THE METIS FOLK -- BUFFALO HUNTERS -- THEIR CHARACTERISTICS AND MODE OF LIFE -- OLD WIVES' LAKE -- A FINE OLD TALE -- TRAGEDY OF A MADMAN -- A MATRIARCH OF THE PLAINS -- FATHER LAFLECHE AND THE SIOUX -- RETROSPECTION -- BUFFALO DAYS -- HOMELESS WANDERERS IN THEIR NATIVE LAND.
The first Metis settlement on the southern prairies was established in 1869-70 by hunters and their families who had left the Red River to escape the troubles there. The region then was still the pasture ground of the buffalo herds and this influenced these people in their choice of the location.
They built their cabanes at Wood Mountain and in the coulees near Willow Bunch. All were Roman Catholics, and in 1870 Father Lestanc came from the Red River to give them the ministrations of their faith. They were a free-hearted, kindly folk with little knowledge of the white man's civilization, but wise in the lore of the wilderness. During the first years, they sustained themselves by the buffalo hunt, but as the herds dwindled and finally disappeared, they often found it difficult to make a living. The Boundary Commission, which for a time had its headquarters at Wood Mountain, employed a number of the men as armed scouts and guards. The Sioux were on the warpath at that time south of the Boundary and there was some fear that they might make incursions into Canadian territory.
The Metis were not an agricultural people and, although they made themselves comfortable enough cabins they never learned to obtain sustenance from the soil. After the construction of the C.P.R. mainline in 1882, a demand sprang up in the East for the bones of the defunct buffalo, which cumbered the plains in astonishing quantities. This material was used in the manufacture of fertilizer and in the refining of sugar. Approximately five dollars per ton was paid for these bones when delivered at the railway, and these erstwhile hunters, who only a few years before had joined in the clamorous buffalo hunt, were reduced to gathering up and selling the grizzly relics of these lordly beasts that for uncounted ages had been monarchs of the plains.
In many places in the south country, the coulees and the bottoms were white with buffalo bones, but when it is railway in Regina or Moose Jaw, more than a hundred miles away, before they received their money, it may well be imagined that the occupation was not a very profitable one.
They also did some freighting for the Mounted Police, carrying supplies from Regina to distant detachments. In winter they would go on hunting expeditions after deer and antelope, which were but poor substitutes for the buffalo. In a few years, most of the bone harvest was garnered; branch lines of railway put a serious crimp in the freighting business; game retreated before the advance of settlement and our southern Metis were finding it difficult to make a livelihood.
When my brother Pascal's herds increased, he employed some of the men as cowboys and range riders. This was congenial work and they were quite good at it, but the number that could be thus employed was limited. Pascal attempted to get some of the more reliable Metis families to engage in cattle raising on a small scale by providing them with foundation stock, but only one or two of them made good in that enterprise.
The chief diversion of the Metis was dancing, and they engaged in that amusement with enthusiasm. We were often invited to their dances and treated with fine, old-fashioned courtesy and hospitality. There were some fiddlers among them who were much in demand at their celebrations. The time-honoured Red River Jig was always in evidence, and Scottish reels were popular. Sometimes, too, they trod the dignified measure of the quadrille, and an occasional minuet indicated French ancestry and tradition. Their music, played entirely by ear, was a curious assortment of old French airs and the gallant and gay Jacobite tunes, likely picked up by their fathers from the Highland officers of the North West Company. The "Ancienne Alliance" between Scotland and France was nowhere more noticeable than among the Metis of the western plains.
The men wore their hair in what was known as the "Dutch Cut". Their dress was the ordinary one of the western plainsman, but all were girded with the gaudy "assomption belt", fastened sash-like in two folds about the waist. The older women were soberly garbed in dark dresses with black kerchiefs over their heads. The girls and younger married women affected gay colours. Their kerchiefs were brilliant and their shawls usually of tartan. Beneath their outer garments, most of the matrons wore a multiplicity of petticoats.
Once my brother Joe went antelope hunting with a Metis who took his wife along to cook and keep camp. The first night out they camped in a coulee. All had to sleep in one tent, but that was the custom of the trail. When bedtime came, the lady commenced to remove her petticoats and Joe thought it discreet to betake himself from the scene for a while. Accordingly, he walked outside, looked to the hobbles of the horses, smoked a few cigarettes and then, after a considerable interval, returned to the tent to find her still taking off petticoats. At least, that is the way he told it. Both sexes were shod with moccasins, often beautifully beaded and worked, and this made their dancing almost soundless.
As a general rule, they spoke French and Cree and, when they mastered the English tongue, it was with the inflexion of the Orkney Islander. In the days of the North West Company, which employed a great many of the natives, French was the language spoken, and many of the Half breeds with Highland Scottish names then spoke no other white man's tongue. At that period, practically the only English used by the Halfbreeds, when they spoke it at all, was that spoken by the descendants of the Orkney boatmen of the Hudson's Bay Company; and it was thus that the vernacular of the inhabitants of these dim and misty islands became characteristic of the speech of the natives of the western plains. Monarch of the Plains, Courtesy F. J. Clark.
Many a time have I sat by their hearths and listened to tales of the wild old days of the plains when "King Buffalo" reigned and there were Indian wars and massacres. It was thus I learned from a very old Metis woman the legend of Old Wives' Lake.
This lake lies not far from the old Wood Mountain trail, about halfway between the valley we called the "Second Bottom" and the Moose Jaw Creek. It is now officially known as "Johnstone Lake", but the Metis people always gave it the designation of Nootokao Sagiekun, which in the Cree means "Old Wives' Lake".
The native name commemorates a brave exploit of certain old women of the Cree tribe in which they sacrificed their lives to preserve those of a large party of their people. This is the tale:
Long ago more than a hundred years, a great fire had swept the region now known as the Regina Plains and the Qu'Appelle district, before which the buffalo herds had thundered away to the westward. To the Cree Indians of the region, a season without the summer buffalo hunt was inconceivable, and a large hunting party was organized to follow the herds to their new pastures. But there was danger on the Southern Plains. West of the Moose Jaw Creek, the hunters were in territory that might be visited by war parties of the formidable Blackfeet with whom they were constantly at war. Scouts were sent out and when they reported no signs of their tribal enemies, the whole caravan moved out in the track of the truant buffalo.
The fire had burned itself out on the gravel ridges of the Dirt Hills, and the herds were encountered in the fine grass country lying to the south. There they made la bonne chasse as my informant described it, and it was not long until they had obtained all the meat for which they had transportation. It was prepared and packed and a start made on the return journey.
One afternoon, when the procession was wending its straggling way along the shores of the big lake that skirted the trail, some of the Indians picked out the figure of a plumed warrior sitting motionless on his horse, surveying the hunters from a high butte, like a falcon from its eyrie.
The word "Blackfoot" passed from lip to lip. The straggling ranks were closed and the hunters hurried their march. The presence of the solitary horseman indicated that a hostile war party was in the vicinity. Nor were they left long in doubt.
The sun was sinking and the buttes were casting lengthening shadows when out of a "draw" a cavalcade of wild horsemen charged upon them, shouting fierce and strident war cries. Immediately the hunters placed themselves in a position of defence and greeted their assailants with a scattering volley.
At the first defensive shot the Blackfeet, who were splendid horsemen, threw themselves on the far side of their ponies, where they maintained their position by one foot on the saddle and the left arm thrust through a loop suspended from the horse's neck. Thus protected, they circled the Cree party at galloping speed and opened fire on them, with musket and bows and arrows. Then they hurried off, disappearing among the hills.
The Crees halted to hold a council. One of their numbers had been killed and several wounded by the fire of the Blackfeet. Their enemies were well mounted and armed. There was no doubt that before long they would return to the attack. Had they been travelling light, the Crees might have had a chance to get back to their own district. Burdened as they were with many women and out on the naked plains, it appeared as if the whole party was doomed.
At this juncture an old woman, her face seamed with a thousand wrinkles, approached the Chief: "My son," she said, "the old women have counselled together and made a plan. We are no longer useful, or fit to be mothers of men. Make your camp here and draw your carts together as if you would stand and fight. Do this while it is yet light. Like the wolves, the Blackfeet hunt only at dawn. We will make many little fires of buffalo chips and when darkness comes you must take the young women and, by daylight, be far on your way. The old women will stay by the fires and the Blackfeet will not know you have gone. When they come in the morning they will only get our grey old scalps and will be laughed at in all the camps along the Belly River."
This plan was carried out to the letter. When the Blackfeet rushed the camp in the morning chill, they found it tenanted only by the brave old women, who sat impassively shrouded in their blankets by the little fires they had tended during the night to keep up the illusion of a large camp. The Blackfeet were so angered at the trick, that they killed them out of hand and they were thus saved the usually prolonged suffering of Indian warfare. This sacrifice enabled the rest of the hunting party to reach the Qu'Appelle in safety.
For many years the Metis freighters would not camp near the Lake for fear of hearing the ghosts of the old women calling one to the other from island to island and headland to headland.
An old buffalo hunter named Bernard Hamelin, who lived in a coulee near Willow Bunch, told me the following tale.
During a long-gone summer a Metis and his family had separated from the large company of their people with whom they had travelled from the White Horse Plains and were doing some hunting in what was known as the Coteau region.
For several days the heat had been very great. A fierce sun beat down from a cloudless sky and, on that particular morning, had come up hot and sultry. The man had risen early, busied himself in bringing in the horses, taking down the tent and making preparations to move camp. With that shelter removed, the heat was intolerable.
For some time he remained silent, but occupied himself in loading and priming his gun. Despite the heat which bathed the woman and children in perspiration, his face remained parched and dry. Far to the westward a black cloud was advancing across the sky, heralded by flashes of lightning and distant thunder-claps.
At last, he turned to his wife and menacing her with his gun, told her to say her farewells to the children, for he had received a revelation from Heaven to kill her. The poor woman realized her husband had become demented, probably from sunstroke and, with rare presence of mind, she strove to argue him out of his deadly purpose. She seemed to concur in his tragic plan but urged that the clothes of the children required washing and begged that she be permitted to perform that last service for them. He appeared to find her request reasonable, and she was allowed to take the little garments to the nearby spring, while he attended her every movement with his weapon. The children, instinctively aware of the shadow of tragedy, cowered close to her side.
When the washing was done, he again told her to prepare for death. She pleaded for another respite until she could do some mending for the children so that they might appear decent when they reached the large camp of their own people for which they were bound.
Again he agreed, and casting his eyes towards the advancing cloud, warned her to work fast. Hitherto he had walked about, keeping her covered with his gun. Now, while she plied her needle with what composure she could command he sat down opposite her.
As she worked, thinking upon her dreadful situation, and speculating upon the fate of the children left out on the prairie with no other protection than that afforded by an obvious madman, the tears filled her eyes and fell silently down her cheek. Pausing to wipe them away she glanced at her husband. His hands were relaxed on his gun; his eyes had closed and it seemed as if he slept.
Scarcely daring to move, she looked around. The thunder, which had been increasing as the storm approached, was for the moment stilled. The next peal would probably arouse him. Rising noiselessly on moccasined feet she sped towards the axe that leaned against the shafts of the cart. The thunder muttered its prelude to the long-drawn salvo that in a moment would shake the firmament, and clutching her weapon, she leapt across the intervening space that separated her from that tragic sleeper. She was over him, as opening his eyes, he sought to align his gun. Frantically she struck and he fell beneath the blows.
As the cooling rain came in torrents, she harnessed a horse to the cart and placing the children in it, stricken by horror into silence, left the place as if it had been accursed.
Mrs. McGillis, a fine old woman of the Metis people, dwelt with her sons in a beautiful location on the hillside overlooking the present village of St. Victor. She lived to an unbelievable age. She claimed to have been baptized by Father Provencher before he became the first Bishop of the Roman Catholic Church in the West. As he reached the Red River in 1818 and was appointed Bishop not many years later, this venerable woman must have been considerably beyond the century mark at the time of her death.
She told me that her godmother was Marie Gaboury, the wife of Baptiste Lajimodiere, who distinguished himself by the daring and fidelity with which he served the Hudson's Bay Company during the conflicts with the North Westers. Baptiste and Marie were the grandparents of Louis Riel.
Mrs. McGillis had a graphic power of description, and I enjoyed listening to her tales of the Ancien Temps. This is one of her stories, well authenticated and characteristic of the time and country.
In the summer of 1852 when the American Sioux were ravaging the Canadian plains, a large party of Metis came west from the Red River to hunt the buffalo. For some time the hunters kept together for the safety afforded by numbers, but as the summer advanced and there were no signs of hostile Indians, they split up into smaller parties. One of these groups had encountered great numbers of buffalo near the Souris River. There they were joined by Father LaFleche, one of the earliest of the missionary priests who ministered to the natives
As was customary on these occasions, arrangements were made for the celebration of Mass. The hunting had been good and the remains of many buffalo cumbered the earth. The good Father insisted that the camp be moved to a more salubrious situation for the Sabbath observances.
Accordingly, on the Saturday, the camp was struck and a move made to a high tableland which commanded a wide expanse of country. When the hunters reached this upland lawn, the evening was falling. To their dismay, they found the far end of the tableland already tenanted by a large Sioux encampment. It was too late to retreat, and there was nothing left for the hunters to do but make preparations to put up as stout a resistance as possible in the event of an attack.
A suitable spot close to a spring was chosen; a leaguer was formed by placing the carts close together and filling up the spaces between the wheel spokes with buffalo hides. A pit was dug to give the women and children some additional protection; guns were loaded and those brave people sat down to abide the issue.
No attack was made that night. The Plains' Indians, particularly the Sioux, did not attack at night. Dawn was their battle hour. All night the hunters stood to their weapons and even the children in the camp slept little.
When daylight came, the anxious hunters saw there was a bustle of activity in the Indian camp. Horses were being driven in, and presently mounted Indians began to ride back and forth in little companies. At length, as if in response to some command, they bunched together and came charging directly upon the barricade. The hunters were lying down with their guns projecting through loop-holes left in their defences; the young women and girls with powder horns and bags of balls crouched beside them, ready to reload the discharged weapons, and all were prepared to defend themselves to the last extremity.
The advancing Indians presented a wild and barbaric spectacle. Their galloping ponies, the fluttering feathers of their headgear, their brandished weapons and their unearthly war cries created a medley of sound and motion terrifying in its effect. The Indians came sweeping onward as if the barricade did not exist.
The hunters held their fire until the enemy was within fifty yards and then poured in a volley. All were marksmen and, shooting from rests, few of their bullets went wide and several saddles were emptied. Instantly the charge split and, swinging off to one side, the Indians commenced their old trick of circle riding the besieged, firing their guns and giving vent to horrible yells. Never very good shots at the best of times their fire, directed from the backs of galloping horses, was anything but effective. However, for many hours they kept up their harassing tactics.
Father La Fleche had not considered it consistent with his priestly office to use a rifle, but armed with an axe, he stationed himself beside the cart containing his property, determined to dispute its possession with any savage who succeeded in reaching it.
It was late in the afternoon when the Indians drew off to a little distance. They gathered on the side of a hill, where they were reinforced by another body of their own tribe, that had been in the vicinity and had joined them, either on the summons of a messenger or attracted by the firing. The situation of the Metis was perilous. Despite the indifferent marksmanship of the Indians, three of the hunters had been killed and several wounded. All the Sioux had to do was to continue their tactics, and eventually, they would wear the besieged down. Suddenly a horseman detached himself from the mob of Indians and galloped towards the barricade. As he approached, he raised his hand, palm, forward, in the peace sign of the plains. His splendid war bonnet of eagle feathers, his fine horse and accoutrements proclaimed him a chief. Reining his horse, he cried to the hunters in the Cree language which all understood: "The Dakotans did not know you had a 'Black Robe' with you; he must be God and none can prevail against him. Remain in peace; we shall attack you no more."
Even as he spoke the Metis saw the Indians commencing to move off. Raising his long lance in salutation, the Chief wheeled about and galloped off, the last Sioux to leave the tableland.
It may be imagined with what grateful hearts those poor people raised the altar of their faith in the wilderness, and gave thanks to God who had thus delivered them out of the hands of their enemy.
Mrs. McGillis was not present at this battle but was with a larger hunting party not far away, that was joined by those who had been so sorely beset. She herself nursed some of the wounded. Father LaFleche returned to Eastern Canada in 1856 and was afterwards Bishop of Three Rivers.
I had not seen Mrs McGillis for many years, but in 1928, in company with Frank Turnbull, K.C. and my husband, I drove from Willow Bunch to St. Victor for the express purpose of visiting her. We came to the well-remembered place, the typical Metis cabin built of axe-squared logs, backed by a picturesque poplar grove in the midst of which a clear spring of water bubbled. Her son "Cachot", an old man himself, one of those most sterling of the native people and long a trusted henchman of my brother Pascal, met us outside. To me, he was the representative of a happy time, and our greeting was warm and friendly. I asked for his mother. "She is inside," he said. "Will you go in alone, and see if she knows you?"
I found her sitting on her bed, garbed in a black stuff dress with a small shawl neatly crossed over her breast. She then must have been at least a hundred years and was thin and frail, but despite her great age was quite active, and her mind remarkably clear.
I addressed her in French and asked her if she recognized me. A quarter of a century had passed since our last meeting. She looked at me steadily for a moment and then replied: "Mais oui, Madame, Vous etes Albina," the name by which, when a child, I was known to the Metis folk.
When my husband entered she recognized him also, although she had seen him on only one or two occasions many years previously. On being presented to Mr Turnbull, she greeted him with a courtesy and self-possession that might well have been the envy of many a more pretentious hostess.
Mrs. McGillis had no English, but she spoke correct French acquired long ago from les Soeurs Grises of St. Boniface. We had a long and interesting talk, and as her mind went back across the years, she became graphic and animated.
"I have known these Western Plains since I was a young girl," she said. "I am glad that Monsieur is Scottish. My husband was Scottish too. He was of the North West Company and his people had authority. When I was only a child I came with my father from the Red River to the buffalo hunt. The women drove the carts and the men rode on horseback and hunted along the trail. West of the Moose Jaw Creek, always we found the buffalo. Sometimes in the morning when I went out to bring in the horses, the little buffalo calves followed, mistaking them for their mothers.
"The Metis went in a large company and they had guards and scouts like soldiers, for sometimes the Indians were bad. At first, it was the Sioux, but Cuthbert Grant, the 'Warden of the Plains', who was a relation of my husband, gathered the bravest of the hunters together and made war, driving them away from our hunting grounds. Afterwards, it was the Blackfeet who would attack and kill small parties; but when we went in large companies they did not bother us. Sometimes when there were many of us, we followed the buffalo herds far to the West, until we could see the great Mountains rising like white clouds in the sky.
"Once we had to camp for more than three days at a crossing of the Milk River to let the buffalo go by. There were so many of them that they could not be counted, and they seemed to think of nothing except where they were going. They were followed by the big grey wolves that killed the little calves or cows mired near the river crossing. They kept going north like a big black river."
Then as she re-lived those old scenes, she fell silent for a moment in retrospection. Suddenly, she said: "Where were they all going? Perhaps to someplace by the ocean where the grass is always green, and the white man cannot come with his breach-loading rifle. I think maybe, some Metis did a great wrong, and God took the buffalo away for punishment."
When we said good-bye to this fine old lady, she cried a little and kissed me. I call her a lady, for she had the courtesy that might have graced the highest in the land. It was the last time I saw her. She died in the winter of 1933, and it seemed to me as if she must have been escorted down the last long trail by a ghostly cavalcade of those priests, potentates, hunters and warriors who lived the vivid history of the western plains in the days that have faded into the mists of long-gone years.
The Indians who by the "Treaties" were recognized by the Crown as having a vested right in their native land always regarded the Metis as joint-inheritors with them, and urged that the Government should deal with them as such. Much was promised, but the pledges have never been adequately fulfilled. It is true they were eventually given "scrip" which entitled them to two hundred and forty acres of land each. This was granted when the land had little value, and few realized as much as a hundred dollars for their rights. Many of them parted with their "scrips" for a horse, or a gun, or even a few bottles of whisky. The value they have received on account of their birthright has been so trivial that were it not tragic, it would be ridiculous.
Apart altogether from their undoubted rights, they have rendered inestimable service to Canada. Without their aid, the peaceful settlement of the western plains would have been impossible. The prairie region was inhabited by warlike and independent Indian tribes and, had it not been for the mediation of the Metis, there is little doubt that western settlement in Canada would have been retarded by
wars and massacres, similar to those which characterized the advance of settlement in almost every other frontier region of North America.
It is no credit to the various Canadian administrations of the last seventy years that those poor people should have been felt to become, for the most part, homeless wanderers in the land that was theirs by birth and inheritance.
Canada's treatment of her Metis population is not a creditable page in the history of the Dominion.