Excerpt from Au Pays de l’Ours Noir,
Dispatches of a Missionary, 1897 by Father
Adrien Gabriel Morice
Translated by Neil Wylie and Garry Girvan
The body of the church finished, the mission began and everybody made the customary public confession of his sins. This exercise gave me a chance to appreciate the mood of some of my flock.
Each couple came to kneel before the Priest and confess their sins in public in order to receive advice appropriate to their situation and make firm resolve against their backsliding.
A young man came to make his confession and seemed genuinely contrite when his wife began to accuse him of some peccadillos, taking care to heap all the fault on her husband, who she said took no care of her. She continued quietly in these recriminations when Kentsoen, her husband who had remained kneeling beside her got up suddenly as if pushed by a spring, and in the presence of the priest and the assembled Natives gave his jealous half such a buffeting such as few women have ever had, using his hands and feet. His eyes shot lightning and his rage was such that he could not speak a single word. It took two or three men to set him straight.
After the retreat at Anarem’s (the Chief) camp they came to fetch me to take me to visit the Chilcotin of the Rocks who were waiting for me in the valley.
The messenger sent by the troop to accompany me and see to the transportation of my moveable sanctuary was a big merry fellow called Oezonsi, the magpie, a man of excellent heart and good character, but a fickle spirit, light and unpredictable; add to that a chatterer like his namesake, the magpie.
My preparations for departure done, I sent him to get the horse which he brought to carry my baggage. The magpie did not budge but contented himself with lowering his head. Thereupon, whispering and significant smiles in the circle around us.
As I repeated my order, my good time Charley remarked that he had no horse, which only added to the hilarity of those who were there.
“But”, I said pressing him, “what have you done with the one you were riding yesterday when you came here?”
“I do not have it anymore,” he replied.
“You have sold it?”
“You have given it away?”
“Far from it.”
‘Someone has stolen it from you?”
“Perhaps it has escaped?’
“Not at all.”
“Then what have you done with it?’
The Magpie for once in his life has lost his speech. Everyone was looking at him intently and wondering if he would come clean and take the risk. He did none of it. The man contented himself with saying that he was strong, had good shoulders and that my sanctuary kit would not weigh heavier on him than a feather.
If he had been a good Christian, he would have admitted that he had passed the previous night gambling not far from camp and had lost his horse. With a little frankness he could have added that he had also lost his coat and his head-gear, a most unfortunate occurrence in the middle of the winter that was now upon us.
It would be difficult to exaggerate the dominion over the Native that gambling has. Before his baptism he will play night and day without tiring. His modest furnishings, his traps and snares, the simple covering in which he rolls himself to sleep, what am I saying? his very clothes will pass from his possession: I have seen some of them who were reduced to a state of complete nudity, so that they had to drape themselves in their blanket of rabbit skins for a garment.
The form of the game hardly seems attractive. A certain number of Natives form a circle around the fire, singing the strangest song you have ever heard to the accompaniment of a drum, or if there is no drum, keeping time with a cauldron or a plank, while one of them, swaying from right to left with the music, changes two little bones with dexterity from one hand to the other.
When the melody has been repeated a few times, it is up to his partner to guess which hand the winning bone is in. This game which is copied from”tsi mei” of the Chinese is to be found throughout nearly all the native tribes of North America.
We have now come to the Chilcotins of the Rocks and before starting to preach, we are trying to get to know them. There costume consists, for the men, of pantaloons whose original colour is anyone’s guess and a kind of of big cloak clasped under the chin, made of skins of marmots sewn together and worn with the fur inwards. Their headdress is a strip of beaver skins, fur outwards, worn around the head like a crown, while their footwear is the moccasin of dark deer skin worn by almost all the aboriginals of the New World.
Needless to say everyone, man and woman, has the face and in many cases the arms tattooed. Lines parallel converging on the corners of the mouth or perpendicular on the chin, crosses, figures of birds or fish are the favourite marks. In addition all the grown men still have the nasal membrane pierced with a hole from which hung not so long ago a crescent, a rondel or a Greek cross in mother-of-pearl. Some also wear earrings of beaded glass or mother-of-pearl. This was formerly worn by both men and women.
The dress of the women is hardly different from that of the men. The cloak of marmot skin, instead of lying open at the front, is simply more ample, so that the edges can be crossed over the chest. A girdle of dark,unbleached skin ornamented with trinkets, beaver paws or young caribou hoofs, copper thimbles or cartridge shells which make a light clinking as they walk, appealing to their ear, hold the folds of the cloak and transform it into a dress.
Further, for coquetry exists in every land, the dress of the young woman is usually ornamented with fringes consisting of coils covered over with quills of porcupine coloured in yellow or in green. Those of higher rank wear a collar as well, made of a kind of small elongated shell (Dentalium indianorum) which was formerly the standard of money in use among in use among all the tribes of the Pacific.