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- Owindia - 1/5 -


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OWINDIA:

_A TRUE TALE OF THE MACKENZIE RIVER INDIANS_,

NORTH-WEST AMERICA.

THE STORY OF OWINDIA.

A pretty open spot on the bank of the Great Mackenzie River was the place where Owindia first saw light. One of the universal pine forests formed the back ground, while low shrubs and willows, with a pleasant, green carpet of mossy grass, were the immediate surroundings of the camp.

The banks of the Mackenzie often rise to a height of sixty feet above the river. This was the case in the spot where Michel the Hunter had pitched his tent, or "lodge" as it is called. A number of other Indians were camped near, led thither by the fish which is so abundant in our Northern rivers, and which proves a seldom failing resource when the moose or reindeer go off their usual track. The woods also skirting the river furnish large supplies of rabbits, which even the Indian children are taught to snare. Beavers too are most numerous in this district, and are excellent food, while their furs are an important article of trade with the Hudson Bay Company; bringing to the poor Indian his much prized luxury of tea or tobacco, a warm blanket or ammunition. As the Spring comes on the women of the camps will be busy making "sirop" from the birch trees, and dressing the skins of moose or deer which their husbands have killed in the chase. There are also the canoes to be made or repaired for use whenever the eight months' fetters of ice shall give way.

Thus we see the Indian camps offer a pleasant spectacle of a contented and busy people; and if they lack the refinement and luxuries of more civilized communities, they have at all events this advantage,--they have never learnt to need them.

Michel, the Indian, was a well-skilled, practised hunter. Given a windy day, a good depth of snow, and one or two moose tracks on its fair surface, and there was not much chance of the noble beast's escape from Michel's swift tread and steady aim. Such is the excitement of moose-hunting; and such the intense acuteness of the moose-deer's sense of smell and hearing, that an Indian hunter will often strip himself of every bit of clothing, and creep stealthily along on his snow-shoes, lest by the slightest sound he should betray his presence, and allow his prey to escape. And Michel was as skilled a trapper as he was hunter; from the plump little musk-rat which he caught by the river brink to the valuable marten, sable, beaver, otter, skunk, &c., &c., he knew the ways and habits of each one; he would set his steel trap with as true an intuition as if he had received notice of the coming of his prey. Many a silver fox had found himself outdone in sharpness and cunning by Michel; many a lynx or wild cat had fought for dear life, and may-be, made _one_ escape from Michel's snares, leaving perhaps one of its paws in token of its fierce struggle, yet had perished after all, being allured in some opposite direction by tempting bait, or irresistible scent laid by the same skilful hand. In bear hunting also Michel was an adept, and he lacked not opportunity for this sport on the banks of the Mackenzie. Many a time would he and, perhaps, one other Indian glide down the river in his swift canoe, and suddenly the keen observant eyes would detect a bear walking stealthily along by the side of the stream! In an instant the two men would exchange signals, paddles would be lifted, and, every movement stilled, the men slowly and 'cannily' would make for shore. In spite of all, however, Bruin has heard them, he slakes his thirst no longer in the swift-running river nor feasts luxuriously on the berries growing by the shore. The woods are close at hand, and with a couple of huge strides he reaches them, and is making with increasing speed for his lair; but Michel is his match for stealth and swiftness, and when one sense fails, another is summoned to his assistance. The eye can no longer see the prey, but the ear can yet detect here and there a broken twig revealing the exact track it has taken. With gun carried low, and treading on in breathless silence and attention, the hunters follow, and soon a shot is heard, succeeded by another, and then a shout which proclaims poor Bruin's death. Alas, that gun which has done such good service for his family, which was purchased by many a month's labour, and carefully chosen with an Indian's observant eye: what misery and crime was it not to effect even in that very spot where now the little group of Indians dwelt happy and peaceful, little dreaming of the deed of violence which would soon drive them panic-stricken from their homes!

A very marked feature in the character of the Indian is jealousy. How far the white man may be answerable, if not for the first impulse of this, at all events for its development, it were perhaps better not to inquire. The schoolboy is often first taught jealousy by the undisguised partiality for his more attractive or highly gifted companion, evinced by his teachers; the Indians are at present in most respects but children, and they are keenly sensitive to the treatment they receive from those, who, in spite of many benefits bestowed, they cannot but look upon as invaders of their soil, and intruders upon some of their prerogatives. In our Mission work we find this passion of jealousy often coming into play. It is most difficult to persuade the parents to trust us with their children, not because they doubt our care of them, but for fear of their children's affections being alienated from their own people. It is sometimes hard for the same reason to get the parents to bring their children to Holy Baptism: "You will give my boy another name, and he will not be 'like mine' any more."

And Michel the Hunter was but an average type of the Indian character; of a fiery, ardent nature, and unschooled affections, he never forgot a wrong done him in early youth by a white man. His sweetheart was taken from him, cruelly, heartlessly, mercilessly, during his absence, without note or sign or warning, while he was working with all energy to make a home for the little black-eyed maiden, who had promised to be his bride. If Michel could but once have seen the betrayer to have given vent to his feelings of scorn, rage, and indignation! To have asked him, as he longed to ask him, if this was his Christian faith, his boasted white man's creed! To have asked if in those thousand miles he had traversed to reach the red man's home, there were no girls suited to his mind, save only the one betrothed to Indian Michel! He would have asked, too, if it were not enough to invade his country, build houses, plant his barley and potatoes, and lay claim to his moose-deer and bear, his furs and peltries, but he must needs touch, with profane hands, his home treasures, and meddle with that which "even an Indian" holds sacred? It might, perchance, have been better for Michel if he could have spoken out and unburdened himself of his deep sense of wrong and injury, which from henceforth lay like a hot iron in his heart. The Italian proverb says, "It is better to swear than to brood;" and whether this be true or not, it is certain that having to swallow his resentment, and endure his agony in silence, embittered Michel's spirit, and made him the jealous, sensitive, taciturn man he afterwards became. And among many other consequences of his youth's tragedy was an unconquerable horror of the white man; not but that, after a time, he would work for a white man, and trade with him, so long as he need not look upon him. He would send even his wife (for Michel took unto him a wife after some years) to Fort Simpson with his furs to trade, rather than trust himself in the neighbourhood of the "Tene Manula" (white man). Once, it was said, that Michel had even so far overcome his repugnance as to pitch his camp in the neighbourhood of Fort Simpson. He was a husband and a father then, and there were a number of Indians encamped in the same locality. It might be hoped that under these circumstances the past would be forgotten, and that the man would bury his resentment, and extend a friendly hand to those, not a few, among the white men who wished him well; but jealousy is the "rage of a man." In the middle of the night Michel roused his wife and little ones, declaring that the white man was coming to do them some mischief. Bearing his canoe upon his head he soon launched it off, and in his mad haste to be away he even left a number of his chattels behind.

Only once more did Michel appear at the Fort, and that on a memorable occasion which neither he nor any who then beheld him will be likely to forget.

It was on a dark, cold night in the winter of 1880, that a dog- sleigh, laden with furs for the Company, appeared at Fort Simpson, and having discharged his load at the fur store, the sleigh-driver, who was none other than Accomba, the wife of Indian Michel, proceeded to the small "Indian house," as it is called, to spend the rest of the night among her own people. She was a pleasing-looking young woman, with bright expressive eyes, and a rather melancholy cast of countenance. She was completely enveloped in a large green blanket, from the folds of which peeped over her shoulder an infant of a few months old, warm and comfortable in its moss-bag. A blessed institution is that of the moss-bag to the Indian infant; and scarcely less so to the mother herself. Yet, indeed, it requires no small amount of patience, skill, and labour before this Northern luxury can be made ready for its tiny occupant. Through a good part of the long winter nights has the mother worked at the fine bead-work which must adorn the whole front of the moss-bag. By a strange intuitive skill she has traced the flowers and leaves and delicate little tendrils, the whole presenting a marvellously artistic appearance, both in form and in well-combined colours. Then must the moss be fetched to completely line the bag, and to form both bed and wrapping for the little one. For miles into the woods will the Indian women hike to pick the soft moss which is only to be met with in certain localities. They will hang it out on bush and shrub to dry for weeks before it is wanted, and then trudge back again to bring it home, in cloths or blankets swung on their often already-burdened shoulders. Then comes the picking and cleaning process, and thawing the now frozen moss before their camp fires. Every leaf and twig must be removed, that nothing may hurt the little baby limbs. And now all is prepared; the sweet downy substance is spread out as pillow for the baby head, and both couch and covering for the rest of the body. Then the bag is laced up tight, making its small tenant as warm and cozy as possible; only the little face appears--the bonnie, saucy Indian baby face, singularly fair for the first few months of life, with the black bead-like eyes, and soft silken hair, thick even in babyhood.

Accomba threw off her blanket, and swinging round her baby, she seated herself on the floor by the side of the roaring fire, on which the friendly Indians heaped billet after billet of fine dry wood, till the whole room was lighted up by the bright and cheerful blaze. It was not long before a number of other Indians entered,--most unceremoniously, as Indians are wont to do, and seated themselves in all parts of the room, for they had heard the sound of sleigh bells, and were at once curious to know the business of the new arrival. A universal hand-shaking took place, for all were friendly, being


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