Au Pays de L’Ours Noir: Part 7

Excerpt from Au Pays de l’Ours Noir, 

Dispatches of a Missionary, 1897 by Father

Adrien Gabriel Morice

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Translated by Neil Wylie and Garry Girvan

Customs of the Carrier

 My second journey to Lake Louzkeuz was made in the first days of the month of June, 1884, and like the first, was fruitful and satisfying in its results. Furthermore, following the undertaking I had made the previous year, I pushed this time as far as Lake Elkatcho where there was a Carrier village which had never yet received the visit of a priest.

On the 18th of June, accompanied by my interpreter and two other Indians, I left my children of Louzkeuz and together we plunged westward.

Although it was well on into the year, we had frightful weather. Snow fell in big flakes and soon covered the ground which had been bared of its winter covering covering several weeks earlier. We were numb with cold when we stopped in the evening, having ridden on horseback all day dressed only in our summer clothes!

Quick, a cup of tea to revive us!”

That was my men’s first thought on arriving at our camping place.

As for me, I had never been able to accustom myself to this brew, considered so necessary by the English race (sic). I contented myself with fresh water as usual.

 But where were the cups we travelled with? The cook ferreted through the sacks in vain; his search was not rewarded. We had forgotten them at Lake Louzkeuz.

A white man in such circumstances would have been at a loss. But the Indian is not disconcerted by so little. In the twinkling of an eye Nelan, my interpreter, has made a cut in tree under which we were sheltered, folded together the ends of the piece of bark that he cut from it, thus giving it the shape of  a vase which he pins in place with the aid of thorns serving as nails We quench our thirst from it as well as if it had been a cup of gold..

The next day at noon we halt in a spot in the forest which has been cleared revealing the site of an abandoned village. It is Oelrak.

While my two companions prepare our modest dinner, I notice two columns, each crudely cut, standing in the middle of the green. At their ancient aspect, I feel my old antiquarian tastes awakening.

One is topped with a square box, the other is partly hollowed and its opening, although covered with a panel, allows a peep (inside) at certain scraps. I had a hard time imagining what they were and why they were there.

“What is that?” I ask of my followers who I see are amused at my curiosity.

“They are the bones of the dead,” they reply laughing.

“What, human bones?”

Exactly”.

“And why have they been perched up there?”

It is then explained to me that they are the calcinated remains of old Natives whose bodies have been burned according to the traditional usage the Carrier people.

I think that I will repeat here the information I was given at that time, adding details which I have learned since then.

The Carrier, who are more progressive than the Chilcotin, readily adopt the customs belonging to tribes or nations they consider their superiors on the social scale. They had early adopted cremation which they saw practiced by their neighbours to the west, the Tsimpsians.

As soon as one of their people had passed from life to death, two young men were sent to the neighbouring villages to invite the inhabitants to come to the cremation of the corpse. As soon as a sufficient crowd had gathered, a public and solemn feast was offered by the relations of the deceased, after which his body was placed on a pile of dried wood and burned to the accompaniment of the lamentations of the widow, if the man was married.

In that case etiquette required that to show her desperation, the woman made as if to burn herself with her dead husband. Her heart rending cries touched no one: they were called for by custom, everyone knew, and besides no harm came to her from her cries. But it was necessary to prevent her from destroying herself or hurting herself badly, for her services would be needed soon after. However if she had shown herself a bad wife when her husband was alive, not only did they allow her to go ahead with her grim pretenses, but sometimes they increased her risks by putting her face in the flames in order to disfigure her for life and take away from her all chance of a second marriage.

The ceremony over, the widow made a shelter out of bark on the site of the pyre near which she had to pass the night repeating like an echo, the cadence of her keening.

Next morning the relations of her dead husband came to pick up with pious care, the few half calcined bones which usually remained after the cremation, and put them into a little satchel made for this purpose which they passed on to the widow. From then on she had to carry them on her back until the day of deliverance from this bondage to which she was subjected by reason of her widowhood. Whence the name of Carrier, which is given to these Indians.

That day too, her hair was cut close to the scalp by the relations of the man whose remains she had to carry every day, and take care henceforth not to say his name.(1) Her face was smeared with pitch, she had to wear rags, the meaner the better, and her guardians (as her new masters were called) took it upon themselves to make her life as unhappy as it was in their power to make it. She became the maid of all the work in the household. Sick or even pregnant she had to work for all the others without even letting a complaint escape her lips and without power to win the smallest remuneration. At public ceremonies such as dances, feasts. parades, her place was at the door of the lodge, surrounded by the dogs which she was charged to keep at a distance. One can see what a precious gift for a woman the Christian religion has been, which has put her back in her rightful place at the family hearth. Having had to combat this barbarous custom, I can speak of it with knowledge of her case. Let me hasten to add that today it is almost abolished.

The widow endured this miserable and suffering life for two, three or four years, according to her dead husband’s tribal rank, and depending on how long it took his relations to amass the quantity of victuals and dried skins needed for distribution with pomp to the multitude of natives assembled for the occasion. That day the satchel containing the bone fragments of the dead man was hung during the ceremony from an exposed rafter of the lodge in view of all the guests, and the widow was publicly delivered from her servitude.

The feast over, the satchel with its contents was put into the box on a column to the dead (ornamented more or less) and there, it is decreed, it will remain.

The custom of raising these columns, I say again, was borrowed from the Atnas or Tsimpsians, among whom you may see columns carved with an art which you would be far from expecting from an Amerindian.

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(1) Even today no native will ever wish to say the name of one who is dead: they will rather say the father of such a one, the mother, brother of s0-and-so. This false reserve is noticed also among the living, among married couples who will never say, my wife or my husband, but “him” or perhaps “the father (or the mother) of this child”.

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