Then he gave them rum with a warning to use it “with discretion” and some tobacco, which was a token of peace. The Indians, of course, promised to “be good”, and after a little polite talk, took leave.
Mackenzie’s attitude was very common among traders concerning his rights to be severe and to demand furs which some of the Beavers did not want to trap, needlessly killing their “little brothers”.
In a letter to his cousin Roderick at Fort Chipewyan Mackenzie confessed that he hadn’t had the co-operation he expected. They didn’t hunt, they didn’t want to act as guides for his forthcoming journey, they didn’t keep their promises and they deserted. In fact they behaved very much like white men whose territory is invaded. And Mackenzie also acted like a white man, by getting into a “state of mind” because he had to depend on them to succeed in his trip.
Before too long, the shoe was on the other foot. The Beaver came to depend on the fur traders. When they discarded their bows and arrows, they needed a continual supply of powder and shot for their muzzle-loaders. This was not only to keep themselves in meat, their primary food, but to supply the traders as well. They liked their rum and tobacco now, although both were acquired tastes. They constantly came to the white man for care and medicine. Soon they began to cluster round the fort and they left their aged and sick there.
Some traders meted out severe punishments. One hunter named Martineau was badly in debt so a “Mr. McLeod” took Martineau’s wife and gave her to another Indian.
When the Indians could not bring in sufficient furs or meat and a post was closed, the Beavers were left stranded. Such a punishment was inflicted on Fort Dunvegan, (as well as Fort St. John and Rocky Mountain Portage House) supposedly because the Indians at Fort St. John had killed a trader and his men at Fort St. John. The Indians near the other posts were not involved but were punished as well. At least that is the story given to the Indians. A letter of Governor Simpson’s shows that the real cause of the district’s being hunted out and the posts closed was the attempts of the Indians to satisfy the traders’ insatiable demands for furs and meat.
In 1806 Alexander Roderick McLeod wrote that he was well and able to control the Indians against their wishes and make them surrender their weapons. Governor Simpson in the Selkirk Papers to Colville [May 1822] wrote that after some investigation he had decided “however repugnant it may be to our feelings” it was necessary “to rule them with a rod of iron”.
It is alleged that Samuel Black outraged the Beaver chief at Fort St. John by kidnapping the chief’s wife, and that this was the true cause for the Indian’s revenge in the “massacre” at Fort St. John in 1823 — a blood feud in which the wrong man met with retribution.
In return for trade goods of inferior value the Indians were expected to bring in furs and more furs. In addition they were to provide guides and interpreters for the traders and explorers. They were expected to help build and maintain the forts, build and repair canoes and make snowshoes and vast number of moccasins. They were expected to bring in not only enough meat to keep themselves and the resident white personnel fed, but also to make pemmican for the brigades’ non-stop voyages hundreds or thousands of miles to the markets in the East. One suspects that the women also were expected to cooperate in the housekeeping and other duties around the forts.
Certain traders could be kind and were noted for being so. Daniel Harmon was such a one. He was a devout Christian, who had compassion for the old and weak, who had sometimes been left to starve, when they could no longer keep up in the pursuit of game. He mentioned one aged woman, – the mother of a chief who had recently died, recording that “it is easy for us to render them more affectual [sic] aid than their friends could possibly afford them.”
Care for the Indians was to be expected since they were an asset to fur trading. Any businessman will protect his assets and so the traders usually did whatever was necessary, or possible, to keep the hunters alive and healthy. The Nor’Westers almost assimilated with the Indians. It became a later policy of the Hudson’s Bay Company, approved by the Governor, to take good physical care of their Indian customers. With some traders like our own Frank Beatton at Hudson’s Hope, such care in epidemics or other calamities went far beyond the call of duty.
In later years, the Hudson’s Bay Company sent out orders to their employees to distribute food from their stores free of charge in case of famine. Sometimes the work of the fort or trading post stopped altogether while white clerks and tradesmen spent their whole time cutting wood for and nursing the stricken natives.
Although there was great hostility on the part of the white traders in the early years towards missionaries entering the country, even Governor Simpson relented in his later life. In Fort Edmonton quarters were actually built for Rev. McDougall inside the walls. The advent of missionaries brought education and nursing care as well as churches. Such work is still going on, for churches now serve even the Beaver on the Northern Reserves.
The Cree have long had the ministrations of the Roman Catholic missionaries.
Since the signing of the Treaties, the Department of Indian Affairs has practically run the Indians’ lives. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing depends on the point of view. Most people believe that the paternalistic policy of the federal government has ruined the Indian and his culture by making them totally dependent. At the same time, proposals to eliminate the Indian Act have met with strong resistance by some groups now protected by it.