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
Superstitions Among the Déné
The list of superstitions that we have dug up in the course of our duty among the Natives would be certainly very long if it was complete. Truth obliges me to say that some of them are still current among a number of the old men and women.
I was returning in autumn from a long voyage.undertaken to baptize a man who was dying, when I met old Toutha or Pierrot as he was baptized. As I was asking news about his hunting:
“Oh don’t talk about that,” he said, “there are plenty of beaver. I even took one just after I got there; but by bad luck a dog touched it. You understand that after that it has been impossible to get another.”
“Bah,” I said to him, attend to your traps as if nothing had happened and you will see.”
“No use,” he replied in a despondent tone of voice. “No use. You do not know the habits of the beaver. It is enough for a dog to touch a beaver for his fellow beavers to be angry with the owner of the dog and go on keeping a distance from his traps.”
It was vain for me to laugh or to reason; my Pierrot persisted, saying that although I was not a liar, being a priest, I did not know the humour of the beaver and so my remarks had no value. He was so firm in his convictions that he at once abandoned his traps and his beaver hunting, alleging that they were angry at him.
There are other superstitions to do with hunting. For example, to mention one of the more important ones, before going to see his traps and snares, a hunter must keep away from the couch of his wife for a sufficient period of time. He lies beside the hearth, taking care to press on his neck a little piece of wood which he thinks could not fail to drop the spring of his trap on the neck of his prey.
Supposing his intended prey was the bear, there was he would say, an almost infallible means of charming him. The trapper chewed the root of a kind of cow parsnip which the animal loves, then (the trapper) threw the pulp from the root in the air crying:
“Nyuskuh! If only I can get you in my trap!”
But the most important of all practical superstitions common to the Carriers and Babines are those that deal with women.
Among those tribes, as soon as a young girl reached the critical period of her life, the father was obliged t make a little distribution of clothing or food. The young girl then took herself away from society, abandoned even her parents and lived alone in a hut of branches, far from the beaten trails and from the look of passers by. She went and came, dressed in a kind of head covering which was at one and the same time a veil, a hat and a cloak. It was a brown skin with a long fringe in front which veiled the face and the breast; over the head it became a bonnet fitted with a band or hood at the back which fell right down to the heels.
During her seclusion, the young girl was obliged to put bands of sinews on her fingers, hands wrists, on her legs above her ankle bone and below the knee. These bands protected her against pernicious influences with which she was thought to be possessed. At her girdle she carried two bone instruments, one called “tsoenkuz” the other “tsiltsoet.” The first was a sawed bone hollowed like a straw through which she drank; to drink from birch bark bowls like the other members of the family would have given her a sore throat beyond any hope of cure, they said. The second, like a little fork of two tines, was used to scratch the head, since immediate contact of the head and the fingers was also supposed (to be) bad for health.
The young girl also had to observe fasting and abstinence. The only nourishment allowed her was dried fish, cooked in a little bowl of bark which no one else should touch. Her condition was so dreaded that she could not even walk along the public path nor (along) the tracks of animals for fear that her presence would contaminate the game or any person who would pass that way. For the same reasons the sequestered girl could not walk in the waters of rivers or lakes for fear that she would kill the fish.
This sort of quarantine lasted not less than three or four years. These customs were so deeply rooted in our Natives that only an obstinate perseverance on the part of the missionary could succeed. Many times I have been obliged to take away their “tzoenkuz” from young Babine girls myself and I have forced them to leave their huts of branches or spruce bark which was their refuge, to make them return to their paternal roof. We have succeeded fully with the Carrier; but the Babines are harder to budge.