GEORGE HUNTER: When I first went up there [Fort Nelson] in 1928 some of the Indians were just getting horses. Maybe the man of the family would have one. When they moved, he would ride ahead and his women would come behind with packs on their backs. Behind the women came the pack dogs. But the men always rode.
INTERVIEWER: You said “women”. They had more than one wife then, if they were good hunters?
GEORGE HUNTER: There was the chief at what they call Squaw Creek, north of Fort St. John about forty miles. He had quite a little settlement. He had seven wives there. Every woman had a family. He did the trapping. (This may have been the one the white men called Wolf).
MRS. GEORGE HUNTER: Wherever he went the women would come along. She’d have a papoose on her back.
GEORGE HUNTER: Later when fur prices were pretty good, he’d go out and buy a new wagon, and move his family in the new wagon.
INTERVIEWER: You told us about an Indian up there named Lily. I’ve heard of Chief Billie – yes, but Lily – no.
GEORGE HUNTER: Well old Lily came in from McLeod Lake on his way to Fort Nelson. He wanted some tea and tobacco, when he came through the Halfway River country. So, when he came back, he stayed, raised his family there, and finally settled at what they called The Elbow, where the Halfway makes a sharp turn and heads west into the mountains. That’s where he wintered but his favorite hunting ground was up on Pink Mountain, six thousand and twenty – some feet. It’s all bare up there – no trees. There’s caribou up there, always coming and going on that mountain. And bears – grizzly bears and black bears for there’s lots of berries. The winter he died – he was about a hundred years old, but nobody was sure. He was staying at The Elbow. He would leave the boys at home, go out with the horses to do the hunting, and bring the meat in. The other fellows didn’t do it – they didn’t help him at all. One time he went out; it was cold. I guess he got too tired. He tried to make a fire, but he couldn’t. They saw where two or three times he tried. Then they found him lying there, frozen to death, lying on his back with his hands crossed over his chest.
INTERVIEWER: Did you know old Chief Billie? When Mr. and Mrs. Giles were running the ferry at the mouth of the Halfway, they said he came by one day, had dinner with them, and seemed such a nice old man. A Beaver.
GEORGE HUNTER: No, I didn’t know him, but there were some other chiefs.
INTERVIEWER: Do you know about the “last of the old chiefs” who lived in the late thirties or early forties – and was buried with a traditional Indian funeral?
GEORGE HUNTER: There was an old chief named Monty or Mantais [Montagnais for whom Montney is said to be named]. I don’t know much about him. He was chief quite a while – they change off.
INTERVIEWER: Did you know Attachie? Was he a chief – or just an outstanding hunter?
GEORGE HUNTER: I think he was a chief at one time. There’s a school halfway between Hudson’s Hope and Fort St. John, on the Tompkin’s farms, which is called Attachie.
INTERVIEWER: He was mentioned at the time of the so-called near mutiny at Fort St. John in 1914. It doesn’t seem to have really been more than an evening when they were having a good time, was it?
GEORGE HUNTER: Yes, they used to gather in the summer and have a good time. They’d gamble, and beat the tom-toms – you could hear them for miles. They’d have a 22 shell, or even a little stone or a plug of chewing tobacco – that they would pass back and forth. Sometimes they’d play all night. They’d get a big kick out of it.
INTERVIEWER: I understand that the missionaries disapproved of it. You read about it in almost any book. After reading about the Dogrib hand game I came to the conclusion that it was no more reprehensible than anything else, and far harder, as they played it, then cribbage or poker or anything else was. There was nothing simple about the Dogrib rules.
GEORGE HUNTER: The Beavers gamble in different ways. [Mr. Hunter described the usual seating arrangement in two lines, and the exchange of pointed sticks when the guesser failed]. Usually they had a blanket over their knees, and one person hid the object in one hand under the blanket. Then after many movements he holds his hands out. The other fellow has to guess which hand it is in. This goes on, all down the line – maybe twelve or fifteen people. The side that finally gets all the sticks gets the prize. There was nothing wrong with it! The stakes weren’t high enough for one thing.
INTERVIEWER: Do you suppose the pointed stick was the origin of our word “stakes” in gambling games? [Mrs. Hunter reminded George of another game the Indians at Fort Nelson enjoyed greatly.]
GEORGE HUNTER: That was in 1928 and ‘29 when they started a coalmine around the Liard to sell coal to the Hudson Bay boats. Tom Copeland, an old timer at Fort St. John, was taking four head of horses up there with a sleigh one winter. When he got to Fort Nelson breakup was coming, so he left the horses there. They were big horses, all shod, but the horses got hoof rot, and the police had to shoot them. I took the shoes off them, and taught the Indians how to play “Horse-shoes”. They thought that was a wonderful game, but first I had to teach them how to count in English. Then I learned to count in their language, – in Slavey from one to ten is:
ki or ti Claudsi
If they go on to twenty, it’s clea-unano, okie-unano etc. right up to a hundred. I didn’t know whether they go over a hundred or not.
They sure enjoyed those games of horseshoes. Of course it is daylight all night in the summer time so those horseshoes were ringing day and night.
INTERVIEWER: Can you tell us more of the language?
GEORGE HUNTER: I learned some in the trading post. The Grande Lake (?) Indians came in from the Northwest. They talked a different language. If they wanted rolled oats they’d ask for (klooee-tooee) [approximately]. I found out it meant “fish scales” “klooee ” is “fish”, “Tooee” is “scales” in their language.
For bannock they say “Klee-a-tou”. Most people can’t say it – you have to kind of blow against your teeth. For better – they haven’t anything like that in their language and they call it “molo-acheata-klam” [approximate] which means, “white-man-cow-fat”. I forgot a lot of it – it’s been so many years, but I could understand them real good at one time.
Mrs GEORGE HUNTER: Tell them about the Indian boys coming along and looking at the grass when you were camped.
GEORGE HUNTER: That was one time when the boat was coming up the Liard and then the Nelson from Fort Simpson, four hundred miles to Fort Nelson. They brought a scow of groceries and things for the trading post. Of course it was always a big time for the Indians when the boat came in. I was with a couple of Indian boys when another Indian came in with the message that the boat was coming – somehow he had come ahead of it. The boys got excited, and they all ran down to the river. On the way they picked up sticks about four feet long, so I thought, “I’ll get one too. I don’t know what I’m going to use it for but I’ll get one and find out”. We got out on a bar, and at the edge of the water. They stuck the sticks into the gravel under the water, and put the other end in their mouth, and held it with their teeth. Then they plugged their ears. I did the same thing, and to my surprise, I could hear a diesel motor, just as plain as could be. In the tug that pushed the barge, they had two diesel motors, and I could hear them both. I thought the boat must be very close. I looked down the river, expecting to see it. That was about three o’clock in the afternoon but I waited up late, but it didn’t come in. It must have been a long way down the river. That shows how clever they are.
MRS. GEORGE HUNTER: George used what he learned from the Indians when he was master mechanic at the Selkirk Mines.
GEORGE HUNTER: When I left the north, I took up steam. By taking a welding rod or something and placing it on the jacket of the piston, taking it in my mouth and plugging my ears, I could hear the piston, just as clear as can be, and tell what shape it is in. Or if there is a knock in a motor, you put the rod in the block, and listen for it.
INTERVIEWER: Did you learn anything else from the Indians?
GEORGE HUNTER: A lot more than I’d learned from the white men. Now tracking – The first fall, we left Nelson and went down to Fort St. John with Henry Courvoisier and his cousin, the first white trappers in Nelson. He wanted to take some horses in, and track a scow up the Muskwa River, with supplies to build a trading post – so I went along. We left Fort St. John in September, it took us about three weeks because we dug a garden for an old trapper. He had gone away and it was getting late, so we got up his vegetables and stored them away for him.
About two days out of Fort Nelson we came to a place where some Indians had been camped. They had a cache – some willow poles up the trees – There was some meat up there, and panniers for the packhorses, but nobody was around. We left some jam and sugar and tea for some meat, and camped later on in a nice little meadow. We were sitting around talking after supper, and all of a sudden we heard Indians coming – two young boys about seventeen years old – on the gallop with packhorses loaded with meat. They unloaded, and used our fire, roasting some of their partly dried meat on sticks over the fire.
At that time I didn’t know any Indian language at all, but Henry Courvoisier did. They were asking him in Slavey, “Who came here ten days ago with horses?” Henry couldn’t tell them at first but then he thought; “Joe Clark had gone out with horses”. When he figured it out, it would be just ten days ago that he’d camped there. Well, those two young boys could tell by how the ends of the grass had dried where the horses had eaten it off, just to the day when they’d gone through. They knew the bush. Today they don’t know anything about it – just the old-timers.
INTERVIEWER: How did they dry their meat?
GEORGE HUNTER: Usually they’d take the meat from the hindquarters, and some from the front. They’d pull it off. There’s a round gob of meat, with a cord running down to the ankle. These muscles are in a sheath, except the cord is fastened. They’d cut the cord off, held the round gob of meat in their hand, take a knife and they never seem to cut their hand. They keep unrolling it and cutting until they have a slab of meat about three-quarters of an inch thick.
They make a pole rack, put the meat on the poles, and then make a little fire, generally in a little hole in the ground. After getting the fire going good, until they have coals, then they take old, rotten spruce, or rotted poplar – an alder is good, and just keep a smudge going. They’d put some canvas around so that the smoke goes straight up, keeps the flies away, and filters through the meat. In three or four days, if it’s good hot weather, that meat will be pretty near dry. They keep turning it from one side to the other, so it’s sun dried as well as smoked. It’s light, and it’s good. That’s moose and bear.
INTERVIEWER: Do they do deer the same way?
GEORGE HUNTER: There weren’t many deer. I saw the first deer they got up there. When the trapping season was over in the spring, I’d camp at Fort Nelson. The Indians would take turns going up the Muskwa or up the Nelson rivers to hunt in the daytime. They’d take their canoes up – pole up – in the morning, and then they’d float back in the evening. This way they could shoot anything and bring it down to camp. When you’re going up, you notice the raspberry bushes and where there are berries. If there’s bear, they’ll be in there, and you’ll see silver where the leaves are bent over. Or you watch for moose tracks – maybe a cow and calf along a sand bar. When you come back, a canoe makes practically no noise; you can float right up to them. I went up with the boys lots of times.
When we got back there was one old Indian who’d divide up the meat. He’d give a piece to each family, changing off so that he gave each a different piece of meat. He always divided it, just like a “beef ring” on the prairie. That way they and I always had fresh meat.
One of the Indian boys went up alone once with a canoe, saw a deer, shot it and brought it back. He didn’t know what it was. Even the old fellow who’d always divide the meat didn’t know what it was. They’d never seen anything like that before. As soon as I saw it, I knew it was a deer.
INTERVIEWER: You wonder why they hadn’t done it centuries before.
GEORGE HUNTER: Yes, you would. There weren’t very many moose either. In those days there was very little game. Very few bears, too.
INTERVIEWER: That wouldn’t be too long – only fifteen or twenty years after the Mounted Police came in, expecting to live off the country while they built the Police Trail, but the whole country had been burned over. In fact one traveler wrote that after he left a short distance west of Peace River he didn’t see a living animal. The country was a black desolation.
GEORGE HUNTER: Most of the game had always been right along the Peace River on the flats. There had been buffalo, and elk, and there were red deer. Now the only red deer I know are in Southern Manitoba.
INTERVIEWER: Were there many cougar and lynx?
GEORGE HUNTER: Just once in a while, a cougar comes up here. It is really too cold for them.
MRS. HUNTER: Tell them about the babies, George.
GEORGE HUNTER: You could always tell when a baby was coming. Summers they would camp around Fort Nelson. They’d go out in the muskeg and get that moss deep down. It’s pink – a nice pink colour and very soft. They’d have it hanging up around the tipi. When the baby came they’d pack it in the moss. They’d wrap a blanket around that. The moss acted as a diaper – they’d just change the moss. They’d use bear grease or something like that to keep the baby from getting sore.
INTERVIEWER: During World War I, the hospitals found that sphagnum moss is sterile, and can be used for dressing wounds. Now, considering the lack of bathrooms and running water, would you consider them an essentially dirty people?
GEORGE HUNTER: No! I certainly would not. They bathe. I know one time west of Nelson along Klefo [?] Creek, the Indians came down in the spring. It was only a couple of days after the ice went out. They stripped off their clothes, and went in bathing and washing, then they put on clothes just up to the waist and sat on stumps while they picked lice out of their clothes – but they always washed. They tried to be clean.
INTERVIEWER: That doesn’t tally with so much that is written, but I’ve felt that if I lived in a tipi, and had nothing to melt snow-water in, I might not be any cleaner.
GEORGE HUNTER: There are exceptions. Some are dirtier than others. I think that as the Indians were always round a campfire; that’s what gives them that odour. I like the smell of smoke tanned leather. Some people think that’s terrible. Once when I was on the oilrig I had moccasins on when the Field Superintendent came along. He wanted to get a pair, but the tool push said, “I wouldn’t if I was you. They just smell something terrible.” To me, that just smelled like home.
When I first went up there some of the women still wore caribou skirts. Another thing they still (1928) used stone fleshing stones. You’d see young kids just three or four years old take a piece of meat, and bite it, and with a hunting knife cut it off right at their nose.
INTERVIEWER: Like the Eskimo?
GEORGE HUNTER: Yes, that’s the way they eat meat, and they didn’t cut their nose either. You never see one with a scar on his nose!
MRS. HUNTER: Tell about the time the Indian’s wife died.
GEORGE HUNTER: That was the first night I got into Fort Nelson, Henry and I. After supper we went around to all the Indian camps, shaking hands. They are great for shaking hands! We came to one fellow’s tipi, where he had a tarp over the front like a little lean-to, and a little fire going. His wife was lying down on some blankets, looking as if she was asleep. I got to know him afterwards, and he was a real nice fellow, full of fun. He was making snowshoe frames, and appeared to be a real nice Indian. They had two little kids, a little boy and a little girl. Henry talked to them for a while, and he then went back to our camp.
Next morning we got up and were just having breakfast when he came over crying as if heartbroken. He told us his wife had died. She had TB and had hemorrhaged in the night. Right away we went to the police to get some old boards for a rough box, and buried her up on the hill.
It is their custom when there is a death, to go to the Hudson’s Bay and get all the food they can get on credit to put on a big feast. Everybody comes, eats as much as they can, and after the feast is over, he wants them to take everything away. He doesn’t want a thing left. I was always invited up there because I lived with the Indians practically. The other trappers were older; I was a young fellow. I used to hunt and travel with them, and visit their camps, and really enjoyed it.
There was time when a real good hunter’s wife died. They called him Baby. He was one of the best moose hunters. I went out with him once. We got just three or four miles out of Nelson when we struck a fresh moose track. It was summertime. He saw it right away – the grass was bent over. He showed it to me and then he started off. It kept me hustling just to follow him. I couldn’t, but he could see the track as plain as day. He’s showed me a blade of grass bent over or something. He traveled at a good fast walk until we got to where the moose had started to browse — had bitten off the tops of the willows.
“Now, pretty soon, we get him”, he said. Then motioned me to be real quiet, then he tested the wind by wetting his finger in his mouth and holding it up – it’s always colder on the windward side, you know.
Then we kept circling far around, and coming back to the track until it petered out. Now when a moose feeds, he always circles back and comes out back about fifty yards from where he was feeding, and lies down. That way, he’ll smell anything that is coming before they find where he was feeding. Then he just slips away. We circled out and back, until Baby was close and saw the moose and shot him.
His wife had just had a baby, and got infection. He went for an old man – a half – or maybe a quarter-breed who had been a guide for the Hudson Bay for many years and could talk seven languages. I went to see if I could get his wife to come down. When I first saw the young mother, she was sitting up in real bad pain – the sweat just running off her face. I asked her “What is wrong?”
“I’m sick in the head,” she said meaning “head ache”, but they couldn’t save her – she died that night. We buried her the same way. Then they sent for me – made a special trip across the river – to invite me to the feast. They had a real spread laid out. They had some of the best meat I have ever tasted in my life there. It was in squares. – Oh! – an inch and a half thick. It had been partly smoke-dried and then roasted in an oven. It was just like eating marshmallow, it was so tender. I never had anything like it. The other women were there – kids and all.
INTERVIEWER: How did they get word around so fast?
GEORGE HUNTER: They beat the tom-toms, and he went around and invited everybody. But he made that special trip over to invite me. At first they didn’t trust me, at all! They thought “just another white man, out to beat us”. They told me that later. They know that the Hudson Bay had beaten them all the time, but they couldn’t do a thing about it. While I was at the feast, they kept pressing me to “eat lots, eat lots!”
INTERVIEWER: Did they build the little grave houses as the Beaver do here?
GEORGE HUNTER: They buried them in the ground, then, but when my uncle, a geologist, went up there long before they buried them up in the trees. They dressed the body and put it up there, covered it over with spruce boughs and left it. Beaver were different. They made a little tipi – like an A-frame, – they used to hew those boards out. Maybe they’d put a stick up with a duck on it or something. There was one at Ernie Peterson’s place years ago. Some would put a little fence around it.
For miscarried or premature babies they had a special way. They were the only ones that they buried like that. They’d get a poplar log, cut if off and split it. Then they’d hollow it out and chop holes in the end. They put the baby in there and packed it in mud. Then they’d put the other half of the log back on, and wrapped rawhide around it to keep it tight. Then they’d chop off two trees that were close together and put it up there, and never touch it again. When the poplars rot, it falls and you can see bones, and the skull and everything on the ground, just as you can see in this picture I have painted (Mr. Hunter is an artist). I came on a place once where there were four of these but one had fallen down – but they never touch it again. Very few white people have seen that. There used to be two of them between where Fort St. John is now and the old fort on the river. There used to be some at Squaw Creek up north of Fort St. John.
INTERVIEWER: We then spoke of Charlie Yahey.
GEORGE HUNTER: Yes, Charlie Yahey, – Bella his wife. She was about a hundred and seven or more years old.
INTERVIEWER: She’s still alive! [Editor’s note: this was true in 1973] – and if she was a hundred and five in 1962 or ‘63, as they said in the paper one time when she visited Fort St. John, she may be a hundred and sixteen or so now. Charlie is blind now. One of our interviewers, a young Indian man, had made friends with them. He [Yahey] said through an interpreter that his name isn’t Charlie – that’s the white man’s name but our interviewer is a Cree, and he couldn’t pronounce it properly for me. Charlie says his father’s and grandfather’s name was the same. He said his grandfather’s hunting or camping ground was on the lake known as Charlie Lake. That’s the first time I’ve ever been able to get any idea who “Charlie” was. He also objects to “Yahey” – he says that means “pants on fire”. Somebody else gave him that name. Have you met him?
GEORGE HUNTER: Oh, yes. I know him. I know her too. I know Harry Yahey, too, – the boy. They came up the Halfway (where Mr. Hunter afterwards homesteaded). I used to fix guns for the Indians and they’d pay me in moccasins.
INTERVIEWER: I understand that he is the last of the Beaver prophets – the “dreamers”. They say he tells them his dreams and what they should do. They believe him, more than they do the missionaries.
GEORGE HUNTER: Oh they do! They have their own. Just like one said on the radio lately: ” You white men have many religions maybe five hundred and each one is right and the others wrong. The Indian has one – the earth and the Great Spirit. That’s our religion. It’s time you were smartening up!” The Indians have some very nice beliefs. Now the Beatton boys – they still stick with them, too. They were very kind. When a little white girl, two years old, drowned on McFarlane’s flat where Angus Beatton was living, he kept warning them to keep her away from the river. Angus Beatton was cutting hay up the river, but he came down immediately.
“I knew when it happened,” he said. “The wind was blowing, then it stopped. It was dead calm for an hour. I knew.”
INTERVIEWER: Mrs. Hunter made the little coffin and lined it and covered it to make it pretty to comfort the mother.
MRS. HUNTER: George was guiding at the time. There were just the Beatton boys there, and they carried her up on the little hill. The father was going to bury her only a little under the ground where I knew the foxes would dig the little body up, and the huskies would eat her. The father said the ground was too hard and stony to dig farther. I objected and Angus stepped forward and said, “I’ll dig it,” and he and Johnny did. Afterwards Angus planted flowers on the grave and put a little fence around it. They were very kind. Angus was a very fine person. So was their mother.
INTERVIEWER: (The Hunters did not know anything about a certain sacred flat rock, that appears in one of Charlie Yahey’s tales).
GEORGE HUNTER: There was an old Indian up at Nelson that they called Chief Bighead. He was well over a hundred years old. The rumor is that he had had seven wives but had clubbed them to death. He has a little brush tipi there, poles set up with dirt on it. He lived in it winter and summer. He cut wood in the winter for the Hudson’s Bay with an ax, and in winter runs a little trap line to catch rabbits for the Hudson’s Bay dogs. He kept dried meat in that little tipi – the weasels would smell it and come in. He kept an old muzzleloader – a single barreled one -he’d get that thing loaded and blow the head off that weasel. Then he’d skin it out and take it to the Bay. They felt sorry for him – he was so old, so they built a cabin and put a stove in it, thinking he’d be more comfortable. They got the fire going and took him over there. Next morning, here he was back in his brush tipi. “The stove stopped!” he said. He never went back again, but lived in his tipi until he died.
There was another old Indian there, the medicine man. “Old Messaw”, they called him. He had had all his toes frozen off when he was younger, so he walked kind of funny. When he wants to be kind of official he wears funny glasses. He has one bad eye and one good eye. He knocked the glass out of the side his good eye was on, so he could see. When he got these on, he was really somebody! He’d put on an old blue serge suit.
INTERVIEWER: Do they still come to him?
GEORGE HUNTER: They don’t pay much attention to him now, but he gives them advice anyway. There’s a little round knoll in Nelson, where another old Indian would call them together. They’d make a great big tipi up there and all get inside of it. They’d play the tom-toms just a low beat, and they’d all sing “Hi-iHi-Hiyi-Hi”. Then they’d stop and he’d point out one, tell him what he’d done wrong, and what he should do in the future, – give them a piece of his mind.
INTERVIEWER: And they took it?
GEORGE HUNTER: Yes, they did! They were quite serious about it. – Then they’d beat and sing some more, and he’d pick on another one. It would go the rounds – I’ve seen them do that for three days and three nights. He’d rest a little while, and they’d have tea, but by the time the three days were over, he was about “all in”. He was old, getting gray. His name was Mutwa or Mukwa. I was lucky to be there just at the end of the real old ways. They were really fine people. They were kind, and they were honest, they told the truth – they were real good citizens.
INTERVIEWER: I’m really glad to know that.