(Morice, 1906: 135)
The purpose of this study is to describe the aboriginal and early post-contract Sekani Indians of northeastern British Columbia using four fur-trade journals as the primary sources of information.
While the journals were primarily records of exploration or of the economics of the fur-trade, they contain a remarkable wealth of detail about the Indians. More importantly, however, they are the earliest written accounts of the Indians and their cultures.
In spite of frequently annoying each other, the trader and the Indian could not escape having a community of interest. The explorers and traders studied the Indians with an eye to developing trade, an activity which they knew involved more than “dragging a keg of cheap liquor into the woods and returning rich.” (Saum, 1965: 11)
The first serious anthropological study of the Sekani, by Diamond Jenness, was not done until 1924, more than 130 years after the Sekani’s first direct contact with Europeans. By 1924, of course, all first-hand knowledge of the aboriginal culture had gone, and Jenness had to rely on a few artifacts and oral traditions. Interestingly enough, he turned to the journals of the fur traders Alexander Mackenzie and Simon Fraser as sources, recognizing their potential value to the ethnographer.
The four journals employed in this study cover a span of thirty-one years, and are those of Alexander Mackenzie (1793), Simon Fraser (1806), Daniel Williams Harmon (1810) and Samuel Black (1824). All four men were employees of the NorthWest Company and Black continued with the Hudson’s Bay Company after the companies united in 1821. All but Harmon were on journeys of exploration when the journals were prepared: Mackenzie on his way to the Pacific; Fraser following Mackenzie’s lead and seeking the Columbia River; and Black exploring the Finlay River to its source and beyond. Harmon was a trader, and his journal of 1810 centers on the NorthWest Company fort at Stuart Lake and his trip to it on the Peace and Parsnip Rivers.
Some caution must be used in drawing on fur-trade journals as the traders were seldom totally objective about the Indians they encountered. Physical descriptions are consistently coloured by European standards of appearance (Saum: 118) while descriptions of native artifacts are more reliable. Traders were seldom privy to the nuances of aboriginal culture and were prone to describe and interpret at a surface level.
Mackenzie prepared meticulous and detailed notes on the physical appearance, tools and clothing of the Sekani. Fraser complained a lot and added only a small quantity of data while Harmon, one of the more sensitive fur men, reported on customs and behaviour. Samuel Black described the physical environment in detail and added his impressions of the Sekani as hunters and woodsmen. His comments tend to be negative, and reflect his disappointment with the poor trade prospects of the area he explored at the request of his bitter former enemy, Governor Simpson of the Hudson’s Bay Company.
In order to reduce the hazards of using four different and sometimes unreliable sources, reference is made to Diamond Jenness’s study (1937) and of Father A.G. Morice’s History of Northeastern British Columbia (1906) to confirm information and to supplement it where the traders are silent.
The Sekani People
The Sekani present an immediate problem of definition because their culture has few sharp edges with which to distinguish it from neighbouring groups. They are Athapaskans, and part of that widespread forest people who have flowed across much of northern Canada since the last glaciation.
In dialect, the Sekani are virtually indistinguishable from the Beaver to the east and across the Rockies, and have little difficulty in understanding the groups to the north. In spite of the mountain barrier between the Sekani and the Beaver, Harmon (1810: 256) found little difference in language, customs and manners and concluded that the two were actually one people, but that the Beaver had driven their kinsmen west into the Rocky Mountain Trench. Jenness (1937: 5) accepts Harmon’s thesis and the pattern of inter-tribal conflict in northeastern British Columbia and the Alberta Peace River area supports it as well.
The Plains Cree, possessing guns and vigorously expanding westward in the 1700’s, put extreme pressure on the Athapaskans. The Chipewyan retreated northward, the Beaver/Sekani westward, into the valley of the Peace River. At some time and for some now forgotten reason, the Beaver/Sekani people split, and the Sekani were forced across the eastern Rockies into the Rocky Mountain Trench. The name “Sekani” means “People of (on) the Rocks” and describes their final refuge.
The Beaver are somewhat xenophobic, and the split may have been between a majority (the ‘real’ Beaver) who wanted to resist the Cree, and a splinter group who were willing to assimilate with the invaders. A much earlier division had resulted in the expulsion/departure of the Sarcee, so the concept of a political schism is not untenable.
The Sekani, as defined for this study, occupied the basins of the Parsnip and Finlay Rivers in their entirety and the upper reaches of the Peace River as far east as present-day Hudson’s Hope. The Rocky Mountain Trench north of McLeod Lake and south of the Liard River was their home. Samuel Black (p. 72) describes the Sekani as “wandering in small parties in misery and in fear of their enemies, the Cree, and others.” The ‘others’ were the Beaver to the east, the Carriers to the south and west, and even the Gitksan at the far western limit of Sekani range.
Alexander Mackenzie was the first European to meet the Sekani, although the small band he met on June 9, 1793 on the upper Parsnip had heard about white men. There were six adults and seven or eight children in this small band, and they carried dried fish for provisions. (Mackenzie, 1793: 307) They were already trading beaver pelts to the Carriers, who undoubtedly traded them with coastal people.
Jenness (1937: 27) describes the Sekani of 1924 as being somewhat taller than the coast Indians, with a narrow head, spare build and cheek bones which appeared to be particularly prominent. He simply reproduces Mackenzie’s journal entry to describe the earlier Sekani.
A brief portion of that entry is included here (Mackenzie: 311)
These then are the Sekani, an Athapaskan people hemmed in on three sides by unfriendly people who controlled environments where food was more plentiful and the land more inviting and forgiving. Sekani adaptations were for a harsh environment, the Rocky Mountain Trench.
The Land and Its Resources
The Sekani occupied a portion of the Rocky Mountain Trench, that peculiar geological feature which cuts a nearly straight gash in the land from the United States almost to Alaska. The trench is flanked by mountains and is itself a series of long, straight valleys separated by low divides. Rivers alternate in a pattern of north or south flowing streams in narrow nearly level valleys.
The Finlay River rises at about 4,000 feet above sea level and flows southeastward, while the Parsnip rises at 3,000 feet and runs northwestward to meet the Finlay. Where they meet, at about 2,000 feet elevation, they form the Peace River and flow east to join the Mackenzie River.
The physical setting in which the Sekani struggled for survival is well described by Jenness (1937: 1), and a portion of his description is given here:
The whole country is heavily wooded. There is a little cottonwood and birch at the lower levels, but the predominant trees are balsam, spruce, and pine, with a considerable growth of popular in burnt valleys . . .
The climate is rather dry, and most of the moisture falls during the winter months as snow. . . The mean temperature in January is around zero (degrees Fahrenheit) and in July the thermometer sometimes touches 90 (degrees Fahrenheit). Spring comes in the first half of March . . . and the ice leaves the lakes some time in April . . . clouds of mosquitoes plague the outdoor worker … Along the river banks and in burnt areas are many blueberries and Saskatoon berries which the Sekani eat raw, not dried and mixed with grease after the manner of the Carrier and coast tribes ….”
Smaller food animals were more plentiful, especially the siffleur or groundhog (Black: 35) which was snared, trapped and speared in quantity on the Finlay. Swans, ducks and geese were available in season, but the essential beaver (essential to the traders, that is) was only plentiful south of Finlay Forks. The many lakes and streams of the Rocky Mountain Trench yielded trout (Dolly Varden), carp and Whitefish but again, only in limited quantities.
Only in Bear Lake, on the upper reaches of the Skeena River, could the Sekani hope to tap the Pacific salmon runs (Jenness: 2) and that enterprise brought them into conflict with the Gitksan.
On the eastern slopes of the Rockies on the plateaus above the Peace River, the Sekani could hope to kill buffalo (Wood bison) which were plentiful until about 1830, but which also attracted Cree and Beaver hunters.
Jenness introduces a contradictory element to this picture of the Sekani’s meager environment. He describes the Sekani as relying for their main food supply on the abundant wild animals, and speaks of the headwaters of the Finlay as being among the finest game areas in all North America. (Jenness: 2) This is the same area which Black described as a barren waste incapable of supporting any beaver hunters who might venture into it. (Black: 185)
R.M. Patterson, in his introduction (1955) to Black’s journal, provides a clue to resolving the differences on the two accounts:
The environment was apparently improving at the same time the Sekani were adapting to its rigors. The first two centuries of life in the Rocky MountainTrench must have been difficult indeed, and it is not surprising that the Sekani continued to dream of their old homes on the lower Peace River, where buffalo, deer, moose, and beaver were plentiful.
Land Ownership and Territoriality
Perhaps the paucity of food resources led the Sekani to be more possessive of territory than was usual among the Athapaskans. (VanStone, 1974: 50) It was not unusual for them to kill intruders, and Mackenzie was fortunate that his party was not attacked. The small band he first met had only three men, but they threatened Mackenzie with their bows and only reluctantly agreed to let him land. Mackenzie interpreted one Sekani’s surrender of his knife as ‘a mark of submission to my will and pleasure.’ (Mackenzie: 306) It is rather more likely that the Sekani could count to ten, the number of adult males in Mackenzie’s canoe!
Harmon (1810: 237), in discussing the forest people of northern Canada, suggested that the Indians were well aware of the extent of each other’s lands, and that the rivers, lakes and mountains formed real boundaries. An area which was unused for a season would be open for other related bands to occupy and hunt in. (Calverley, 1973)
Scattered as they were over vast expanses of land, organized defense of tribal territory was totally impossible, and most of the time it was small family hunting groups which responded to unwelcome intruders if the odds were not too prohibitive.
Population and Mobility
It is not possible to make reliable estimates of pre-contact Sekani population numbers. Harmon (p. 131) thought they were ‘pretty numerous’ at Stuart Lake, and Simon Fraser (p. 178) recorded the May, 1806, population at Rocky Mountain Portage House at some 60 men, 40 women and 100 children. In a sense, the forts were havens for the Sekani who felt relatively safe from attack as long as they stayed close to the Europeans. Black (p. 51) travelled with a Sekani band led by one Methodiates, and wrote that they numbered seven married men with wives, the same number of young men and, presumably, there were a few children. The band numbered about thirty. The first Sekani that Mackenzie met numbered fourteen, of which only six were adults. VanStone (1974:11) suggests a total Sekani population of 500 in 1890, a century after European contact.
The basic population unit was the hunting band, consisting of related families or friends. Methodiates’ band of thirty probably approached the maximum practical summer size. Black (p. 51) felt that they were all the Indians in a very large area on the upper Finlay River.
With the onset of winter, the summer band would fragment into nuclear families, perhaps with one or two unmarried men attaching themselves to kin groups as extra hunters. These small bands spread themselves over a large range, and might not see each other again until the following summer.
Migratory the year around, the bands tended to follow well-established routes through their territory, harvesting food resources in favourite spots. Summer camps, usually a fishing lake, might move only in response to the vagaries of the fishery, but winter camps were on the move almost daily.
The “ideal” nomadic pattern for the Sekani saw them leave the mountains in late summer to hunt buffalo and moose on the plateaus to the east of the Rockies and to dry meat or make pemmican for the winter before breaking up into the smaller winter units. In late March the winter groups would return to the mountain lakes and valley, coalesce at favourite fishing spots and live on fish, berries, roots, groundhogs and occasional big-game until it was time to repeat the cycle.
Several factors interfered with this theoretical pattern of annual movement. The Beaver and Cree were a threat on the plains, and usually controlled the best hunting and fishing locations. After 1800, the fur-trading posts exerted a strong influence on Sekani movement, eventually tying them to the posts in summer.
The summer-united/winter-divided pattern was not rigidly adhered to and nothing resembling the great winter festivals of the Northwest Coast seems to have existed. A small group could remain together all year while a band the size of Methodiates’ could subdivide in a number of different ways to meet conditions in a particular year. Even in summer a nuclear family could be isolated, as was the family of four Black met at Lake Thucatade. The head of the family was Methodiates’ brother. (Black: 184.)
Technology and Food Production
The Sekani did not possess an impressive technology, particularly if their ‘few ill-wrought bows and arrows, wooden dishes, etc.’ (Harmon: 257) are compared to the diverse and ingenious tools of the coast. The Sekani relied more on snares, traps, and deadfalls for their food than they did on weapons. (Jenness: 39)
Caribou and deer were driven into net snares in a pound, in much the same way the Coast Salish deer drives were conducted or the buffalo hunts to the east. Rawhide snares and nets were used on land while nets made from nettle or filaments of twisted willow bark were used for fishing. The willow bark nets were more effective than European thread-nets for some reason. (Black: 71)
Fishing with nets was supplemented by hooks and by fish traps. Bone hooks, twigs with attached bone points and gull’s heads with bent upper beak were used (Black: 71) A simple fish trap resembling a sluice-box was later replaced with a more elaborate model patterned after those of the Gitksan. (Jenness: 41)
Both Fraser (p. 169) and Black (p. 35) mention the Sekani using dogs in hunting; chasing deer and moose across crusty spring snow or tracking down and surrounding game in summer. Black seemed particularly taken with the ‘little hairy Beagles with erect ears’.
Surplus food, mostly dried meat, was stored in caches which took a number of forms depending on the time and material available. Black (p. 85) described three types of cache: a log house type with dovetailed corners and a fitted cover (probably modeled after fort construction); peeled, smooth trees with a platform; and a wood-lined hole dug into a sandbank. A rock cache was used occasionally when wood was not available.
The Sekani used snowshoes for winter travel, but apparently did not use toboggans. (Jenness: 42) Small spruce bark canoes were used with poles or with paddles having short, dart-like blades, somewhat heart-shaped. Bullboats (green hides stretched on a half-sphere of willow) were sometimes used, as were rafts. Black found the Sekani to be poor watermen, and he felt compelled to report that ‘the pusillanimity and awkwardness of these Indians habituated to cross these Mountain Rivers is something strange ….’ (p. 89)
Sekani shelters were simple and portable, as was all their gear. Spruce bark (later moose-hide) tipis on a framework of a dozen or so slender poles was the winter home, while summer homes might be simple lean-tos made of branches. (Jenness: 32) The true tipi was a southern Plains Indian shelter adopted by the Cree and then by the Beaver and Sekani. (Calverley, 1973) A dome-shaped bark or skin shelter had been in use before that, but was abandoned for the tipi with its greater headroom and better smoke control.
The Sekani tool kit was not elaborate or sophisticated, but it served its purpose and was well adapted to the nomadic existence of its users. The fur trade introduced iron tools and guns which the Sekani adopted, but they were not much interested in European goods beyond necessities.
Controls on Population
Conscious control of population increment does not appear to have been part of the Sekani culture, although Jenness (p. 51) is a bit skeptical about the total lack of abortion or infanticide in pre-contract society, as told to him in 1924. VanStone
(1974: 76) suggests limited infanticide, usually of female children, only among a very few Athapaskans and usually only in the face of desperate starvation.
Chronic food shortage was probably an effective enough deterrent to rapid population growth. With little opportunity for new families to “bud off” and exploit unused resources, population increase would have to be limited in some way. Nomadic hunting cultures typically have a high and fluctuating birth rate and a high natural death rate, resulting in a small annual increase. (Trewartha, 1969: 45) Infant mortality was likely high, and voluntary death was well known among the old and feeble when food was scarce. The aged and infirm could choose to stay behind when the band moved on. A decent shelter would be built and whatever food and firewood could be spared left. The band departed quickly to lessen the emotional impact of the farewell. (VanStone: 83)
Leadership and Status
The Athapaskans did not have a system of hereditary or elected chiefs with coercive powers in the affairs of the band. Such manager-entrepreneurs as existed held their position through demonstrated merit as leaders, hunters, warriors or shamans. Decisions affecting the whole band, such as the choice of hunting and fishing locations, tended to be arrived at through the consensus of the adult males. Depending on the circumstances, the nominal leader might have more influence that others, but no authority beyond his nuclear family and dependent kinsmen.
Specialization of Occupations
The only division of labour among the Sekani seems to have been sex-based. Men hunted and protected the band while the women did everything else: ‘beast of burden by custom and necessity.’ (Black: 35) Jenness confirms this, adding that the men might be away for several days and return utterly exhausted from the hunt.
Certain hunters were more successful than others were, just as some women were more skilled at making nets than others. It seems reasonable to expect that informal exchanges of skills could and did take place in the absence of special classes of arrow-makers, canoe-builders or bear-hunters. An overriding need for family self-sufficiency would make a high level of specialization in one skill at the expense of the others severely dysfunctional.
Protection of the Group
The group, whether nuclear family or large summer band, was of paramount importance, and protective behaviours centered on its preservation. The most effective behaviour pattern for protecting the group was the custom of sharing food among families living together. All food was considered to be common property (Jenness: 44) and the hunter was expected to give away even the hide of the game he killed.
Besides evening out the inevitable variations in food supply, luck and hunting skill, the practice of sharing all food prevented any individual or family from accumulating an unequal share of the necessities of life. In the long run, sharing did much to prevent conflicts and jealousies among people who often depended on each other for survival.
Other customs of a protective nature also existed, many of them relating to guarding hunters and their medicine from negative influences. Females were considered to be unclean and unlucky during menstruation (VanStone: 80, Jenness: 56) and were isolated from the band: forbidden to eat fresh meat, to look at hunters, or to walk in their trail. Almost anything, which might seem to a superstitious hunter to endanger his medicine was avoided.
The Sekani shared with most other northern Athapaskans the custom of revenge-killing of a murderer or near relative of the guilty party (Harmon: 160, Jenness: 45) The blood-feud seldom involved members of the same band but usually involved neighbouring bands, Carriers, Cree or Beaver Indians.
Social Patterns and Integrating Behaviours
Social organization and ritual behaviours evolve to strengthen and maintain the ties between individual members of a society. Without this “social cement”, the society would disintegrate under stress and would probably not survive. Many of the basic integrating customs center on the major life-incidents of birth, adolescence, marriage and death.
Childbirth among the Sekani took place away from camp with the mother on her own or with one or two other women to help. Men avoided the birthplace for fear of affecting their hunting skills. (Jenness: 54)
Marriage occurred a year or more after puberty and was signaled by a girl’s agreeing to pack her suitor’s beaver snares. ( Morice in Jenness: 53) Parents were usually consulted, and girls were encouraged to wait for a good provider while hunters sought a strong, skilled and industrious young woman. Widows occasionally married their husband’s brothers and men could, if exceptionally good providers, have more than one wife.
According to Jenness (p. 52) exogamy with patrilineal or matrilineal descent had no place in Sekani social organization while Morice (p.5) stated that descent was patrilineal.
The vision quest was central to the passage of the male from child to adult status, and involved a personal encounter between the adolescent and his hunting medicine. In the solitude of the forest, the boy waited for the dreams or visions which would identify his medicine object, usually an animal, and give him his secret name and other information
he would need as an adult. The quest might last anywhere from one day to three or four weeks (Jenness: 68) and the nature of the vision was kept secret.
Because every male participated in the vision quest, it reinforced both maleness and membership in the larger social group. The medicine linked the individual to the spiritual world in a very personal way and benefited the group by enhancing hunting skills.
Burial customs seem to have varied a good deal among the Sekani. Black (p. 74) reports a request for a coffin in which to bury a child and Harmon (p. 257) describes the cremation of a corpse, a custom borrowed from the Carriers and more common in the southern Sekani. VanStone (p. 85) reports platform burial for persons of distinction, while burial in hollow logs and tree trunks was known. The property of the dead was neither buried nor burned, but shared among family and kin. (Jenness: 60)
The environment produced a considerable amount of emotional and physical stress for the Sekani. Hunting, even with the help of good medicine, was routinely unsuccessful. Black considered the Sekani to be ‘ poor hunters even amongst cattle. Five or six of the best hunters could not feed Rocky Mountain Portage House last winter’. (Black: 205)
Death and sickness were constant worries and custom prevented a Sekani man from openly showing his grief and anguish. A woman could scream at her husband when the packs were too heavy, or cry and wail when her child died, but the child’s father was expected to be ‘ like a true Philosopher unmoved’. (Black: 74)
Sekani society had few organized ways of relieving stress. Gambling was a favourite activity, but it is uncertain if it relieved much tension. The frequency of wife-beatings, murders and revenge-killings suggests a culture wherein highly stresses individuals have no ritualized ways to reduce tension to safe levels without endangering themselves or others.
The arrival of Europeans piled further stress on the Sekani. These strong, wealthy, confident and domineering intruders demanded labour and a concentration on fur trapping which seriously interfered with the traditional round of Sekani life. The traders did, however, bring with them a new means of relieving stress — alcohol — and these ‘quiet and inoffensive people’ (Harmon: 130) adopted it.
Ritualized redistribution of wealth as characterized by the Northwest Coast potlatch was unknown in pre-contact days and did not develop to any extent afterwards. Saum ( 1965: 11) points out an ‘ absence in the fur-trade literature ( journals and letters ) of recognizable references to the institution of the potlatch on the Northwest Coast’. Jenness does describe a Sekani potlatch (ca. 1924), but it consisted of a simple feast without songs, dancers or masks (Jenness: 49) and was a pale imitation of a Gitksan potlatch some of the Fort Grahame Sekani had attended.
The Sekani and the Supernatural Environment
At the heart of Sekani attempts to deal with the supernatural was a belief that the human and the animal worlds are linked in some mysterious but real way. Man may seek and obtain powers of hunting or curing from animals. Morice (p. 5) describes the Sekani religion as involving a future world and a notion of a Supreme Being governing through spirits, an acceptable pagan religion for a missionary with a deep interest in anthropology. Jenness, on the other hand, stated that there were no deities in the old (pre-contact) Sekani religion. (p. 67) Legends and mythological beings were borrowed freely from the Carrier, Cree, and Beaver. The Sekani had, he said, ‘no yearning toward abstraction’.
Sickness, a frightening thing for a non-scientific people, could result from only four causes: physical (such as a knife cut); the soul leaving the body and wandering about; the action of a hostile medicine man; or for some unknown cause. As Jenness points out (p. 72), all but the first could well be the work of an evil medicine man. Anxiety levels were worsened by signs of illness, and traditional herbal remedies were backed up by the skills of a friendly shaman — just in case.
Summary: The Contribution of the Fur-Trade Journal
The fur trade journals provided valuable data about the material culture of the Sekani, but were of little use in attempting to describe the spiritual world or social behaviour of the Indians in their normal setting. The traders recognized and appreciated the honesty of the Sekani (Black; 182, 192 for example) but were often impatient with them and scornful of their physical abilities.
The traders were, by large, interested in the Indians, but only to a point. While recognizing and reporting many valuable details, only ‘two things about the natives warmed the trader’s heart– his furs and his absence (from the fort), particularly the latter’. (Saum, 1965: 68)
Jenness’s scholarly study of the Sekani and his careful reconstruction of pre-contact society does not contradict many of the traders’ observations. The traders’ journals flesh out the society and give glimpses of Fraser’s amusement at the Sekani pursuing mountain goats across sheer rock faces, or Black’s straight-faced report of the Sekani wife flinging down her pack and screaming at the departing back of her husband.
The sources complement each other well, and allow the Sekani to emerge as real people — the People of the Rocks.
Calverley, Dorthea H. (compiler) History of the Peace: Indians, Our Native People. Dawson Creek, B. C.: unpublished, 1973.
Fraser, Simon. The Letters and Journals of Simon Fraser: 1806-1808. Edited by W. Kaye Lamb. Toronto: Macmillan, 1960.
Harmon, Daniel Williams. Sixteen Years in the Indian Country. Edited by W. Kaye Lamb. Toronto: Macmillan, 1957.
Jenness, Diamond. The Sekani Indians of British Columbia. Bulletin No. 84, Anthropological Series No. 20. Ottawa: National Museum of Canada, 1937.
Mackenzie, Sir Alexander. Voyages from Montreal… Edited by J. M. Garvin. Toronto: Radisson Society, 1927.
Morice, Rev. A. G. The History of the Northern Interior of British Columbia. London: John Lane, 1906.
Saum, Lewis O. The Fur Trader and the Indian. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1965.
VanStone, James W. Athapaskan Adaptations. Arlington Heights, Ill.: AHM Publishing Corporation, 1974.