“Was that the Riel Rebellion?”
“No before that, a long time ago.”
“How did they travel? Did they ride horses?”
“No – walked, carrying lots of stuff. They had dogs. They were a long time coming. All summer they walked. To cross the lakes and rivers they laid sticks together, held together by moose hide. It got very hard.”
“How did your grandfather cut the trees for the raft? Did he have an iron axe which he had traded for?”
“No – just stone. Sharpened stone. That’s how he cut the trees. In Saskatchewan there were not very many big trees. For fire they used chip, – buffalo chips. He did not cut many trees. They lived in a wigwam. They said it took nine moose hides to make a wigwam. Afterwards my grandmother had a canvas teepee.”
“Did you ever live in a wigwam”?
“Oh yes! I lived in a wigwam! For many years we kept the dress my grandmother wore when she came to this country. It was [a simple shift-type dress] only it was tied at the shoulders.”
“Was it made of dear or antelope skin?”
“No, buffalo, one buffalo skin made a dress. My grandmother was very small. The sleeves were made of skin too, but not sewed in. They were tied at the shoulders.”
“It must have been very heavy.”
“Oh they scraped it thin, you know, – with a sharp stone.”
We [the Interviewer] noticed that Mrs Beaudry’s pronunciation of “sharp” was more like “sarp”. We remembered that the “sh” sound was not part of the Cree language. Mrs Beaudry told us that when she was a child in the convent, she spoke nothing but French. She learned English after she was married, when she was very young. Her father died when she was seven. She remembered her parents leaving her with another man and woman one time when he went out to Edmonton in summer.
“My father had two stores, one in Grouard and one at Sturgeon Lake. Twice a summer he took out furs that he had bought, and brought back trade goods. He was awfully old when he died. My grandmother said he was old when he married my mother. He was seventy-five when he died.” Mrs Beaudry’s father must have been born in the year 1830.
“My father used to tell how they camped outside the big fort at Edmonton. My mother used to go with him in the summertime because my father used to drink too much. She looked after the business. They travelled by Slave Lake, over to the Athabasca River. It was an old Indian Trail, not cut by the white man. When my grandmother came, there was an old Indian trail — there were no white men at all.”
Mrs Beaudry gave us a vivid description of the hand game, the gambling game that seems to have been universal among all the tribes of the North. She told us that the counting sticks, in Cree, were called puk-e-sik. Mrs Beaudry pantomimed the many actions of the players as they sat in two rows. Those on one side made all sorts of actions to deceive their opponents as to which hand held the concealed objects. She also described the hand signals of the leader of the other side as he indicated his guesses for all the players of the stone-hiding team at the same time.
“If he guessed me, he killed me dead”, she said. “Then if I won, a stick was stuck in the ground – so.”
“Can you sing any of the songs they sang as they played”?
Mrs Beaudry laughed. It seemed to have been an amusing question. “Oh no, I never did that,” she replied.
Asked about the tea dances as practiced by the Cree, she described them. “They danced in two’s holding a ribbon or something like that.”
“Did the ribbon go all around the circle or just between two people”?
“Between two. Each held on to the ribbon and the two danced.”
“In a circle?”
“What kind of drums did you have? Did you make your own drums?”
“Yes, out of scraped rawhide stretched over a hoop.”
“Did yours need to be heated from time to time over a fire to make them sound right?”
“Oh, yes, that is so. The head was sewed on the hoop with babiche.”
“Mrs Beaudry, you had a special way of tanning moose hide, didn’t you? Could you tell us about that?”
“Yes, first you soaked the skin in water for two days and nights. Then you made holes all around it. Then you made a frame of four sticks and stretched the hide on it, tight. You scraped the inside to take the meat off.”
Mrs Beaudry brought out on interesting bone implement made from the leg bone of a deer. One end had been cut off at a slant. The longer edge had been rounded and beautiful little teeth had been filed in the thinned bone. At the other end was a tanned moose hide thong loop. Grasped in the hand with the marrow-channel upward and the thong looped around the elbow, the scraper, arm and thong became a triangle which construction men know as the strongest, most rigid shape. It contributed in this case to the strength of the hand and wrist.
“Then you half-dry the skin and scrape again to take off the thin “skin” under the meat, and also scrape the other side to take off hair. Now you make a fire and put on spruce bark to make smoke. You hold the hide over the fire, moving it around all the time until it is brown all over. Now you grease it with a little lard or bear fat. Bear fat is good. Spread it all over and smoke again until the lard all disappears. The grease goes right through the hide. After that you boil the brains with a little bit of water and rub all over the hide.”
She demonstrated with her hands how the mixture was rubbed all over – like the television commercials for the application of beauty soap. “It is now soft.”
“Now” she said, taking a cloth in her hands and folding it edge-to-edge in the centre, length wise, then bringing ends towards the centre of the rectangle, then folding again to half the length so that the ends were tucked inside. “Fold it up, – so – and put it under a heavy weight for two nights. Then throw it in a tub and soak it wet all over. Then the hide is put over a light stick, and twisted with another stick very tight, to get all the water out.
Now two people have to pull the hide very tight. Pull, pull, pull! Underneath is a fire, not very hot, just smoke. You pull and move the hide around all over. Otherwise you burn it. If there are any thick, hard places you pull them out.” She demonstrated how much strength was needed to make the hard spots thin and soft enough.
“The two people pull, pull, pull and you move your hands – so.”
Here she gave one end of the cloth to the interviewer and while the two held one side taut, she rotated the other hands quickly, so that one could see that the smoke would be fanned underneath the skin. The fanning motion was repeated on the other side.
“You do this,” she continued, “until you can blow through the hide and feel the breath on the other side. Now it is dry.
“Then you tie the skin, like a tube, (or shift dress) put a stick inside to hold it up over another smoky fire. You find rotten spruce to make the fire.”
Mrs Beaudry had mentioned a couple of extra steps that are not found in books.
“How did you sew the moose hide?”
“With sinew. You rolled it in your knee, after you have separated it. You rolled one end small, to go through the needle”. The needle was a muskrat bone with a hole in it. “I do not use much sinew.”
“Did you use many herbs – leaves and plants and things for medicines, Mrs Beaudry?” “Yes, I have a piece of rat root here.”
She brought out a slender dried “root” or underground rootstalk, with dark scars at short intervals that looked like the base of leaf stalks.
“What did you use it for?”
“Everything! If you gave an Indian a piece like this,” – she measured off a length of one inch – “he would give you one horse.”
“So small a piece?”
“Yes, you scrape it in water. Or if you keep a small piece in your mouth, you do not get pneumonia. If you have a pain in the stomach, you take it. No more pain.”
“Did it grow around Moberly Lake?”
“Only at Grouard. If I get Grouard again I can get a pail full. I always dig it myself. It grows in the water in bunches. Green leaves. Wide”.
She measured as high as the knee. Oddly the interviewer had been given a piece a day or two before, sent from Onion Lake, Saskatchewan, where a scientist was studying Indian medicines.
“Also we used tamarack bark, you soak it in water, then scrape off the soft stuff. It is very good for poison in the skin, and cuts and bruises and wounds.
“I had two children,” she said, “they are gone now. My stepfather was mean to me when I came out of the mission. I married very young. I did not want to go back to the mission. Those Slave Lake kids were very mean to my sister and me.”
“Were you educated at the convent?’
“No, not after Grade II. Then I worked for the sisters all the time. I worked very hard.”
“Did you have any toys or dolls? Did you play any games?”
“No, I never played. I had no dolls. On Sunday afternoon when I did not have to work I would go to the wigwams where there were old people. I would listen to the stories about old times, and how they did things. I liked that. No, I never played. I worked very hard at the mission. I was glad to leave that place.”
Asked about tobacco, she said, “We never had tobacco until the white man came. I made lots of Kinickinick. Yes I made lots for the old people out of red-willow bark. We mixed it with other leaves and things.”
“What did they use tobacco for – just pleasure? Or was pipe smoking a religious ceremony?”
She did not explain, but described the pipes. They were neither clay nor stone. There is in the woods a hard wood. They made a hole in it, and smoked it liked that. My grandfather made his own pipes all the time.” Later she told us that her father was a medicine man. Her mother, also, knew about herbs and medicines.
“What plants did you use for food?”
“We used to split a log or take a flat stone, all summer we picked berries, Saskatoons, blue berries and raspberries. We spread them out there [on the log or flat stone] and dried them like that to eat in winter. There was no salt, no sugar, but we ate them all winter.”
“What did you use for dishes?”
“Birch bark. It makes very good dishes, they hold water.”
Asked about putting hot stones in the bark dishes to cook the meat, she said, “When my grandfather came, they all had kettles. Mostly we hung them outside over the fire.”
We spoke about paint for faces.
“There was a place over near Watino where water came up out of the ground. Hot water. You could smell it a long way off. My grandmother told my sister and me to ride there, and bring back some rocks. Some was red, and some was yellow and some was white and shiny.”
She showed us some white, salty looking powder in a medicine bottle. “I still have some. It is very good for sore mouth. Put it in the mouth and the soreness is all gone. The red rock was very expensive. We traded it at the trading post there. It cost the Indians lots. The last time I went there, there was yellow stuff, – yellow powder – which was good for many things.”
We thought it might be sulphur and she agreed.
She told us again that she never played, because they had to move around all the time to get food. In the spring they speared fish. She described a fish trap made by piling stones into a V formation. Where the fish came out at the narrow end, they speared them, then dried and smoked them. They had no nets.
Asked about relations between the Beavers and the Cree, she replied “The Beavers were hard to get along with. Always they had their camp a little way off. My grandmother told me that they were more cranky. They spoke a different language, when you spoke to them, they did not answer. Now it is different.”
We asked Mrs Beaudry whether she could remember any names of the chiefs. Was her father a chief?
“My grandfather was a medicine man. He learned things in visions. My grandmother too. They had that power, too. My father called himself mis-ti-mak (?) because he dreamed, and then he could tell if something was going to happen.”
She had told us that her father’s name meant “turtle”.
“My grandmother told me that once the priest Father Lacombe came to visit them. He wanted to baptize them. They had two boys then. My grandmother thought that would be okay. But not my grandfather. He said it would be all right to baptize the children and my grandmother. But him – no! He did not understand, so not for him.
There was another chief. His name was Kin-a-quan-o-dum (?) It meant, “he holds things together.” I never saw him, but I talked to his wives.”
“Yes, seven wives. He had seven wigwams. I think two wives were sisters, but not the others. One wife had many scars on her nose. She said her husband had done that.”
“He must have been a good hunter to keep seven wives.”
“Yes, the women said they never went hungry.”
“Then there was a Beaver chief. They had a camp around Horse Lake. His name was La Glace.”
Asked if she could read the Cree syllabics, she said that she could do so. She had taught herself.
“The priests used to have books like that. They sold them.”
“Can you speak French now?”
“Not very much, but I sang French in church one time.”
“Can you sing a song for us in Cree?”
In a musical voice, strong and melodious, she sang a short song in a minor key. Translated, she said it meant, “When I was young I was very happy. Now I am old, I am not happy any more.”
As we left her spotlessly clean house with its modern electric appliances, television, and sewing machine on which she had made all the costumes for the Centennial dancers from Moberly Lake, we wondered what she really thought about the white “civilization” in which she seemed to be sad. “I liked to listen to the old people”, she had said. I liked that!