By Dorthea H. Calverley
A little settlement near Grande Prairie is named La Glace — “ice” in French. It is a rich farming area, peopled with descendants of early pioneers, among them a number of Scandinavians, but few if any French. There is no big river nearby where French voyageurs ever paddled the fur trade canoes. Where did the name La Glace come from, then?
It came from an Indian Chief, a Beaver, so named by the white people. The rich prairie, with numerous lakes which are still the nesting place for myriad waterfowl and home of many muskrats and beaver was his hunting territory. And surely in the early days it was also the home of the buffalo. In the days when Dunvegan was the nearest trading post, La Glace’s band prospered and was reputed to be numerous and proud.
Then in the early 1900’s the railways began to poke their steel fingers into the north, and with the railroads came settlers. The Grande Prairie pulled the rail line south and “Grande Prairie City” was born and growing by 1911. From the end of steel, as always, the farmers fanned out. Where else but into La Glace’s hunting grounds? The Beaverlodge area and Saskatoon Lake, just west of Grande Prairie, drew many. The lake-dotted, once alluvial country that had been La Glace’s hunting area had rich, deep, black soil and lots of water, a rare resource in many parts of the Peace. The Scandinavian settlers called one district “Valhalla” (heaven), for so it seemed to them, eager to own land. La Glace and his band were pushed back and back as the white invaders took over. They retreated from Beaverlodge to Hythe, when the railroad paused for a few years at Grande Prairie.
Then the rail activity began anew. The young braves were alarmed, even angry. They held a council. The rails would split their hunting ground in two; again the settlers would come. Again they would be dispossessed.
The old chief La Glace counseled against violence. “There are too many of them”, he said. “It is wrong to spill blood, for ours will surely be spilled in return.” He counseled cooperation with the white settlers and railroad construction workers.
But the young men would not listen. A party rode out to harass the on-coming construction men, perhaps to shoot them down. La Glace rode after them and with nothing but his native gift for oratory talked them out of their wild mood, and back to their homes.
But they did not stay. They moved back closer and closer to Pouce Coupe’s Prairie. Finally, when they took treaty, they were settled on a reserve at Horse Lake, a small body of water just beside the Alberta border not far from Brainard, the park that commemorated an “old-timer”.
Mr. Rick Belcourt visited the son of the old chief on the Reserve in the summer of 1973. He and his wife are now old. Except that the house stood in the middle of a large cleared and tilled field, the scene was much as it would have been in the old days. A short spare, old man bronzed and wrinkled with many years, sat quietly at his doorstep, his old wife seated on a stump, her eyes looking far away. In the yard, on a frame of unpeeled pine logs, hung bear meat cut into thin strips in the old way to dry in the hot September sun.
“Both look at peace with themselves and with the world. They both smiled and nodded in a friendly way as I approached and shook hands”, said Mr. Belcourt.
Yes, La Glace, son of the Old Chief La Glace had been chief once, a long time ago but only for a short time. Yes, they could remember when they lived as Indians and later, where pushed back on the reserve, as trappers. No they could not remember dates – a long time ago. It was when their country was virgin of white man’s tracks, the nearest being at Dunvegan where they went to trade. They had dog sleds then, but they traded for horses later.
There were times when the winters were long and cold, but they endured even when there was no game around. He remembers living in mud houses, shaped like igloos.
The wife spoke softly, from time to time, in the musical Cree language. Mr. Belcourt spoke of her “noble face and pose” – a native pride and dignity. The old man’s manner and speech was gentle, even meek, – and kind.
The old lady translated for Mr. Belcourt, himself a Cree, for La Glace’s English was very broken.
After they had settled on the reserve, she said they took up farming, as well as trapping. His land looked well tilled. They were still growing oats, barley and wheat, but next year they would rent the land, for they were both too old to farm. (He eighty-two, she eighty-one).
His memory of the old time is clear. He remembered the land to the west, Pouce Coupe’s Prairie, but he did not know how Pouce Coupe got his name. He remembered the chief they called Wolf, who had seven wives, yes! At this memory they both smiled as if at a private joke but added no more information.
He remembered when Dawson Creek area was covered with Indian homes, but they disappeared “when the white man scarred the earth with his tracks”. He remembered the summer meetings when all the Beaver came together and told their stories and sang all night long around the campfires. He remembered, when they were children, running in out of the bushes, playing games.
They have thirty-two grandchildren of their own now. The eldest had brought the old people the bear, but La Glace himself was going hunting in moose season. His hunting and tracking skill is still with him.
Questioned about their native religion, he answered: They still believe in one God, One Great Spirit. But when the white missionaries brought their teaching, the people became confused. Their tribe began to break up then, he said. And then they began to drink. The dark times came.
At this the old couple feel silent. The old Lady’s gaze was far away at the sky. The old man’s head was bowed. The interview was over.
Mr. Belcourt observed that the Beaver Indians on this reserve had not intermarried with whites, but there was a considerable admixture of other Indian tribes, notably Cree. The desire to “integrate” with white people was not evident. In fact, he reported that except for his own evident Indian ancestry (Cree) he would not likely have been welcome even on the second visit.
He remarked upon the beauty and pleasant manner of the Beaver and half-Beaver children. And he noted, too, the kindness.
“Come back and see me when the moose season opens. I will teach you how to track the animals, in the old way.” he invited. Unfortunately that could not be arranged.