a long woods life known but one Indian liar."
This my own limited woods-wandering has proved to be true to a sometimes almost ridiculous extent. The most trivial statement of fact can be relied on, provided it is given outside of trade or enmity or absolute indifference. The Indian loves to fool the tenderfoot. But a sober, measured statement you can conclude is accurate. And if an Indian promises a thing, he will accomplish it. He expects you to do the same. Watch your lightest words carefully and you would retain the respect of your red associates.
On our way to the Hudson Bay we rashly asked Peter, towards the last, when we should reach Moose Factory. He deliberated.
"T'ursday," said he.
Things went wrong; Thursday supplied a head wind. We had absolutely no interest in reaching Moose Factory next day; the next week would have done as well. But Peter, deaf to expostulation, entreaty, and command, kept us travelling from six in the morning until after twelve at night. We couldn't get him to stop. Finally he drew the canoes ashore.
"Moose-amik quarter hour," said he.
He had kept his word.
The Ojibway possesses a great pride which the unthinking can ruffle quite unconsciously in many ways. Consequently the Woods Indian is variously described as a good guide or a bad one. The difference lies in whether you suggest or command.
"Peter, you've got to make Chicawgun to-night. Get a move on you!" will bring you sullen service, and probably breed kicks on the grub supply, which is the immediate precursor of mutiny.
"Peter, it's a long way to Chicawgun. Do you think we make him to-night?" on the other hand, will earn you at least a serious consideration of the question. And if Peter says you can, you will.
For the proper man the Ojibway takes a great pride in his woodcraft, the neatness of his camps, the savoury quality of his cookery, the expedition of his travel, the size of his packs, the patience of his endurance. On the other hand, he can be as sullen, inefficient, stupid, and vindictive as any man of any race on earth. I suppose the faculty of getting along with men is largely inherent. Certainly it is blended of many subtleties. To be friendly, to retain respect, to praise, to preserve authority, to direct and yet to leave detail, to exact what is due, and yet to deserve it--these be the qualities of a leader, and cannot be taught.
In general the Woods Indian is sober. He cannot get whisky regularly, to be sure, but I have often seen the better class of Ojibways refuse a drink, saying that they did not care for it. He starves well, and keeps going on nothing long after hope is vanished. He is patient--yea, very patient--under toil, and so accomplishes great journeys, overcomes great difficulties, and does great deeds by means of this handmaiden of genius. According to his own standards is he clean. To be sure his baths are not numerous, nor his laundry-days many, but he never cooks until he has washed his hands and arms to the very shoulders. Other details would but corroborate the impression of this instance--that his ideas differ from ours, as is his right, but that he lives up to his ideas. Also is he hospitable, expecting nothing in return. After your canoe is afloat and your paddle in the river, two or three of his youngsters will splash in after you to toss silver fish to your necessities. And so always he will wait until this last moment of departure, in order that you will not feel called on to give him something in return. Which is true tact and kindliness, and worthy of high praise.
Perhaps I have not strongly enough insisted that the Indian nations differ as widely from one another as do unallied races. We found this to be true even in the comparatively brief journey from Chapleau to Moose. After pushing through a trackless wilderness without having laid eyes on a human being, excepting the single instance of three French voyageurs going Heaven knows where, we were anticipating pleasurably our encounter with the traders at the Factory, and naturally supposed that Peter and Jacob would be equally pleased at the chance of visiting with their own kind. Not at all. When we reached Moose our Ojibways wrapped themselves in a mantle of dignity, and stalked scornful amidst obsequious clans. For the Ojibway is great among Indians, verily much greater than the Moose River Crees. Had it been a question of Rupert's River Crees with their fierce blood-laws, their conjuring-lodges, and their pagan customs, the affair might have been different.
For, mark you, the Moose River Cree is little among hunters, and he conducts the chase miscellaneously over his district without thought to the preservation of the beaver, and he works in the hay marshes during the summer, and is short, squab, and dirty, and generally ka-win-ni-shi-shin. The old sacred tribal laws, which are better than a religion because they are practically adapted to northern life, have among them been allowed to lapse. Travellers they are none, nor do their trappers get far from the Company's pork-barrels. So they inbreed ignobly for lack of outside favour, and are dying from the face of the land through dire diseases, just as their reputations have already died from men's respect.
The great unwritten law of the forest is that, save as provision during legitimate travel, one may not hunt in his neighbour's district. Each trapper has assigned him, or gets by inheritance or purchase, certain territorial power. In his land he alone may trap. He knows the beaver-dams, how many animals each harbours, how large a catch each will stand without diminution of the supply. So the fur is made to last. In the southern district this division is tacitly agreed upon. It is not etiquette to poach. What would happen to a poacher no one knows, simply because the necessity for finding out has not arisen. Tawabinisay controls from Batchawanung to Agawa. There old Waboos takes charge. And so on. But in the Far North the control is more often disputed, and there the blood-law still holds. An illegal trapper baits his snares with his life. If discovered, he is summarily shot. So is the game preserved.
The Woods Indian never kills waste-fully. The mere presence of game does not breed in him a lust to slaughter something. Moderation you learn of him first of all. Later, provided you are with him long enough and your mind is open to mystic influence, you will feel the strong impress of his idea--that the animals of the forest are not lower than man, but only different. Man is an animal living the life of the forest; the beasts are also a body politic speaking a different language and with different view-points. Amik, the beaver, has certain ideas as to the conduct of life, certain habits of body, and certain bias of thought. His scheme of things is totally at variance with that held by Me-en-gan, the wolf, but even to us whites the two are on a parity. Man has still another system. One is no better than another. They are merely different. And just as Me-en-gan preys on Amik, so does Man kill for his own uses.
Thence are curious customs. A Rupert River Cree will not kill a bear unless he, the hunter, is in gala attire, and then not until he has made a short speech in which he assures his victim that the affair is not one of personal enmity, but of expedience, and that anyway he, the bear, will be better off in the Hereafter. And then the skull is cleaned and set on a pole near running water, there to remain during twelve moons. Also at the tail-root of a newly-deceased beaver is tied a thong braided of red wool and deerskin. And many other curious habitudes which would be of slight interest here. Likewise do they conjure up by means of racket and fasting the familiar spirits of distant friends or enemies, and on these spirits fasten a blessing or a curse.
From this it may be deduced that missionary work has not been as thorough as might be hoped. That is true. The Woods Indian loves to sing, and possesses quaint melodies, or rather intonations, of his own. But especially does he delight in the long-drawn wail of some of our old-fashioned hymns. The church oftenest reaches him through them. I know nothing stranger than the sight of a little half-lit church filled with Indians swaying unctuously to and fro in the rhythm of a cadence old Watts would have recognized with difficulty. The religious feeling of the performance is not remarkable, but perhaps it does as a starting-point.
Exactly how valuable the average missionary work is I have been puzzled to decide. Perhaps the church needs more intelligence in the men it sends out. The evangelist is usually filled with narrow, preconceived notions as to the proper physical life. He squeezes his savage into log houses, boiled shirts, and boots. When he has succeeded in getting his tuberculosis crop well started, he offers as compensation a doctrinal religion admirably adapted to us, who have within reach of century-trained perceptions a thousand of the subtler associations a savage can know nothing about. If there is enough glitter and tin steeple and high-sounding office and gilt good-behaviour card to it, the red man's pagan heart is tickled in its vanity, and he dies in the odour of sanctity--and of a filth his out-of-door life has never taught him how to avoid. The Indian is like a raccoon: in his proper surroundings he is clean morally and physically because he knows how to be so; but in a cage he is filthy because he does not know how to be otherwise.
I must not be understood as condemning missionary work; only the stupid missionary work one most often sees in the North. Surely Christianity should be adaptable enough in its little things to fit any people with its great. It seems hard for some men to believe that it is not essential for a real Christian to wear a plug-hat. One God, love, kindness, charity, honesty, right living, may thrive as well in the wigwam as in a foursquare house--provided you let them wear moccasins and a capote wherewith to keep themselves warm and vital.
Tawabinisay must have had his religious training at the hands of a good man. He had lost none of his aboriginal virtue and skill, as may be gathered from what I have before said of him, and had gained in addition certain of the gentle qualities. I have never been able to gauge exactly the extent of his religious understanding, for Tawabinisay is a silent individual, and possesses very little English; but I do know that his religious feeling was deep and reverent. He never swore in English; he did not drink; he never travelled or hunted or fished on Sunday when he could possibly help it. These virtues he wore modestly and unassumingly as an accustomed garment. Yet he was the most gloriously natural man I have ever met.
The main reliance of his formalism when he was off in the woods seemed to be a little tattered volume, which he perused diligently all Sunday, and wrapped carefully in a strip of oiled paper during the rest of the week. One day I had a chance to look at this book while its owner was away after spring water. Every alternate page was in the phonetic Indian symbols, of which more hereafter. The rest was in French, and evidently a translation. Although the volume was of Roman Catholic origin, creed was conspicuously subordinated to the needs of the class it aimed to reach. A confession of faith, quite simple, in one God, a Saviour, a Mother of Heaven; a number of Biblical extracts rich in imagery and applicability to the experience of a woods-dweller; a dozen simple prayers of the kind the natural man would oftenest find occasion to express--a prayer for sickness, for bounty, for fair weather, for ease of travel, for the smiling face of Providence; and then some hymns. To me the selection seemed most judicious. It answered the needs of Tawabinisay's habitual experiences, and so the red man was a good and consistent convert. Irresistibly I was led to contemplate the idea of any one trying to get Tawabinisay to live in a house, to cut cordwood with an axe, to roost on a hard bench under a tin steeple, to wear stiff shoes, and to quit forest roaming.
The written language mentioned above you will see often in the Northland. Whenever an Indian band camps, it blazes a tree and leaves, as record for those who may follow, a message written in the phonetic character. I do not understand exactly the philosophy of it, but I gather that each sound has a symbol of its own, like shorthand, and that therefore even totally different languages--such as Ojibway, the Wood Cree, or the Hudson Bay Eskimos--may all be written in the same character. It was invented nearly a hundred years ago by a priest. So simple is it, and so needed a method of intercommunication, that its use is now practically universal. Even the youngsters understand it, for they are early instructed in its mysteries during the long winter evenings. On the preceding page is a message I copied from a spruce tree two hundred miles from anywhere on the Mattagami River.
Besides this are numberless formal symbols in constant use. Forerunners on a trail stick a twig in the ground whose point indicates exactly the position of the sun. Those who follow are able to estimate, by noting how far beyond the spot the twig points to the sun has travelled, how long a period of time has elapsed. A stick pointed in any given direction tells the route, of course. Another planted upright across the first shows by its position how long a journey is contemplated. A little sack suspended at the end of the pointer conveys information as to the state of the larder, lean or fat according as the little sack contains more or less gravel or sand. A shred of rabbit-skin means starvation. And so on in variety useless in any but an ethnological work.
The Ojibways' tongue is soft, and full of decided lisping and sustained hissing sounds. It is spoken with somewhat of a sing-song drawl. We always had a fancy that somehow it was of forest growth, and that its syllables were intended in the scheme of things to blend with the woods noises, just as the feathers of the mother partridge blend with the woods colours. In general it is polysyllabic. That applies especially to concepts borrowed of the white men. On the other hand, the Ojibways describe in monosyllables many ideas we could express only in phrase. They have a single word for the notion, Place-where-an-animal-slept- last-night. Our "lair," "form," etc., do not mean exactly that. Its genius, moreover, inclines to a flexible verb-form, by which adjectives and substantives are often absorbed into the verb itself, so that one beautiful singing word will convey a whole paragraph of information. My little knowledge of it is so entirely empirical that it can possess small value.
In concluding these desultory remarks, I want to tell you of a very curious survival among the Ojibways and Ottawas of the Georgian Bay. It seems that some hundreds of years ago these ordinarily peaceful folk descended on the Iroquois in what is now New York, and massacred a village or so. Then, like small boys who have thrown only too accurately at the delivery wagon, they scuttled back home again.
Since that time they have lived in deadly fear of retribution. The Iroquois have long since disappeared from the face of the earth, but even to-day the Georgian Bay Indians are subject to periodical spasms of terror. Some wild-eyed and imaginative youth sees at sunset a canoe far down the horizon. Immediately the villages are abandoned in haste, and the entire community moves up to the head-waters of streams, there to lurk until convinced that all danger is past. It does no good to tell these benighted savages that they are safe from vengeance, at least in this world. The dreaded name of Iroquois is potent, even across the centuries.