Father Morice, in his History of the Northern Interior of British Columbia, making no distinction between Beavers and Sekani, recorded the following:
Summer and winter, the fire is started right in the centre and, instead of the wooden tripod used among the Blackfeet to suspend their kettles, the Tsekehne prefer a stick reaching horizontally at the proper distance above the fire to two opposite poles of the frame to which it is fastened.
A traditional Beaver shelter could be described as two half-shelters separated by a passageway, with an exit at either end. When entering or leaving men and boys used the north end, women and girls the south end. In the centre of the passage way between the two rooms was the fire.
Each room had its own use. The one toward the east was the “bedroom” or sleeping quarters where the fur robes were spread on the floor. The family slept with heads towards the rising sun, from which they believed dreams and visions came to them. The other or western room was used for storage, and whatever work was carried on inside the shelter. At the heads of the sleepers hung the man’s “medicine bundle” a sacred object, which none but the owner ever touched.
The important exception to the ordinary family’s arrangement was the “dreamer’s camp.” There being no real Chief among the Beaver, the “dreamer” was the most important man in the band although lacking real authority. His importance was signified by his sleeping with his head towards the setting sun for reasons found in study of shamans or “medicine men.” His “medicine bundle” therefore hung at the western end of his habitation.
References appear, here and there, to the Beavers’ use of birch bark or moss for the coverings of their houses. In the north the numerous muskegs would supply large sheets of sphagnum moss. This would have great insulating qualities, but both bark and moss would be a fire hazard. It is likely that at least in winter, hides of buffalo or moose would be thrown over the frame. It is not clear whether the long poles used by other Indians were cut and pitched in a half-circle, or whether slender trees were bent and tied at the top. Also, it is not clear whether the passageway was roofed over in winter. If it weren’t, they depended on reflected heat from the fire. If it were covered, how did the smoke get out? Surely such habitations must have been very uncomfortable during the long, cold winters, yet white trappers in fairly recent times survived with little better accommodation.
Much depended on the manner of building the fire. A “squaw-fire” was laid by having several large, dry logs laid like the spokes of a wheel, with the fire in the centre. As the ends burned, the logs were pushed towards the middle. Another method was to lay two large, dry logs side by side, a short distance apart. The fire was kindled in the middle. After it had burned a while, the logs would keep going for a time, until someone would push the outer ends to feed more fuel. This kind of fire had an advantage, after the trader’s copper kettles were introduced, of providing a place to set the vessel over the fire without having to build a tripod.
The layout of a camp followed certain general rules. Wherever possible the shelters were erected along a stream or lakeside, with the “living-room” end towards the water supply. This allowed the women to get to the water without passing behind the medicine bundle, for doing so was taboo. Paths from shelter to shelter permitted free movement along the shore. From the men’s north doors paths led to the forest where the animals lived. Women were forbidden to go between the shelter and the forest. Also, nobody placed his shelter between his neighbor’s and the water.
Each family, according to folklore, had a special place for the toilet. One of their more humorous folk-stories tells why. Usakindji, a legendary hero, put a curse on the trees. Usakindji had killed a fat bear, and had just roasted the meat. When he visited his “bathroom,” which was a tree that had split and spread apart, it suddenly it snapped together again, trapping Usakindji while the whisky-jacks cleaned up his succulent feast. No sooner were the birds gone than the tree opened enough to free the furious captive.
“You tree!” he said, “some day you’ll be in a tight place too! Some day people will need you.” And he was right. Said the teller of tales, “Today people cut the trees for all sorts of things, for fire, for lumber and even for matches.”
Such simple sanitary arrangements shock modern people, and yet they contributed less to “pollution” than the modern flush toilets and sewers which too often dump untreated wastes into nearby lakes or streams to be concentrated there.
Under natural conditions of sun, air, the drying process and the action of beetles and bacteria render animal wastes harmless in a very short time. Besides, before the white man introduced the colitis or typhoid organisms, there were none to be spread. In the crowded cities the sewers seem at present essential to survival but the worsening water shortage may force man to go back to a modern version of the principle of drying and sterilizing wastes for fuel or fertilizer. The main point is that the Indian did not pollute his water supply.
Dr. Ridington lived among the Beavers for several years in the 1960s. He reported that he had seen and even lived in such shelters and camps. He also reports that Beavers used to live in “circular log teepees,’ but he gives no details of such a structure.
Mrs. Beattie, who lived close to the Beaver Indians for many years, gave us a description of the double-lean-to construction in use in the early 1900s. In summer, she said they were covered with brush, which could be further covered with skins or tarpaulins in wet weather. Old photographs in the National Museum and Archives show that the Beavers used Cree-type tipis. The rough, crooked poles, and the wrinkled, ill-fitting covers showed that some of them, at least, did not take the pride in their homes that their kinsmen, the Sarcee, copied from the Stoneys and Blackfeet.
The log cabins which replaced the tipis have now given place to modern houses. Wherever the services are available, they now have electricity, and modern appliances. Yet the same families may have a tipi pitched in the back yard for summer use.