Monday, 15 August 2016

Men of the Birch-Bark Canoe - the Ojibway

Men of the Birch-Bark Canoes and the Outpost Camps of the Far-Lands

(written circa 1909 likely published in the Globe, Toronto; author unknown; photographer presumed to be C.W. Jeffreys. From the ephemera files of C.W. Jeffreys sent to the Nipigon Historical Museum.)

Any man who has never been North knows little or nothing about it.

There are the vanishing tribes – the Ojibway;  there are the men of Wabigoon and of Temagami;  the hunters and the traders and the trappers of old – they that once were underlings to the great Company – The Hudson’s Bay.

 Time was when these people were the lords of the North.

They were the makers of commerce.

Ships that came into Hudson’s Bay; York boats on the rivers; the long-oared rollicking boats with the chansons of the crews;  the fires by night and the silent dip-dip by day; the long portages – they the red-shirted ones, the half-breeds, boys of the fur brigade that came before the bushwhacker and the courier de bois with red sash and sheepacks;  and these also were second in time to the primeval hunter-man.

Those were the ancient trading days;  and it seems that now it’s just about over; for the furs this year were mighty scarce and the packs very small and the long canoes rode light on the rivers from post to post down from the Mettagami and Abittibi to Moose and York and Churchill. But the Indians, the Ojibways must be kept somehow;  the makers of language and of poetry, and the rugged background of our civilization which is still creeping up over the hunt-grounds. Five dollars a year for every man, woman and child; the white man pays it; the inspector of agencies and his clerk and his crew – holding court in the open air as they did this summer of 1909,  whence these many splendid pictures.  And did you ever behold more beautiful pictures of a vanishing people, taken by one who knows them well;  shambling and nomadic and colourful?

From Camp to Camp and from camps to outpost and from there by the rivers to the posts of fur where the gatherings of the tribes were held;  they fetched with them the strength and the smell of the back-places;  the camps and the canoes, the spruce and the skins; but they all wanted the white man’s “sooneahs” – which is the word for money on the rocks of North Ontario and on the prairies of Saskatchewan and Alberta and far up into the foot-hills.

Passing out of this pageant of the Ojibway; the Indian of Hiawatha.  He has seen the coming of the fur brigades – the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North – West Company who fought like wolves on his hunt-grounds.  He has seen the second era of commerce;  the great lumber companies that stripped off the whispering pines where the big moose ran.  The houses of the overlords, the factors, still stand by the rivers;  but the Factor is not so busy as once he was.

Hard-fisted old Scotchmen most of these factors;  knowing the Ojibways whom they govern like children; speaking their language.  Now the third act in the civilization drama is beginning to raise the curtain.  It is the railway.  Two railways are running through the Ojibway hunt-grounds.  The snort of the steam-shovel instead of the cough of the moose;  the thud of dynamite and the rumble of gravel trains.  The Ojibway is not in love with the fire-wagon.  He sits in his bark canoe and thinks it a strange thing.  Maybe he knows that this thing with the banner of black smoke is the last act in his play.  Railway and Ojibway – not meant to go together.

Canoe for him; the river and the moose-run.

For he has never ridden a horse, this Ojibway of the hinterland.  In all the camps of the moose-hunter – not a horse unless some half-civilized hunter has got hold of one for haulage work and for hire.

This makes the great difference between the bush Indian and the plains-man;  between the back-country moose-runner, and the Crees and the Blackfoots who hunted buffaloes horseback and on the prairies.  The Cree would be a dead mand without his pony.  The Ojibway would be useless without his canoe.  Each has made the way his own fashion;  each at the outpost doing his own work in the world of fur.  The man on the Saskatchewan never saw a birch-bark canoe – unless by some chance he drifted down the water highways of the far to York Factory and to Moose;  away from his inland river to the meeting- place of the birch-bark canoes that went down loaded to the brim with packs of fur and came up freighted with goods.

 Canada has never had a finer thing than the birch-bark canoe;  never any birch-bark canoe in the world finer than that of the Ojibways that scudded the rivers of the north land from Lake Superior to Hudson’s Bay.

These men of the birch-bark canoes understand that the modern white man’s canoe is a very fine thing and carries a large load;  but they know also that when a white man’s canoe strikes a rock in a rapid it is a hard matter to repair;  camp all night and half a day perhaps;  but when a bark canoe tore a hole with a load of fur, it was but a little job to haul her out and in twenty minutes with chunk of resin and the “wahtap,” the spruce root, a piece of bark and a bone needle, to make her as good a new again.

The Ojibways do not comprehend why the rivers are not now so full of the birch-bark canoes;  only that the furs are less and the trapping not so good, and that strange men come down the rivers who think more of the rocks than they do of the woods;  and some that think only of a place to build a railway – talking of wheat and ships in the north and all such things that in the days of the great Company were not known where the Ojibway was king.  One of these days we shall have become so commercialised by the railway as to forget the hunters and trappers and traders of the fur-post regime.

Then we shall build Museums.


( I’m sorry, I just couldn’t help myself from enlarging that thought! – B)

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