Disputes were settled by persuasion or by physical force. The Beaver had moral codes suited to and growing out of their way of life. Offences against the accepted code were punished by social disapproval, which, in such close-knit circles as a band of relatives, was a very powerful force. It was comparable to the Asiatic reaction to “losing face”, which may compel a Japanese to commit hari-kari (suicide). The family of an Indian man or woman would rally round an individual who was harmed. In that case the band or tribe was not involved as a whole. A blood feud between the families involved might develop, but more likely the offender would be made to pay for his offence either by arbitration or by appropriation by the injured party of something the offender cherished.
In case of an offence like treasonable relations with an enemy or the breaking of an important taboo that was interpreted as dangerous to the band or tribe, a tribal council would take place and a decision reached.
Twice such events are reported to have occurred at the little Sundance lakes on the John Hart Highway east of Chetwynd. These should more properly be called “War Dance Lakes”, the name the Indians gave them. On one occasion a white man was reported to be stealing furs from an Indian trap line, a major crime. After much discussion, one Indian was chosen by the band to kill the offender. The fur thief, still remembered in the name of Fur Thief Creek, mysteriously disappeared. On another occasion a white man was reported to be stealing things from Indian grave-houses. The property of the deceased, such as a gun, was deposited in or on the grave. Even the family of the deceased would not take it for it still belonged to his spirit. Some tribes believed it helped the spirit on his journey to the other world. Another reason for “leaving no estate” was to prevent quarreling among the deceased’s relatives. In any case, robbing a grave was in the nature of a very serious crime. In this case it is said that the police got wind of the probable punishment, and whisked the offender out of the country.
A more serious offence resulted in the splitting of a tribe, and the outlawing of a part of a band, found about a hundred years later as the Sarcee, now living near Calgary. There are minor differences in the versions of the story as told by the Indians at Dunvegan to Dr. Goddard, by J. G. MacGregor in Land of Twelve Foot Davis and by the remaining Northern Beavers who told their version to Professor Robin Ridington.
In essence, this is the story. The locale does not matter – one version says near Hudson’s Hope – another at Saskatoon Lake. A summer gathering of the bands was going on – dancing, gambling, and socializing. A dog used a gun (or a quiver of arrows) in the way dogs do. An old woman laughed. The owner of the defiled weapon shot the animal. Its owner attacked in retaliation. The families of both sides joined the battle. Before long, several score Indians were dead. Killing the food-providers was a grievous offence. Hurriedly a council of the elders was held. The man who shot the dog was held responsible and he and his entire band were condemned to exile. Before morning they had vanished. Making their way south, they allied themselves eventually with the Blackfeet, but keep their own Athapaskan speech to this day. They are the Sarcee.
Actually it was a humane penalty, for which the alternative would probably have been a series of blood feuds and vengeance-killings between the bands.
Strangers, or even a people of a neighboring tribe, might be killed without guilt. They had no rights to protection unless they married into a band, or placed themselves under the protection of some powerful family.
The Crees say that incest or intermarriage within the family was not an offence among the early Beavers, as it was among the Crees. Neither was polygamy or the practice of having several wives. In fact it was a social necessity, since a man was forced to take the widow of a dead brother as his wife unless someone else could be found to take her. The life the Indians led caused a higher mortality among males, leaving many more women than men alive. At the same time a good hunter needed more than one wife to deal with the meat and hides which ancient tribal law forbade the Indian to waste. The solution was reasonable – a man might take as many wives as he could support.
Mr. Peter Campbell, a retired Metis guide from Beaverlodge, told the writer about Wolf, the famous chief and hunter of Fort St. John about the turn of the century. He had seven wives. The priest was trying to convert him to the ways of the Church, emphasizing that polygamy is a “sin.” Wolf listened up to a point, and then stalked off saying “I do not think so. Any man who can hunt enough moose for seven wives deserves to keep them.”
Mr. Campbell remembers that when he was a little boy he met Wold. Wolf, he said, was tall – the tallest Beaver he had ever seen.
Wolf figured prominently in the bloodless revenge on the Klondikers at Fort St. John, when they abused the Indians, and also in a story of Phillip Godsell’s in Peace River Chronicles.
Within the Beaver family a psychologically sound system of discipline prevailed. No man ever struck his own son. In fact the Indians thought white men barbarous because they inflicted corporal punishment on their own flesh and blood. This is not to say that children grew up without control. The boy’s paternal uncle or near relative such as a grandfather was responsible for his training and education. A grandmother or aunt had the same responsibility for the girls. They would instruct the child how to endure pain or hard work but only in preparation for life, but not as punishment. At a very early age, relatives had taught the child exactly what he might and might not do. The disapproval of his band weighed more heavily on the child than would the spanking of a white father, for it was not the expression of an individual’s anger, but the collective judgment of everybody he knew. Child beating and baby-battering was unknown among the Indians. Especially among the Cree, giving the child a critical nickname was a common disciplinary practice. For example, a child that constantly jumped around in a way that hindered the work might be chidingly called “Hopping Rabbit.” The offender could change it only by earning a more complimentary nickname by good behavior.
The Indians had an entirely different concept of theft than the white man did. If an Indian needed anything in another Indian’s teepee he was at liberty to take it for his own use. There was no need to ask permission, and no thanks were expected. Therefore the Indians could not understand the white man’s concept of “private ownership.” The Indian was expected to share, especially such large prey as a buffalo. For a hunter to keep choice portions for his own use was a crime against the band. Smaller game could be kept for oneself, but only if no one else needed some of it.
Lack of hospitality was an offence. Wife sharing was not. Outright theft — the appropriation of another’s property for greed, not need, was unthinkable among the Beavers. Pond, Mackenzie, and many other early explorers recorded instances of absolute honesty of the Indians when first encountered. A story probably illustrates the point more clearly than any statement. A missionary, attended by his Indian assistant, was closing up his mission buildings in preparation for an extended absence. As he prepared to lock the door, the Indian remarked, “You needn’t do that, Father. There isn’t a white man within a hundred miles.”
Old-timers interviewed in 1973 were unanimous that until the Indians were demoralized by free use of liquor, they were absolutely honest. Nobody thought of locking a pioneer house because if an Indian entered it, he left a fire laid in winter, with kindling cut to make another. If food were needed, it was taken on the understanding that it had been left there for that purpose. If an Indian took any, he would leave its value in something else, or come back later with an offering of meat.
Imitation of the “taking-ways” of white men has been a bad example to many younger Indians although the elders who remember the old ways try to teach them differently.