H. M. (Henry Martin) Robinson.

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

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Online LibraryH. M. (Henry Martin) RobinsonThe great fur land; or, Sketches of life in the Hudson's bay territory → online text (page 18 of 24)
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thing is to do without. This is the universal half-breed logic :
let us eat, drink and be merry, lest to-morrow we cannot ;
and it is in perfect keeping with the simplicity and cunning,
faith, fun, and selfishness which are mingled in the half-
breed's mental composition.

As a consequence of so general a commingling of the
sexes in the many huts of the winter camp, it occurs that
when the young men are not engaged in dancing or feasting
they are usually making love; and as there is a large number
of young women and girls in every camp, each family rejoic-
ing in the possession of several, the wooings of the dusky Pyr-
amuses and tawny Thisbes is going on continually, and
without exciting any particular comment. Many of the


women are very handsome, but run the gamut of color from
a clear white of the Caucasian type to the deep and dirty cop-
per-color of the Indian. They receive the attention of their
lovers, we are bound to say, with a degree of propriety and
maiden coyness which reflects much honor upon their native
modesty, situated as they are. As no opportunity is offered
for retirement or privacy, the love-making is carried on in
the presence of all the other occupants of the room, and very
frequently each corner of the single apartment will have its
couple whispering soft nothings, to be heard, of course, by all
the rest. To civilized young persons, no doubt, a courtship
pursued under these depressing circumstances would be try-
ing to the utmost ; but Frangois and Philomel are not in the
least embarrassed by having their conversation overheard,
and they caress each other, and call pet names, as if there
were no ears within a mile of them.

Franfois or Gabriel generally comes early in the evening,
and having been duly embraced and handshaken by the en-
tire family, is at once invited to dine. The fact of it being
past the dinner hour makes no difference, as the invitation is
extended in accordance with hospitable custom. The father
of Philomel takes his seat at table with his guest, being in
duty bound to eat with every one he entertains, and the fe-
male members of the family wait upon them. Both proceed
to make themselves omnipresent as far as possible. Their
fingers are everywhere, and ignoring such confining influ-
ences as knives and forks, they soon attain an enviable state
of greasiness. During the progress of the meal the host is


untiring in his efforts to overload his guest with buffalo-hump
and tea. He informs him that he eats no more than a spar-
row ; that it is a constant mystery to him how he is able to
preserve life at all on so small a quantity of food ; that he
confidently expects him to become a saint in glory ere long,
but intends doing his best not to let him go up from his roof
by reason of starvation ; that Philomel has an appetite some-
thing like his own, and that it has been a cause of anxiety to
him all her life long. While thus commiserating his guest's
poor appetite, mon pere is rapidly and bountifully helping
himself, and makes amends for what he is pleased to call his
visitor's abstemiousness. When both have eaten enough to
cause immediate surfeit, and the father-in-law in prospect is
blue in the face, a smoke is suggested.

While the smoking is going on Philomel deftly sweeps
from the table the remnants of the repast, and retires to a
corner of the apartment by herself. Here, when the fumiga-
tion is over, the enamored Gabriel joins her, and his doing so
is a signal for the rest of the family to become suddenly un-
conscious of their presence. This oblivion does duty on
such occasions for a separate apartment. Whatever incidents
of a tender nature occur are supposed to be invisible to any
person save the principals. Everybody acts on this theory.
Even the respected but dissipated host produces his black
bottle with the hoarded store of rum, and drinks it himself
under the assumed belief that his young guest is in the next
room. The small brothers-in-law that are to be, indulge in
a rather vindictive skirmish over a moccasin-game in utter


ignorance of any bodily presence; and the seven sisters of
Philomel criticise the cut of her lover's garments, and the
classic but retiring beauty of his countenance with a charming
unconsciousness of his close proximity. Philomel, plastic
and pliable Philomel, is in no manner abashed at being wooed
in the presence of her relatives, and even becomes herself the
wooer on discovering that Gabriel is in a certain degree
timid. She intimates by caresses of the hand that they are
alone, and converses in a tone of voice sufficiently loud to
dispel the idea that they can be overheard. If Gabriel re-
covers courage in some measure, he looks upon Philomel
admiringly, as he would upon any other thing of beauty, and
it is not long before she becomes conscious of the observa-
tion. Then it is a study to watch the airs assumed by this
half-breed belle. She is as well versed in the masonry of her
sex as if born with a white skin and reared in Madison
Square. There is no difference in her mode of action ; the
only difference is in the effect.

Gabriel, unless he is an adept at the business, cannot en-
tirely rid himself of the depressing effect of twelve pairs of
eyes taking in his glances. He is, in consequence, not so
susceptible to her wiles as he would be if otherwise situated.
At first he limits his love-making to affectionate looks,
caresses, and the simpler forms of speech which convey to
her the knowledge that she is the light of his eyes. As the
evening advances, and his embarrassment wears off, he ven-
tures upon remarks of a more intensely passionate nature,
indicative of his love and desire to be first in her affections.


The mixed language spoken by the lovers affords an unlim-
ited supply of diminutives; and Gabriel may call his sweet-
heart by the names of almost all the animal creation, and yet
use but legitimate pet names. In the Cree tongue he may
address her as his musk-ox, or, if he desires to become more
tender, may call her his musk-rat with equal propriety. By a
blending of two Indian tongues she becomes a beautiful
wolverine, and a standard but commonplace love-name is
''my little pig."

The half-breed's pet names have all been taken from
those of animals that seem to be especially innocent or beau-
tiful in his eyes ; and the fact that different persons have dif-
ferent standards of beauty and innocence has led to the
invention of an almost unlimited vocabulary of diminutives.
When the lady-love is inclined to be stout, the names of the
larger animals are chosen, and rather liked by her upon
whom they are conferred. We remember that one woman
was affectionately called the Megatherium, a name that clung
to her for months, as being peculiarly the representative of
ideal love.

After the lovers have passed a considerable time in this
manner alone, as it were, the sisters and other female rela-
tives of Philomel evince an inclination to take part in the
wooing. They participate in the conversation by almost
imperceptible degrees; then gather by slow approaches into
the corner set apart for the courting ; and at last become a
radiant but tawny group, sparkling and scintillating in the

humor of the heathen tongues. They resolve themselves


into a species of whippers-in ; condole with each other upon
the prospective loss of their dear sister; congratulate Gabriel
upon having gained the affections of so irreproachable a
maiden as Philomel, and feel assured that their lives will be
one of unalloyed happiness. In this way the half-breed
lover is wafted into matrimony with a facility and dispatch
not easily excelled by her fairer sisters of paved avenues.

After a short season of courtship, the anticipated mother-
in-law contributes to the certainty of the matrimonial ven-
ture by exhibiting, with commendable pride, the household
goods which are to accompany Philomel upon her departure
from the domestic fold. A feather bed, certain articles of
embroidered clothing, highly decorated moccasins, and sun-
dry pieces of earthenware and tin constitute the whole. To
this the host adds a trade-musket, which, he says, has been
used by him in the chase, and has been destined from the
period of earliest infancy as a present to the fortunate win-
ner of Philomel. He takes occasion, at the same time, to
produce the black bottle, and ask the pleasure of drinking
the health of his prospective son-in-law, which he does in a
demonstratively paternal way affecting to behold.

If Gabriel seems to be overcome by the beneficence of
the family, and the threatening prospects of immediate matri-
mony, and relapses into quietude and sombre thought, his
host insists that he must be suffering from hunger again, and
expresses his wonder that he has been able to keep up so
long. As the half-breed idea of hospitality consists in oft
repeated food and drink, Gabriel knows that it is useless as



well as impolitic to refuse, and is accordingly made the re-
cipient of more buffalo-hump and tea, which leaves him in a
surfeited and numbed condition, and quite willing to be
married out of hand. From this time on Gabriel is, so
to speak, an engaged man. As the evenings return, he re-
pairs to the corner of the room where the placid Philomel
awaits him, and again the imaginary walls are reared up, ren-
dering it an apartment of itself. Here he may hurl amatory
adjectives and noun substantives at her brow to his heart's
content; for there comes a day in the near future when
they must repair to the priest, and when Philomel will re-
move the gaudy handkerchief from her head, and wear it
crossed meekly upon her breast in token of her wifehood.

Against this marriage day Gabriel accumulates rich store
of buffalo-meat and Jamaica rum, and, if possible, a fine-cloth
capote of cerulean hue, and ornamental leggins of bewilder-
ing beadwork ; for the. unmarried half-breed
in the consummation of his toilet first pays
attention to his legs. His cap may be old,
his capote out at the elbows, but his leggins
must be without spot or blemish. A leg-
gin of dark-blue cloth, extending to the
knee, tied at the top with a gaudy garter of
worsted-work, and having a broad stripe of
heavy bead or silk-work running down the outer seam, is his
insignia of respectability.

Gabriel's marriage generally takes place in the winter,
when the cares of existence are lightened by reason of ad-



vances made him upon the labor of the ensuing season, or a
generous supply of provisions in hand from the late fall hunt.
On the appointed day he makes a present of a few ponies, or
a quantity of provisions, to his prospective father-in-law, and,
accompanied by the paternal blessing and a numerous crowd
of friends, repairs with Philomel to the chapel, where the
offices of some spiritual father make the twain one flesh.
The ceremony over, all persons concerned repair to the resi-
dence of Baptiste, or Pascal, or Antoine, who has agreed for
a consideration to permit the wedding festivities to be held
in his house. Everybody is free to attend the feasting and
dancing which follow. When the festivities are over the
happy couple begin life upon a capital stock of a pony or
two, a few kettles, a pair of blankets, a trading-gun, and are

Attached to every winter camp, and forming part and
parcel of it, is a considerable following of Indian hangers-on.
These picturesque vagabonds constitute the rags and rem-
nants of the camp dress, as it were, and vary the jollity and
dissipation of their half-breed brethren by their more grave
and sombre demeanor. Most "grave and reverend seig-
niors " are they, who stalk through the squalid huts and
tepees of the encampment like green and yellow apparitions,
or melancholy gods of bile from a dyspeptic's inferno.

Occasionally they join themselves permanently to the
camp, and their dusky and aquiline features at length come
to assume a certain degree of individuality; but for the
most part they are sunny-day friends, only seeking the dissi-


pations of the hunting-camps when the stages are well loaded
with hump, and brisket and ribs, and disappearing when want
and scarcity usurp the place of plenty. For these children of
the forest and plain well know that the winter camp is the
most perfect socialist and communistic community in the
world. Its members hold every article of food in common.
A half-breed is starving, and the rest of the camp want food.
He kills a buffalo, and to the last bit the coveted food is
shared by all. There is but a thin rabbit, a piece of dried
fish, or an old bit of raw-hide in the hut, and the red or
white stranger comes and is hungry ; he gets his share,
and is first served and best attended. If a child starves in
the camp, one may know that in every hut, famine reigns,
and gaunt hunger dwells in every stomach. When the time
comes, the Indian shares his last morsel with the rest ; but so
long as the meat of his half-breed brethren lasts, he is con-
tent to remain in a complete state of destitution as regards
food of his own. In other words, he finds it easier to hunt
buffalo on the half-breed's stages than on the bleak plains in

Coming in from the wrack and tempest, and finding the
camp stages well stocked with food, the Indian begins to
starve immediately. At all hours of the day and night the
men, the squaws and the children, form doleful processions to
the huts for food. An Indian never knocks at the door; he
simply lifts the latch, enters edgeways, shakes hands all
round, then seats himself, without a word, upon the floor.
One may be at breakfast, at dinner or in bed, it doesn't mat-


ter — he will wait. With the pangs of hunger gnawing at his
stomach, and viewing, no doubt with longing eyes, the food
around, he yet, according to Indian etiquette, refrains from
clamoring at once for food, but sits and smokes for a long
time without making the slightest allusion to his suffering
condition. When, in due course, his host offers him some-
thing to eat, he mentions the wants of himself and family,
that he has not eaten for so many hours, and so forth. He
seems exceedingly grateful for the assistance, and promises
to return in a day or two and repay the obligation — a prom-
ise which he never fulfills.

If there is any liquor about the camp, the Indian is al-
ways the first to find it and the last to leave it. He divines
its presence instinctively. He brings his marten-skins, his
fish, or whatever he may happen to have, and insists upon
having his share ; and it does not answer to dilate it too much
for his use. It must be strong enough to be inflammable, for
he always tests it by pouring a few drops in the fire. If it
possesses the one property from which he has given it the
name of fire-water, he is satisfied, whatever its flavor or other
qualities may be. A very little suffices to upset him, and
when intoxicated he is the most irrepressible being a quiet
man can possibly have about him. He chuckles and hugs
his tin pot, exclaiming : " Tarpoy ! tarpoy ! " (It is true ! it
is true !) scarcely able to believe the delightful fact. When
he begins to sober up, he will sell the shirt off his back for
another drain of the beloved poison. Failing to get it, he
pours hot water into the cup, in which the rum has been, and


drinks it to obtain the slight flavor which still clings to it ;
often filhng and emptying it half a dozen times before being
fully satisfied that the scent of the distilled molasses has long
ago left it.

The Indian's habitation is seldom in the camp itself.
He generally places his lodge of skins or bark a little way off
in the forest, and keeps a narrow path beaten to the open
space. His dwelling, inside or out, always presents the same
spectacle : battered-looking dogs of all ages surround the
lodge ; in the low branches of the trees, or upon a stage,
meat, snowshoes, dogsledges, etc., lie safe from canine rav-
age. Inside, from seven to fifteen persons hover over the
fire burning in the centre. Meat, cut into thin slices, hangs
drying in the upper smoke ; the inevitable puppy dogs play
with sticks; the fat, greasy children pinch the puppy dogs,
drink on all fours out of a black kettle, or saw off mouthfuls
of meat between fingers and lips; the squaws, old and young,
engage in cooking, or in nursing with a nonchalance which
appals the modest stranger. Such is the lodge of the Indian
hanger-on ; sometimes a pleasant place enough to while
away an hour in study of the aboriginal character, for the
appropriate gestures and expressive pantomime with which
an Indian illustrates his speech renders it easy to under-
stand. One learns without much difficulty to interpret the
long hunting stories with which they while away the evenings
in camp. The scenes described are nearly all acted ; the
motions of the game, the stealthy approach of the hunter,
the taking aim, the shot, the cry of the animal, or the noise


of its dashing away, and the pursuit, are all given as the tale
goes on.

Associating Avith the aborigines entirely, one rapidly
picks up their language, and in a little time can speak it
fluently if not grammatically. Nothing is easier than to get a
decent smattering of the Indian languages, although the
construction of most of them is extremely intricate. The
names of many articles is the explanation of their use or
properties, the word being a combination of a participle and
a noun, the latter meaning generally "a thing." Thus a
cup is called a drinking-thing, a gun a shooting-thing, etc.
Especially does this apply to articles introduced by the whites,
and not pertaining strictly to savage life. The names of
such articles invariably express their use, and very frequently
the motions made in using them. This peculiarity also ap-
pears in their proper names, which are generally descriptive
of some personal singularity. But the sign language used by
the Indian is, after all, the greatest aid to conversation, and
is very complete. Their pantomimical power seems to be
perfect. There are no two tribes of Indians that use exactly
the same oral language, but all are conversant with the
same pantomimic code.

The costume of the Indian, when in the privacy of his
own home, is somewhat limited in its nature. Like other
thrifty persons, he is given to wearing his old clothes. That
feathered vertebra, which is seen meandering down the ex-
ceedingly straight back of the Indian in the picture-books, is
only used upon state occasions. Ordinarily he wears leg-



gins reaching a certain way up his legs, and a shirt extend-
ing a certain way down his trunk ; taken together, and they
are not unlike that garment so pleaded for by reformers in
female dress. Sew the bot-
tom of the shirt to the top
of the leggins, and you have
what? The chemiloon. Eu-
reka ! Ages ago the chemi-
loon dawned upon the mind
of the untutored Indian;
but inventions are of slow
growth. It took three hun-
dred years to develop the
sofa from the three-legged
stool : so with the garment
of the red-man ; and it is
still in process of evolution. The moccasin-top, protecting the
ankle, was perhaps the Bathybius from which the aboriginal
chemiloon was evolved. Gradually it crept up the leg and
assumed the shape of the leggin. Down to meet it from;
the neck, evolved from a wampum collar, came the shirt,
slowly extending downward until it now almost meets the
leggin. What will be the wild joy in the red-man's tent,
when, years hence, the ends of the two garments shall meet,
and the perfect chemiloon be formed ! Until then he enters
a caveat against any infringement of his patent; for the in-
vention belongs to the Indian.

By some seeming incongruity the winter camp is nearly



always called a Mission — an appellation warranted, perhaps,
by the invariable presence there of a priest, either tempo-
rarily or permanently. This personage is the spiritual guide,
philosopher and friend, of a very disreputable flock, and his
duties, if conscientiously performed, are of a very arduous
nature. And it is seldom that they are not conscientiously
performed ; for no man can labor more disinterestedly for
the good of his fellow than the missionary priest. It is a
startling contrast to find in these rude camps men of refined
culture, and the highest mental excellence, devoting them-
selves to the task of civilizing the denizens of the forest and
plain — sacrificing all the comforts and advantages of their bet-
ter lives to the advancement of a barbarian brother, whose final
elevation to the ranks of civilized men they can never hope to
see. And yet they are to be found everywhere throughout the
lone places of the North, dwelling in the midst of wild and
savage peoples, whom they attend with a strange and pater-
nal devotion. On the banks of lonely lakes they minister to
the wants and needs of the wild men who repair thither peri-
odically to fish ; in the huge camps of our barbarian brethren
on the limitless plains; at the isolated trading-posts scattered
over the Fur Land ; and, seeking them in their lonely huts
or squalid lodges, one ever finds the same simple surround-
ings, the same evidences of a faith that seems more than

Prominent among the rude landmarks of the winter camp
is the store of the free-trader. Of more pretentious exterior,
and of larger proportions than the dwellings of the hunters,


it is easily discerned at a glance. As a rule, its owner is
developed from the ordinary plain-hunter. Antoine, or Pas-
cal, or Baptiste, having followed the chase for years, and
proving a more successful hunter than his fellows, accumu-
lates a fair supply of robes and ponies. On some springtime
visit to the settlements, the fur-trader with whom he has
dealt for years, noticing his thrift and success, offers to outfit
him with goods on condition of receiving the first offer of the
furs for which they are exchanged. Pascal is delighted with
the prospect of becoming a free-trader, and pays down a small
sum in cash and furs, and receives a considerable amount
of ammunition and finery on credit. With this he starts for the
plains, and at some eligible point near a water-course, and in
advantageous proximity to both buffalo grounds and forest,
in order to attract a trade in both classes of fur, locates his
trading-store. Around this nucleus gather the nomadic
plain-hunters and Indians, and lastly the priest; for Pascal
may be said to be the founder of the winter camp. The size
of his store is regulated by the amount of his stock, but likely
in any event to be the most pretentious in the camp. It may
have two apartments, but more likely one. The goods are
kept in boxes and bales, and produced only as required.
Pascal has yet to learn the art of attracting custom by the
display of his wares. In truth, there is but little need for
him to do so ; for, if the improvident Indian or half-breed
should by some fortuitous circumstance become possessed
of a surplus of salable provision or fur, its ownership be-
comes a consuming flame to him until disposed of. So


Pascal's stock of merchandise decreases rapidly as the winter
advances, and his store of robes and furs increases in propor-
tion. Most of the latter are purchased cheaply, and for an
equivalent of gilt and color, as it were ; for the tastes of his
customers are of a very decided sort, like those of other
mixed races.

If Pascal trades merchandise alone, his life flows unevent-
fully along, and he may enjoy counting his store of peltries
as they increase day by day. He is looked up to by his fel-
lows as a kind of Delphic oracle upon all disputed points, on
account of his superior wealth and standing. His vanity is
flattered by such adulation, and he assumes an air of vast
importance as the head man of the camp. He becomes the
arbiter in all petty disputes, the umpire at horse-races, and
general referee in knotty and vexatious games o{ grand-?najor,
poker, and the moccasin-game. His authority is second to
none save the priest, who, as the spiritual head of the camp,
assumes the first place by right of eminent fitness and pro-
priety. If Pascal trades liquor, however, his lines are not

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Online LibraryH. M. (Henry Martin) RobinsonThe great fur land; or, Sketches of life in the Hudson's bay territory → online text (page 18 of 24)