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 Sekani, more correctly Tsekehne, people of the rocks, that is to say the Rocky Mountains, belong, like the Chilcotin and the Carrier, to the great Dene family; but their dialect, their habits and customs, as well as their physical features make them a distinct tribe…
The Sekani is an inveterate nomad. You could not get him to settle somewhere and build a place to live. He is ill at ease in a house or cabin…He must have his conical lodge of caribou hide in summer and his hut of branches in winter. There at least he can breathe.
It must be said that also that his vagabond life is imposed on him as much by the nature of his native country and by the absolutely necessity of his tastes. The salmon we know goes up the rivers and streams which flow into the Pacific Ocean. Now the waters that flow in the territory of the Sekani end sooner or later east of the Rocky Mountains. The salmon being absent and other fish being almost as rare, the Sekani in order to live has to fall back on the meat of the wild game that he hunts and kills. The dependence obliges him to wander here and there over the mountains, through the forest especially where he has the best chance of encountering moose and caribou.
As a diversion from venison he has a food also used by other natives, the koennih or layer of sap of the dwarf pine (P.contorta). To obtain it, he lifts the bark of the tree with an antler or branch of an antler of caribou, then he scrapes the cambium or sap in thin strips which he eats fresh on the spot. Exposed to heat, this substance keeps its original freshness for quite a long time, keeping always a pronounced taste of gum; perhaps because of this flavour it is considered very healthy.
The territory of the Sekani extends east and north from that of the Carrier and includes the east and west slopes of the Rocky Mountains and adjacent forests as far north as beyond the 57th parallel.
The social organization of the Sekani differs in all aspects from the Carriers. You could almost say that there is no social organization but instead a sort of anarchy. With them no hereditary notables with hunting lands of their own: the fathers of family are the natural chiefs of the band, and their title is rather honourary than effective. And then although some groups of allied families ordinarily hunt in the same mountains, beside the same rivers and the same lakes, they do not regard themselves as the exclusive owners of these lands and will not contest anyone’s right to hunt with them or without them, or see to their game traps in the same places.
The case is very different with the Carriers, who are very jealous of their titles and the places or privileges which go with them, and they will never hunt on another’s land but they expose themselves to having to pay dear for their audacity…
The name of L’la tenne or inhabitants of beaver land has been given by the Carrier to the Sekani, which gives you to understand, quite wrongly, that the hunting of beaver occupies them more than their neighbours to the southwest, Carrier and Sekani pursue this animal with the same ardour, the fur being as precious to one tribe as to the other. In fact the two make so incessant a war on this rodent that it will soon disappear altogether.
It is in the winter and the first days of spring that the beaver hunt is done on its grandest scale. Once you have found where the beaver is concealed you must, to effect its capture discover the route that he has traced under the ice for it seems that it follows clearly traced paths whenever it swims away from its winter quarters and whenever it returns to them. With caribou horns the hunters sound the ice. The practiced ear of the native quickly discovers, by sound, the route which the rodent daily follows.
Quickly above this passage a hole is dug which will receive the nets. To these nets, which are made of thongs of caribou hide, is attached a small rod floating above and fitted with little bells. Then the hunter, or should I say the fisher, goes off to demolish the beaver’s lodge in order to chase him out. If the animal is not there, you look for it nearby in its provision store. When the water waves show that it is there, you dislodge it and try to herd it towards the spread out nets. If the agile beaver is ahead of the hunter, the efforts that it will make to get free will cause the bells to ring. The hunter (thus) warned will immediately run and take possession of the captive animal before it has been able to free itself fro the thongs that bind it.
When the fine days of spring are here, the beaver hunting is done with trap or harpoon; but there may also be a few rare shots with the rifle when the chance arises. The traps are now of steel and of European make. As for the harpoon, it is made of bone and it is barbed. Most often it is attached to a long handle and it is thrown from a distance to give it more force and impact.
The more free roving animals, lynx, marten and fisher, etc, are captured by the Dene, both Carrier and Sekani, by means of wooden traps constructed on the spot and set on the trails most frequented by these animals. The larger game such as bear, moose or caribou, is tracked with the help of good dogs, often for a whole day before it can be brought down.
The Sekani can hunt the caribou with more satisfactory results, thanks to the lay and topography of their land. In the defiles, in the gorges of the mountains which the caribou cross, these natives place about 40 snares in line fastened to as many stakes. Two young men watch at each end of the line while the band of hunters manoeuvres to drive the game into the line of nooses. Shouts and noise and shots and many more shots surprise and frighten the animals. Driven mad, they rush together through the snares which tighten immediately around their necks. The big deer, which is what the caribou are, leap about in momentary captivity pulling out the stakes which held the snares; these (snares) catching in the trees fallen on the ground, or growing beside the trail suddenly arrest the animal in its flight and end up strangling it.