Au Pays de l’Ours Noir Part 11

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

The Carriers and the Babines

The Carriers and the Babines have a social organization which is quite different from that of their cousins to the east. First of all it should be noted that they are semi-sedentary, that is to say that they live part of the year in villages, generally on the shore of some lake or river, spending the other half hunting or fishing.

Authority in the village was formally represented by the order of’ ‘toenezas’ or notables, which one can compare to the nobility of the European nations. The rank of the American notable was strictly hereditary, and even in their father’s lifetime they share it, receiving the name of ‘oeskezas’. All the same, the only possible heir was the eldest of the maternal nephews. If there is no maternal nephew, the heritage passed to a brother of the notable or even to a niece if he should have one by a sister.

The notables alone possessed the hunting territory of the nation, and the duty of dealing with public affairs fell to them also. To them the privilege of the hereditary name and a song with it which was transmitted from generation to generation: to them the honour of the first step in the dances when the traditional hymn was sung: to them the insignia of nobility, the wig ornamented with shells, the apron decorated with tinkling fringes: to them the first places at the ceremonial feasts: and to them the right to conclude peace or intone the war song, to settle quarrels and represent the authority of the village in everything.

There were – or rather there are, for this institution still survives – several notables in the same village at the same time, and they are all on the same footing. At times no doubt it happens that one among them has more authority, usually because of his generosity, for the native lives by his stomach, but this notable is not like the actual chiefs which have been given to each village since the arrival of the White Man, but rather like a ‘prior inter pares.’

Closely connected with the question of the ‘toenezas’ is the question of the clans which the Carrier and the Babines both have in the form of a few very distinct groups. These clans, numbering five in our tribes, establish between the members who compose them, a sort of alliance or very firm relationship to which most of our natives have held very strongly up to now. Each clan has its totem or insignia: frog, grouse, raven, beaver etc. The graven image of this animal received in former times, marks of special consideration.

A clan is not confined to one village and you may meet its members across regions far removed from each other. However far apart the habitations, the alliance always subsists intact. 

From time immemorial, a fundamental law in the social constitution of these people prohibits marriage between persons of the same clan. I can affirm that in former times they would rather unite with a blood relation, if it was not too close a relative. Our Natives neither know the name of affinity nor recognise the fact. Far from being an obstacle to marriage, affinity, legitimate or illegitimate was, on the contrary, a strong motive for union. Sometimes it was, as with the Jews: on the death of a married man, his brother made it his duty to marry the widow.

Polygamy was an honour throughout the district; the higher the rank of the husband, the more numerous the wives. The father of the present chief of our village had no less than six wives at the same time. One of them however, and not necessarily the first in order of cohabitation, always kept a kind of superiority over the others who called her their elder sister.

Of course, a woman was rarely better treated after marriage than before in her father’s house. It is well known that as with pagan nations of old, so with peoples of the present time who are unfaithful to one wife and unbelieving in the one true God, the woman has always been and still is almost the slave of her lord and master. When a young girl, she owed it no doubt to her mother to give some help around the house; but there, at least she was cared for; she was well clothed so that she would be worth more when she reached the nubile age. Now that her destiny is sealed forever, she becomes the factotum of the household: all the rough work falls on her shoulders

But overworked though she is, her life in her new cabin may yet seem to her a time of holiday; for it is mostly on journeys that this wife-drudge has to suffer. It is up to her to transport the family moveables while her husband, carrying a rifle and nothing more, starts happily on the march, looking out for some piece of game to vary the menu of the meagre meal that will be theirs at nightfall.

And let me remind you that she is not at the end of her work day when towards dark the couple break their journey to set up camp. She must then collect the dead branches which will keep the family campfire going, put up the shelter which the next day they will leave behind and cook and do everything else. The role of the man, which before his Christian conversion was very simple, could be summed up in the motto: hunt, eat, sleep and play.

The natives have a deep love for their children. Infanticide is very rare among them. But there is an exception. When twins come into the world, a custom of hideous barbarity as it seems to us, rules that one of them be sacrificed. Two children at a time brought bad luck, they said, and they regarded this double birth almost as a monstrosity of nature.

It is a known fact that among the indigenous people of the two Americas the mother carries the infant on her back, not in the arms as do the whites. Our local natives are no exception to this rule. The Chilcotin make pretty little baskets of osier covered with goat skin to carry their nurselings. The Carriers simply use clothes ornamented, more or less, with glass beads or others gewgaws. A point which is perhaps worth noting is that Chilcotin mothers carry their babies horizontally behind their backs, while the Carrier women carry them in perpendicular position. Funny to see these little beings, swaddled  close like little mummies, carried everywhere their mother walks, and looking always in the opposite direction to that in which its mother goes.

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