Father Morice, working in the Rocky Mountain Trench seems to have had little liking or respect for the Indians whom he served as a priest. One observes that his comments are more harshly critical of the Athapaskans across the mountains from our area than anyone’s else except Governor Simpson, who looked at them almost exclusively as providers of furs and meat for the profit of his “Honorable Company”. Morice calls the Athapaskans generally “pusillanimous (fainthearted, mean spirited) timid, cowardly, lazy, without skill or any artistic disposition.” There seems to have been no record of his having ministered to our Beavers. His comments seem to be made on the basis of the tales about the Beavers which he heard from their enemies, the Sekani and the Carriers. Should he have investigated before making sweeping statements?
Mackenzie, who had met them a hundred years earlier, described them as “a quick, lively, active, people with a keen penetrating dark eye; and though they are very susceptible of anger are as easily appeased.”
Also “They are more vicious and warlike than the Chipewyans [although] they do not share their selfishness, for while they have the means of purchasing their necessaries, they are liberal and generous.” He adds, though, “but when these are exhausted they become arrant beggars.”
Morice, of course, was pleased with their “gentle dispositions” and the fact that they are “mostly all (1893) practicing Christians who conform to custom of the whites as much as their social status will permit.” It is clear that he did not know that our local Beavers were anything but receptive to Christianity. One may reflect that if the Indians Morice knew had not been “timid and cowardly” they might not have accepted his doctrine so easily.
While Daniells, in 1971 says that “their social organization was feeble,” Goddard who lived among them in 1912-14 judged their culture to be one of “efficient simplicity,” and the social organization as “simple and flexible.” The negative view vs. the positive one. Daniells shares some of the positive view when he finds that “they [the Beavers] were not without the virtue of courage” (in spite of Morice’s condemnation). He lists endurance, generosity and gratitude as characteristics. However, he sums them up rather negatively thus: “When all is said, they remain a mystery.”
Two of the Beavers have become immortalized for running away in terror when Dr. George Dawson’s pack train crossed the Dawson Creek valley. In all fairness, the writer rather sympathizes with them! The impulse as we know from experience, to take to one’s heel is very strong when one hears for the first time the diabolical ‘hee-haw’ of a mule, of which there were some in Dawson’s pack train! Several mules wanting water after a hard morning’s travel would be enough to make one’s hair prickle on one’s scalp, if one had never met them before. Dr. Dawson himself, a tiny misshapen figure of a man, would impress them in the same way that a cripple still strikes aversion into many a white man. Moreover, Dr. Dawson or some of his men would be taking readings with their surveying instruments (his “eyes on a leg”). It would look suspiciously like an invading army sighting guns. How many of us would not wisely run to the remainder of our band to tell the news and confer on ways of meeting the threat?” The fact is that the whole band later accepted the invitation to visit Dawson’s camp on the Pouce Coupe River and answer his interpreter’s questions.
The Sekani over the eastward range of the Rocky Mountains did not agree with the accusation of cowardice or faint-heartedness against the Beavers. No mean fighters themselves, they lived in terror of the Beavers from around Hudson’s Hope and Fort St. John who occasionally raided their “cousins” the Sekani whom they had earlier driven back from the Peace River area. According to Jenness the Sekani “still threaten their naughty children that the T’satene (Beavers) will carry them away.
The Beavers seem to have been intelligent enough to know “which side their bread was buttered on” in their generally peaceful dealings with the white men, or else, in their proud dignity, they did not think the white men worth fighting with.
A characteristic of the Beavers when they had won a fight was told to Jenness by the Sekani. “The T’satenne instead of killing old people (enemies) merely disfigured them by crushing the nasal bones” – a somewhat less drastic fate than being scalped, of which the Plains Indians were often victims.
If the Beaver Indians of Dr. Dawson’s day were poor physical specimens perhaps the white men should take some thought about what “civilization” had done to them. When he met them in the 1780’s Mackenzie recorded:
“There are many old men among them, but they are, in general ignorant of the space in which they have been inhabitants of the earth, though one of them told me that he recollected sixty winters.
An Indian in some measure explained his age to me, by relating that he remembered the opposite hills and plains, now interspersed with groves of poplars, when they were covered with moss, and without any animal inhabitant but the reindeer (caribou). By degrees he said, the face of the country changed to its present appearance when the elk came from the East, and was followed by the buffalo; the reindeer then retired to the long range of high lands that, at a considerable distance run parallel with this river.”
Not all the Beaver Indians were small. Mr. Peter Campbell of Beaverlodge, a Cree Metis, remembers seeing the noted Indian hunter, Wolf, who seems to have been aggressive and enterprising, not always wisely according to the traders’ ideas. Mr. Campbell stated that Wolf was a very tall man, the tallest Beaver he had ever seen. Mr. Campbell also observed that the Sekani he had seen were of small stature. As an example of this he told of speaking with one so small as to appear to be a boy. To his surprise, the man told him that he had two children.
Mr. Rick Belcourt, visiting the Beaver Reserve at Horse Lake near Dawson Creek, saw La Glace, a Beaver riding with a child on a horse. He noted that the adult was little larger than the youngster was. The Indians on this reserve are now largely intermarried with Crees. He notes that the half-Cree, half-Beaver individuals are noticeably larger, and apparently stronger than the Beavers on reserves north of Fort St. John.
The Sarcee, largely unmixed descendants of the Beavers, are shorter than most of the Blackfoot with whom they are associated but on average larger than the Northern Beavers. Whether the physical development of the Northern Beavers became retarded by the generally poor nutrition after the buffalo disappeared we do not know. Mackenzie, as far as the writer can find, did not comment on the comparative stature of the Beavers (Rocky Mountain Indians) with the Crees, who are less inbred, and who move about more, thus being exposed to a more varied diet.
We have been able to find no reports on the comparative measurements of bones and skulls from archeological “digs” that would reveal what the comparative ancient physiques really were. Probably it is of little scientific value, in any case.
Mr. Belcourt, having visited Beaver bands in various parts of the Peace River area, has been received by all the bands in a friendly way, although he had been aware that he is “sized up” generally by the children, before he gets responses to his approach. The Beavers are not hostile to one who does not communicate except through an interpreter, but they seem to relate to another Indian, even of another ancestry, more freely than to white men. For example, the Beaver prophet, Charlie Yahey, showed Mr. Belcourt an extremely old and unusual double-headed ceremonial drum. He was also admitted to a solemn ceremonial meeting at which the aged prophet communicated to his people a message of a religious nature. A white professor who lived among them for several summers reported that while he had been admitted to their social affairs and was told much of their folklore, he had never been at one of their solemn band councils.
Mr. Belcourt believes that the Beaver Indians still have a strong natural instinct for reading what the young people of today call “vibrations”, and that they respond readily if they read friendliness and absence of ulterior motives on the part of strangers. Furthermore, they will withdraw equally promptly as children do from “bad vibes”. Perhaps the aloofness of the Beavers from the traders told more about the white man than it reflected on the Indians’ “friendliness”.
If, as some scholars think the Beavers are more recently in time removed from their presumed Asiatic origins, they may have retained a curious aboriginal custom. Dr. Roderick Calverley working among the desert people of Afghanistan noted that they did not smile in greeting a stranger. This the stranger might ignorantly assume to show hostility. However, among these people, to bare one’s teeth was an act of hostility. Once admitted to a home and his friendliness having been acknowledged, Dr. Calverley found them as animated and humorous as any other people.
This assumption that there is any parallel between our Beaver Indians and the Afghanis is purely speculative, of course. However, the fact that mail order catalogues and American advertising with their page after page of affectedly smiling countenances are incomprehensible, and even repulsive to some Asiatic people should make Eaton’s and Simpson-Sears revise any sales material directed to that market!
More importantly, it is a hint to white people to find out how the native thinks before passing judgment on appearances.