Duncan Campbell Scott

Addresses‚ Essays‚ and Reviews

Introduction, Amelia Paget, People of the Plains

There are at the present time several old Indians who believe that their forefathers, many years ago, came to this from some other continent; that they crossed a large body of water, landing at several different islands on their voyage; that they travelled towards the rising sun, and were stopped in their journey by unfriendly tribes.  These hostile Indians forced them to settle upon the prairies, where they have dwelt for hundreds of years.  A different language was spoken by their forefathers, and the country they came from was warmer than this part of the world.
     They insist that the Great Spirit had guided them to this land, and had given it to them, with all its vast expanses teeming with game, from which they derived their sustenance.  While they were the sole inhabitants of these territories they were wealthy; they had everything they could desire for their happiness, and they were proud of being what they were—children of Kichie Manitou.  When the white men came misfortunes came with them.
     These ideas are mere shadows of dreams, the remnants of legends referring to migrations which are recent compared with the incalculable age of the race.  The earliest explorers found established languages, tribes firmly fixed in their traditional territories, formalized manners and habits.  But ages upon ages had passed in which the form of the continent had changed, and again changed, before these peoples had become differentiated.  Where was the cradle of the race; drifting from what plateau or valley came the progenitors of the tribes who were in possession when the Northmen and Columbus first touched the shore?  The answer to the question takes the form of conjecture and suggestion, but investigation of this interesting ethnological problem had proceeded so far that all the unscientific theories of the last hundred years have been abandoned [page 103] and a working hypotheses established which may be varied, modified or strengthened, but which, a hundred years from this, may have been firmly established by evidence which is not now available. The theory that they were the descendants of the “ten lost tribes” of Israel has had its day, and that which traces their coming to an easterly migration by way of Behring [sic] Straits of the Aleutian Islands is slowly passing.
     As these preliminary words are only intended to serve the purpose of connecting the Indian of to-day with some past, even the indefinite and speculative, instead of leaving him without any affiliation with the general human stock, it will not be advisable to give any extended cogent to the theory of such affiliation, but simply to state the theory itself.
     The explanation which gains force from geological and other scientific evidence is that the inhabitants of this continent came from Europe by a westerly migration across a huge land bridge which gave continuous communication in an equable climate by way of Iceland and Greenland.  The subsidence of this plateau, which now forms the shallow bottom of the North Atlantic, cut off the people of our continent from other portions of the world, and left them to develop amid the circumstances and environment which evolved during the succeeding ages.
     Anyone more than superficially interested in this fascinating subject may begin his reading with the last chapter of Frederick S. Dellenbaugh’s The North Americans of Yesterday.  He may then be tempted to read Dr. David G. Brinton’s The American Race, where he will find condensed but exhaustive treatment of the matter.
     There is no doubt that the native inhabitants of North America are of one race, with strongly marked characteristics, but with many linguistic variations and other less important tribal distinctions arising from environment.  Chief among the linguistic stocks is the Algonquin, which extends over a larger area than any other.  From as far north as the Peace River and the Churchill River to North Carolina, and from the Atlantic Coast to the Rocky Mountains, the tribes of this great division possessed the land.  They now number about ninety-five thousand, and the main tribal divisions are as follows: Abenakis, Algonquin, Blackfoot, Cree, Mississauga, Micmac, Ojibway and Ottawa.
     The four tribes inhabiting the provinces of Saskatchewan and Manitoba, which are described in the succeeding chapters, are the [page 104] Crees, Saulteaux (a name given to the Ojibways by the early French explorers, who first found them at Sault Ste. Marie), Assiniboines and Sioux.  Of these four tribes and Crees and Assiniboines were the first inhabitants of the provinces.
     The Crees are to be found from the shores of Hudson Bay to the foot of the Rocky Mountains, and as far north as the Beaver River, and even farther north.  They claim that they were the original owners of the vast prairies of the western provinces, and that eventually the tribe was joined by the Assiniboines, who are a branch of the Dakota stock.
     The Sioux, another branch of the Dakota stock, who now form part of our Indian population, are refugees from south of the international boundary.  These Indians in times long past were the sworn enemies of the Crees and Saulteaux, and would follow them, especially the former, into their own territory often as far north as the Saskatchewan River.  In later years they came into Canada, fleeing from justice, taking refuge in Manitoba and Saskatchewan.  They were responsible for many outrages upon the early pioneers in Minnesota and Dakota, but have been peaceable and law-abiding since they became wards of the Dominion.  They come of the once powerful Dakota stock, and are fine specimens of the Indian race.
     The Ojibways, another large branch of the great Algonquin stock, occupy the vast area between Hudson Bay and James Bay on the north and Lakes Superior and Huron on the south.
     It seemed necessary to write these few words upon the probable origin of the Indians and upon the tribes specially dealt with in the following pages, so that the reader might not find himself, without introduction, in the very midst of the subject.
     Moreover, books dealing with Indian manners and customs have not been so frequent of late that a new one may pass without comment, and the present volume has special claim to more than momentary attention by reason of its authentic value.  It is the easiest of easy tasks, at this day, to compile a volume about anything; stated facts are common property, be they or be they not trustworthy, and with a little industry and a certain amount of literary craftsmanship, any person may patch up a book about Indians, a subject that does not lose its interest.  But the present work is no compilation; it is a statement of personal experience, and has all the merit of original observation.  One cannot deny to these pages all the interest which flows from this source.  No literary charm can condone for [page 105] imperfect material, but often the author’s knowledge of his subject lends a certain grace to his style; this latter claim may safely be made for these unaffected chapters.  Mrs. Frederick H. Paget, when her father, Mr. W.J. MacLean, was an officer of the Hudson’s Bay Company, had many opportunities to gain at first-hand the information which is now given to the public.  Moreover, she was gifted with language-sense which made possible a knowledge of the subtlest peculiarities of two languages, the Cree and Ojibway, both highly expressive, but the last eminently flexible and poetic.  This from her earliest years she was brought into contact with the best specimens of the two races.  Qu’Appelle, where her father was Factor for eight years, was a particularly favourable observation-point when the post was thronged with a free concourse of Indian and half-breed traders.  The plains were furrowed by cart-tracks only, and dotted with fugitive shelters of the aborigines; the buffalo was disappearing and the time for change was upon them—yet still the Indian was lord of his domain.  Active tribal warfare had ceased, but the post was alive with men who had been upon the war-path and whose lodges were decorated with the trophies of foray and ambush.  The position which the Factor held gave his daughter, no doubt, special privilege and opportunity; and growing skill in the language added the last power to win confidence of these proud, shy people.  And two years after, during the half-breed troubles of 1885, Miss MacLean with her father and the rest of his family had sharp experience of the trials which attend upon Indian hostilities.  Captured at Fort Pitt in April of that year by Big Bear and his braves, they were held until the 17th of June following, sharing all the hardships of his shifting camp.  During this experience Mrs. Paget’s knowledge of the Cree language and her intimacy with all the ways of the Indians, even the very fashion of their thoughts, proved a constant defence for the whole party.  The following pages must be read by the light of these facts; they account for the tone of championship for all Indians, and for the idealistic tendency which places everything in a high and favorable aspect.
     If there were hardship and squalor, starvation, inhumanity and superstition in this aboriginal life, judged by European standards, here it is not evident.  All things are judged by the Indian idea of happiness and the sophistication of the Westerner disappears.  The real felicities of the situation are heightened by the glow which might be spread over the reminiscences of some ancient chief [page 106] whose lines had been cast in pleasant places, and to whom everything in the old days had become transfigured.  This animating spirit is pleasant; there is no reason why the arrogance of our so-called civilization should everywhere prevail, and it is probably fortunate that, when the Dominion Government set apart a small appropriation for the purpose of gleaning such memories as remain of the bygone domestic life of the western tribes, the task should have fallen to the lot of one whose early training placed her rather in the seat of the cordial advocate than in that of the frigid critic.
     Although the picture here presented is not complete in every detail, yet when the ancient manners and customs of the Crees and Saulteaux have changed and become either a matter of conjecture or of a vague recollection, this book will be sought as a faithful record of many old things that have passed away. [page 107]


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