Mackenzie does not say what they did before they obtained guns. On another occasion, during an extremely cold spell, he observed another custom.
“There was a lodge of Indians here who were absolutely starving with cold and hunger. They had lately lost a near relation, and had, according to custom, thrown away everything belonging to them, and even exchanged the few articles of raiment which they possessed, in order, as I presume, to get rid of everything that may bring the dead to their remembrance. They also destroy everything belonging to any deceased person, except what they consign to the grave with the late owner of them. We had some difficulty to make them comprehend that the debts of a man who dies should be discharged, if he left any furs behind him: but those who understand this principle of justice, and profess to adhere to it, never fail to prevent the appearance of any skins beyond such as may be necessary to satisfy the debts of their dead relation”.
It might have been hard for Mackenzie to comprehend that his conduct in making an issue of the deceased’s furs, and trying to get his hands on them, shocked the Indians deeply. Mr. Rick Belcourt, researcher for our study made the following report:
The Indians had observed that quarrels might arise over the division of the deceased’s effects, especially when, among the Beaver everybody was related to everybody else. Quarreling was not good for the tribe or band, endangering the lives of the defenders and providers. Therefore all “estate” was completely destroyed. Their judgment of Mackenzie would be similar to ours of a person who pried the gold fillings out of a dead relative’s teeth. In their eyes he would be a “savage”, “barbarian” or whatever their concept was of such a character. Likely, in telling of it, their word for him would be the all-expressive “moonias” or “mooneow” meaning “like a white man” – but it would not be complimentary.
Goddard also observed death-customs among the Beaver in the Dunvegan – Fort St. John area.
“When death overtakes any of them, their property, as I have before observed, is sacrificed and destroyed; nor is there any failure of lamentation or mourning on such occasion. They who are more nearly related to the departed person black their faces and sometimes cut off their hair: they also pierce their arms with knives or arrows. The grief of the females is carried to a still greater excess; they not only cut their hair and cry and howl, but they will sometimes, with the utmost deliberation, employ some sharp instrument to separate the nail from the finger and then force back the flesh beyond the first joint, which they immediately amputate. But this extraordinary mark of affliction is only displayed on the death of a favorite son, husband, or father. Many of the old women have so often repeated this ceremony that they have not a complete finger remaining on either hand. The women renew their lamentations at the graves of their departed relatives for a long succession of years”.
Among Indians the graves are tended more carefully than the graveyards of many white communities. Recognizing the sacredness of a gravesite, the Government of Canada does not disturb such an area if the tribe remains in the area for two generations or forty years. This explains the fact that the Trans Canada Highway in the Fraser Canyon often jogs around an Indian graveyard. In one long straight stretch of the Trans Canada, west of Kamloops on a perfectly flat area, travelers often wonder why there is an unexplained bend. There is a single Indian grave there. When the two generations have expired and if no Indian objects, the pavement will undoubtedly be straightened. In Alberta where old graveyards are being eroded by streams, it is an offense to carry away or disturb the bones. Besides, any Indian of the vicinity, finding anyone doing this, might take rough exception to the sacrilege.
In an interview with “Ike” at Vermilion, Goddard got the following information:
Question: “How did they used to show they were sorry for their wives and husbands when they lost them?”
Answers: “The man used to cut off the forefinger a joint or two and slash the nipple. Woman does the same for husband or cuts all her hair off”.
Question: “Did they used to be afraid of a new widow?”
Answer: “They are not afraid. The prophet at Hay River is telling the Slavey to keep away from such people. The Slavey at Hay River are still pitching off when they lose a relative. Now when they (the Beaver) see that a person is getting low they keep him clean, wash him all over, and change his clothes often. We all come together and watch him until his last breath. Then we all (all the people in the camp put him in his coffin and watch him a night or two, a custom undoubtedly borrowed from the Christian custom, said to originate from the resurrection of Christ on the third day). Then we all go with him and bury him. We are not a bit afraid now, but he had heard (interpreter reporting) that long ago they used to be afraid.
“He does not remember when they did not bury in the ground but he has heard that they used to put the bodies on a platform or roll them up in birch bark and hang them up in the brush. Sometimes they used to build a little house of logs and put the body in that on top of the ground”.
Cardinal, the interpreter, said he remembers hearing his aunt say she saw Beaver put on Platforms”.
A persistence in the old idea of the “little house” was observed at Hudson’s Hope in 1956. There was a fairly large Indian graveyard as well as one for whites there on a bench above the hamlet. A large cross lay on the ground. Nearly all of the Indian graves had remnants or fairly new low tent-like structures over the oldest and most decayed being made of saplings, then rough lumber, apparently broad axed then ship-lap or dressed lumber. There had been a fairly recent burial, said to be of a chief. Over the recent grave was a frame like a tent, covered with white canvas, on which stripes had been painted of a cerulean blue hue. On some tattered remains of similar older grave-tents were faded evidences of similar blue designs.
In 1971 we revisited the spot, to find that while they had gone around the white cemetery, someone had bulldozed a trail across the Indian graveyard leaving not a vestige. On remarking on the matter in the village, the writer was shocked to hear residents reply, “Oh, that is only the Indian graveyard!”
In the summer of 1973 a band of Indians in Eastern Canada proposed publicly that they excavate a few white pioneer burial ground in the interests of science. The idea didn’t get a warm reception.
Evidences of the practice of building stone cairns could be seen as late as 1942 or ‘43 on the end of a ridge of the Bear Hills overlooking Pouce Coupe from the west. On a wild strawberry expedition, the writer found a number of low “stone piles” at varying angles, about seven or eight feet long, some less, and somewhat wider. The ground was not treed other than with low willow and had grown up to long grass. The next year, on returning to count the mounds, and look for markings or crosses we found that the stones had been picked up and piled, and the field ploughed over.
A graveyard was also located at the mouth of the Sukunka River until a big flood obliterated all traces by burying it in sand. A very few miles West of Dawson Creek is a spot still known to Old Timers, as Indian Hill. Hector Tremblay Jr. in August 1973 remarked on it in an interview.
Probably the most historic burial is in the Kleskun Hills east of Grande Prairie. During the last running battle between Beavers and Sikanni (it was told to me) the Beavers made a stand there, and lost four of their braves. In 1956 there was a single grave, and a multiple one, covered with fair sized boulders. When we looked again in 1973, the site was hard to find, as the multiple grave had been disturbed, and the boulders scattered. This sort of thing is unlawful, unless carried out by an authorized archeological party.
A picture taken in Fort St. John is now in possession of the Glenbow, Alberta foundation. It shows an unusual form of the cross motif, – a very small crosspiece on a very high, slender upright.
In the cemetery at Moberly Lake a number of crosses show a triple-cross design, in that the arms of the main cross bear two small crosses at the ends. This may be a family’s unique design.
Harmon, another famous fur trader, once in charge of Fort Dunvegan, comments:
“An Indian has come here who says that one of their chiefs has lately died and he requests that we furnish a chief’s clothing to be put on him that he may be decently interred, and also that we would supply a small quantity of spirits for his relations and friends to drink at his interment, all of which I have sent for the deceased was a friendly Indian. Nothing pleases an Indian better than to see his deceased relatives handsomely attired, for he believes that they will arrive in the other world in the same dress with which they are consigned to the grave”.
The above belief is the real basis for the Indian painting and ornamenting himself in his best clothing when going to battle. Since the white people were terrified of the “painted savages” they assumed that they Indian did it to strike fear into the hearts of his enemy. This was not so.
Everything about an Indian’s ceremonial costume was symbolic — the number of feathers in his hair, the number of ermine or other skins dangling from his wrists. Hence, if he died in his wardress, he carried the story of his feats with him into the next world.
Among the war-like tribes at least, the greatest honor came to him who had died in battle. Hence the saying on departing for battle, “It’s a good day to die”.
Mackenzie also found that funeral rites were not lightly to be disregarded. “I found that the death of the man called the White Partridge had deranged all the plans I had settled with Indians for spring hunting. They had assembled at some distance from the fort, and sent an embassy to me to demand rum to drink, that they might have an opportunity of crying for their deceased brother. It would be considered an extreme degradation in an Indian to weep when sober, but a state of intoxication sanctions all irregularities. On my refusal they threatened to go to war, which from motives of interest as well as humanity, we did our utmost to discourage; and as a second message was brought by persons of some width among these people, and on whom I could depend, I thought it prudent to comply with the demand, on an express condition, that they could continue peaceable at home”.
One wonders what they did to sanction emotional grief before the white man came, for before that time fermented drinks were unknown.