Dorthea Calverley: I introduce Mr. Norman Mercredi of Assumption. Our friend, Mr. Belcourt, tells me that you are a medicine man. I understand that you have learned your art from your grandfather, and I would like to know how you were chosen to be trained as a medicine man. Was it because of a dream, or because you were smart, or just because your grandfather liked you?
Norman Mercredi: Actually, I learned from my Mom. She taught the whole family, my brother and I and the two girls.
DC: Then the whole family knows about the herbs?
NM: Just about every family around Assumption does. There are many Crees, and they know.
DC: Do you use many herbs?
NM: That is pretty hard to explain. Usually we don’t tell anybody. That knowledge is very expensive. We are very careful who we give it to.
DC: I don’t want to publish or profit from it, but I would like to know that it is written down, because I think the young people, once they go to schools, will not care about it. Doctors are now investigating many of the old medicines.
NM: Some young people still do [care], but mostly it is the old-timers.
DC: I, myself, feel that herbs are very important. Just yesterday, I was talking to our own doctor about our son’s experience in Asia where he found medicine men using herbs. Our doctor said that the shamans did use herbs that are now being found valuable. For example, the “snake root”, long used here and in Asia in treating old people, for 5,000 years, is now found to yield a drug very valuable in treating high blood pressure. Do any of your people write down any on this information?
NM: No, we all know them by heart from our great-granddad.
DC: I want the young people to know that you did have this knowledge in your culture, and that it was good. Mr. Lee, the Chinese man who is working with us, was telling us yesterday about the use of herbs in China today. He said that, after a student had got his medical degree in Canada, he had to study two more years about herbs before he could practice in China. Even his own wife from Hong Kong had an ointment that could rapidly cure a bruise or black-and-blue spot, so the next morning there was no soreness, no swelling. Maybe this knowledge came from Asia, if your people came from there across the Bering Strait. Is there any of your learning that you can share?
NM: My brother Henry keeps all the herbs.
DC: Have you known of people that have been cured, that the doctors had given up?
NM: Yes, my uncle had TB at five years, very bad. My uncle made a drink of two herbs, and the boy got better.
DC: How long ago was that?
NM: Many years. He has raised a family since then. (He declined to discuss it further).
The interviewer told NM about the tarry ointment that Granny Whitford gave a local white man, which after two applications completely cleared up a chronic ulcer that had defied all kinds of doctors.
NM: Oh yes, I know that. It is made from a plant we call “strong grass”. We use it for horses’ sore shoulders. It is good.
We spoke of “Granny Whitford” of Fairview. He knew of her, and said she had great knowledge. She was Cree.
Mr. Mercredi explained that for many years in the “mountains” between here and Rainbow Lake, there were large summer gatherings of both Beaver and Cree, so that while he spoke Cree, he understood but could not speak Beaver, although his sisters did. He said that the people came for a hundred and fifty miles to this special place. There would be a big pow-wow there – trade horses, trade guns, trade wives. Chief Billie (later associated with Moberly Lake) used to come. That’s how the mixture of tribes happened. There was an old chief with six wives [perhaps Wolf of Fort St. John?]
My granddad was a great medicine man. My mom used to talk about him. There were no dogs allowed around where he lived. It was all fenced. (He declined to say why.)
NM: People came from all over – from Fort St. John, Fairview and all over this way. In 1916 they tell that right on that Peace River hill, where Twelve-Foot Davis’ grave is, there were a hundred and fifty teepees. After 1918, there was nobody left.
DC: Where were they buried?
NM: That’s something I never found out, but one old lady said, “Right on top that hill”. There was one cemetery near Hay Lakes, but the riverbank caved in. Bones were coming off, all over the bank. In 1918, all over Hay Lakes and Assumption was one big graveyard – graves all over in the bushes.
The interviewer described the stone-pile on the top of the hill overlooking Pouce Coupe, in unplowed land and then asked; “When did they start making the little houses over the graves?”
NM: Not very long ago — 1920, 1930 in some places, I think.
DC: What was the idea? Was it a religious idea?
NM: All those old people, when they leave this world, they are still “alive” – so the little houses were built for shelter.
Asked why canvas “shelters” were painted blue like the sky Mr. Mercredi said, “It had some meaning to those people. In the old days they put rifles, ammunition and everything under there. In Indian graveyards you see meat, tobacco – everything hanging under the trees, as gifts to the spirit.
DC: Did they believe in a life after death?
NM: Oh yes, so the people made presents. And the young generation just keeps it up afterwards. (As we place flowers on a grave, but with more reason.)
DC: Is it true among your people that after death, you do not say the name of the deceased?
NM: Oh yes – but later you can tell of his honours.
DC: Do you have a native name as well as the one the white man gave you?
NM: Oh, there are lots of Indian nicknames, but when they came to this [area], many changed their names. Then the school gave us names. Some of us don’t like the names the white men call us.
DC: Maybe you have some names for white men too.
NM: Oh yes. (He laughed).
Asked about the Beaver medicine customs, he said that the Beavers around Halfway and the Slavey around Hay Lakes did not use the Cree medicines, but relied on their dreams. Their weaker constitutions he attributed to their habit of intermarriage. The Chipewyans, he said, were different. He himself was half French, Cree, Beaver, Slavey, — “all mixed up”.
Concerning the use of medicines again, Mr. Mercredi explained that when the native people use a root or other herb, there has to be an exchange – “tobacco, food something like that”. Mr. Belcourt explained that, to use the services of the medicine man, you have to give “whatever it is worth to you.” When he dug “rat root”, however, he gave thanks to God, who put it there. “That was enough”.
DC: Could you purchase so much for – say – five dollars?
Mr. Belcourt: Five dollars means nothing. It depends on your need. Some people for a piece of rat root would give a horse. So, before the white people can obtain this knowledge, to record it, the only way is to exchange what it is worth to them. Not take, but exchange, so the circle of unity is not broken.
Mr. Mercredi explained how his grandfather would take them on horseback to find the herbs, but his grandmother would teach them how to use them.
Mr. Belcourt recalled a story a woman had told him about a woman who had lost all her sons except one. And he was sick. So she went out in the forest to pray to the Great Spirit to teach her to save the life of her son.
Without knowing why she was doing it, she gathered certain things. She felt a strong compulsion to take the roots of the birch tree, but only the ones “going north”. There was also a certain plant whose flower Mr. Mercredi had pointed out to him. The direction to use these certain herbs was attributed to the Great Spirit. The woman was in hospital, when she heard of her son’s illness – just about a month previous to the interview. Although desperately ill, the son recovered. Yet the woman could not treat herself. She had to use her “revelation” for somebody else.
Mr. Mercredi admitted that there were also “bad medicines”. But would not concede that they were used for purposes of revenge or to hurt someone. “We use our herbs only for help.”
DC: (returning to the exchange system with the shaman: But suppose the sick person has nothing to trade, would you refuse help?
NM: They always have something – a rifle.
DC: But suppose they needed that to make a living. Would you take that?
NM: Well, usually they have another one. He wouldn’t give something like that, if he needed it. Moccasins, jackets, something like that would do.
There’s something we call the “heart root”, for when you have heart disease. We got that from the Stoney Indians. They came from around Rocky Mountain House. They know more roots than the Crees. They have more roots than we have.
DC: How about the Blackfoot?
NM: They are just about the same as the Stoneys. They are away ahead of us. We Crees must have got mixed up. We started from around Manitoba to come first around Grouard, although there are Crees from the east to west all the way across Canada. The east is where they really started from – all the way across.
DC: Do you have any stories about how the different tribes originated?
NM: We never heard about that. Nobody explained to us. There were lots of old fellows around. Old Man Holmes – he lived to be over a hundred. He came from Manitoba.
The only story I remember – he went up to Calgary and walked out around Nordegg. High on the top of the Rocky Mountains is a lake there. He climbed up there and caught a fish there. He couldn’t understand that. How did that fish get up there? Some of them figured that some bird, a hawk or an eagle, kept hauling their fish up there to feed their young. The old man said “No. Them fish got up there.”
DC: It is interesting to me that the Beavers, Slaveys and others speak one language and the Crees speak another. They’ve lived in the same territory for many years, and yet the Cree can’t understand the Beaver.
Mr. Belcourt: I think we Crees are more curious, more aggressive. We’re more willing to try things, while the Beaver are meeker. The Beaver are a pushover.
NM: When I was a child and I did something silly my auntie would tease me “You are a Beaver”. That’s one way to teach the children.
Mr. Belcourt: We Crees have a very heavy language. For instance, if a man acts like a dog, we name him “Dog” and he understands that. He has acted bad like a dog, so he tries to do better, and get a new name.
DC: I understand that an Indian would never punish his own son – slap him or hurt him. Is that so?
NM: Most Indians are like that in the old days, but now the kids act like the boss.
DC: What do you do about it?
NM: Well, older brothers and sisters give that kid a good licking. Maybe the old folks get softhearted. The older kids take the old people’s place and look after the kids.
After an intermission Mr. Mercredi took up the story, about life when he was a little boy.
“As late as 1929”, he said, “our people were still using bows and arrows. Around Hay Lakes until 1900, it was still North West Territories. They (he didn’t specify who) would still come stealing women, girls and women. My mother remembers when she lived around Notikewin, on the Battle River there, they would come from Hay River and steal girls. My people were staying up beyond the Hotchkiss River when they had a battle. About ten of the girls tried to escape. They were all holding hands and wading across, but the river was strong, and all were swept away. That was my mother’s or grandmother’s aunties. All of the men had been killed, and the girls were trying to find other people. (He was relating a folktale about the last great battle between the Beaver and the Crees. These girls were Crees.)
Asked about the name Pouce Coupe, – whether it meant the French “cut thumb” or the other more involved Beaver version about an abandoned beaver dam, Mr. Mercredi stated positively – “That means a small swamp – like behind a beaver dam. We still call it that – “Pooscapee”. – pronounced with the accent on the “pee” syllable.) “Apsassin” means a small place, or a skin.
My great granddad was called Rainbow. In Cree “pesam moya pee” – it means round like the moon, but not the moon, but like the moon.
DC: That’s almost poetry.
Mr. Belcourt: The Cree language is poetic. That’s why I say our language is “heavy”. When it’s properly interpreted, it is like poetry. When names were translated at the signing of the Treaty, they were often not given their poetic meaning. That is [one reason] why the Indians did not understand the treaties.
In later informal conversation, not recorded, Mr. Mercredi stated that an old man sought aid from his grandfather, as late as 1940, giving him a horse, a rifle and tobacco, as he seemed to be on the point of death. His grandfather, the chief, had bought the recipes from the Stoney Indians – “very expensive”. He went to Calgary for that. In three days he saw the old man get up and walk home.
That Chief Smallboy is a medicine man. The old Hobbema have very powerful “medicine”.
The Sioux were not naturally a warlike people. There is a family now near Dixonville who was captured by the Sioux, who says that some Sioux had escaped from the USA with Sitting Bull and come North. Also, that some Dakotas had also come North, and to the present day, had not signed Treaty. That is where the family “Decoteau” originated. (Hints of such immigrants appear in the writings of Phillip Godsell and others.)
He confirmed that Indian children did not have toys. The small boys started very young with tiny bows. Little girls might wrap buckskin around a stick and pretend it was a child. Indian children were “little adults” from the toddling stage. Later they made paper dolls, and dolls or toy horses out of mud, but did not have fashion dolls like white children did.
He mentioned that the Crees used to make dishes out of clay, and baked them in a fire. “Some of them still do, but now that they are all mixed up with Beavers, Slaveys, and other, they have learned to make dishes of birch bark.”
He confirmed that heavy implements like stone hammers were left behind at commonly used hunting grounds for the next comers. After the disappearance of the buffalo, the Indians’ hunger was not due to the scarcity of moose, but to the rise in population of the Indians, and the use of rifles. As late as 1920 or 1930 the Fort Nelson Indians still preferred the bows and arrows.
The Fort Vermilion Indians liked Sheridan Lawrence. The Mercredi children were educated at St. Henry’s at Fort Vermilion. Their father took them from Rainbow Lake. They were allowed to speak Cree there. Father Habay was the head. They were taught to read and write English.
He felt that the Fathers and Sisters gave the children better care before the missions were broken up, but he thinks that integrated schools can be made to work, and that there would be work if the high school student looked for it in the North.
There was no cancer among Indians, according to his grandfather before the white man came. His grandfather suspected baking soda and baking powder as causative agents for cancer and TB. As long as they lived on wild meat and fruit, and had no cereals they remained healthy. He mentioned that the Indians used fish eggs whenever they could get them.
Cattle raising and farming have made some people well off. His brother-in-law, Chief Chonkolay of High Level “has everything”, without doing any guiding to augment income. He considered that the Indians would be better off if they had more control of their own affairs. The young Indians around Assumption have been buying tractors and other equipment and are doing very well. There is very little welfare in his northern district.
They used to walk 150 miles to get tobacco, and walk back. There was a pack trail from Fort St. John to Fort Nelson in 1917, five years before Godsell claimed to have cut the first trail. Sometime about 1922 a horse drive was made by six Indians, trying to take them to the Yukon. We did not find out with what success.
He explained that “Alexis (?)” was the prophet in the early days. He taught the people in their own language at the pow-wows – even very recently. There was one main prophet, and other lesser prophets spread the leading prophet’s message. At the pow-wows the prophet would speak for maybe three -four hours. Then they would have a tea dance. Every person brought something, – cigarettes, rice, meat, food – and made a gift to the prophet, who put it all in pans. Then three boys danced the gift dance around the fire in the centre of the circle before drenching the things with lard or fat, and throwing it in the fire, as an offering to the Great Spirit. Sometimes as many as nine drums played and dancing went on all night long. In the older days, people came from all over – from Calgary, Edmonton, Hudson’s Hope and many other places”
At a recent pow-wow, (1973) Rick Belcourt observed a prophetess at Meander River, chanting while holding a rosary. Mr. Mercredi said that it was “a rosary dance”. Mr. Belcourt could not record this without Alexis’ permission. (The chief prophet’s.)
Mr. Mercredi agreed that this had been borrowed from the Roman Catholic religion, indicating some blending of the old and the new.