EXTRACTS FROM “THROUGH TRACKLESS LABRADOR,”
BY H. HESKETH PRICHARD, F.R.G.S. [LONDON,1911].
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interior are probably a diminishing people whose numbers it is difficult to compute, for they live for the most part withdrawn behind their fastnesses of wilderness and stony desert.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 best authority) is called O-pó-o Pfishum, 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 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 journeying, 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. At 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.
It is no exaggeration to say that the Naseaupees depend for their very existence upon the caribou. They rely on the meat for their winter provision; with the sinews they sew; the clothes which protect them against the Arctic cold are fashioned from the pelts, the hair worn inside against the wearer's flesh; their lodges are covered with hides of stags, and the very sparse store of civilised luxury which finds its way to the tents on the lake promontories is largely gained by barter of smoked skins and mocassins made from the same material.
About the season when the caribou may be expected in their long-drawn battalions many thousands strong, all becomes activity in the Indian camps. Up and down the George River the scouts are watching, and when the leading deer make their appearance, he who sees them signals to his fellows, for the first deer must not be turned.
All is quiet until the advance-guard has entered the water and a fair proportion of caribou have crossed ; then the Indians flash out in their canoes and harry the herds, often slaying as many as a thousand. There is no sport in the killing—merely a massacre of helpless swimming creatures. But for days after the battle the hunters sit by their fires and enjoy the greatest of all the luxuries the wilderness provides—the marrow of the deer. Countless multitudes of caribou have been slain upon Indian House Lake; so many indeed, that the place has become historic.
This raiding of the herds, with trapping, partridge and ptarmigan shooting and freshwater fishing, makes up the Indian's hunting for a successful year. But there are few years when one month or another of the twelve does not see these nomadic people face to face with famine. This is more especially the case with the Nascaupees, who pass their lives in the most remote part of the interior, some of them probably never coming into touch with white men.
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 contact. 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. During the winter of 1909-10 a lady of the Moravian Mission, while travelling by komatik southwards from Nain, visited the tent of a Montagnais some distance behind Hopedale. The old Indian received her with much hospitality and apologised for not offering her tea, as his supply was exhausted.
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 slenders 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 Nacaupee camp before they boarded their canoes and voyaged on.
It is believed that the Nascaupees came from the far south, being driven north before the onslaughts of the Iroquois about the date when Canada was first occupied by the French. They fled through the wooded south of Labrador, still pursued by their remorseless enemies, who were not shaken off till they had pursued the flying tribe up to those naked table-lands that occupy so much of the central regions of the country. These are dented with innumerable lakes and marshes, and covered with gigantic boulders ; enormous tracts being entirely timberless and exposed to the cruel forces of the Arctic.
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In those days the country was virgin and deer plentiful. The latter are still so, and it is certain that during many years the Indians must have fared well, for Indian House Lake appears to be the favorite crossing-place in all Labrador for the migrating caribou. Thus they learned to live by the deer ; and so, while the herds held to the old migratory route, all went well on the George. After 1828, when McLean visited them, a veil dropped over their life by the Lake for more than seventy years. No one, save a single Roman Catholic priest, saw them in their home camps ; the tribe lived secure behind their impenetrable ramparts. It can hardly be doubted that they gorged and starved alternately. At any rate, they survived in numbers not too much lessened ; and so they continued to exist until the dreadful winter of 1893, when, as I have said, deer and game failed.
The Nascaupee families were for many years in the habit of coming out to the Atlantic at Davis Bay Inlet to barter at the post of the Hudson's Bay Company which is situated there. But in 1910, for some reason, they made a change ; and a trading party of fifteen, of whom some four or five were Montagnais, came out at Voysey's Bay as usual ; but there, abandoning their canoes, they hired the resident settlers to take them by trap-boat to Nain to transact their business at the Moravian Mission store. Some travellers have dwelt upon the Indian terror of salt water ; but if this fear existed at one time it would now appear to have passed away : the Indians who came to Nain showed no symptoms of any feeling of the kind, as in coming and going from Voysey's Bay they must have covered some sixty miles of sea-water.