As the Far West tribes were exceptions to the rule of general well being, so they contradicted the more precise principle that the Indian had great endurance but little strength. Traders seem to have given them credit for neither. Samuel Black in his 1824 Rocky Mountain Journal remarked of the Sekanis that “few of them are capable of strong exertion for after climbing a mountain or two (carrying ninety-pound pieces of furs, of course!) and passing but a very few miles in a valley they are at their utmost efforts and come back to their tents….” To some degree, of course, the Indians could have earned their reputation for debility simply because they were unwilling to exert themselves to the extent that the traders desired. Black implied as much when he mentioned breaking camp an hour and a half after sunrise, a time of day that seemed too early for the constitution of his Sekanis “particularly when employed by us”. While Alexander Mackenzie was on his pioneering venture along the river which came to bear his name, he noted disgustedly that his Indians were complaining of fatigue. The red men of the party may have been less impressed with the need for haste than was Mackenzie. The next day’s entry shows that the stop was made on the previous night (after which supper was prepared, gear mended, canoe caulked, etc.) and the party was again on the way at 2:15 a.m. without breakfast which was eaten some hours later. Be this as it may the Western tribes gained a reputation for feebleness.
Mackenzie gave himself no criticism for “feebleness” because he sometimes slept while his Indians paddled. For instance, he did report losing his notebook over the side of the canoe on one of these occasions, but he did not confess to any “weakness” on his part.
Archibald McDonald, a Chief Factor, accompanied Governor George Simpson on his famous journey up the Peace River. His notes were afterwards published under the title Journal of a Canoe Voyage from Hudson’s Bay to the Pacific. The exertions which Simpson demanded of his crew can be imagined from such notations as the following: “Sat. 12 July” at one a.m. the crews . . . were in motion . . . encamped precisely at eight . . . Sat 13th. Within a few minutes of two [a.m.] the call was given, precisely on the hour were under way with very little exception the men the whole of today and yesterday on the line (pulling the canoe upstream on a tow rope.)”
“Monday 28. Did not start before three”. “Distances traveled some days: 190, 200, 130, 80, 220, 250, etc. [miles]” “Saturday, 9th. Did not start the men before four [a.m.]. in consequence of the fatigues of yesterday.”
A footnote explains the morning start. Two a.m. was “Star love.”, a contraction of C’est l’ heure as the voyageurs call it. And poor fellows, they are always ready and cheerily jump up to their work, and out of their heavy and so well earned sleep of four or at most five solid hours of sleep in the twenty-four. They know nothing of an “eight hours” movement and don’t dream of it: eighteen hours is their labour time and that of the hardest”.
Of course Gov. Simpson and others employed Iroquois from Ontario as far as possible. These, for nearly two hundred years had been “professional voyageurs. From other notes concerning the Beaver Indians, their “weakness” may have been the defense devised by a strong mind, and a proud disdain of doing the “women’s work” of carrying baggage.
Nevertheless, when Dr. George Dawson crossed the Pouce Coupe Prairie in 1879 he noted in his report of his days in the area that, “two of the men who had pursued the runaway Indians to their camp . . . were followed by a number of men, women, and children . . . they are Beavers, a tribe of the Tinnah (Dene) stock . . . The Beavers are slight in build . . . they are evidently lithe and active but comparatively weak.” We must remember that the tribe had been nearly wiped out at this time by disease and the killing off of the bison, while forest fires had recently wasted much of the area, depleting the moose and other animals. A little later, Dawson refers to the tribe as a “small and weak people”.
Whether weak physically or weak against the Cree and the Iroquois from around Jasper, who were encroaching on their territory, he does not say.
Today the Sarcee Indians are the more numerous representatives of old Beavers. Not long after they had separated from the rest of the tribe, they met the fierce and strong Blackfeet, and earned the name “Sa-arce” meaning “not good”. They bothered the Blackfeet so much that eventually they were admitted to the Blackfoot confederacy as allies, and became noted as the fiercest fighters, best horsemen and hunters of the Plains around Calgary. A recent chief of the Sarcee, Chief One Spot, maintained that the Blackfoot hired the Sarcee as fighters and hunters. Also the Apache and Navaho of Western United States, also Athapaskans, are renowned as fighters.
Could it be that the Northern Beavers, (considering their expulsion of a violent clan) may have chosen not to fight, and hence got a reputation for “weakness”? It is odd, indeed, that the women should have been phenomenally strong and the men weaklings!