Some Beaver Indians, the disease-decimated remnants of a formerly numerous people, still lived in the area around 1918. At that time, about twenty families moved from Lac Ste. Ann via Grande Prairie. As the newcomers were mostly Metis, they had French names like Gladue, La Prette, and Belcourt. These were not Treaty Indians. Kelly Lake never was a “reserve”. Some German settlers had preceded the Metis who arrived like other homesteaders, bringing their cows, horses and hogs. Trapping was an important part of their plans for making a living, since the area had not been trapped out.
The newcomers got along well enough with the Germans, although language was a barrier. The Beavers put up with this last of a long series of intrusions into their hunting territory, for there was fur enough for all. Traditionally though, they held themselves aloof, language also being a barrier. More deep-seated was an age-long enmity between the two tribes. There was little intermarriage between the groups.
Neither then nor later did the settlers get title to their land. Each family built its cabin wherever it pleased, becoming “squatters” in a province that did not recognize “squatters’ rights”. This was to be of importance later.
Fur traders visited the area regularly, mostly representatives of the Hudson’s Bay Company. The Indians felt that they gave fair enough prices, although not top-price to Indians. Jim Young was remembered best, for he started a store in Kelly Lake to be followed soon after by two others built by white men. A man remembered only as Austin, a free trader, also bought furs for resale to the Hudson’s Bay.
Occasionally the Indians took furs to Grande Prairie or Dawson Creek by packhorse, the trip requiring not less than four days out and back. It is likely that Pouce Coupe was a more frequent shopping place, being the larger centre until after 1930. Due to a lack of roads, the isolation of the place was almost complete. Although the railroad extension to Hythe brought a settlement nearer, it was impossible to drive a truck to Kelly Lake except in very dry weather as late as the late 1940’s.
Until Dr. Lewis O’Brien came to Grande Prairie after World War I, no medical help was available. Some of his trips to emergency cases were near-epics of endurance and even danger. These Indians, being Crees, were skilled in the use of medicinal herbs, mosses, barks and roots. They are still adamant that the “old ones” had a remedy for tuberculosis, but unfortunately the old doctors are no longer here to tell us whether the “white plague” was rare amongst them.
One root, at least, was highly regarded — the “rat-root” for an inch of which the Indians “would give a horse.” (Mrs. Beaudry, Dawson Creek and living medicine man, Isidore Mercredi were informants on this point.) Research identified it as “sweet flag” or Acorus calamus. It does appear in Materia Medica consulted by modern druggists and doctors, and was known also in India and Ceylon for curative qualities.
Life was carried on at Kelly Lake in the Indian fashion, using moose, bear and other animals as food and tanning moose hides and deer hides for clothing and moccasins. The women were industrious, and made quantities of beaded and fringed garments which found ready sales in stores, although when they appeared on the streets of the towns they were generally neatly enough dressed in white people’s clothing–except for shoes. The quality of their leatherwork was good although none of us white people ever gave them enough for the labour involved. Nevertheless, this with their furs, hunting, packing, guiding and other pursuits kept the settlement a self-sustaining and self-respecting group.
Being inaccessible to any but large pack trains, hunting did not deplete the game. The meat was prepared in the traditional way by smoking and drying it. Pemmican was not necessary, but every year the people went to Lake Saskatoon for the berries that were dried for winter. Wild strawberries, chokecherries, and raspberries were preserved, mostly by drying without sugar for winter fare. Trips to lakes for fish were not impossible for their highly mobile packhorse transportation. The traders’ stored supplemented their supplies, but only as long as there was a sale for furs.
Kelly Lake Metis kept the old culture alive. Being isolated they made their own amusements. Boys learned to shoot rabbits and ducks with bows and arrows, and slingshots. The elders played the old hand games which the white man frowned upon as gambling. In the Cree tradition, as compared to the compulsive gambling of the Beavers, they were more for fun than profit. Four partners on each side played the guessing game, until the eleven counting sticks were all on one side. There was much laughing, joking and horseplay to the accompaniment of singing and drumming. The stakes passed through many hands–a bit of tobacco, a chunk of meat, or a neck scarf.
The old art of storytelling was used to instruct the children not only in their own history but also in manners and morals through the tales of the mythical, crafty Wee-sak-e-jac. Unfortunately as a course of literature, his antics were of a somewhat earthy nature. The Crees still delight in telling these tales.
About forty years ago a school was opened in one of the stores. They were fortunate in their first teacher, G. (Gerry) Smedley Andrews, who later became head of the Surveys and Mapping Branch of the Province of British Columbia. He was a scholarly man, who was fortunate to find children so isolated from white people that they spoke only Cree. They had not picked up the slip-shod grammar, pronunciation and enunciation of the local white men. In a letter he expressed his gratification that white people who visited the area spoke of the beauty of the children’s English said, to be the best in the Peace River area white or Indian. To this day the older Cree Metis speak with a particularly pleasing soft voice and accent. Eventually instruction was carried on to the Grade VI level.
The older Indians still feel that the strict discipline of the teachers and the parents contributed to better manners and morals among the middle-aged people than in the children of today.
Before World War II a proper school was built in Kelly Lake. A man and wife occupied the little teacherage. Their isolation was complete. Kelly Lake is in British Columbia on the border with Alberta. It is straight south of Tupper Creek, but the only “road” was by way of Hythe in Alberta. The teachers left their car with a farmer when the road petered out then proceeded by wagon to their school, sometimes walking the last few miles.
The teacher was an accomplished musician, but having no instrument to accompany them, he taught the children to sing in the white way.
One spring a Musical Festival was held in Dawson Creek. The teacher wrote asking that the school bus be allowed to pick up his children at Hythe. Since, as he explained, many of the children had never been to town, he asked that they be allowed the use of the gymnasium change room and showers, and that they be allowed to eat at the cafeteria, then operating at the Senior High school.
As the Festival Secretary, I [DHC] never forgot the experience. The children arrived in jeans, jackets, and scarves or toques. Each carried a parcel. After an interval they marched out of the change rooms, from six-year-olds to teenagers. Every boy was dressed in black jeans, snowy-white shirt and black tie, hair combed and neat. Every girl’s hair had a “Toni” permanent, courtesy of the teacher’s wife. They wore black skirts, white blouses, black ties, and white socks. Black eyes danced, taking in everything they saw, on their way to the dining room. Hours must have gone into table manners, which were noticeably good.
In the afternoon, the groups sang the prescribed test piece, an interminable English folk-song, ending precisely on pitch, without accompaniment. Then came the “own choice” selection. Nothing like it had been heard in Dawson Creek before or since. From a one-room school a group sang eight-part harmony, unaccompanied. The audience went wild. The adjudicator declared it “unbelievable”. Then came the question of a performance at the Grand Concert, reserved for winners. Could they stay? No, no provision had been made for supper in Dawson Creek before the long ride home. So the Chamber of Commerce came to the rescue, giving them a tour of the town, and a meal at the “New Palace Cafe”.
That night, early on the program the little group gave the audience two different selections. They brought the house down. Some of the little tots were almost asleep when they regained their seats, and were carried out to the waiting school bus. Then it was over forty miles to Hythe, on to a waiting truck to go as far as possible, then to the box of a farm wagons. Finally, they transferred to saddle horses for the last leg of the trip home. Some had started at half-past three in the morning to make the trip in time to perform. They must have been twenty-four hours away from home.
It was remarked that the Kelly Lake children were the smartest dressed and best-behaved class in the festival.
Indian singing in the old way sounds monotonous to white people, but that is the traditional way. At least in these Metis children, musical ability is there. It is not by accident that so many of today’s “folk singers” are of Indian ancestry.
Catholic priests came to Kelly Lake about forty years ago, but it was not until Father Jungbluth built a church there that services became regular. Having come from the settlement of Lac Ste. Ann, the people had a Catholic tradition, although the elders say that today’s young people are falling away.
After World War II the bottom fell out of the fur market, and it is only recently [1970’s] that prices have begun to come back. Fashion dictates the fortunes of the trapping industry and when prices fall, Indians and Metis are the first to feel the effects.
The Metis of Kelly Lake, after 1945, wanted to legally “take up” the land on which they had lived unmolested for forty years. Then it was found that the British Columbia Government had put a “reserve” on the land. This was not an Indian reserve, but a prohibition against cutting any trees — a timber reserve. It did not matter that the company holding the timber permit had no present plans to cut the timber. The Indians could not get title to it. Worse still, now they could not clear a field or cut a log without permission of the lumber company to build a decent house as their families expanded. How to make a living? Go into the towns, of course, and get work. What work? The solution was welfare. The deeper problem was that, idle now, and hopeless to improve their lot, the young people took to alcohol and with alcohol came violence and crime unknown to the elders. Not having signed treaty, they were denied the benefits the Treaty Indians received. The elders began to seek ways to become self-supporting again.
Shortly after the Nawican Friendship Centre was started in Dawson Creek, this writer [DHC] had the privilege of attending one of their meetings where Kelly Lake Indians were present. Some hadmoved to town. Some were attending vocational school.
One middle-aged woman spoke in Cree, translated by a pretty young nurse’s aide in a local hospital. She made an eloquent plea for help to establish some industry in Kelly Lake. A small sawmill in which Indian boys could get experience would be ideal. She explained how they could learn carpentry in constructing new homes–their old ones having fallen into “slum conditions”. If the timber reserve could be lifted, they could make lumber or sell logs for railway ties or fence posts.
“We want to stay where we are,” she said. “We don’t want to move to town where our kids will get like the white kids — drinking, fighting, stealing. ” Even the older people”, she said, “were becoming drunken, no good!”
With their slender resources the community did raise enough money by dances and bingo games to build a community hall. Some of the elders wanted to turn it into a workshop where young people could learn trades and crafts. University students on summer vacations, giving their time, did help to build the hall as a recreation centre.
In the summer of 1973, a Local Initiatives Project assisted a number of the Kelly Lake people to brush out a new road to help end the isolation. Whether or not this will be a “good thing” in the eyes of the formerly independent elders, remains to be seen. An arrangement has been made between the two provinces to bus secondary school students to Hythe.
In late summer, 1973 the B.C. government announced a grant of $405, 000 to make renovations to 230 homes of Association of Non-status Indians. The question still remained as to whether the Kelly Lake people would qualify when they do not own the land.
[Mr. Cherry and Mr. Belcourt interviewed Mrs. Mary Gladue, Gabriel La Prette and Bill Belcourt of Kelly Lake]