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Voyages from Montreal Through the Continent of North America
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SOME ACCOUNT OF THE CHEPEWYAN INDIANS.
They are a numerous people, who consider the country between the parallels of latitude 60. and 65. North, and longitude 100. to 110. West, as their lands or home. They speak a copious language, which is very difficult to be attained, and furnishes dialects to the various emigrant tribes which inhabit the following immense track of country, whose boundary I shall describe.14 It begins at Churchill, and runs along the line of separation between them and the Knisteneaux, up the Missinipi to the Isle a la Crosse, passing on through the Buffalo Lake, River Lake, and Portage la Loche: from thence it proceeds by the Elk River to the Lake of the Hills, and goes directly West to the Peach River; and up that river to its source and tributary waters; from whence it proceeds to the waters of the river Columbia; and follows that river to latitude 52. 24. North, and longitude 22. 54. West, where the Chepewyans have the Atnah or Chin Nation for their neighbours. It then takes a line due West to the seacoast, within which, the country is possessed by a people who speak their language15 and are consequently descended from them: there can be no doubt, therefore, of their progress being to the Eastward. A tribe of them is even known at the upper establishments on the Saskatchiwine; and I do not pretend to ascertain how far they may follow the Rocky Mountains to the East.
It is not possible to form any just estimate of their numbers, but it is apparent, nevertheless, that they are by no means proportionate to the vast extent of their territories, which may, in some degree, be attributed to the ravages of the small-pox, which are, more or less, evident throughout this part of the continent.
The notion which these people entertain of the creation, is of a very singular nature. They believe that, at the first, the globe was one vast and entire ocean, inhabited by no living creature, except a mighty bird, whose eyes were fire, whose glances were lightning, and the clapping of whose wings were thunder. On his descent to the ocean, and touching it, the earth instantly arose, and remained on the surface of the waters. This omnipotent bird then called forth all the variety of animals from the earth, except the Chepewyans, who were produced from a dog; and this circumstance occasions their aversion to the flesh of that animal, as well as the people who eat it. This extraordinary tradition proceeds to relate, that the great bird, having finished his work, made an arrow, which was to be preserved with great care, and to remain untouched; but that the Chepewyans were so devoid of understanding, as to carry it away; and the sacrilege so enraged the great bird, that he has never since appeared.
They have also a tradition amongst them, that they originally came from another country, inhabited by very wicked people, and had traversed a great lake, which was narrow, shallow, and full of islands, where they had suffered great misery, it being always winter, with ice and deep snow. At the Copper-Mine River, where they made the first land, the ground was covered with copper, over which a body of earth had since been collected, to the depth of a man's height. They believe, also, that in ancient times their ancestors lived till their feet were worn out with walking, and their throats with eating. They describe a deluge, when the waters spread over the whole earth, except the highest mountains, on the tops of which they preserved themselves.
They believe, that immediately after their death, they pass into another world, where they arrive at a large river, on which they embark in a stone canoe, and that a gentle current bears them on to an extensive lake, in the centre of which is a most beautiful island; and that, in the view of this delightful abode, they receive that judgment for their conduct during life, which terminates their final state and unalterable allotment. If their good actions are declared to predominate, they are landed upon the island, where there is to be no end to their happiness; which, however, according to their notions, consists in an eternal enjoyment of sensual pleasure, and carnal gratification. But if their bad actions weigh down the balance, the stone canoe sinks at once, and leaves them up to their chins in the water, to behold and regret the reward enjoyed by the good, and eternally struggling, but with unavailing endeavours, to reach the blissful island, from which they are excluded for ever.
They have some faint notions of the transmigration of the soul; so that if a child be born with teeth, they instantly imagine, from its premature appearance, that it bears a resemblance to some person who had lived to an advanced period, and that he has assumed a renovated life, with these extraordinary tokens of maturity.
The Chepewyans are sober, timorous, and vagrant, with a selfish disposition that has sometimes created suspicions of their integrity. Their stature has nothing remarkable in it; but though they are seldom corpulent, they are sometimes robust. Their complexion is swarthy; their features coarse, and their hair lank, but always of a dingy black; nor have they universally the piercing eye, which generally animates the Indian countenance. The women have a more agreeable aspect than the men, but their gait is awkward, which proceeds from their being accustomed, nine months in the year, to travel on snow-shoes and drag sledges of a weight from two to four hundred pounds. They are very submissive to their husbands, who have, however, their fits of jealousy; and, for very trifling causes, treat them with such cruelty as sometimes to occasion their death. They are frequently objects of traffic; and the father possesses the right of disposing of his daughter.16 The men in general extract their beards, though some of them are seen to prefer a bushy black beard, to a smooth chin. They cut their hair in various forms, or leave it in a long, natural flow, according as their caprice or fancy suggests. The women always wear it in great length, and some of them are very attentive to its arrangement. If they at any time appear despoiled of their tresses, it is to be esteemed a proof of the husband's jealousy, and is considered as a severer punishment than manual correction. Both sexes have blue or black bars, or frog one to four straight lines on their cheeks or forehead, to distinguish the tribe to which they belong. These marks are either tattooed, or made by drawing a thread, dipped in the necessary colour, beneath the skin.
There are no people more attentive to the comforts of their dress, or less anxious respecting its exterior appearance. In the winter it is composed of the skins of deer, and their fawns, and dressed as fine as any chamois leather, in the hair. In the summer their apparel is the same, except that it is prepared without the hair. Their shoes and leggins are sewed together, the latter reaching upwards to the middle, and being supported by a belt, under which a small piece of leather is drawn to cover the private parts, the ends of which fall down both before and behind. In the shoes they put the hair of the moose or reindeer with additional pieces of leather as socks. The shirt or coat, when girted round the waist, reaches to the middle of the thigh, and the mittens are sewed to the sleeves, or are suspended by strings from the shoulders. A ruff or tippet surrounds the neck, and the skin of the head of the deer forms a curious kind of cap. A robe, made of several deer or fawn skins sewed together, covers the whole. This dress is worn single or double, but always in the winter, with the hair within and without. Thus arrayed a Chepewyan will lay himself down on the ice in the middle of a lake, and repose in comfort; though he will sometimes find a difficulty in the morning to disencumber himself from the snow drifted on him during the night. If in his passage he should be in want of provision, he cuts a hole in the ice, when he seldom fails of taking some trout or pike, whose eyes he instantly scoops out, and eats as a great delicacy; but if they should not be sufficient to satisfy his appetite, he will, in this necessity make his meal of the fish in its raw state; but, those whom I saw, preferred to dress their victuals when circumstances admitted the necessary preparation. When they are in that part of their country which does not produce a sufficient quantity of wood for fuel, they are reduced to the same exigency, though they generally dry their meat in the sun.17
The dress of the women differs from that of the men. Their leggins are tied below the knee; and their coat or shift is wide, hanging down to the ankle, and is tucked up at pleasure by means of a belt, which is fastened round the waist. Those who have children have these garments made very full about the shoulders, as when they are travelling they carry their infants upon their backs, next their skin, in which situation they are perfectly comfortable and in a position convenient to be suckled. Nor do they discontinue to give their milk to them till they have another child. Childbirth is not the object of that tender care and serious attention among the savages as it is among civilised people. At this period no part of their usual occupation is omitted, and this continual and regular exercise must contribute to the welfare of the mother, both in the progress of parturition and in the moment of delivery. The women have a singular custom of cutting off a small piece of the navel string of the newborn children, and hang it about their necks: they are also curious in the covering they make for it, which they decorate with porcupine's quills and beads.
Though the women are as much in the power of the men, as other articles of their property, they are always consulted, and possess a very considerable influence in the traffic with Europeans, and other important concerns.
Plurality of wives is common among them, and the ceremony of marriage is of a very single nature. The girls are betrothed at a very early period to those whom the parents think the best able to support them: nor is the inclination of the women considered. Whenever a separation takes place, which sometimes happens, it depends entirely on the will and pleasure of the husband. In common with the other Indians of this country, they have a custom respecting the periodical state of a woman, which is rigorously observed: at that time she must seclude herself from society. They are not even allowed in that situation to keep the same path as the men, when travelling: and it is considered a great breach of decency for a woman so circumstanced to touch any utensils of manly occupation. Such a circumstance is supposed to defile them, so that their subsequent use would be followed by certain mischief or misfortune. There are particular skins which the women never touch, as of the bear and wolf; and those animals the men are seldom known to kill.
They are not remarkable for their activity as hunters, which is owing to the ease with which they snare deer and spear fish: and these occupations are not beyond the strength of their old men, women, and boys: so that they participate in those laborious occupations, which among their neighbours are confined to the women. They make war on the Esquimaux, who cannot resist their superior numbers, and put them to death, as it is a principle with them never to take prisoners. At the same time they tamely submit to the Knisteneaux, who are not so numerous as themselves, when they treat them as enemies.
They do not affect that cold reserve at greeting, either among themselves or strangers, which is common with the Knisteneaux, but communicate mutually, and at once, all the information of which they are possessed. Nor are they roused like them from an apparent torpor to a state of great activity. They are consequently more uniform in this respect, though they are of a very persevering disposition when their interest is concerned.
As these people are not addicted to spirituous liquors, they have a regular and uninterrupted use of their understanding, which is always directed to the advancement of their own interest; and this disposition, as may be readily imagined, sometimes occasions them to be charged with fraudulent habits. They will submit with patience to the severest treatment, when they are conscious that they deserve it, but will never forget or forgive any wanton or unnecessary rigour. A moderate conduct I never found to fail, nor do I hesitate to represent them, altogether, as the most peaceable tribe of Indians known in North America.
There are conjurers and high-priests, but I was not present at any of their ceremonies; though they certainly operate in an extraordinary manner on the imaginations of the people in the cure of disorders. Their principal maladies are, rheumatic pains, the flux and consumption. The venereal complaint is very common; but though its progress is slow, it gradually undermines the constitution, and brings on premature decay. They have recourse to superstition for their cure, and charms are their only remedies, except the bark of the willow, which being burned and reduced to powder, is strewed upon green wounds and ulcers, and places contrived for promoting perspiration. Of the use of simples and plants they have no knowledge; nor can it be expected, as their country does not produce them.
Though they have enjoyed so long an intercourse with Europeans, their country is so barren, as not to be capable of producing the ordinary necessaries naturally introduced by such a communication; and they continue, in a great measure, their own inconvenient and awkward modes of taking their game and preparing it when taken. Sometimes they drive the deer into the small lakes, where they spear them, or force them into inclosures, where the bow and arrow are employed against them. These animals are also taken in snares make of skin. In the former instance the game is divided among those who have been engaged in the pursuit of it. In the latter it is considered as private property; nevertheless, any unsuccessful hunter passing by, may take a deer so caught, leaving the head, skin, and saddle for the owner.
Thus, though they have no regular government, as every man is lord in his own family, they are influenced, more or less, by certain principles which condone to their general benefit.
In their quarrels with each other, they very rarely proceed to a greater degree of violence than is occasioned by blows, wrestling, and pulling of the hair, while their abusive language consists in applying the name of the most offensive animal to the object of their displeasure, and adding the term ugly, and chiay, or still-born.18
Their arms and domestic apparatus, in addition to the articles procured from Europeans, are spears, bows, and arrows, fishing-nets, and lines made of green deer-skin thongs. They have also nets for taking the beaver as he endeavours to escape from his lodge when it is broken open. It is set in a particular manner for the purpose, and a man is employed to watch the moment when he enters the snare, or he would soon cut his way through it. He is then thrown upon the ice where he remains as if he had no life in him.
The snow-shoes are of a very superior workmanship. The inner part of their frame is straight, the outer one is curved, and it is pointed at both ends, with that in front turned up. They are also laced with great neatness with thongs made of deer-skin. The sledges are formed of thin slips of board turned up also in front, and are highly polished with crooked knives, in order to slide along with facility. Close-grained wood is, on that account, the best; but theirs are made of the red or swamp spruce-fir tree.
The country, which these people claim as their land, has a very small quantity of earth, and produces little or no wood or herbage. Its chief vegetable substance is the moss, on which the deer feed; and a kind of rock moss, which, in times of scarcity, preserves the lives of the natives. When boiled in water, it dissolves into a clammy, glutinous substance, that affords a very sufficient nourishment. But, notwithstanding the barren state of their country, with proper care and economy, these people might live in great comfort, for the lakes abound in fish, and the hills are covered with deer. Though, of all the Indian people of this continent they are considered as the most provident, they suffer severely at certain seasons, and particularly in the dead of winter, when they are under the necessity of retiring to their scanty, stinted woods. To the Westward of them the musk-ox may be found, but they have no dependence on it as an article of sustenance. There are also large hares, a few white wolves, peculiar to their country, and several kinds of foxes, with white and grey partridges, etc. The beaver and moose-deer they do not find till they come within 60 degrees North latitude; and the buffalo is still further South. That animal is known to frequent an higher latitude to the Westward of their country. These people bring pieces of beautiful variegated marble, which are found on the surface of the earth. It is easily worked, bears a fine polish, and hardens with time; it endures heat, and is manufactured into pipes or calumets, as they are very fond of smoking tobacco; a luxury which the Europeans communicated to them.
Their amusements or recreations are but few. Their music is so inharmonious, and their dancing so awkward, that they might be supposed to be ashamed of both, as they very seldom practise either. They also shoot at marks, and play at the games common among them; but in fact they prefer sleeping to either; and the greater part of their time is passed in procuring food, and resting from the toil necessary to obtain it.
They are also of a querulous disposition, and are continually making complaints; which they express by a constant repetition of the word eduiy, "it is hard," in a whining and plaintive tone of voice.
They are superstitious in the extreme, and almost every action of their lives, however trivial, is more or less influenced by some whimsical notion. I never observed that they had any particular form of religious worship; but as they believe in a good and evil spirit, and a state of future rewards and punishments, they cannot be devoid of religious impressions. At the same time they manifest a decided unwillingness to make any communications on the subject.
The Chepewyans have been accused of abandoning their aged and infirm people to perish, and of not burying their dead; but these are melancholy necessities, which proceed from their wandering way of life. They are by no means universal, for it is within my knowledge, that a man, rendered helpless by the palsy, was carried about for many years, with the greatest tenderness and attention, till he died a natural death. That they should not bury their dead in their own country, cannot be imputed to them as a custom arising from a savage insensibility, as they inhabit such high latitudes that the ground never thaws; but it is well known, that when they are in the woods, they cover their dead with trees. Besides, they manifest no common respect to the memory of their departed friends, by a long period of mourning, cutting off their hair, and never making use of the property of the deceased. Nay, they frequently destroy or sacrifice their own, as a token of regret and sorrow.
If there be any people who, from the barren state of their country, might be supposed to be cannibals by nature, these people, from the difficulty they, at times, experience in procuring food, might be liable to that imputation. But, in all my knowledge of them, I never was acquainted with one instance of that disposition; nor among all the natives which I met with in a route of five thousand miles, did I see or hear of an example of cannibalism, but such as arose from that irresistible necessity, which has been known to impel even the most civilised people to eat each other.
EXAMPLE OF THE CHEPEWYAN TONGUE.
14 Those of them who come to trade with us, do not exceed eight hundred men, and have a smattering of the Knisteneau tongue, in which they carry on their dealings with us.
15 The coast is inhabited on the North-West by the Eskimaux, and on the Pacific Ocean by a people different from both.
16 They do not, however, sell them as slaves, but as companions to those who are supposed to live more comfortably than themselves.
17 The provision called pemmican, on which the Chepewyans, as well as the other savages of this country, chiefly subsist in their journeys, is prepared in the following manner: The lean parts of the flesh of the larger animals are cut in thin slices, and are placed on a wooden grate over a slow fire, or exposed to the sun, and sometimes to the frost. These operations dry it, and in that state it is pounded between two stones; it will then keep with care for several years. If, however, it is kept in large quantities, it is disposed to ferment in the spring of the year, when it must be exposed to the air, or it will soon decay. The inside fat, and that of the rump, which is much thicker in these wild than our domestic animals, is melted down and mixed, in a boiling state with the pounded meat, in equal proportions: it is then put in baskets or bags for the convenience of carrying it. Thus it becomes a nutritious food, and is eaten, without any further preparation, or the addition of spice, salt, or any vegetable or farinaceous substance. A little time reconciles it to the palate. There is another sort made with the addition of marrow and dried berries, which is of a superior quality.
18 This name is also applicable to the foetus of an animal, when killed, which is considered as one of the greatest delicacies.