The Circle of Affection and Other Pieces in Prose and Verse

by Duncan Campbell Scott




THE INDIAN POLICY OF THE CANADIAN GOVERNMENT was inherited from the British procedure in the American colonies, which still survives with additions and modifications. The reserve system appeared at the earliest, and there was but little difference between the policy of the French and British in Canada with the exception that in the French design evangelization was an important feature. So that in 1867, when the Dominion of Canada took over the administration of Indian Affairs, the Government found a certain well-established condition. The Indians of the old provinces of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick had been given lands; in Quebec the grants of the French king had been respected and confirmed; in Ontario the Indian titles had been surrendered by treaty for a consideration in land and money. The first of the treaties was made by Governor Haldimand in 1784.

     In the early days the Indians were a real menace to the colonization of Canada. At that time there was a league between the Indians east and west of the River St. Clair, and a concerted movement upon the new settlements would have obliterated them as easily s a child wipes pictures from his slate. The Indian nature now seems like a fire that is waning, that is smouldering and dying away in ashes; then it was full of force and heat. It was ready to break out at any moment in savage dances, in wild and desperate orgies in which ancient superstitions were involved with European ideas but dimly understood and intensified by cunning imaginations inflamed with rum. So all the Indian diplomacy of that day was exercised to keep the tomahawk on the wall and the scalping knife in the belt. It was a rude diplomacy at best, the gross diplomacy of the rum bottle and the material appeal of gaudy presents, webs of scarlet cloth, silver medals, and armlets.

     Yet there was the heart of these puerile negotiations, this control that seemed to be founded on debauchery and licence, this alliance that was based on a childish system of presents, a principle that has been carried on without cessation and with increased vigilance to the present day—the principle of the sacredness of treaty promises. Whatever has been written down and signed by king and chief both will be bound by so long as “the sun shines and the water runs.” The policy, where we can see its outcome, has not been ineffectual, and where in 1790 stood clustered the wigwams and rude shelters of Brant’s people now stretch the opulent fields of the township of Tuscarora; and all down the valley of the Grand River there is no visible line of demarcation between the farms tilled by the ancient allies in foray and ambush who have become confederates throughout a peaceful year in seed-time and harvest.

     The treaty policy so well established when the confederation of the provinces of British North America took place has since been continued and nearly all civilized Canada is covered with these Indian treaties and surrenders. A map coloured to define their boundaries would show the province of Ontario clouted with them like a patchwork blanket; as far north as the confines of the new provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta the patches lie edge to edge. Until lately, however, the map would have shown a large portion of the province of Ontario uncovered by the treaty blanket. Extending north of the watershed that divides the streams flowing into Lakes Huron and Superior from those flowing into Hudson Bay, it reached James Bay on the north and the long curled ribbon of the Albany River, and comprised an area of 90,000 square miles, nearly twice as large as the state of New York.

     This territory contains much arable land, many million feet of pulpwood, untold wealth of minerals, and unharnessed water-powers sufficient to do the work of half the continent. Through the map of this unregarded region Sir Wilfred Laurier, Premier of Canada, had drawn a long line, sweeping up from Quebec and curving down upon Winnipeg, marking the course of the eastern section of the new Transcontinental Railway. The aboriginal owners of this vast tract, aware of the activity of prospectors for timber and minerals, had asked the Dominion Government to treat for their ancient domain, and the plans for such a huge public work as the new railways made a cession of the territory imperative.

     In June, 1905, the writer was appointed one of the three commissioners to visit the Indian tribes and negotiate a treaty. Our route lay inland from Dinorwic, a small station on the Canadian Pacific Railway two hundred miles east of Winnipeg, to reach the Lac Seul water system, to cross the height of land, to reach the Lake St. Joseph, the first great reservoir of the Albany River. Our flotilla consisted of three canoes, two large Peterboroughs and one birch-bark thirty-two feet long which could easily hold eleven or twelve men and 2,500 pounds of baggage and supplies, as well as the treasure-chest which was heavy with thirty thousand dollars in small notes. Our party included three commissioners, a physician, an officer of the Hudson’s Bay Company who managed all the details of transport and commissariat, and two constables of the Dominion police force. I am bound to say the latter outshone the members of the commission itself in the observance of the Indians. The glory of their uniforms and the wholesome fear of the white man’s law which they inspired spread down the river in advance reached James Bay before the commission. I presume they were used as a bogey by the Indian mothers for no children appeared anywhere until the novelty had somewhat decreased and opinion weakened that the magnificent proportions and manly vigour of our protectors were nourished upon a diet of babies.

     Our crew of half-breeds and Indians numbered not less than twelve and sometimes seventeen, so that the strength of the party never fell below nineteen and was often twenty-four.

     New men were engaged at Albany and at Moose Factory and experience was had of many different types. The Scriptures had seemingly been searched to furnish names for our men and we had in service at one time or another the prophets, the apostles, and a goodly number of the saints, even to such minor worthies as Caleb who went to spy out the land for the children of Israel! A word or two of the chronicle must be given up to the chief members of the crew—to David Sugarhead, who had only one lung and worked as if he had four; to Oombash, the dandy of the party, a knowing bowsman who wore a magenta and blue sweater and always paddled in a pair of black woolen gloves; to Simon Smallboy, a hard man to traffic with, but a past master of poling; of Daniel Wascowin, who cooked for the crew, and who was a merry man; and lastly, of Jimmy Swain, the old Albany River guide, sixty-seven years old, who ran to and fro over the longest portage carrying the heaviest pack.

     He is a fine type of the old half-breed race of packers and voyageurs which is fast disappearing; a loyal and disinterested, cautions but fearless, full of that joy of life which consists in doing and possessed by that other joy of life which dwells in retrospect, in the telling of old tales, the playing of old tunes, and the footing of old dance steps. Jimmy was enjoying a might old age after a mighty youth. He had been able to carry 600 pounds over a portage nearly a quarter of a mile long. He had run on snow-shoes with the mail from Moose Factory to Michipicoten, a distance of 500 miles, in six days, carrying only one blanket, a little hardtack, and handful of tea. Now in his sixty-seventh year he was the equal of the best of the young fellows. He took all the portages at a tremendous speed and barefooted, for there was a thick layer of callous flesh on the soles of his feet. He was conscious of his virtues, for in reply to the question, “Well Jimmy, is there anything left at the other end of the portage?” he would always say, “I was there last myself, surr.” That was conclusive. Moreover, Jimmy was an artist. How he could play the violin at all with his huge callous fingers was a matter for wonder, but play he did, all the jigs popular on the Albany for the last fifty years, curious versions of hymn-tunes, “Abide with Me” and “Lead, Kindly Light,” a pathetic variation of “Home, Sweet Home,” the name of which tune he did not know, but called it after a day or two “The tune the bosses like; it makes them feel bad!” Every night after supper Jimmy withdrew into his tent, closed the flap, and took out his violin. The instrument was as curious as the art employed to play it. “Oh, it’s a fine fiddle!” Jimmy would say. “It’s an expensive fiddle. Dr. Scovil gave it to me, and it must have cost ten dollars.” He had scraped the belly and rubbed it with castor oil, and the G-string had two knots in it. But what matter! When Jimmy closed the flap of his tent and drew it forth out of its blue pine box, I doubt whether any artist in the world had ever enjoyed a sweeter pang of affection and desire.

     We touched water first at Big Sandy Lake and in three days had researched Frenchman’s Head (Ishquahka portage), one of the reserves set apart by an earlier treaty. James Bunting, the chief of the band, when he learned our business sent twelve of his stalwart Indians to help us over the long and difficult portage; as it was the occasion of a lifetime they brought their wives, children, and dogs and made a social event of it. But they doubled our working force and saved us a half-day on the portage. Once again we were to meet with such kindness, at New Post on the Abitibi River, when Chief Esau and five of his men, adherents of the new treaty, gave us an offering of their help for two days. “We do not expect any money, and no food for this. We will feed ourselves. You have brought much; we have little to give, but that we freely give.”

     After Osnaburgh, For Hope was to come, then Marten’s Falls, then English River, then Fort Albany and the salt water, then Moose Factory and New Post. But Osnabugh had all the importance of a beginning.

     It was about two o’clock one afternoon that we sighted Osnaburgh, a group of Hudson’s Bay buildings clustered on the lake shore, and upon higher ground the little wooden church of the Anglican mission. Everyone expected the usual welcome, for the advent of a paymaster is always announced by a fusillade, yells, and the barking of dogs. But even the dogs of Osnaburgh gave no sound. The Indians stood in line outside the palisades, the old blind chief, Missbay, with his son and a few of the chief men in the center, the young fellows on the outskirts, and women by themselves, separated as they are always. A solemn hand-shaking ensued; never once did the stoicism of the race betray any interest in the preparations as we pitched our tents and displayed a camp equipage, simple enough, but to them the matter of the highest novelty; and all our negotiations were conducted under like conditions—intense alertness and curiosity with no outward manifestation of the slightest interest. Everything that was said and done, our personal appearance, our dress and manners, were being written down as if in a book; matter which would be rehearsed at many a campfire for generations until the making of the treaty had gathered a lore of its own; but no one could have divined it from visible signs.

     Nothing else is so characteristic of the Indian, because this mental constitution is rooted in physical conditions. A rude patience has been developed through long ages of his contact with nature which respects him no more than it does the beaver. He enriches the fur-traders and incidentally gains a bare sustenance by his cunning and a few gins and pitfalls for wild animals. When all the arguments against this view are exhausted it is still evident that he is but a slave, used by all traders alike as a tool to provide wealth, and therefore to be kept in good condition as cheaply as possible.

     To individuals whose transactions had been heretofore limited to computation with sticks and skins our errand must indeed have been dark.

     They were to make certain promises and we were to make certain promises, but our purpose and our reasons were alike unknowable. What could they grasp of the pronouncement on the Indian tenure which had been delivered by the law lords of the Crown, what of the elaborate negotiations between a dominion and a province which had made the treaty possible, what of the sense of traditional policy which brooded over the whole? Nothing. So there was no basis for argument. The simpler facts had to be stated, and the parental idea developed that the King is the great father of the Indians, watchful over their interests, and ever compassionate. After gifts of tobacco, as we were seated in a circle in a big room of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s House, the interpreter delivered this message to Missabay and the other chiefs, who listened unmoved to the recital of what the Government would give them for their lands.

     Eight dollars to be paid at once to every man, woman and child; and forever afterward, each, “so long as the grass grows and the water runs” four dollars each; and reserves of one square mile to every family of five or in like proportion; and schools for their children; and a flag for the chief.

     “Well for all this,” replied Massabay, “we will have to give up our hunting and live on the land you give us, and how can we live without hunting?” So they were assured that they were not expected to give up their hunting-grounds, that they might hunt and fish throughout all the country, but that they were to be good subjects of the King, their great father, whose messengers were. That was satisfying, and we always found that the idea of a reserve became pleasant to them when they learned that so far as that piece of land was concerned they were masters of the white man, could say to him, “You have no right here; take your traps, pull down your shanty and begone.”

     At Fort Hope, Chief Moonias was perplexed by the fact that he seemed to be getting something for nothing; he had his suspicions maybe that there was something concealed in a bargain where all the benefit seemed to be on one side. “Ever since I was a little boy,” he said, “I have had to pay well for everything, even if it was only a few pins or a bit of braid, and now you come with money and I have to give nothing in exchange.” He was mightily pleased when he understood that he was giving something that his great father the King would value highly.

     Missabay asked for time to consider, and in their tents there was great deliberation all night, but in the morning the chiefs appeared, healed by Missabay, led by Thomas, his son, who attended the blind old man with the greatest care and solicitude. Their decision was favourable. “Yes,” said Missabay, “we know now that you are good men sent by our great father the King to bring us help and strength in our weakness. All that we have comes from the white man and are willing to join with you and make promises which will last as long as the air is above the water, as long as our children remain who come after us.”

     After the payment, which followed the signing of the treaty, the Hudson’s Bay store was filled with an eager crowd of traders. The majority of the Indians had touched paper money for the first time; all their trading had been done heretofore with small sticks of different lengths. They had been paid in Dominion notes of the value of one dollar and two dollars, and several times the paymasters had received deputations of the honest Indians who thought they had received more in eight ‘ones’ than some of their fellows had in four ‘twos.’ But they showed shrewdness in calculation when they understood the difference, and soon the camp was brightened by new white shawls, new hats and boots, which latter they wore as if doing a great penance.

     Meantime, the physician who accompanied the party, had visited the tents. He found the conditions that exist everywhere among the Indians—the effects of unsanitary habits and surroundings, which are to some extent neutralized by constant changes of camping-ground, by fresh air and pure water; the prevalence of tuberculosis in all forms; and a percentage of cases which at one time might have been relieved by surgical treatment, but which had long passed that stage.

     It had become known that a mysterious operation called vaccination was to be performed upon the women and children, but not upon the men, whose usefulness as workers might be impaired by sore arms. Indians are peculiarly fond of medicine, and at least as open to the pleasure of making experiments with drugs as their white neighbours, but operations they dread; and what was this mysterious vaccination? Jenner and his followers had time to carry on a propaganda, but here at Osnaburgh our physician had to conquer superstitious fears and prejudice in a few short hours. I have known a whole tribe take to the woods upon the mere suggestion of vaccination. But this very superstition, aided by the desire to be in the fashion, gained the day. The statement that something rubbed into a little scratch on the arm would have such powerful results savored of magic and “big medicine,” but the question was solved by one of the society leaders, Madame Mooniahwinini! She was one of three sisters, all wives of Mooniahwinini, and she appeared with those of his thirteen children for whom she was partly responsible. That settled the matter and children were pulled from the hiding places and dragged to the place of sacrifice, some howling with fear, others giggling with nervousness. Never in the history of the region had there been such an attempt at personal cleanliness as at Osnaburgh that day, and at the other posts, upon like occasions. To be sure the cleansing extended to only three or four square inches from arm surface, but it was revolutionary in its tendencies.

     As soon as the treaty had been signed a feast had been promised by the commissioners and the supplies had been issued by the Hudson’s Bay Company. They consisted of the staples, pork and flour, tea and tobacco; with the luxuries, raisins, sugar, baking-powder, and lard. The best cooks in the camp had been engaged for hours upon the preparation of these materials. Bannocks had been kneaded and baked, one kind plain, another shortened with lard and mixed with raisins; the pork, heavy with fat, had been cut into chunks and boiled; the tea had been drawn (or overdrawn) in great tin kettles.

     There is a rigid etiquette at these feasts; the food is piled in the center of the surrounding Indians, the men in the inner circle, the women and children in the outer. When everyone is assembled the food is divided as fairly as possible and until each person is served no one takes a mouthful, the tea grows cold, the hot pork rigid and half the merit of the warm food vanishes, but no one breaks the rule. They still wait patiently until the chiefs address them. At Osnaburgh while Missabay walked to and fro striking his long staff on the ground and haranguing them in short reiterant sentences—the same idea expressed over and over, the power and goodness of the white man, the weakness of the Indian, the kindness of the King, their great father—there they sat and stoically watched the food turn clammy! With us the cloth is cleared and the speeches follow with the Albany River Indians every formality precedes the true purpose of the feast, the eating of it.

     The proceedings at Osnaburgh were repeated at the river posts, but when we reached Fort Albany we seemed to be in a different world. The salutations on the upper river is “Bow jou” the “Bon jour” of the Early French voyageur; on the coast it is “Wat che,” the “What cheer” of the English.

     Marten’s Falls was the last post at which we heard Ojibay spoken; at Fort Albany, we met the Crees. In our journey we had been borne by the waters of the Albany through a country where essential solitude abides. Occasionally the sound of a conjurer’s drum far away pervaded the day like an aerial pulse; sometimes we heard the clash of iron-shod poles against the stones where a crew was struggling up-stream with a York boat laden with supplies. For days we would travel without seeing a living thing, then a mile away a huge black bear would swim the river, slip into the underbrush though a glowing patch of fire-weed, then a lemming would spring across the portage path into the thick growth of Labrador tea; no birds were to be seen, but a white-throat sparrow seemed to have been stationed at intervals of a hundred miles or so to give us cheer with his bright voice. But at Marten’s Falls the blithe sentinel disappeared.

     When one has heard even a few of the stories of Indian cruelty and superstition which haunt the river, of the Crane Indians who tied a man and his wife together, back to back, and sent them over the falls because they were sorcerers, of the terrible wendigo of Marten’s Falls, the lonely spirit of the stream becomes an obsession. It is ever present, but at night it grows in power. Something is heard and yet not heard; it rises and dwells, and passes mysteriously, like a suspiration immense and mournful, like the sound of wings, dim and enormous, folded down with weariness.

     Below Marten’s Falls the Albany flows in one broad stream for three hundred and fifty miles through banks, in some places eighty feet high, unimpeded by rapids or falls rushing gloriously to the sea. One night the canoes were lashed together and floated on under the stars until daybreak. Above Marten’s Falls the river is broken by great rapids and cataracts and interrupted by long lake stretches, such as Makikobatan and Miminiska. The shores are flat and the land seems merely an incident in a world of water. Whenever a tent is pitched it is amid flowers; wild roses are enclosed within your canvas house, all about are myriads of twin-flowers, dwarf cornel, and pyrola blossoms. At James Bay the casual effect of the land is yet more apparent. Can these be called shores that are but a few feet high? The bay is vast and shallow; ten miles away the fringes of red willow look like dusky sprays brushed in against the intense steel-gray of the skyline, and the canoe paddles will reach the sandy bottom! No language can convey the effect of lonliness and desolation which hangs over this far-stretching plain of water, treacherous with shifting sands and sudden passionate storms, unfurrowed by any keels but those of the few small boats of the fur-traders.

     At the upper river posts the Indians had been stoical, even taciturn but at Fort Albany and Moose Factory the welcome was literally with prayer and songs of praise and sounds of thanksgiving. The Hudson’s Bay Company’s property at Fort Albany separates the buildings of the Roman Catholic mission from those of the Anglican mission. Moose Factory was until lately the seat of the Anglican Bishop of Moosonee, but that glory and part of the trading glory had departed; the bishop has gone to “the line,” as the Canadian Pacific Railway is called, and the Hudson’s Bay Company has removed its distributing warehouse to Charlton Island, fifty miles in the Bay.

     The Indians are adherents to either one faith or the other. Casuists they are, too, and very brilliant at a theological argument; so the religious element was largely mingled with the business, and here they thanked God as well as the King. The feasts at Moose Factory and New Post seemed like primitive “tea-meetings.”

     An address written in Cree, in the syllabic character, was presented at Albany; and at Moose Factory the proceedings opened with prayer and were enlivened by hymn singing. The use of the syllabic character is common on the river. Here and there messages from one group of Indians to another were met with, written upon birch bark and fixed to a stick and driven into the ground in some prominent position—announcements that the fishing was poor and that they had done to Winisk; that if Cheena’s boy was met with, tell him his father was building canoes two days’ journey up the Chepy River.

     This method of writing in the Indian languages was invented by Rev. James Evans, a Methodist missionary about the middle of the last century. He was then living at Norway House, north of lake Winnipeg, where he had come up from Upper Canada. As the Crees of Norway House are hunting Indians he found it difficult to make any headway with the work of evangelization. It was almost impossible to teach them to read by the English alphabet, and during the greater part of the year they were on their hunting grounds, virtually inaccessible. So he invented the characters in which each sign represents a syllable modified by terminals and prefixes. He made his first type from the lead in which tea was packed, moulded in clay; his first press was a Hudson’s Bay Company fur press, his first paper fine sheets of birch bark. An intelligent Indian can readily lean to read by the aid of the syllabic character and the system is used by the missionaries of all sects to disseminate their teachings.

     The effect of education and of contact with a few of the better elements of our civilization were noticeable at Albany and Moose factory. There was a certain degree of cleanliness in the preparation of food, the Indians were better dressed, and although the fur trade is a sort of slavery, a greater self-reliance was apparent. The crew that took the Commission from Moose Factory to Abitibi were constant in their vespers and every evening recited a litany, sang a hymn and made a prayer. There was something primitive and touching in their devotion, and it marks an advance, but these Indians are capable of leaving a party of travelers suddenly, returning to Moose Factory in dudgeon if anything displeases them, and the leader of the prayers got very much the better of one of the party in an affair of peltries. But any forecast of Indian civilization which looks for final results in one generation or two is doomed to disappointment. Final results may be attained, say, in four centuries by the merging of the Indian race with the whites, and all these four things—treaties, teachers, missionaries and traders—with whatever benefits or injuries they bring in their train, aid in making an end.

     The James Bay treaty will always be associated in my mind with the figure of an Indian who came in from Attawapiskat to Albany just as we were ready to leave. The pay-lists and the cash had been securely packed for an early start next morning, when this wild fellow drifted into the camp. Père Farfard, he said, thought we might have some money for him. He did not ask for anything, he stood, smiling slightly. He seemed about twenty years of age, with a face of great beauty and intelligence, and eyes that were wild with a sort of surprise—shy at his novel position and proud that he was of some importance. His name was Charles Wabinoo. We found it on the list and gave him his eight dollars. When he felt the new crisp notes he took a crucifix from his breast, kissed it swiftly, and made a fugitive sign of the cross. “From my heart I thank you,” he said. There was the Indian at the best point of a transitional state, still wild as a lynx, with all the lore and instinct of his race undimmed, and possessed wholly by the simplest rule of the Christian life, as yet unspoiled by the arts of sly lying, paltry cunning, and lower vices which come from contact with such of our debased manners and customs as come to him in the wilderness.