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The First Manitobans

Manitoba Pageant, Autumn 1970, Volume 16, Number 1

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

When British mariners in Hudson Bay made their first landfalls in the territory which became the Province of Manitoba, they found several different groups of aboriginal people living there. The Eskimo who dwelt in the Arctic and the sub-Arctic were a nomadic people. They shifted their camps in response to the seasonal movements of the caribou, seal and walrus, and always stopped close to these sources of food and clothing. In Manitoba the Eskimo seldom ventured farther south than Churchill, so with this limit fairly struck they played but a minor role in the exploration of the province.

Henry Kelsey made several trips along the coast into Eskimo territory. He gathered "whalebon, oyle and some Sea Horse Teeth," as he put it, and struck up an acquaintance with two Eskimo boys with a view to learning their language. Later explorers, notably Rae and Simpson, used Eskimo as guides and hunters along the Arctic coast, but this was far beyond the northern limits of Manitoba.

The Eskimo were constantly at war with the Northern Indians, the Chipewyans; the Northern Indians were constantly at war with the Southern Indians, the Cree, and the three groups were always fighting one another. It would have been an open invitation to trouble had the traders used Eskimo on Nelson and Hayes rivers, their main inland routes. These great rivers ran through Swampy Cree country, enemy country to the Eskimo. and so it is highly improbable in any event that they would have ventured there - even for the most attractive rewards.

Nonetheless, it is interesting to note in passing that the first reference to native people in Manitoba, made by Jens Munck at Churchill River in 1619, refers to the Eskimo in connection with the shooting of a wolf which turned out to be a large dog with a muzzle fixed to its snout. Munck assumed therefore that Eskimo were camped nearby; although, as he points out, he did not hear them, see them from afar, or meet them face to face. (Recent excavations on Eskimo Point, Churchill River, have yielded substantial evidence of occupancy during historic and prehistoric times.)

Another group of aboriginal people, the Chipewyan Indians, lived in the tundra where they hunted caribou. In winter they sought shelter in the northern fringe of the forest but seldom pressed beyond its perimeter. The extreme southern range of their wanderings was roughly parallel to a lint drawn between Churchill in the east and Biochet in the west.

Their name means "pointed skins," a reference to their long pointed Packets which hung loosely below their knees. This led some European explorers (with infinitely more regard for fancy than fact) to speak of them as the northern people with tails - a mixture of man and beast."

The Chipewyan played very little part in the exploration of Manitoba but made their greatest contribution to the discovery of new land by acting as guides to Samuel Hearne on his epic journey from Fort Prince of Wales to the mouth of the Coppermine River in 1770-71. Incidentally, quite apart from the theme of this narrative, it was from Hearne's account of this journey that William Wordsworth gathered the material on which he based his elegy: "The Complaint of a Forsaken Indian Woman."

The Swampy Cree, who lived south of the Chipewyan, in the swamp land north of Lake Winnipeg, were the first to trade at Port Nelson and York Factory. In the course of time some of them made permanent camps about the trading posts. Those who were employed by the Hudson's Bay Company at York Factory became known as the Home Indians. They were the trusted retainers on whom the Company relied to do many different jobs in and about the factory; they in turn relied on the Company to keep them supplied with European goods - food. clothing, guns, shot, axes, knives, pots - on which they had become dependent.

The Home Indians and their relatives upstream guided the explorers and traders inland. When the Swampy Cree reached the limits of their own country, other tribes - Wood Cree, Ojibwa (Saulteaux), Sioux (Assiniboine), and Plain Cree - took up the task of guiding the traders and explorers through their respective territories.

Because of this cooperation the exploration of central and southern Manitoba went forward without major checks. On the other hand, had there been widepsread recalcitrance or open hostility among the Indian tribes of Manitoba to the penetration of their territory by white men, exploration would have been extremely difficult and trade and settlement might have been delayed many years.

There were no major wars or massacres among the whites and Indians in Manitoba as there were throughout the American west. There are several reasons for this, each of which is too lengthy to go into here, except to observe that much of the credit belongs to the woodland tribes. According to many corroborative accounts, the Swampy Cree and Wood Cree were happy. carefree people. They possessed a wonderful facility for enjoying simple pleasures and pastimes, and even today, when external pressures are changing their way of life, as in the days of the fur trade, they have not lost this pleasant characteristic. This light-hearted demeanor was not a product of easy living; life was harsh and hunger seldom far away. Yet, as one man of learning who worked among them for many years, has said: -Their attitude toward life is very much like that of the ancient Greeks, and in their gentle and sensitive language one catches glimpses of the Grecian idiom and temperament."

All the early explorers and fur traders who travelled through Manitoba owe a great deal to the Indians. It would have been extremely difficult for them to have made their way through seemingly interminable lakes and rivers and tangled forests without the Indians as guides. Sooner or later, the white man would have pressed inland on his own, but it would have taken him a long time, and his sacrifice of life and limb would have been great. The Indians taught the traders and explorers how to make and use the birch-bark canoe, the toboggan, the snowshoe, and the tumpline. They showed them how to live off the land, how to track wild animals, and how to identify wild plants and roots and prepare them for food or medicine. A few explorers and traders, a very few indeed, learned to live off the land, but the fur trade as a whole never attained self-sufficiency in provisioning its brigades along its far-flung trade routes. Here again the Indians came to the rescue, supplying the staple food of the trade - pemmican, the dried and powdered meat of the buffalo.

In a totally different field, we owe tribute to the Indians because they made the first maps of the province. No less an authority than Peter Fidler, the first surveyor of the Red River Settlement (Winnipeg), who became chief surveyor for the Hudson's Bay Company in 1796, put the following note in his diary on July 10, 1812: "Oxford House: The Indian map conveys much information where European documents fail; and on some occasions are of much use, especially as they show where such and such a river and other remarkable places are. tho' they are utterly unacquainted with any proportion in drawing them."

The Indian had no knowledge of scale. So many inches on a map equalling so many miles of country meant nothing to him. He didn't think that way. His idea of distance was one of time in relation to difficulty. If he were drawing a map of the Assiniboine River between Brandon and Winnipeg, for example, he would show this stretch of river as being much longer than a straight flowing stream of similar length. Some stretches of the Assiniboine present a succession of tightly packed loops. One particular stretch which meanders for fifteen miles covers less than three-quarters of a mile by straight linear measurement overland. This is the kind of river to which the Indian gave disproportionate length on his maps.

He would also give different lengths to waters of the same actual lengths if one took longer to run than another. He used this same idea when showing the difference (as he conceived it) between one water of great length but little difficulty and another water of shorter length but greater difficulty. So he drew the Winnipeg River (150 miles) longer than Lake Winnipeg (300 miles) because the river had many portages (30 in all), and it took a long time to move over them. In contrast, Lake Winnipeg was clear sailing.

Indian maps, though badly out of proportion, were extremely useful. They showed the main characteristics of the country and they showed them well. The Indian knew his own country like the back of his hand, and within the limits of his wanderings he could fix the major landmarks with amazing accuracy. Beyond that he was lost. On his maps unknown country is shown as a blank. After all, what else could he do?

When Aaron Arrowsmith, the great map maker of the Hudson's Bay Company, made his map of Churchill region in 1811, he put in it the basic elements of three Indian maps including their supporting narrative. He used also the delineations of David Thompson, Peter Fidler and others. So his map contained physical features which had been plotted by scientific observation and lines and observations which had been made after the Indian fashion. It was a good mixture.

Arrowsmith's map contains such notations as these: "By this river there is a passage to a lake over a height of land." "Barren sandy hills not a tree or shrub." "Cree Indians here." "Much low wet ground." "Rocks and many small lakes." "Painted Stone." This latter notation is fixed to several places in northern Manitoba where Indian rock paintings (petrographs) have been found in recent years.

All these explanatory lines are taken from the oral accounts of Indian map makers who had no written language of their own with which to amplify their maps. But as they drew them in sand or on birch bark, they would pause now and then to talk about this or that physical feature, and so by word of mouth they provided the "explanatory text" which they could not put in writing. When these observations were put into English words on a map, they gave valuable information about the landforms; a narrative appendix, as it were, with its source in the eye-witness accounts of the Indians. That is why Arrowsmith put them on his Churchill map and on others he did later on.

In the early days of the fur trade the Indians were the teachers of the young traders. The North West Company sent its young men among the Indians to be trained in the lore of the wilderness and "to acquire a perfect knowledge of their language and habits." Moreover, these young men were not given responsible positions in the trade until they had mastered the skills of the "wood and water." The Hudson's Bay Company also adopted a policy of recruiting young apprentices in their early teens so that they were young enough to learn the ways of the natives, "being not so attached to the ways of home as to be useless in the wilderness."

Henry Kelsey, the discoverer of the prairies, made his first journeys with Indians along the seaboard of Hudson Bay when he was fourteen years of age. Later on, while still in his teens, he "travelled inland with a band of Crees for to understand their language and to see their land." David Thompson, "the greatest practical land geographer the world has produced," set out from Fort Churchill on foot with Indians and crossed over the muskeg to York Factory when he was fifteen years of age. He went on to travel over 50,000 miles throughout Western Canada and the United States, and during his extensive journeys, by canoe, horseback, and on foot, mapped the main trails of trade and exploration through over one and a half million square miles.

In later life he wrote: "I have always admired the tact of the Indian in being able to guide himself through the darkest pine forest to exactly the place he intended to go, his keen, constant attention on every thing; the removal of the smallest stone; the bent or broken twig; a slight mark on the ground all spoke plain language to him. I was anxious to acquire this knowledge, and often being in company with them for several months, I paid attention to what they pointed out to me, and became almost equal to some of them; which became of great use to me."

Peter Fidler spent eight months travelling with the Chipewyan when he was twenty-two years of age. He was sent to establish goodwill among them, to assure them of a plentiful exchange of trade goods for furs, and to learn all he could about how they lived in the tundra. At the end of this journey he wrote: "Have been absent from all European intercourse and alone with the Jepewyans ever since the 4th September last, having acquired a sufficiency of their language to transact any business with them. Upon the whole this has been rather an agreeable winter than otherwise ..."

So the traders learned from the Indians!

While all these things were going on, the impact of the white man's culture upon the native people was frequently upsetting and often times disastrous. As new tools and weapons were introduced, as new ways of doing things were learned, the Indian abandoned his old ways. He became dependent on the trader for food and clothing. Sons and grandsons knew not how to hunt with bow and arrow; they could no longer put together that loveliest of all native craft - the birch bark canoe; their daughters and granddaughters could no longer make clothing from the skins of animals; they could no longer make medicine from roots, leaves, berries and bark.

It was not long before the Home Indians who had close contact with the traders became wholly dependent on them. Even among the Indians of the hinterland, a partial reliance developed at an early date. If the white man had suddenly left the country, many Indians would have perished before they were able to learn again the ancient skills of survival.

The new dependence created many problems, and some of these have lingered on, giving birth to new problems. The gap between a primitive culture and a sophisticated culture, always a wide one to begin with, has been broadened in the 20th century through the introduction of technological devices and methods. The Indian today is therefore confronted with grave problems of adjustment and survival.

He wants to retain his individuality as an Indian. So he should. He wants to preserve his legends, traditions and customs. So he should. He wants to be able to call for comfort and inspiration on those lovely things in his own religion which should not be allowed to pass away. So he should. What he wants, probably most of all, is to walk upright as a man, to earn his own way and look after his family, and to see that his children are properly trained to take their places as happy, productive citizens in their own country.

The opportunity to do these things and the provision of the means to do them is the tribute to which all Manitobans could pledge themselves in this centennial year.

Page revised: 19 July 2009

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