Martin Hunter : The Bush Indians of the 1860’s
How They Camped and Apportioned the Work
From the standpoint of the present day, (early 1900’s) , one might suppose that the Indians are much better off now than in former days, but I doubt it. They have many luxuries, conveniences and superfluities that they had not then, but these are acquired tastes and at the expense of things more useful and lasting.
It was the policy of the Hudson’s Bay Company, before they were forced to do otherwise by the free traders, never to introduce anything new or non-essential to the Indian. The goods they bartered were of the very best and most durable quality.. They charged for them, it is true, but the Indian had something he could depend on for service and wear. This fixed policy ran through everything we bartered – guns, blankets, clothes, shawls, netting twine, ammunition, etc. , etc.
In those far back days provisions for the interior trade was unknown, and tea was, in small quantities, imported more as a gratuity than for barter. Rum had been abolished throughout the country, and the tea was given the Indians in lieu thereof at their periodic trading visits to the posts.
An Indian’s home, the tepee, was made from sheets of the young white birch, sewed together in rolls of from twelve to fifteen feet, each roll tied together with a leather thong and placed, when moving the camp, either on his toboggan or in the canoe in summer. From six to ten rolls made a very comfortable camp for a small family.
When the site of the new encampment was reached, the woman cleared a circle of brush, rotten wood and stones and broke up the ground with the head of an old axe so as to level it off and make it softer. Sand and stones were placed in the middle in an oblong shape and slightly higher than the rest of the interior. This was to build their fire upon.
During this labor of the woman the husband cuts ten or fifteen straight poles three or four inches at the butt and tapering up to ten or twelve feet long. These poles are to form the skeleton of the structure upon which to lay the extended rolls of bark. If there were grown up children in the family, they drew the poles to the place as the father cut and branched them.
Three of these poles were tied with wattap ( a root) near the small end, or of such a height as the peak of the camp was intended to be. This triangle being placed over the camp ground with the top just over where the fire would be, the other poles were then placed all around the circle with their tops resting in the forks of the triangle. These poles placed about two feet apart made, when finished, a very secure structure.
The poles at the entrance were placed very securely in the ground and about three feet apart at the bottom.
All now being ready to receive the bark, the man and woman unwound each roll very carefully by backing away from each other. When the roll was clear to its full length, it was placed gently on the framework, beginning at the door space near the ground, tying it securely there and at the other end to the frame pole, and so on till the circumference near the ground had received a tier all around, finishing off at the door again.
Then another row began, giving a lap of three or four inches over the first strip, shingle fashion, to shed rain or melting snow.
The bark rolls being about a yard wide, three tier generally went as high as they wanted it, so as to leave an opening about the collection of pole tops for the smoke to escape from.
Once the bark covering was all in place, a few other poles of heavier weight but shorter length were lodged here and there all the way round against the bark and on top of the inner poles. This keeps the bark from flapping about in the wind and prevents it cracking by the weather.
For a door an old blanket or dressed deerskin (hair on) is used. The two upper corners being fixed securely to each side of the door inside, to the lower part near the ground a small cross stick is fixed. This keeps the blanket extended to its width, and the cross bar, which is slightly longer than the blanket is broad, lodges at each side of the opening, thus preventing the blanket from tumbling inwards. In passing in and out, one side is lifted up and allowed to fall behind the person.
The camp as a camp is now ready, excepting a liberal supply of cedar or balsam brush. If an abundance of brush is near at hand, it is sometimes put on a foot thick. Brushing a camp as it should be done is a great art, and some women are very painstaking about it.
It is a mistaken idea to think the brush is chucked down any way and trampled into shape. On the contrary, the feathery ends of the branches are all placed one way. These are taken five or six in a bunch and placed shingle fashion, commencing at the outer part of the camp and working towards the fire all round the circle. When the whole is finished and properly done, no stalks are visible except those of the last bunches near the fireplace.
The breaking and carrying of the brush to camp is woman’s and children’s work, and while this is going on the man is chopping and carrying the night’s firewood.
The wood is cut in lengths as heavy and long as the man can handle, and while the wife, who by this time has got the camp brushed, is cooking the supper over a small fire, the husband is cutting his long wood into short lengths and plitting it at the camp door. Thus all work goes on together and the result is ease.
Apart from rendering assistance this first night of a new encampment, the woman ever afterwards as long as they remain on that spot has to chop and carry the next night’s wood while her lord and master is away on the trap line or hunting game.
A night spent in a new camp; a bright, cheerful fire, the smell of the new brush, roasting game exuding its fragrance, and on lolling back smoking the after supper pipe, is one of the charming and satisfying conditions of the bush.