EXTRACTS FROM “ THROUGH LABRADOR.”
BY H. HESKETH PRICHARD, F.R,G.S. (London, 1911).
Our little exploring trip from the Atlantic Coast to the George River over an unknown route may be taken as simply a phase in the predatory life, since in order to accomplish it my companions and I adopted the life of nomad hunters, carrying a bare ration and living by the chase, killing caribou and sinking the carcases in the snow-fed lakes upon the great plateau so as to secure a line of retreat.
The conditions we had to face while crossing the great plateau which lies between the Atlantic and the George River were entirely unforeseen by us, and such hardships as we endured on our march with packs across this stony, mosquito-haunted desolation, were largely due to this fact.
No amount of forethought could have revealed what lay ahead of us, as even at Nain local knowledge only extended to the Fraser lake-head behind Nunaingoak Bay.
The present population of Labrador falls naturally into four divisions. The first is the permanent white community, which includes the Moravian Brethren and their families, the Hudson's Bay Company's factors, and the liveyeres (live heres) as the white settlers are called. These all dwell by the salt water.
The second division is made up of the men belonging to the fishing-fleets, who are summer visitors only, coming up through the ice from Newfoundland and the south in the early days of July and leaving in October. The lives of these men are hard and stern, and in them again we find the predatory record. From the day on which they put out from Newfoundland in their schooners to that on which they return, they toil savagely, catching and curing fish, living meanwhile in wooden shanties on the barren wind-swept islands or on the shores of lonely inlets.
With the third division we reach the real children of the coast, the Eskimo tribes. All along the eastern littoral, from Makkovik northwards, they exist, cared for and preserved by the Moravian Brethren, whose wise policy it is to encourage them to live as nearly as possible on the lines that
Nature intended. The Moravians have done a great and heroic work, to which I have tried to bear witness in the latter part of this book.
The Eskimo are altogether predatory, a race of hunters and fishers. Fish in the summer, fur in the winter, and seal, walrus and white whale are their quarry from one year's end to another. In the early springtime also, while ice still holds the land ironbound, they make long journeys by komatik, or dog-sledge, after the herds of Barrenground caribou, the branch of the vast reindeer family which inhabits the barren uplands of North and Central Labrador.
Now we are left with the fourth, the Indians of the interior. Their numbers were, some time ago, computed to be four thousand in all, but the large majority of these hunt and trap in the southern part of the peninsula, massing at various points, and coming out with their furs to the waters of the St. Lawrence. More to the north, in the central country are the lodges of two tribes, the Montagnais and the Nascaupees. Here we find the dominant instinct of Labrador, the predatory instinct, at its fullest development. These tribes owe their food, clothing, and their habitations to the creatures of the chase, and they live a life of hardship and freedom such as was more common in the world of a hundred years ago.
It was in the year 1903 that I paid my first visit to the Labrador peninsula.
I had gone to the country hoping to be able to pick up on the spot some craft in which it would be possible to navigate one of the many rivers whose waters flow into the Atlantic, and thus to make my way into the unexplored interior. In this also I was disappointed. Labrador possesses no boat suitable for river use, as the people never venture beyond the bay heads.
On this first trip I found the report that settlers are unwilling to penetrate into the interior was founded on fact, and I realised that if I were to return to Labrador, as I intended to do, and to get behind the rampart of forest and mountain which had turned me back, I must bring with me both craft for river use and companions from the outside world. I discovered also that beyond the komatik or dog-sledge journeys of fur-hunters and the yearly Eskimo quest which takes place in the spring after the caribou, hardly any effort had ever been made to journey west. Of the great wilderness which represents the interior I was able to gain no information worthy of the name. “ It is a place where men starve,” said settler after settler, and when I questioned them as to the possibility of penetrating into its recesses I was met with a shaking of heads and with prophecies of death and disaster.
In fact, few things have struck me more than the almost universal fear which lay upon the fisher population of this barren coast with regard to the great hinterland upon whose eastern lip they live. It was the one subject upon which their imaginations never failed them. To lose the way, to be
drowned in some rock-staked torrent, to die miserably of starvation—in such glib phrases they voiced their many forebodings.
Luckily in 1903 I gained a certain amount of experience and knowledge which later stood us in good stead. From the day I bade good-bye to the rugged and rocky coast, I looked forward to returning and attempting a second journey into the interior, the prospect of which had taken possession of my mind. It was seven years, however, before time, opportunity and the men came together.
I had often talked over the matter with my friends G. M. and A. C. Gathorne-Hardy, and in 1910 the former found himself able to accompany me.
Having made up our minds to try to draw a line across the blank area which on the maps represents north-eastern Labrador, between the Atlantic and the George, we tentatively settled upon the Moravian station of Nain, which lies between 56 and 57 degrees north latitude, as the best point of departure from the coast.
The shores of the George river in the neighbourhood of Indian House Lake are the main camping-ground of the Nascaupee Indians, while further south the Montagnais have their lodges. Both these tribes of Indians live, as I have already said, on the caribou which they kill as the animals pass in enormous herds on their spring and autumn migrations. The presenoe [sic] of the Indians and the vast herds of deer have not unnaturally attracted the attention of travellers to the George river, and its course, wholly or in part, has from time to time been followed by various expeditions. The first of these, that of Maclean and Erlandson, in the early part of the last century, discovered Indian House Lake—then called Lake Erlandson—and founded a Hudson's Bay Company's post in its vicinity. But no long time passed before this was abandoned, and for many a year, until the journeys of Mrs. Hubbard and Mr. Dillon Wallace, who succeeded in reaching it by a route from Hamilton Inlet, the lake remained unvisited. Thanks to their efforts, the course of the George was both explored and mapped ; but between it and the Atlantic coast lay the large blank area representing the north-eastern region of Labrador.
Before leaving England a study of the map had revealed to us tentative indications of a river named the Fraser, which discharged into the head of a bay some miles north of Nain. The fact, however, that on the same map was depicted a certain “ Barrengrounds River,” which has been proved not to exist, rather made us doubt the knowledge of the cartographer, and we were consequently delighted when Mr. Schmitt informed us that there certainly was a Fraser river, though it as certainly did not discharge into Tikoatokak, as the map stated, but into Nunaingoak Bay.
These Eskimo hunting trips are, as I have said, made in spring with the view of killing deer at a season when the cold will preserve the meat for an indefinite time, and when it is possible to haul out the carcases with ease over the hard snow. The Eskimo hunters never go beyond a certain distance, as their limit is always the limit of half the quantity of dog food that they can carry with them.
THE INDIANS OF THE LABRADOR.
The Indians of the interior are probably a diminishing people whose numbers it is difficult to compute, for they live for the most part withdrawn behind their fastnesses of wilderness and stony desert. According to the most reliable estimates they may be counted as some four thousand in all. The large majority of these hunt and trap in the southern part of the peninsula, coming out with their furs to the waters of the St. Lawrence.
In the central country are the lodges of two tribes—the Montagnais to the south and the Nascaupees further north. They have parcelled out certain districts of the interior into hunting grounds, each of which is regarded as a hereditary belonging, passing from father to son. They call no man master, and they live a life of hardship and freedom such as was more common in the world of a hundred years ago.
On their journeys their camps are set beside the waters of countless unrecorded lakes; for men, women and children follow the nomadic life. The Labrador is, as my readers will before this have recognised, a bitter mother; but all that she is unwilling to give the Indian wrings from her. In August he shoots the young Canada geese, spruce-grouse and ptarmigan. The month, in his picturesque language (on which, as on the whole subject of the Indians, Mr. William Cabot, of Boston, is incomparably the hest authority) is called O-po-o Pushum, that is, the Moon of Flight.
By hunting and fishing the Indian obtains his food from the country over which he travels, and about August he pitches his shifting tepees deep in the interior, where the chief event of the year, the autumn killing of the migrating caribou, takes place.
Both to the Montagnais of the more wooded south and the Nascaupees of the Barren Ground, the caribou forms the main support of life. From time immemorial the Indians have gathered to slay them at this season, while they cross the lakes on their mysterious journeyings, the beginning and the end of which no man really knows. Even the path of the migration changes from year to year, and in some seasons the tribes fail to meet with the deer at all. All these times starvation visits the tents and sits, a grim shape, beside the fires. Such a year was 1893, when many of the people died, only half their number surviving to the spring.
The Montagnais are a far more civilised race, partly on account of local conditions; for Southern Labrador, having a less rigorous climate, possesses
more settlers with whom the Indians come in contract. Further, they long ago passed under the teaching of the Oblate Fathers, and now profess the Roman Catholic faith. The Fathers keep up annual visits with their converts, who seldom move far to the north ; and in fact (particularly of late years) they spend a part of each year encamped not very far from the coast settlements.
There is a pronounced physical difference between the Montagnais and the Nascaupees, the former being much shorter, with somewhat broad faces and blunt features, while the Nascaupees retain the tall slender forms and high features of the typical Red Indian. The tribes intermarry, for I know of at least one intermarriage, though this may be a rare instance.
The head-quarters of the Nascaupees may be said to be on Indian House Lake, the shores of which are, in truth, a battleground over which an unrecorded but terrible struggle is fought out. This battle has endured for generations; the antagonists are Nature on the one side and the little tribe of Nascaupees on the other. The Indians can hope for no aid in their conflict. Shut in upon all sides by the mighty Barrens, help cannot reach them, nor have they sought it. Few people of white race have yet set eyes on Indian House Lake, and the half-dozen expeditions which have passed up and down the River have spent but half-an-hour at the Nascaupee camp before they boarded their canoes and voyaged on.