Richard K. Nelson’s book, Hunters of the Northern Forest, is a thoroughly researched and scientifically studied source – in a very readable form. The author learned the techniques himself from the Athapaskan Kutchins. He summed up his apprenticeship by saying; “One never realizes how little he knows until someone says, “Now you try it.” Or in quoting an old trapper who said that all of his life he had been studying the beavers. “Finally when I know enough about them, I am too old to trap.” The underwater animals were too chancy to rely on for food – two or three days waiting to catch anything as small as a beaver to be shared with a whole band was reasonable only in time of starvation, or when the rabbit cycle was low.
In fact, only an extremely eccentric Indian would voluntarily trap where he could hunt bigger game. It was much more reasonable, if necessary, to dig a bear out of a den than to take small underwater game for his own food. The Northern Athapaskans outside of the caribou limits and beyond the buffalo still make use of beaver, muskrat and lynx.
Beaver trapping (or snaring, in the old way) required an extraordinary amount of effort for an Indian who was not particularly interested in the meat.
Beaver houses were not always easy to see, often being built against a steep bank rather than in open water. In any case, the Indian would have seen most of them during open water time. The problem, after freeze up, was to locate the feed pile of sticks stored under water, ice, and whatever snow had fallen on it. The under-ice tunnels from the lodge to the feed pile often angled out from one side or the other of the lodge. Or, they took a somewhat indirect route to the storage pile that might be twenty feet long and almost as wide, thus allowing a considerable distance to be probed or sounded. All tunnels had to be found to prevent the animals’ escape down a free one. Snow had to be shoveled off a large area, and the ice examined for tiny air bubbles that gave it a whitish look. Striking the ice with a pole might cause a barely perceptible difference in sound over a runway to disclose ice that was less brittle or thinner than the rest. Ice over a runway tended to be thin – not more than twelve inches thick, less if snow covered. If the Indian found ice over twelve inches thick, he knew he must continue probing. On the other hand, if the ice broke and a whoosh of air came out he knew he had found a runway. With a long curved stick he had to probe it to ascertain direction, width, and any impediments to snare or trap. Now a hole was chopped over the runway. In the old days before they used snares, they would block the runway with poles stuck into the mud to prevent the animals’ escape. The Indian hunter, with a stone hammer chopped through snow, ice and logs in the top of the lodge to spear the animals inside.
Later the white men taught them to use snares, placed in the runways and still later to use steel traps. After setting all runways, the trapper shovels snow onto the water in the opening. On foot, an Indian could set only two or at most three lodges in a day, often with long walks between them.
On the first setting the lodge was generally visited on the evening of the same day. The snow was removed, ice chiseled out, slush cleaned away and the snare or trap lifted. If a thirty to fifty pound beaver had been caught, it must be pulled up and “dried” in the powder snow a foot or so below the surface. The snare or trap must be reset — with no waterproof mittens! The hole was re-covered, and the animal carried or sledged back to the Indian’s camp. If he was lucky enough to get two or more beaver, so much the more to carry.
If, after blocking the runways, he decided to chop through the top of the lodge, he might have several animals to haul out and carry away before scavengers got at them. The Indian was “luckier” than the average white trapper was, since his wife skinned out and stretched the hide after the carcass thawed out in the tipi.
When other pelts became as valuable as “made beaver”, the animal was usually frozen when found in the snare or trap. Carrying a number of these rigid bodies was less than easy. Except muskrat, they added nothing to the family’s food unless they were starving and no buffalo, moose or bear were available.
One suspects that the women drove the men out to the traps and snares, to trade pelts with the white men for things she wanted. This was especially true after the Hudson’s Bay Company’s rationing of their rum replaced the Northwester’s potent and sometimes semi-lethal regale. In winter when the temperature often dropped to forty below zero (-40 degrees), and the wind blew sharp in the long nights, it is amazing that the Indian exerted himself at all. This is especially true when he considered the animals to be his brothers, like him the children of the Great Spirit, who must be told why he needed to take their lives.
Trapping, in the beginning, was alien to a human being not conditioned to the “work ethic”. As well, it must have had disturbing psychological effects. As late as the early 1900’s, Dr. Pliny Earle Goddard quoted a sick Indian who attributed his suffering to his having needlessly burned to death some wolf cubs in their den.
Into the Indian culture was built, by ages-long tradition, a taboo against anything made of metal. The Old Ones passed it from generation to generation. “The evil power of metal” still runs like a dark thread through a collection of tribal stories collected by R. D. Symons in the book “North by West.” Traps and guns made of metal violated some bred-in-the-bone religious conviction that had to be overcome by greed before the Indians succumbed to their use.
A quotation from the teachings of an aged Cree shaman, Morning Child, illustrates the ancient lore heard by R. D. Symons in the recent past:
“But in all the Garden of the Manitou they used no metal. The old Ones always told the people that metal was a medicine for evil. Metal was cold. Metal did not receive the rays of the sun like grass and trees and stones and water. Metal alone did not have Spirit and it could numb the heart of man and close his ears. One metal was yellow and it was the chief of the metals; it was not good even to name that one. “Let us,” said
the Old Ones, “call all these things pewabskwis and never touch them”. And they never touched them… The wise men of medicine did not allow them to forget.
When the white men came they bartered for furs, giving cloth and beads, tobacco, rum and metal tools. If they had tried to buy the furs with money, it is unlikely that the Indians would have taken up trapping at all. It was only when their desire for the white man’s goods overcame the teachings of the elders, that the Indians accepted guns. Later the steel traps violated another deep-seated belief — that the animals were their brothers, and should not be betrayed by blundering into a trap. Instead, they should be addressed politely before being killed, and treated with honour when they had given their meat to their “brothers”.