Knowing little of the private lives of the Indians, the early historians and commentators knew the women only as burden bearers, but scarcely a book of personal reminiscences can be found in which a Wise Old Woman does not appear as a “very present help in time of trouble.”
Dr. Robert E. McKechnie, M.D., author of Strong Medicine concerning the medical history of British Columbia Coast Indians, was interviewed on the CBC Television network. He paid high tribute to the wisdom and expertise of the Old Women in the roles of practical nurse and midwife.
While the shaman got much attention for his elaborate ceremonies, incantations and conjuring, his role was mostly the practice of “psychosomatic medicine”. Through his skill he improved the patient’s mental attitude or dispelled depression and belief in curses or evil spirits. He was called in only when the situation seemed desperate. Probably hundreds of quiet ministrations or by the local Wise Old Woman occurred for every demonstration of the shaman’s spectacular performances.
Many of the Indian women lived to a great old age. Catherine Bisson of Peace River took treaty at one hundred and five years of age. Chief Dokkie’s mother at Moberly Lake took treaty at one hundred and six and Bella Yahey was somewhere around one hundred and sixteen when she died. These old women also keep their faculties to a surprising degree. In such a long lifetime they observe and hear many things, and, being more intelligent than most people give them credit for, make deductions that become part of tribal lore and knowledge. Such a Wise Old Woman was “Granny” Whitford of the Fairview district, famous all over the area.
Near Dawson Creek, Mrs. “Johnny Napoleon” is commemorated by the Tremblay family as a kindly woman who came to help Mrs. Hector Tremblay at the birth of the first white child in the area. Again and again her name comes up in the reminiscences of the earliest pioneers.
There are comparatively few records of white women (except nurses and doctors) going to the assistance of the Indians, but many, many of them volunteered their help when the white people were in trouble. It is a pity that this part of our history has had so little recognition.