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   Chapter 15 THE MONTAGNAIS INDIANS

A Woman's Way Through Unknown Labrador By Mina Hubbard Characters: 16534

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


The night was very still when I awoke, but it was cold. Frost sparkled in the moonlight on willows and low growth, and when at first sign of dawn I reached for my stockings and duffel to put them on, they were frozen stiff. I did not wait to hunt out dry ones, but slipped them on for I was too anxious to be on the march again. I meant to go on to Ungava now, no matter what befell; perhaps we could yet be in time for the ship. She might be delayed.

The men were astir early, and at a quarter to six we were off. Already the lake was almost too rough again to go forward. The wind had risen, and blew cold across the water driving the morning mists before it. Now and then they lifted a little, giving a glimpse of the farther shore, or parted overhead where a patch of deep blue could be seen. It was rather shivery, but I loved it. Two hours later the mists were gone, and for the first time since leaving Lake Hubbard we saw the sun again.

It was a glorious day, the kind which almost all the eventful days of our journey had been. I wanted to compel it to yield me something of value and interest, and it did; for after we had passed down the stretch of river below Long Lake and out into the larger one which I afterwards named Resolution, we came upon the first camp of the Indians.

When we entered the lake we were surrounded by numbers of islands in its upper extremity, but beyond it was clear and stretched away northward calm and beautiful after the storm. Its shores were low for the most part, but four miles down the lake a high, sandy point reached far out from the east shore, and it was there we found the Indians.

At first, we could see only a shapeless dark mass on the hillside. It moved and swayed now this way, now that, and the first thought was that it was caribou; but when there came the flash of sunlight on metal from the midst of it, and the sound of rifle shots, there was no longer any mistaking it for caribou.

As we came towards them the firing continued at intervals, and now and then I sent back an answering shot from my revolver; but it was not without a feeling of uneasiness that we approached. I thought of many things which might happen and the men paddled very slowly; but our amusement may be imagined when, on drawing nearer, we found that they were all women and children. There was much screaming and shouting from the hill.

"Go away, go away," they shrieked. "We are afraid of you. Our husbands are away."

Their speech was that of the Montagnais Indians which George understood, having learned to speak it while at Northwest River post in the winter of 1903-1904.

"Tanta sebo?" (Where is the river?) shouted Job into the din, "Tanta sebo?"

When they ceased their screaming to listen, George called to them in Montagnais: "We are strangers and are passing through your country."

A swift change followed these few words in their own familiar tongue. There was eager talking together, the screams of terror were changed to laughter, and four of the older women ran down to the landing to welcome us. We were greeted with much handshaking, and their number was gradually swelled from the camp on the hill. They displayed not the least sign of shyness or embarrassment, being altogether at their ease. Their clothing was of a quite civilised fashion, the dresses being of woollen goods Of various colours made with plain blouse and skirt, while on their feet they wore moccasins of dressed deerskin. The jet black hair was parted from forehead to neck, and brought round on either side, where it was wound into a little hard roll in front of the ear and bound about with pieces of plain cloth or a pretty beaded band. Each head was adorned with a tuque made from black and red broadcloth, with beaded or braided band around the head. Both the manner of wearing the hair and the tuque were exceedingly picturesque and becoming, and the types were various as those to be found in other communities, ranging from the sweet and even beautiful face to the grossly animal like. They were not scrupulously clean, but were not dirtier than hundreds of thousands to be found well within the borders of civilisation, and all, even the little children, wore the crucifix.

Their men had gone down to Davis Inlet, on the east coast, to trade for winter supplies. They had been away five days and were expected to return soon, the outward trip being made in three or four days while the return requires five. The camp was now eagerly awaiting the arrival of the tea, sugar, and tobacco, the new gowns, the gay shawls and the trinkets which make the return from the post the great event of the year.

As their speech indicated, these people were found to belong to the Montagnais tribe, which is a branch of the Cree Nation, and is tributary to the posts along the St. Lawrence. There after the winter's hunt they gather in hundreds at Mingan and Seven Islands, and it is then they receive from the Roman Catholic missionaries instruction in the Christian faith. This camp, the only one of the tribe to do so, had for some years traded at Davis Inlet, on the northeast coast. We could gather little from the women about the route to Davis Inlet further than that it is a difficult one, and for this reason they do not accompany the hunters on the yearly journey there.

The "Mush-a-wau e-u-its" (Barren Grounds people), the Nascaupee Indians, whom Mr. Hubbard had been so eager to visit, and who also are a branch of the Cree Nation, they informed us, have their hunting grounds farther down the river.

"You will sleep twice before coming to their camp," they said.

We were assured of a friendly reception there, for the two camps are friendly and sometimes visit each other; but they could tell us little about the river, because in making the journey between the two camps, they use a portage route through lakes to the east of the river. The journey to the George River post at Ungava they thought would take two months.

My heart sank as this was interpreted to me. In that case I could no longer entertain any hope of being in time for the ship. It would mean, too, the entire journey back in winter weather. I had counted that even if we missed the ship we could probably reach Lake Michikamau on the return before winter set in; but that also would be impossible. In the midst of the sickening feeling of disappointment and uncertainty which came with this information, I was conscious of being thankful that the main question had been decided.

Rather disconsolately I went up for a brief look at the camp on the hill. The situation was beautiful, and commanded a view from end to end of Resolution Lake, which extended about four miles both north and south of the point, and was divided into two distinct parts, just opposite the camp, by a long island with points of land reaching towards it from north and south. Beyond the island lay a broad sheet of water which seemed equal in size to the one we were on, and along its farther shore low blue ridges stretched away northward.

The skies seemed trying to make reparation for the week of storms, and the mood of the camp corresponded with that of the day. Children played about quietly, or clung to their mothers' skirts, as they watched the strangers with curious interest and the mothers were evidently happy in their motherhood as mothers otherwhere.

"We are poor," said one, "and we live among the trees, but we have our children."

The camp consisted of two wigwams, one a large oblong and the other round. They were covered with dressed deer-skins drawn tight over the poles, blackened round the opening at the top by the smoke of the fires, which are built in the centre within. I was not invited to go into the wigwams, but through the opening which served as doorway in front of one of them I had a glimpse of the interior. It seemed quite orderly and clean. Four rifles, which lay on the carpet of balsam boughs, looked clean and well cared for. The dishes, pans, tea-pots, etc., which were mostly of white enamel, with some china of an ordinary sort, were clean and shining. Long strings of dressed deerskin, and a few moccasins hung from the poles round the opening at the top. The moccasins were not decorated

in any way, nor were those worn by the women, and I saw no sign of ornamentation of any kind, save the toques with their beaded or braided bands, and the bands on the hair.

Except for their children they were poor indeed now, for there was not a taste of sugar, tea, or tobacco at the camp. They rarely have flour, which with them is not one of the necessities of life. They were living on what fish they could catch while the hunters were away, and were not having the best success with their fishing. They did not know of the presence of the caribou so near them, and I thought regretfully of how easily we could have brought down one or more had we known of their need, and where we should find them.

Some six or eight splendid Eskimo dogs prowled about snarling at one another, and occasionally indulging in an ugly fight, at which there was a rush for clubs or tent poles to separate them; for unless separated they never stop till the one that goes down is killed. At whatever hour of the day or night a fight begins, the dogs have to, be separated, otherwise one or more of the number will be lost; and the loss of a dog is a calamity in the north country.

While I wandered over the hillside a little, keeping a wary eye on the dogs, the women devoted their attentions to the men. They were anxious to have the visit prolonged, and every inducement was held out even to offering them wives, temporary, if they would remain; but after taking a few pictures, for which they posed easily and without sign of self-consciousness, I bade them farewell and we returned to the canoes. They did not accompany us to the landing.

With the prospect of so long a journey before me I had to resist the impulse to share my provisions with them; but before we left, George carried a few ounces of tea up the hill. There was a merry chase as each tried to possess herself of the treasure. They were like children in their delight. A pair of moccasins was offered in return; but the gift of tea was too slight and they were not accepted. Soon we were slipping slowly away towards the river with an occasional glance back to the group on the hill. When a few rods from shore, Job, who had the faculty of making his English irresistibly funny whenever he chose, stood up in the stern of the canoe, and taking off his hat to them with a very elaborate bow called, "Good-bye, good-bye, my lady."

The directions we had received enabled us to find the river without difficulty, and passing down through a succession of small expansions with low, swampy shores where the wood growth was almost altogether tamarack, we camped in the evening ten miles below Resolution Lake, at the point where the river drops down through three rocky gorges to flow with strong, swift current in a distinct valley.

The lakes of the upper country were here left behind, and when we resumed our journey the following morning it was to be carried miles on a current in which the paddles were needed only for steering. Stretches of quiet water were succeeded by boisterous rapids, and sometimes I walked to lighten the canoe where the rapid was shallow. Tributaries entered on either hand, the river increased in force and volume, and when we halted for lunch some ten miles below Canyon Camp, the George had come to be a really great river.

We were getting down to the hills now and the country, which had been burned over, was exceedingly barren and desolate. On the slopes, which had been wooded, the grey and blackened tree trunks were still standing like armies of skeletons, and through their ranks the hills of everlasting rock showed grey and stern, stripped even of their covering of reindeer moss. Heavy showers passed during the day, but it was otherwise beautiful and we made good progress. When we camped that evening below Thousand Island Expansion it was with twenty-two miles to our credit.

It seemed very fine to have another good day's work behind and I felt less heavy hearted. Some thinking had convinced me that the two months' estimate for the journey to Ungava was far from correct; but I still feared it was useless to entertain hope of being in time for the ship. Yet one does hope even when it is plainly useless. Nevertheless life had come to be a serious matter with us all now, excepting Gilbert, for the men too were averse to spending a winter in Labrador, and had rather advocated a return by way of Davis Inlet or the Grand River. Gilbert alone sang and laughed as merrily as ever, undisturbed by doubts or fears.

That evening the sunset was of clear gold and the sudden chill, which in Labrador always follows, sent me shivering to the camp fire where, below the bank, on the solid, smooth-worn rock of the river-bed, we had supper of ptarmigan. But neither hunger nor perplexities could shut out the impress of the desolate grandeur of our surroundings. This was the wilderness indeed with only the crystal river and the beautiful skies to make it glad. Only? Or was there more? Or was it glad? Perhaps, yes surely, somewhere within it there was gladness; but everywhere it was beautiful with the beauty which alone, to some hearts, can carry the "still small voice." If only it would never say, "What dost thou here?" One must wish to stay and listen to it always.

Through the stillness came up the sound of the rapids below our camp. Above, fish jumped in the quiet waters where the after-glow in the sky was given back enriched and deepened. Then came night and the stars-bright northern lights-bright moon-shadows on the tent-dreams.

A ptarmigan whirred up, from the corner of my tent and I awoke to find the sun shining and everything outside sparkling with frost. The men had already begun portaging, for below camp the rapids were too heavy to take the outfit down; but when breakfast was over and the last load had been taken forward over the half-mile portage, the canoes were run down the river.

A short distance below, the river drops rapidly round many little islands of pink and white rock by a succession of picturesque falls and rapids and chutes extending for more than a mile and here a number of short portages were made. We reached the last of the islands shortly before eleven o'clock and then landed to climb a hill to the east. It rose six hundred and thirty feet above the river, but the view from the top afforded us little satisfaction so far as the route was concerned. The river could be seen for only a few miles ahead, flowing away to the northwest towards higher hills, where we could see patches of snow lying. Some miles to the east was a large lake, its outlet, a river of considerable size, joining the George River three-quarters of a mile north of where we had left the canoes. Below the junction there were many Indian signs along the shores, and we knew that there the portage route of which the Montagnais women had spoken, must lead to the river again. Steadily through the afternoon we approached the higher hills, ever on the watch for the Nascaupee camp; but we did not find it.

There was a short lift over a direct drop of four or five feet, and two portages of about half a mile past heavy rapids, at the second of which the river drops fifty feet to flow between high, sandy banks, the hills on either side standing back from the river, their broken faces red with a coating of iron rust. The intervening spaces were strewn with boulders of unusual size.

Fresh caribou tracks, the only ones seen since leaving the head of Long Lake, were found on the first portage, and on the second I gathered my first moss berries. A heavy shower passed late in the afternoon and the sky remained overcast; but we were not delayed, and towards evening arrived at the point, twenty miles below Thousand Island Expansion, where a large tributary comes in from the west, and the George River turns abruptly northward among the higher hills.

The proposal to go into camp had already been made when George discovered some ptarmigan high up the bank. There was a brisk hunt and eleven were taken. So again we supped on ptarmigan that night. I took mine in my tent on account of the mosquitoes, which were so thick that, as George expressed it, it was like walking in a snowstorm to move about outside.

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