Friday, 13 January 2012

UP THE NEPIGON by Elizabeth Taylor Part Five

Be Still Thy Heart this was written for Harper's Magazine in 1889

PART FIVE: Five Days at the Mission

The five days we passed at the mission were very pleasant ones. The Indian Agent and a Government surveyor arrived next day, coming from Nepigon House, a Hudson's Bay Company post fifty miles north of us, on the lake. We had forgotten to bring kerosene-oil with us from Red Rock, and I had only a piece of candle; we expected to find plenty of oil at the mission, but when we reached there, the last had just been used. The supply of matches had failed, and the man in charge had been burning a lamp day and night for five weeks to keep fire. We hoped that the Indian Agent would have lights with him. The sound of a gun off on the lake, after dark, told us that they were approaching, and our first question, when they had landed was : " Have you any candles?" The surveyor had one, and needed most of that for his evening observations, so after that, during our stay, we went to bed by daylight, and saved our two little candle-ends for the last evening, when the payment was to take place.

We were very busy while at the mission, the men with the survey, the guides being pressed into service, while our guide Joseph, a little Indian boy and I went trolling up a beautiful river about a mile away to get fish for our large family, an occupation rendered doubly necessary after the stealing of our bacon and ham by the Indian dogs about the houses.

The Dance

The fourth night we had a dance given in our honor in the kitchen of the mission. The "Ogina," or Indian Agent, the missionary's wife and I sat in chairs at one end; on a long bench, and in rows on the floor, were the dancers, about twenty in number, while the Indian women, children and a few dogs were clustered in a little group in one corner of the floor. The three musicians sat in another corner with the tom-tom and the queer little sticks they beat it with. A table stood in the middle of the floor, and on it was a large frying pan, tilted up a little, and containing half-cooked pork rind, out of which trailed a bit of cotton cloth, lighted at one end. After we had taken our places, the dance began without further ceremony; the musicians beat upon the tom-tom with perfect time, singing a monotonous song which began high and ended in a deep growl, then started anew; and this kept up as long as the dancers kept the floor.

We had the :
  • Warrior's dance
  • Triumphant Song
  • Mohawk's Dance
  • and the Rabbit Dance or "Wah-booso-she-mow-in"

The figures were very simple. In one dance the performers stood in a long row, and bent the knees, dipping the body without moving the heels from the ground.  They sang with the tom-tom-players, keeping time to the music with the motion of their bodies. I advise those who think this dance easy to try it for a few minutes, being careful not to stir the heels from their position on the floor. In another dance they went about in rows, throwing their bodies into every imaginable position, till it seemed as if the joints would certainly be dislocated. In the "Warrior's Dance" they filed around the table, one close behind the other, bending the arms and throwing themselves from one foot to the other, singing at the same time, and occasionally going through the motion of snatching up a gun , aiming and firing, giving a wild war-whoop, catching an imaginary foe by the hair and making a horribly suggestive motion of the scalping knife. Round and round they went, the tom-toms beating faster and faster, the men quickening their pace, the singing increasing in volume and shrillness as the women and children took up the song. The war-whoops rang out, the house fairly shook with the heavy thud of moccasined feet and the leaps of the dancers, and the pork-rind light smoked and flared, and added the smell of burning fat to the air that was already quite heavy enough with the fumes of a dozen pipes. It was very interesting at first, but after three hours we were quite willing to withdraw and let the dancers take possession of the cook-stove and make unlimited quantities of strong tea, which, with bread, was our contribution to the feast.

The next night the Indians received their annual payment of four dollars apiece for every man, woman and child, in one of the neat little Indian cabins. It was conducted with great seriousness. The Agent, two Counsellors, our guide Joseph, who acted as interpreter, and I had chairs, while the others sat on the bench and on the floor. The room was prettily draped with two flags, and our last two precious bits of candle in bottles graced the table, lighted one after the other. There was much business to attend to - complaints to be heard, the payment made, advice given, etc. - and it was almost midnight when we stepped into our canoe to return to the house, while the Indians stood on the bank with lighted pieces of birch-bark to enable us to avoid the submerged rocks in the lake.

To be continued in Part Six : the Return Journey Begins

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