The Labrador Boundary


Privy Council Documents


Volume V
Contents




      Language.

      Religion.

      Conjurors.

      Education.

      Honesty.

      Morals.

      Marriage.

      Children.

      Disease.

      Burial.

      Mode of living.

      Annual visit to         the coast.

      Fur trade.

      Summer life.

      Transport of         supplies.

      Change in system         of trade.

      In relation to         the Indians.

      Hunting grounds.

      Extermination of         fur-bearing         animals.

      Winter tent.

      Autumn hunt.

      Winter hunt.

      Spring hunt.

      Eskimo along the         St. Lawrence.

      Moravian Mission         stations.

      Tribes of Eskimo.


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of white blood would account for this difference of physique, and it may also have been induced by their living along the sea coast. Their resemblance to the Eskimo is not likely due to a blood relationship, as the Indians and Eskimo never take wives from one another, nor have sexual intercourse together.
Very little is known definitely about the philology and ethnology of the Indians, and the present account is only from desultory information picked up among them by the writer.
The language, as before stated, is various dialects of Cree, or a mixture of Cree and Ojibway. The dialects are more numerous than those of the four tribes given above. The Montagnais of Lake St. John speak a somewhat different dialect from that of Bersimis, and it again differs from the dialects of Mingan or Northwest River. These differences of dialect in the same tribe are slight, and are mostly in the slang and interjections. The same differences apply to the dialects of the Nascaupee, Mistassini and Nichicun, differing from that of Fort Chimo, and all from that of Whale River and Rupert House. But these differences are all so small that the Montagnais canoemen conversed readily with the natives at Mistassini, Nichicun, Fort Chimo and Northwest River, and were only slightly puzzled on the coast of Hudson Bay, where the number of Ojibway words is greater. A large majority of the Indians of Labrador are Christians, the Montagnais of the St. Lawrence and Hamilton Inlet being Roman Catholics, while the Indians of the western watershed have been converted by the missionaries of the Church of England. Only the eastern Nascaupees are pagans, and most of them have a faint tinge of Christianity, imparted on hurried visits by the Roman Catholic missionaries, between Hamilton Inlet and Ungava Bay. The christianized Indians are devoutly religious, attending strictly to the offices of the church during the long periods of absence from the eye of the missionary. While in the woods, they keep track of the weeks, ticking the days off on a rough calendar. They do not work on Sunday, and observe the fast days. Notwithstanding their careful observance of the offices, their religion is to a considerable extent leavened with old pagan superstitions, and a sneaking regard is still held for the "windago" and other evil spirits of their forefathers. It is almost laughable to see the respect with which the most religious of them treat the well-known conjurors or medicine men of the pagan Nascaupees ; and they all secretly believe that these persons can, if they wish, work harm by the aid of evil spirits. All the Christian Indians can read and write, those instructed by the English missionaries using a kind of syllabic shorthand, while those under the French missionaries make use of books printed in the ordinary way.
Dishonesty and theft are unknown to the interior Indians; provisions and outfit can be left anywhere inland with perfect safety for any length of time. Only in a case of absolute starvation will provisions be taken, and then only a small part, for which payment will be left by the person taking them. It is to be regretted that along the coasts, where the Indians are in close communication with the whites, their honesty suffers, and a good lookout must be kept, or property will be stolen.

p. 2612

As a rule, the Indians have not a strict regard for the truth, and speak it only when convenient. The missionaries have improved the moral and sexual relations of the Indians, but there is still room for improvement in the latter respect. Marriages are made early, the men taking wives as soon as they can support them, and the women being given in marriage when they are fourteen or fifteen years old. Among the Christian Indians monogamy is practised, and the marriage ceremony is performed by the missionaries, or, in their absence, by the officers of the Hudson's Bay Company. Among the pagan Indians many of the men have two wives, and some three or four, according to the number they can support by their hunt. Continence is not usual. Widows are in great demand in marriage, and often a young boy is mated to a woman old enough to be his mother. As a widow inherits her dead husband's hunting grounds, a marriage with her provides the second husband with hunting grounds as well as a wife, and in consequence widows are taken by young men without lands. The respect shown by children to parents is great, and the will of the aged father is law, even with middle-aged sons, who will not enter into any serious undertaking without first consulting the head of the family. Children are never beaten, but soon learn to obey without punishment. As a rule, the number of children borne by the women is small, rarely exceeding five. The women become wrinkled and old before they are forty years of age ; after which they often live for many years. The men show the effects of age much less than the women, and it is exceedingly difficult to tell their exact age between 50 and 70 years, as the hair rarely turns grey. The greatest mortality is due to pulmonary diseases, which are induced by exposure to cold and wet, with no covering on the feet but deerskin moccasins, which soak like blotting-paper. “ Lame back ” incapacitates a number of the men, and is probably due to disease of the kidneys. Complaints of the stomach are also the cause of many deaths, owing to the weakening of that organ by alternate periods of starvation and gormandizing. Scrofulous sores and ulcers are not uncommon, and appear to be inherited.
The dead throughout Labrador are buried in the ground, and, only when death takes place during the winter, is the body placed in a tree until the frost is out of the ground. The clothing, gun and other articles belonging to the deceased are often buried with him, or placed on the grave, when the burial takes place in the woods, and no Indian would touch anything so left, or camp near one of these lonely graves. The dead are mourned for according to the position they occupied, and the grief displayed is deep and sincere. A curious custom was noted in the interior, on the arrival of the various families at the posts in the spring—instead of joyous greetings the women clasp one another and indulge in a period of silent weeping, after which they cheer up and exchange gossip.
The annual routine of an Indian life is made up of two periods, the short period, from one to three months, spent during the summer at the coast, and the long period passed inland. Those who trade at the inland posts, are engaged throughout the summer transporting to Hudson Bay the fur hunt of the past winter and bringing back the supplies to form the next season's outfit. The

p. 2613

amount of supplies is so great and the number of men at these posts is so small, that every one capable of working is enlisted, including half-grown boys and old men. As most of the women and children accompany the brigades of large canoes, in their small canoes, the journey practically amounts to a co-operative scheme of bringing in supplies, and differs only in this respect from the annual visit to the coast of the independent families. The only Indians who do not come in contact with the white traders during the summer, are some eighteen families who reside on the shores of a large lake about two hundred miles above the mouth of the George River. These Indians never visit the coast during the summer, and their only communication with the white traders is during the early spring, when the younger men tramp to Davis Inlet on the Atlantic coast, and there trade their furs for tea, tobacco and ammunition. They do not buy clothing or provisions, and haul their purchases home on long narrow toboggans over the crusted snow. This little tribe of Indians carries on a small trade in the above mentioned articles with the other neighbouring Indians of the interior. As they reside in a district plentifully supplied with caribou, they depend upon these animals both for food and clothing, and are thus practically independent of the traders.
The majority of the Indians who go to the coast, congregate at convenient centres in bands of six or more families, and in company descend the rivers in their small bark canoes. The time of the spring gathering is shortly after the ice leaves the rivers, when the fur of the otter becomes “ common.” Each family carries with it the packs of furs obtained during the winter, together with most of their movable property. Those living farthest inland are often more than two weeks in descending to the post, owing to the long and difficult “ roads ” they have to follow. On arrival at the coast, the fur-packs are handed over to the trader with whom the Indian deals, and a valuation being set upon them, the Indian is allowed credit for the value computed in “ skins ” or “ beavers,” which are the units of value in the trade—the price of the different furs being reckoned in comparison with a medium sized beaver skin, and the traders' supplies are valued in the same manner. On the St. Lawrence coast this system of barter is falling into disuse, and cash is taking the place of the old beaver as a medium of exchange. The summer season at the posts is passed in visiting friends and in a round of gaiety. Very few of the Indians have been induced to cultivate land on their own account, although they sometimes work in the gardens of the traders and missionaries. The only work that they willingly undertake is in canoes, either attending fishing parties or transporting provisions inland. During the summer season a majority live in small cotton tents, but some of the most successful hunters own small log houses, in which they pass the summer. During the month of August, preparations are made for the journey to winter quarters, and by the end of that month most of the Indians leave the various posts.
Owing to the extermination of the caribou in many parts of the country and to an insufficiency of other game, the greater number of the Indians are now obliged to purchase a considerable quantity of flour, and carry it inland to their hunting grounds,

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So much provisions, along with other outfit, are now taken by the southern Indians that they have to make two or three trips with their canoes at starting, and often they are more than two months in reaching their winter quarters. In former years, the Hudson's Bay Company and other traders annually advanced the Indians sufficient provisions and outfit to carry on their winter's hunt, and recouped themselves in the following spring. At present, to a great extent, this system of advances has been abandoned, and the Indian only gets such outfit and provisions as he can pay for in cash or fur. The change is due largely to the losses entailed by close competition, and to the dishonest practices of many of the Indians, who instead of delivering their fur to the persons who advanced to them, take it to rival traders and exchange it for cash or other articles—leaving their debts unpaid. The change is consequently justifiable where there is competition in the fur trade, but bears heavily on the Indian, who is naturally improvident and spends the proceed of his annual hunt as soon as he gets it, without thought or care. In consequence, when the hunt is a failure, which is often the case through no fault of the hunter, the poor Indian has little or nothing to buy his outfit with, and departs to the woods improperly supplied. To this cause is due much of the hardship, starvation and death reported among the Indians of the Labrador Peninsula during the past few years. With the exception of the eastern Nascaupees, all the Indians now dress in clothing procured from the trading shops, and many of the southern Indians, having acquired a taste for luxuries of civilization unknown to their fathers, must make large hunts in order to gratify these tastes.
Each family is supposed to own a portion of territory with the exclusive hunting rights to it. The territory is generally divided into three parts, each part being hunted over in successive years, and in this manner the fur-bearing animals are allowed to recuperate. In the southern country extensive fires, too close hunting, and other causes are rapidly exterminating the animals, and the families owning these grounds, in order to obtain a living, are obliged to encroach upon their northern neighbours. As the intruders care little or nothing about keeping up the stock on these lands, the result is most disastrous, and in a few years, if strict laws are not enacted, the fur-bearing animals of the province of Quebec will be practically exterminated, and the Indians, thus left without their only means of subsistence, will be reduced to beggary, or will die off from famine.
As soon as the hunting grounds are reached and the cold weather begins, the cotton tent is exchanged for the wigwam or “metswap,” which is constructed by removing the snow from a circle ten or twelve feet in diameter, about the circumference of which poles six or eight inches apart are planted sloping inwards so as to form a skeleton cone. This cone is covered with cotton cloths, sheets of birch bark, or dressed deer skin, often in part by all three, and a space is left at the top about two feet in diameter for the escape of the smoke. The removal of a pole leaves the space for a door, which is generally closed with an old flour-sack split open, and bound to sticks at the ends to keep it spread out. The bottom of the tent is banked up with snow on the out-

p. 2615

side, while a thick bed of green boughs is laid over the floor. The fire is built on a few stones in the centre, raised slightly above the ground. Many of the southern Indians have small stoves made out of sheet-iron instead of open fires, and thus avoid the constant smoke which fills the interior, especially when the door is frequently opened.
Before the lakes and streams freeze up, limiting is largely carried on with the gun, the Indians shooting from their canoes beaver, otter, mink and musk-rats, and in the burnt areas, where blueberries are plentiful, bears. The northern Indians at this time are engaged in their principal caribou hunt, killing great numbers by spearing them in the rivers, as they pass on their annual migrations. After the rivers are frozen, most of the fur hunt is made with traps; these are either steel traps or dead-falls of wood. The principal animals taken during the early winter are marten, fox and lynx. During the intense cold of December, January and February, the wild animals move about very little and hunting is unprofitable. During this period the Indians do not hunt unless compelled to do so by hunger. In the month of March, the martens are once more travelling, and continue to constitute the principal hunt until the small streams begin to break up, when attention is given to the beaver and otter and, later on, to the bear. In this manner the winter routine is carried out, with the intervals mostly filled in looking for food. Ptarmigan and Canada grouse are killed during the winter, along with rabbits, which are periodically plentiful, while fish, ducks and geese aid in stocking the larder in the spring and fall.
When the St. Lawrence was first discovered, the Eskimo inhabited the north shore of the gulf as far west as Mingan. They maintained their position here until 1600, when the Indians, having procured firearms from the French, waged unequal war on their old enemies and drove them eastward to the Strait of Belle Isle, where the Eskimo maintained a fortified camp on an island near the western end of the strait until 1630. Since then, a gradual retreat has been made northward, and their present southern limit is Hamilton Inlet, which appears to have long been the headquarters of the southern Eskimo, and is named Eskimo Bay on all the older maps. From here these people are scattered along the northern coast to Hudson Strait. Several large settlements are found at the Moravian Mission stations of Hopedale, Zoar, Nain, Okak and Ramah on the Atlantic coast. There are very few families between Nachvak and George River in Ungava Bay, the coast being high, desolate and unfit to sustain a large population. The Eskimo are more numerous along the west coast of Ungava Bay and Hudson Strait, and are found along the east coast of Hudson Bay, and among the outer islands of that coast, as far south as Great Whale River. Of late years, some three or four families have hunted on the islands in James Bay.
Turner* divides the Eskimo inhabiting the coasts of the Labrador Peninsula into three or four sub-divisions, on account of sub-tribal distinctions maintained among themselves. The names given to these tribes, by Turner,

* Annual Report U.S. Bureau of Ethnology. 1889-90—Ethnology of the Ungava District Hudson Bay Territory, Lucien M. Turner.

[1927lab]



 

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