MoboReader> History > A Woman's Way Through Unknown Labrador

   Chapter 16 THE BARREN GROUND PEOPLE

A Woman's Way Through Unknown Labrador By Mina Hubbard Characters: 20241

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


On Sunday morning, August 20th, I awoke in a state of expectancy. We had slept three times since leaving the Montagnais camp, and unless the Barren Grounds People were not now in their accustomed camping place, we ought to see them before night. Many thoughts came of how greatly Mr. Hubbard had wished to see them, and what a privilege he would have thought it to be able to visit them.

It seemed this morning as if something unusual must happen. It was as if we were coming into a hidden country. From where the river turned into the hills it flowed for more than a mile northward through what was like a great magnificent corridor, leading to something larger beyond.

When Joe and Gilbert, who were usually the first to get off, slipped away down the river, I realized how swift flowing the water must be. It looked still as glass and very dark, almost black. The quiet surface was disturbed only by the jumping of the fish. We saw the canoe push off and turned to put a few last touches to the loading of our own. When we looked again they were already far away. Soon, however, we had caught them up and together the two canoes ran out into the widening of the river. Here it bent a little to the northeast, but two miles farther on it again bore away to the north. In the distance we could see the mountain tops standing far apart and knew that there, between them, a lake must lie. Could it be Indian House Lake, the Mush-au-wau-ni-pi, or "Barren Grounds Water," of the Indians? We were still farther south than it was placed on the map I carried. Yet we had passed the full number of lakes given in the map above this water. Even so I did not believe it could be the big lake I had been looking forward to reaching so eagerly.

As we paddled on at a rather brisk rate I sat thinking how beautiful the river, the mountains, and the morning were. I had not settled myself to watch seriously for the Nascaupee camp, when suddenly George exclaimed, "There it is."

There it was indeed, a covered wigwam, high up on a sandy hill, which sloped to the water's edge, and formed the point round which the river flowed to the lake among the mountains. Soon a second wigwam came in sight. We could see no one at the camp at first. Then a figure appeared moving about near one of the wigwams. It was evident that they were still unconscious of our presence; but as we paddled slowly along the figure suddenly stopped, a whole company came running together, and plainly our sudden appearance was causing great excitement. There was a hurried moving to and fro and after a time came the sound of two rifle shots. I replied with my revolver. Again they fired and I replied again. Then more shots from the hill.

As we drew slowly near, the men ran down towards the landing, but halted above a narrow belt of trees near the water's edge. There an animated discussion of the newcomers took place.

We all shouted, "Bo Jou! Bo Jou!" (Bon Jour).

A chorus of Bo Jous came back from the hill.

George called to them in Indian, "We are strangers and are passing through your country."

The sound of words in their own tongue reassured them and they ran down to the landing. As we drew near we could hear them talking. I, of course, could not understand a word of it, but I learned later from George what they said.

"Who are they?"

"See the man steering looks like an Indian."

"That surely is an Indian."

"Why, there is an English woman."

"Where have they come from?"

As the canoe glided towards the landing, one, who was evidently the chief, stepped forward while the others remained a little apart. Putting out his band to catch the canoe as it touched the sand he said, "Of course you have some tobacco?"

"Only a little," George replied. "We have come far."

Then the hand was given in greeting as we slipped ashore.

It was a striking picture they made that quiet Sabbath morning, as they stood there at the shore with the dark green woods behind them and all about them the great wilderness of rock and river and lake. You did not see it all, but you felt it. They had markedly Indian faces and those of the older men showed plainly the battle for life they had been fighting. They were tall, lithe, and active looking, with a certain air of self-possession and dignity which almost all Indians seem to have. They wore dressed deer-skin breeches and moccasins and over the breeches were drawn bright red cloth leggings reaching from the ankle to well above the knee, and held in place by straps fastened about the waist. The shirts, some of which were of cloth and some of dressed deer-skin, were worn outside the breeches and over these a white coat bound about the edges with blue or red. Their hair was long and cut straight round below the ears, while tied about the head was a bright coloured kerchief. The faces were full of interest. Up on the hill the women and children and old men stood watching, perhaps waiting till it should appear whether the strangers were friendly or hostile.

"Where did you come into the river?" the chief asked. George explained that we had come the whole length of the river, that we had come into it from Lake Michikamau, which we reached by way of the Nascaupee. He was greatly surprised. He had been at Northwest River and knew the route. Turning to the others he told them of our long journey. Then they came forward and gathered eagerly about us. We told them we were going down the river to the post at Ungava.

"Oh! you are near now,", they said. "You will sleep only five times if you travel fast."

My heart bounded as this was interpreted to me, for it meant that we should be at the post before the end of August, for this was only the twentieth. There was still a chance that we might be in time for the ship.

"Then where is the long lake that is in this river?" George enquired.

"It is here," the chief replied.

We enquired about the river. All were eager to tell about it, and many expressive gestures were added to their words to tell that the river was rapid all the way. An arm held at an angle showed what we were to expect in the rapids and a vigorous drop of the hand expressed something about the falls. There would be a few portages but they were not long, and in some places it would be just a short lift over; but it was all rapid nearly.

"And when you come to a river coming in on the other side in quite a fall you are not far from the post."

There was a tightening in my throat as I thought, "What if I had decided to turn back rather than winter in Labrador!"

"Did you see any Indians?" the chief asked.

"Yes, we have slept three times since we were at their camp."

"Were they getting any caribou?" was the next eager question. "Had they seen any signs of the crossing?" George told them of the great numbers we had seen and there followed an earnest discussion among themselves as to the probability of the caribou passing near them.

"Are you going up?" we enquired.

They replied, "No, not our country."

There were enquiries as to which way the caribou were passing, and again they talked among themselves about their hopes and fears. We learned that only three days before they had returned from Davis Inlet where they go to trade for supplies as do the Montagnais. They had come back from their long journey sick at heart to meet empty handed those who waited in glad anticipation of this the great event of the year-the return from the post. The ship had not come, and the post store was empty.

As they talked, the group about the canoe was growing larger. The old men had joined the others together with a few old women. As the story of their disappointment was told one old man said, "You see the way we live and you see the way we dress. It is hard for us to live. Sometimes we do not get many caribou. Perhaps they will not cross our country. We can get nothing from the Englishman, not even ammunition. It is hard for us to live."

All summer they had been taking an occasional caribou, enough for present needs, but little more than that, and the hunters on their return from the coast found the hands at home as empty as their own. Now the long winter stretched before them with all its dread possibilities.

We enquired of them how far it was to the coast, and found that they make the outward journey in five days, and the return trip in seven. They informed us that they had this year been accompanied part of the way in by an Englishman. All white men are Englishmen to them. As George interpreted to me, he said, "That must be Mr. Cabot."

Instantly the chief caught at the name and said, "Cabot? Yes, that is the man. He turned back two days' journey from here. He was going away on a ship."

When during the winter I had talked with Mr. Cabot of my trip he had said, "Perhaps we shall meet on the George next summer." Now I felt quite excited to think how near we had come to doing so. How I wished he had sent me a line by the Indians. I wanted to know how the Peace Conference was getting on. I wondered at first that he had not done so; but after a little laughed to myself as I thought I could guess why. How envious he would be of me, for I had really found the home camp of his beloved Nascaupees.

Meanwhile the old women had gathered about me begging for tobacco. I did not know, of course, what it was they wanted, and when the coveted tobacco did not appear they began to complain bitterly, "She is not giving us any tobacco. See, she does not want to give us any tobacco."

George explained to them that I did not smoke and so had no tobacco to give them, but that I had other things I could give them. Now that we were so near the post I could spare some of my provisions for the supply was considerably more than we should now need to take us to our journey's end. There was one partly used bag of flour which was lifted out of the canoe and laid on the beach. Then Job handed me the tea and rice bags. Two, not very clean, coloured silk handkerchiefs were spread on the beach when I asked for something to put the tea and rice in, and

a group of eager faces bent over me as I lifted the precious contents from the bags, leaving only enough tea to take us to the post, and enough rice for one more pudding. An old tin pail lying near was filled with salt, and a piece of bacon completed the list. A few little trinkets were distributed among the women and from the expression on their faces, I judged they had come to the conclusion that I was not so bad after all, even though I did not smoke a pipe and so could not give them any of their precious "Tshishtemau."

Meantime I had been thinking about my photographs. Taking up one of my kodaks I said to the chief that I should like to take his picture and motioned him to stand apart. He seemed to understand quite readily and stepped lightly to one side of the little company in a way which showed it was not a new experience to him. They had no sort of objection to being snapped, but rather seemed quite eager to pose for me.

Then came an invitation to go up to the camp. As George interpreted he did not look at all comfortable, and when he asked if I cared to go I knew he was wishing very much that I would say "No," but I said, "Yes, indeed." So we went up while the other three remained at the canoes.

Even in barren Labrador are to be found little touches that go to prove human nature the same the world over. One of the young men, handsomer than the others, and conscious of the fact, had been watching me throughout with evident interest. He was not only handsomer than the others, but his leggings were redder. As we walked up towards the camp he went a little ahead, and to one side managing to watch for the impression he evidently expected to make. A little distance from where we landed was a row of bark canoes turned upside down. As we passed them be turned and, to make sure that those red leggings should not fail of their mission, be put his foot up on one of the canoes, pretending, as I passed, to tie his moccasin, the while watching for the effect.

It was some little distance up to camp. When we reached it we could see northward down the lake for miles. It lay, like a great, broad river guarded on either side by the mountains. The prospect was very beautiful. Everywhere along the way we found their camping places chosen from among the most beautiful spots, and there seemed abundant evidence that in many another Indian breast dwelt the heart of Saltatha, Warburton Pike's famous guide, who when the good priest had told him of the beauties of heaven said, "My Father, you have spoken well. You have told me that heaven is beautiful. Tell me now one thing more. Is it more beautiful than the land of the musk ox in summer, when sometimes the mist blows over the lakes, and sometimes the waters are blue, and the loons call very often? This is beautiful, my Father. If heaven is more beautiful I shall be content to rest there till I am very old."

The camp consisted of two large wigwams, the covers of which were of dressed deer-skins sewed together and drawn tight over the poles, while across the doorway bung an old piece of sacking. The covers were now worn and old and dirty-grey in colour save round the opening at the top, where they were blackened by the smoke from the fire in the centre of the wigwam.

Here the younger women and the children were waiting, and some of them had donned their best attire for the occasion of the strangers' visit. Their dresses were of cotton and woollen goods. Few wore skin clothes, and those who did had on a rather long skin shirt with hood attached, but under the shirt were numerous cloth garments. Only the old men and little children were dressed altogether in skins. One young woman appeared in a gorgeous purple dress, and on her head the black and red tuque with beaded band worn by most of the Montagnais women, and I wondered if she had come to the Nascaupee camp the bride of one of its braves. There was about her an air of conscious difference from the others, but this was unrecognised by them. The faces here were not bright and happy looking as at the Montagnais camp. Nearly all were sad and wistful. The old women seemed the brightest of all and were apparently important people in the camp. Even the little children's faces were sad and old in expression as if they too realised something of the cares of wilderness life.

At first they stood about rather shyly watching me, with evident interest, but making no move to greet or welcome me. I did not know how best to approach them. Then seeing a young mother with her babe in her arms standing among the group, near one of the wigwams, I stepped towards her, and touching the little bundle I spoke to her of her child and she held it so that I might see its face. It was a very young baby, born only the day before, I learned later, and the mother herself looked little more than a child. Her face was pale, and she looked weak and sick. Though she held her child towards me there was no lighting up of the face, no sign of responsive interest. Almost immediately, however, I was surrounded by nearly the whole community of women who talked rapidly about the babe and its mother.

The little creature had no made garments on, but was simply wrapped about with old cloths leaving only its face and neck bare. The outermost covering was a piece of plaid shawl, and all were held tightly in place by a stout cord passing round the bundle a number of times. It would be quite impossible for the tiny thing to move hand or foot or any part of its body except the face. As one might expect it wore an expression of utter wretchedness though it lay with closed eyes making no sound. I could make almost nothing of what they said, and when I called George to interpret for me they seemed not to want to talk.

Taking out my kodaks I set about securing a few photographs. Already the old women were beginning to prepare for the feast they were to have. Two large black pots that stood on three legs were set out, and one of the women went into the tent and brought out a burning brand to light the fire under them. Soon interest was centred in the pots. I had a little group ranged up in front of one of the wigwams, when the lady in purple, whose attention for a time had been turned to the preparations for the feast, seeing what was taking place came swiftly across and placed herself in the very centre of the group. All apparently understood what was being done and were anxious to be in the picture.

During the stay at camp I saw little sign of attempt at ornamentation. The moccasins and skin clothing I saw were unadorned. There was but the one black and red tuque with braided band, and the chief's daughter alone wore the beaded band on her hair, which was arranged as that of the women in the Montagnais camp. One woman coveted a sweater I wore. It was a rather bright green with red cuffs and collar, and the colour had greatly taken her fancy. I wished that I had been able to give it to her, but my wardrobe was as limited as I dared to have it, and so I was obliged to refuse her request. In a way which I had not in the least expected I found these people appealing to me, and myself wishing that I might remain with them for a time, but I could not risk a winter in Labrador for the sake of the longer visit, even had I been able to persuade the men to remain.

Already George was showing his anxiety to get away and I realised that it was not yet certain we should be in time for the ship. It might easily be more than five days to the post. I could not know how far the Indian mind had been influenced in gauging the distance by a desire to reduce to the smallest possible limit the amount of tobacco the men would need to retain for their own use. It was not far from the last week in August. Now I felt that not simply a day but even an hour might cost me a winter in Labrador.

When the word went forth that we were about to leave, all gathered for the parting. Looking about for something which I might carry away with me as a souvenir of the visit, my eyes caught the beaded band, which the chief's daughter wore on her hair, and stepping towards her I touched it to indicate my wish. She drew sharply away and said something in tones that had a plainly resentful ring. It was, "That is mine." I determined not to be discouraged and made another try. Stretched on a frame to dry was a very pretty deer-skin and I had George ask if I might have that. That seemed to appeal to them as a not unreasonable request, and they suggested that I should take one already dressed. The woman who had wanted my sweater went into the wigwam and brought out one. It was very pretty and beautifully soft and white on the inside. She again pleaded for the sweater, and as I could not grant her request I handed her back the skin; but she bade me keep it. They gave George a piece of deer-skin dressed without the hair, "to line a pair of mits," they said.

As they stood about during the last few minutes of our stay, the chief's arm was thrown across his little daughter's shoulders as she leaned confidingly against him. While the parting words were being exchanged he was engaged in a somewhat absent-minded but none the less successful, examination of her head. Many of the others were similarly occupied. There was no evidence of their being conscious that there was anything extraordinary in what they were doing, nor any attempt at concealing it. Apparently it was as much a matter of course as eating.

When I said, "Good-bye," they made no move to accompany me to the canoe.

"Good-bye," said George. "Send us a fair wind."

Smilingly they assured him that they would. In a minute we were in the canoe and pushing off from shore. As we turned down the lake, all eager to be shortening the distance between us and the post, I looked back. They were still standing just as we had left them watching us. Taking out my handkerchief I waved it over my head. Instantly the shawls and kerchiefs flew out as they waved a response, and with this parting look backward to our wilderness friends we turned our faces to Ungava.

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