H. M. (Henry Martin) Robinson.

The great fur land; or, Sketches of life in the Hudson's bay territory online

. (page 12 of 24)
Online LibraryH. M. (Henry Martin) RobinsonThe great fur land; or, Sketches of life in the Hudson's bay territory → online text (page 12 of 24)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

hausted on the morrow, the consumption would go on just
the same, the improvident hunter entertaining no idea of re-
serving of present excess for future scarcity. Happily, the
supply is abundant, for it sometimes happens that the carts
are fully loaded with meat in a single chase. In that event,
the major part of them are at once started homeward in
charge of boys and the younger men, while the hunters fol-
low up the herd to obtain a further supply of robes. A view
of the prairie, after a run in which the acquisition of robes is
the sole object, reveals the enormous waste of life which an-
nually occurs. The plain for miles is covered with the car-
casses of buffalo from which nothing has been taken save the
hides, tongues, and it may be the more savory portions of the
hump ; the remainder being left to the wolves and carrion-
birds. Should the first run fail to secure a sufficient supply
of meat, however, the chase is continued until the comple-
ment is obtained, each hunter starting his carts homeward as
they are filled.

In such manner has the work of the semi-annual hunts
been conducted for over half a century, and in the same way
will it continue, growing less in importance yearly, until the
last buffalo shall have ceased to exist. Their importance in


the years gone by can hardly be over-estimated. They have
furnished the main support of a population numbering ten
thousand souls, and furnished the trade with a great part of
its annual supjjlies of robes and furs. An enterprising and
flourishing province is springing up about the site of the
little colony of hunters, rendered all the more easy of estab-
lishment by the stability and wealth derived from the chase.
But, unfortunately, the older nomads are crowded by this
civilization. They belong to a race apart, and are scared by
fences and enclosures, as if they confined even the free air
within bounds and limits. Gradually they retire before it,
following the buffalo closer and closer to the Rocky Moun-
tains, until finally both will disappear together.



^ I "^O the traveler detained long at a trading-post of the
-^ Hudson's Bay Company, the monotony of the exist-
ence becomes irksome in the extreme. The scenery about
the stockade is generally limited to a boundless view of the
level prairie on three sides, and a meagre one of the river on
whose banks it stands. The daily routine of life within the
walls, which contributes to distract the attention of the post
officials, comes to have an appalling sameness to the mere
looker-on. It is then that the consumption of tobacco be-
comes something alarming, and that the mind grasps at the
most trivial incident as a means of appeasing its weariness.
The fit of one's moccasins is a matter to be thought seri-
ously about, and the composition of one's dinner is a subject
of deep contemplation.

This hibernal torpor, as it may be called, generally sets
in more acutely in the autumnal months, when the increas-
ing cold half locks the rivers in ice, forbidding the use of
canoe or boat, and drives the sportsman from the plains with
its frigid breath. It continues with but little cessation
until midwinter, when trappers and Indians arrive with the
first of the winter's catch of furs. True, there are occasional


times of bustle, created by the arrivals and departures which
constantly take place in a country where locomotion may be
said to be the normal condition of the people. But this
temporary excitement only serves to plunge one into corre-
sponding depths of depression when it is over, and the same-
ness of the life afterward becomes absolutely funereal. Every-
thing readable in the scanty library is read so often that it
seems to one as if he could close his eyes and repeat the
whole collection verbatim j the acquaintance of all the live-
stock is cultivated until one may be said to possess the inti-
macy of every dog and cat in the post, and the autobiographies
of all the officers and servants are heard so repeatedly that
one feels competent to reproduce them in manuscript in the
event of their decease.

Fortunately, during this season of inactivity occurs the
annual celebration of a festival peculiar to a mystic brother-
hood permeating the nomadic peoples round about. Each
autumn the fraternity of medicine-men celebrate the dog-
feast in the vicinity of the principal trading-stations.

An inclosure about forty feet long by twenty-five broad,
fenced in with branches of trees, is laid off on the prairie.
It is situated due east and west, and has an opening in either
end for purposes of entrance and exit. The ceremony occu-
pies two or three days, during which the ground in the inte-
rior of the inclosure is covered with savages, who sit along-
side each other, drawn up close inside the fence. In a line
running lengthways through the centre are erected perpen-
dicular poles, with large stones at their bases, both stones


and poles covered red over different portions of their surfaces
by the blood of the dog-sacrifice. The animals are selected
and killed, and, after lying exposed on the stones beside the
poles during the pertormance of certain ceremonies by the
medicine-men — whose medicine-bags, composed of the skins
of wild animals, form an important feature of the ceremony —
are cooked and eaten. The dog-meat, when prepared, pre-
sents a very uncouth and repulsive appearance, as it is borne
from man to man in shapeless trenchers that each may select
the portion he intends to devour.

To the casual spectator such a ceremony as the dog-feast
seems a confused conglomeration of frivolous rites and
genuflections, destitute alike of meaning and design. One
might be tempted to believe that the principal and most
rational object of the assemblage was to eat the dogs. In-
quiry, however, of any well-informed resident of the country,
elicits the reply that the unfortunate beings are assembled
for what, in their eyes, is the celebration of a solemn act of
communion with the spirits. That such communion is real
has been believed, to our knowledge, by many clergymen and
priests in the Indian country, though, of course, their theory
is that it exists with the powers of darkness. It probably
lies much with the accidental bias of each man's mind,
whether he inclines to so serious a view of these barbarous
proceedings, or mentally attributes to them much the same
amount of spiritual efficacy which he would to the fantastic
contortions of some Eastern devotee.

The nominal object of this feast is to make medicine.


What medicine this is, we are unable to state with precision.
The Indians have many medicines, composed for the most
part of roots, and sometimes possessed of real medicinal vir-
tue. Sarsaparilla, for instance, is used by them. Some are
said to be highly poisonous, and even to exercise what we
presume would to a physician appear an unaccountable effect.
The permanent contortion of feature, the growth of hair over
the entire body, the eruption of black, ineffaceble blotches on
the skin, are alleged to be the consequences of partaking of
some of them, either by swallowing or inhaling their fumes.
Frequent examples of the results above cited have come
under our own personal observation, and we can vouch for
the effect produced.

There was employed at one time, as a servant in the fam-
ily, a Salteaux girl, of about twenty years of age. As a natural
result of her presence about the establishment, numerous In-
dians of both sexes, claiming ties of consanguinity of more or
less remoteness, daily besieged the culinary department of
our domestic economy. The matter became unbearable,
finally, as it often occurred that the kitchen-floor was nearly
covered with the squatting relatives. The girl was ordered
to refuse admittance to any being, of either sex, habited in a
blanket. It happened that the first candidate presenting
himself for admittance after the receipt of this prohibitory
order was an old conjurer, or medicine-man. The door was
unceremoniously shut in his face. He lingered about, how-
ever, until some duty called the girl outside the door, when,
after threatening her with dire revenge, he took his departure.


The poor domestic was much alarmed, and reported his
threats. Little attention was paid to it, and the winter passed
away without a further call from the conjurer.

In the early spring, the girl by some accident cut her
hand slightly — not sufficiently deep, however, to necessitate
binding up. Before it healed, she was one day engaged in
carrying water from an adjacent stream, when the conjurer
unexpectedly approached her. Professing to have forgotten
his ejection of the previous winter, he proffered his hand in
a friendly way to the girl, who thoughtlessly gave him in re-
turn the wounded member. He shook it a long time, squeez-
ing it tightly in his own. The sore smarted considerably,
and upon withdrawing her hand by reason of the pain, she
noticed some dark substance in the palm of the conjurer's
hand. The thought then occurred to her that he had poi-
soned the sore. She was assured of it by the medicine-
man, who informed her that she would break out in black
blotches for one month in each year, ever afterward. One
year from that date black eruptions appeared over her entire
body, each spot about the size of a dime silver coin. They
continued upon her person, without any severe pain, for one
month, when they disappeared. For three successive years
— as long as we had knowledge of her — the eruptions oc-
curred regularly, and continued for the allotted time.

Among the visiting Indians who called perennially at our
kitchen-door during the winter months, was a middle-aged
woman suffering from a loss of power to move the facial
muscles. This incapacity was brought on, according to her


own testimony, and that of others cognizant of the circum-
stances, some five years before our first acquaintance with
her, by certain drugs administered by a conjurer. These
medicines were given her to produce that effect alone, with-
out reference to the prevention or cure of other diseases, and
were taken without her knowledge, being mingled surrepti-
tiously with her food. The effect soon showed itself in a
total loss of power in the facial muscles. She became as
expressionless as a mask. Only the eyes moved; and, as
they were intensely black and rather sparkling eyes, the
ghastly deformity was rendered the more glaring. The most
singular effect was produced, however, by her laugh. She
was a jolly, good-natured squaw, and laughed upon the slight-
est provocation. Her eyes sparkled, and her " Ha ! ha ! "
was musical to a degree ; but not a muscle moved to denote
the merriment on that expressionless face. One felt that
some one else laughed behind that rigid integument, and
was fain to pull it off, and see the dimples and curves it con-
cealed. The sensation was that of being in the presence of
an enigma one could not comprehend. No idea could be
formed of what she thought at any time ; but when she waxed
merry her countenance was more than ever a death-mask.

As to the growth of hair over the body, we have heard of
but one instance of it. That was an old man from a tribe
dwelling in the swamps and marshes. He was entirely cov-
ered with a thick coating of hair nearly an inch in length.
Only about the eyes was there any diminution in the quantity,
where for nearly an inch in a circle there was no hair. He


attributed the phenomenon to a decoction of certain herbs
given him by a medicine-man whom he had mortally offended.
His family, so far as we heard of them, were innocent of any
hirsute covering.

In a family of three Cree Indians of advanced age, a sis-
ter and two brothers, named respectively Sallie, Creppe, and
Hornie, living near Fort Pelly, perhaps the strangest effects
of the medicine-man's drugs appeared. These old people
had been poisoned in early youth, with a different effect in
each case. Sallie, who was a hanger-on about the kitchen,
lost the nails of her fingers and toes regularly every year at
the season when birds moult their feathers. This phenome-
non had never failed to occur annually since the medicine
had been taken in infancy. There was but little pain con-
nected with this shedding of the nails, and they soon grew
out again. Her brother Creppe was afflicted with an erup-
tion of warts over his entire person, and was altogether as
hideous a looking object as could well be imagined. The
divisions of his fingers and toes were hidden by these mon-
strous excrescences ; from his ears depended warts nearly an
inch in length ; in fact, he was covered with them all over
except his eyes. At certain seasons of the year they became
very painful, and deprived him of the power of locomotion.

But in the case of Hornie — a name conferred by some
facetious Scotch trader, in allusion to a fancied resemblance
to his Satanic majesty — the effects of the poison were of quite
another character. Hornie's hair was simply changed from a
generally deep black to alternate streaks of black and Avhite.


These streaks Avere about an inch in width, and ran from the
forehead to the back of the head. The line of demarcation
between the two colors was very abrupt and distinct; the
white color being the purest that can be imagined. There
was no gradual merging from iron-grey to grey, thence to
white; it was the whiteness of unsullied snow throughout the
streak. And it never changed.

We do not feel that strangers to the subject of which we
write will receive these incidents with the confidence which
they deserve, nor even that those who are somewhat familiar
with the actual circumstances will admit every inference to
be drawn to be the living truth ; but our own assurance is
so clear and strong that we can only judge the critic by his
judgment of it. We know what we assert, and are upon
honor with the reader.

Medical gentlemen in the country have differed in their
opinions as to the ability of Indians to cause the above-de-
scribed symptoms ; and, so far as we can gather, the subject
is a difficult one, and resolves itself more into a question of
evidence of facts than of the medicinal property of the roots
and drugs.

We were once furnished an opportunity of examining at
our leisure the contents of many medicine-bags at a certain
Indian mission station in the northern country. These bags had
formerly been the property of sundry medicine-men, who, on
their conversion to Christianity, had transferred them to the
keeping of the reverend missionary. There was a large col-
lection of them thrown promiscuously upon the floor of a


small out-building. The bags were, for the most part, formed
of the skins of various wild beasts in embryotic state, taken
off whole, and so stuffed as to retain as much as possible the
natural position of the animal. They had evidently served
as the totems of the owners. The contents of these primi-
tive medicine-chests were as varied as the most enthusiastic
curio could desire. Each article was wrapped carefully in a
separate parcel by itself, with the inner bark of the birch-
tree, and duly labeled as to its contents with totemic sym-
bols. An unwrapping of these packages resulted in the dis-
covery of an extensive assortment of ingredients. There
were dried herbs of many different varieties — bark and
leaves of strange plants and trees; white and orange-colored
powders of the finest quality, and evidently demanding skill
in their preparation; claws of animals and talons of birds;
colored feathers and beaks ; a few preserved skins and teeth
of reptiles ; but a total absence of liquids or any vessels that
could be used to carry them. There were several plants,
packages of which were found in every bag; but the majority
differed greatly, and the materia medica of each practitioner
seemed to be the result of individual choice and research.
One thing, however, was common to all — the small package
of human finger and toe nails. Of what peculiar significa-
tion they were, or used in what malady, we are unable to

Among the other contents of the medicine-bags, and com-
mon to all, were small images of wood, the presence of which
was considered essential to the proper efficacy of the drugs.


This was the real totem which presided over the effectual use
of the ingredients, and represented the guardian spirit of the
owner. The Indians believe every animal to have had a
great original or father. The first buffalo, the first bear, the
first beaver, the first eagle, etc., was the Manitou or guardian
spirit of the whole race of these different creatures. They
chose some one of these originals as their special Manitou, or
guardian ; and hence arose the custom of having its represen-
tation as the totem of an entire tribe. But the medicine-
men being, as it were, the priests of the spirits, and mediums
between them and the world, are entitled to a special guar-
dian spirit of their own, and hence carry his totem among
their drugs. As they profess to heal through the direction of
this spirit or guardian, they very properly place his image
among the means he commands to be used.

These images were, as a matter of course, of limited size
and rough workmanship. Their designs were various, and
represented different animals, birds, reptiles, the human figure
in strange attitudes, the sun and moon, and combinations of
all these in many forms. Whatever they held to be superior
to themselves, they deified ; but they never exalted it much
above humanity, and these images never betrayed the ex-
pression of a conception of a supernatural being on the part
of their owners.

But, whatever may have been the value of the contents of
these medicine-bags, certain it is that a fraternity of medicine-
men exists among the Indians, and that those without its

pale look with great awe upon the power of its members.


The latter are the great actors in the dog-feasts. They make
medicine for the recovery of the sick, who apply for their as-
sistance, and initiate novices into the mysteries of the frater-
nity. In payment for each exercise of these offices, a remu-
neration of some vahie is required ; the charges being, Hke
those of many of the medical profession, in proportion to the
wealth of the patient. In many cases it happens that,
through a pretty thorough knowledge of the virtues of certain
herbs, a firm determination on the part of the sufferer not to
die, and a constitution inured to noxious lotions of every
kind, the medicine-man effects a cure. Some of his cures
and specifics are wonderful, too.

We recall to memory a certain buffalo-hunt in which we
once participated, accompanying a French-Indian family.
Among the members of this nomadic domestic circle was a
young woman about nineteen years of age, and of very strong
physique. It happened one day that, in drawing a loaded
shot-gun from the cart by the muzzle, the charge exploded, and
passed entirely through her body in the region of the chest.
The gun being not over twenty inches distant from her per-
son when discharged, the shot left a hole through which
one's finger could be thrust. We were tented on the plain,
hundreds of miles from settlements, and totally destitute
alike of medical knowledge and remedies. The girl was given
up for lost, of course. Near our own camp, however, were a
few lodges of Indians, and among them, as usual, a medicine-
man. The report of the accident soon reaching the Indian
tepees., this conjurer stalked over to our tents, and looked


without comment for a time upon the unskilled efforts being
made for the sufferer's relief. At length he addressed
the father of the girl, offering to cure her if she was intrusted
to his care. Clutching at this straw, in the absence of any
better thing, with the girl's consent the father accepted the
.proposal ; and the patient was transferred to the lodge of the
medicine-man. Strange as it may appear, the woman re-
covered after a time, under the drugs and care of the con-
jurer, and was able to return home with us at the termination
of the hunt. We saw her some years after, and she expressed
herself as enjoying perfect health. The payment for effecting
this cure was, if we recollect aright, two Indian ponies,
which, it is needless to say, were cheerfully paid.

On his initiation into the mysteries of the brotherhood,
the candidate, besides paying the medicine-men a fair price,
must be a man known to the adepts as eligible. This eligi-
bility consists, it has been contended, in physical perfection
alone ; but, having known conjurers who were deformed from
birth, and others maimed at the time of their initiation, we
incline to the opinion that mental characteristics are those
most closely examined. A certain dignity of appearance, a
severe and mysterious manner, and a more than usual taci-
turnity and secretiveness in the candidate, are favorably con-
sidered. Different tribes, however, or, it may be, different
schools of medicine, have their distinct methods of initia-

The most curious initial ceremony coming to our knowl-
edge was that of a tribe in the far North. The candidate


was required to repair to the forests for a certain number of
days, to be passed in fasting, until, from extreme physical
privation, he should be wrought up to close communion with
the spirits. He then returned, and entered the pale of the
fence marking the limits of the dog-feast, to be at once sur-
rounded by a circle of conjurers and braves of his tribe, who
indulged in a wild dance. In the midst of this dance a live
dog (white in color, if to be had) was brought within the cir-
cle by the instructing medicine-man, and handed to the no-
vitiate. Seizing the sacrificial canine by the neck and a hind-
leg, the candidate finished his initiation by devouring the
animal alive. The spectacle of this poor wretch, his face
covered with blood, the howls and contortions of the suffer-
ing animal, and the yelling, dancing demons, circling about
in their monotonous dance, was appalling to the last degree.
The dogs consumed were generally of small size, but in some
instances large ones were given, and the neophyte was in a
gorged and semi-dormant condition at the termination of his

With some few orders of medicine-men physical torture
in the initiation obtains. The candidate, to cure others,
must be a perfect physical man himself; and, as he may oc-
casion pain to his patients, must be able to endure it without
murmur in his own person. At an appointed time he appears
before a medicine-man, who cuts four gashes about three
inches long on the shoulders near the point. With a smooth
stick of hard wood he makes a hole underneath the slits he
has cut, taking in an inch or more in width, and through


which a buffalo-thong is passed and tightly tied. Then the
breast is served in the same manner. After this one thong
is fastened to a long pole, the other to a buffalo-skull, or
other heavy weight, with about ten feet of rope between the
back and skull. The candidate then jumps into a lively
dance, singing a song in keeping with the performance, and
jerking the skull about so fast that at times it is four or five
feet from the ground, all the time pulling as best he can at
the thong fastened to the pole by jumping back and swing-
ing upon it. At times the flesh on back and breast seems to
stretch eight or ten inches, and, when let up, closes down
again with a pop. This dancing and racing continues until
the flesh-fastenings break. The novitiate is by that time a
terrible looking object, and so nearly exhausted that he has
to be helped away. His wounds are washed and bound up,
presents are made to him, and he is thenceforth recognized
as a medicine- man.

A fast of ten days' duration has been stated to us, on
oral and trustworthy testimony, as a necessary preliminary
among some tribes to becoming a conjurer. During the time
indicated the candidate sleeps among the branches of a tree,
where a temporary residence has been fitted up for him.
His dreams are carefully treasured up in his recollection,

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 12 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24

Online LibraryH. M. (Henry Martin) RobinsonThe great fur land; or, Sketches of life in the Hudson's bay territory → online text (page 12 of 24)