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The Story of Manitoba
Chapter II The Aborigines


Nature's invitation to occupy the land which she had spent ages in preparing was extended to the white man as well as the red man, to the agriculturist as well as the hunter. What race heard it and responded first? We do not know Some scientists believe that man lived on the shores of Lake Agassiz in the early post-glacial times, but we have no positive evidence of the fact. Many generations of men, and perhaps many races, may have lived on the fertile plains of Manitoba and in her wide forests and have vanished, leaving no trace of their tenancy. The earth retains few marks of its occupation by roving races, for they build 110 permanent structures of stone or brick and seldom have a written language.

The first people to leave evidence of their occupation of Manitoba were the Mound-Builders. Archaeologists believe that the Mound-Builders were related to the Toltecs, who once inhabited the southern part of the North American continent, and that they were driven northward by some more powerful and warlike nation. In their migrations they seem to have followed the river valleys, for these valleys offered the easiest routes for travel when it was necessary to move forward and the most fertile soil when peace allowed a period of settled occupation. The routes which the Mound-Builders followed in their migrations are well marked by the peculiar structures from which their name is derived. The race came up the valley of the Mississippi j one division went up the Missouri; another followed the Ohio; and a third, following the original line of march to the head waters of the Mississippi, easily found its way to the Rainy River and the Red River of the North. The Mound-Builders are supposed to have reached the country now called Manitoba about the close of the twelfth century and to have dwelt in it nearly four hundred years.

The mounds of earth thrown up by these immigrants from the south and the relics which they contain are practically the only sources of information about their builders. The Mound-Builders must have been a settled people, for no roving race could have constructed works requiring so great an expenditure of time and labor: and if they were a settled people, they must have lived mainly by agriculture. So it is more than probable that their food consisted of the wild fruits and roots indigenous to the country together with Indian corn, pumpkins, and such of the fruits cultivated by more southern races as would grow in a northern climate. We have no positive information about the materials and style of their dwellings, although some students think they must have known how to make brick. Nor do wre know anything about their dress.

If they lived wholly by agriculture their clothing was probably made from vegetable fibre of some kind, like that of the races far to the south. If they lived partly on the proceeds of the hunt, as they would be likely to do in a country where wild animals were so abundant, they would be quite sure to supplement their fibre clothing with garments made of dressed skins.

No race would be likely to live a settled agricultural life for several generations without making a little progress in scientific knowledge and in the simpler arts, and the inference that the Mound-Builders did so is strengthened by the character of the relics found in their mounds. These earth structures show that the builders knew the principles underlying certain geometrical forms, that they knew the advantages of spiral roads for reaching the summit of an elevation, that they were skilful in planning fortifications, that they were clever in making stone and bone implements, and that they knew how to mine and manufacture copper.

No race could have constructed such extensive works as the Mound-Builders did in some parts of the territory occupied by them unless they had a fairly complete system of government. If their mounds were constructed by free labor, they must have had a form of government which was essentially democratic; but if they were built by forced or slave labor, the government must have' been oligarchic. In the latter ease we may be quite sure that the priests were the real rulers of the people, as they were in so many of the southern Indian nations. It is probable that their religion was similar to that of the related tribes living far to the south, and that they were nature-worshipers, regarding the sun as their chief deity. It is probable, too, that many curious superstitions about the snake and other living creatures were interwoven with their more rational religious tenets.

The mounds thrown up by these interesting people in the course of their leisurely migration northward differ greatly in form, magnitude, and purpose. The largest and most elaborate are found in Ohio. Some were evidently fortifications; others were probably inclosures of sacred places; while some may have served both purposes, as is often the case in the great works of other countries east and west. Some of the mounds seem to have been places of worship, others were used as observation stations. Many were certainly places of sepulchre, and some served as memorials of great events. Those built in the form of great serpents, birds, and quadrupeds probably belong to the last class.

The mounds found in and near Manitoba are much simpler in design and smaller in size than those which occur in Ohio and other parts of the United States. This difference justifies the inference that the Mound-Builders occupied Manitoba for a shorter period and developed a less advanced social organization in it than they did in the more southern regions traversed by them. Most of the mounds found north of the international boundary are conical in shape;, more or less flattened at the summit; and nearly all of them are placed at commanding positions along the rivers. There is one at the outlet of Rainy River there is a large one at the junction of the Big American with that stream; and two others are found on its banks further down. There is at least one of these mounds on an island in the "Winippeg River, and there are two or three along the lower course of the Red River. Several are found in the Souris district, some of which may have been fortifications.

The mounds which have been excavated contain human skeletons, and anthropologists find in the form of the skulls evidence of the relationship of the Mound-Builders to the old Mexican races. The mounds also contain calcined bones of wild animals, charred wood, pieces of bird) bark, which probably served as wrappings for corpses, small quantities of various ochres, which were used in making decorative pigments, and small pieces of ore. Various kinds of manufactured articles are also found such as stone scrapers or chisels, mallets for crushing grain, axes, and hammers. There are bone and horn implements, copper needles and knives, and stone tubes bearing the marks of teeth, which are. supposed to have been used by conjurers in sucking from sick persons the evil spirits which caused the disease. The mounds also contain ornaments of bone, horn, stone, shell, and copper, and considerable broken pottery, some of which is ornamented with rather pretty designs.

"We do not know yet just when or why the Mound-Builders disappeared from the country. War may have destroyed them, as it did the Hurons in eastern Canada; smallpox or some other pestilence may have carried them off, as it did so many of the Indian races which followed them; famine may have overtaken them; or some combination of these evils may have obliterated the whole race suddenly and completely. It is a strange fact that the tribes of Indians, who lived in the country when the whites reached it, had no traditions in regard to the mound-building race which had preceded them and simply spoke of it as "the very ancient people,''

When the whites came to the country which is now called Manitoba, they found most of it occupied by three races of Indians. The most important of these was a branch of the great Algonquin family represented by so many tribes in the eastern part of Canada. The French called these Manitoba Algonquins Kallistineaux, Knistineaux, or Cristineaux, and from the last we get the abbreviated word Crees, which is now applied to them. They were divided into three tribes, occupying distinct but adjoining districts; and while they spoke similar dialects and had many customs and ideas in common, 'they differed in character and modes of life. Perhaps the characteristics in which they differed were due to differences in the character of the country in which they dwelt.

The Plain Crees occupied the prairies between the Assiniboine and Saskatchewan Rivers. They were the most restless and warlike of the Cree tribes, and the early traders found them a shrewd people, somewhat given to cheating and pilfering. They were buffalo hunters, roaming over the plains in pursuit of the herds from which they obtained their livelihood, and naturally congregated in bands. Their dwellings were skin tepees, which were often decorated with pictures possessing some artistic features. They were clad in the dressed skins of buffalo and elk, and their garments were sometimes ornamented prettily.' In warm weather the men wore little clothing, and the dress of the women, which was suspended from the^shoulders and reached below the knees, left the arms bare. Young girls wore a much shorter skirt. The men shaved their heads, except a small spot on the crown where the long scalp-lock was allowed to grow; but the women allowed their hair to grow, gathering it into long plaits or forming it into a roll on each side of the head. The Crees were keen-witted enough to realize the great advantage of horses in hunting the buffalo and secured ponies from more southern tribes as soon as possible after the latter had obtained them from the Spaniards. For a like reason they were always eager to possess firearms.

The Wood Crees occupied the district north of the Saskatchewan. It is a land of lakes and streams, and much of it is timbered; and so the Wood Crees became trappers and fishers as well as hunters. As they were obliged to move often in search of food, their dwellings were rudely fashioned, and they seldom gathered in villages. The garments of men and women were much alike, and the men allowed their hair to grow, dressing it very much as the women did. The Wood Crees were a quiet, inoffensive race, in marked contrast to their relatives living south of the Saskatchewan, and yet they have shown a great aversion to a settled, agricultural life.

The Swampy Crees, called Muskegons by the French, lived in the region of woods, lakes, rivers, and swamps, which extends from the low eastern prairie plain to Hudson Bay. The character of the country made them fishers as well as hunters. Their dwellings were wigwams of birch-bark, and they traveled in the birch-bark canoe. Their clothing was made from the skins of the beaver and the marten. For the Swampy Indians life must have been a more serious thing than it was for their cousins of the plains, and that may account for their peaceable disposition. One writer has said, "The Swampies have a very distinct character They are gentle, averse to bloodshed, easy to influence, and less superstitious than their neighbors and brother Algonquins." Many of the early explorers speak of their faithfulness in the service of their employers, and they have responded to the teachings of missionaries more readily than most Indian tribes have done.

Each Cree band seems to have been governed by its own chiefs and to have been independent of other bands in most matters, and the ties binding the various clans together in matters which concerned the whole tribe were loose and weak. They never seem to have united in such lasting unions as were formed among some of the other Indian nations. Theirs chiefs were elected, either because they had proved themselves men of ability or because they were related to older chiefs who had shown themselves good leaders. It was common to select two chiefs for the tribe or clan, one to lead the people in times of peace and the other to lead them in war. Assistant chiefs were often chosen to aid the leaders, and the advice of the leading men of the tribe, and especially the old, was frequently sought in tribal councils when some important business was to be decided.

The religious beliefs of the Crees and their observances were very similar to those of other Indian tribes living in the west. They believed in the existence of a Great Spirit, supreme in all the universe, in a secondary deity who created man and the things needed for his subsistence, and 111 many good and evil spirits of limited powers. They believed in a future state and the immortality of the soul. They also seem to have had vague traditions of a great flood which overwhelmed much of the earth in some long-past age.

In the district surrounding Lake Superior and extending west to the prairies another Algonquin race lived, called the Chippewas or Ojibways (sometimes spelled Ojihiways). The name Ojibway means a pucker, such as appears at the toe of some Indian moccasins, and so the Ojibways were described as the Indians of the puckered moccasin. The French called them Saulteaux. There is a tradition among the Ojibways that their race was made by a special creation and placed in the neighborhood of the Great Lakes from which Indian Eden it spread east, west, and south. It seems probable that the Ojibways, who were living in the region adjacent to the prairies when the whites reached it, had not arrived much in advance of them. The other Indian tribes called them by a name which meant new-comers.

The country of the Ojibways was very similar to that of the Swampy Crees, and in their modes of life and dress the two races were much alike. The Ojibways were preeminently the Indians of the birch-bark canoe. They were a well-made people and were probably more intelligent than their near neighbors on the west. They seem to have retained more of the legendary lore of the Indian race than other tribes living so far north. They lived in small scattered bands, each being independent in the management of its affairs so far as they concerned its immediate district; but they had the right to send their chiefs as delegates to a general council when some matter arose which concerned the whole nation Each band or sept had its own name, which belonged to the clan and not to the individuals in it, and each clan had its own totem or symbol Generally this totem was some quadruped, reptile, or bird, such as the bear, turtle, or eagle; and one of their rules forbade intermarriage between a man and a woman having the same totem.

The Ojibways divided the year into four seasons—seegwun, the sap season; neebin. the season of abundance; tuhgwuhgin, the fading season, and peboon, the freezing season. They also divided the year into months or "moons.1' each being named from some marked feature of the time of the year. The day was divided into three parts—morning, midday, and afternoon; and the night was divided into three parts—evening, midnight, and dawn.

There was no close sacerdotal class among the Ojibways. Whoever was well versed in tribal lore and could speak fluently might become a conjurer and conduct the religious services of the tribe. There were three classes of coil jurors or medicine-men—the medas, wabenos, and jessak kids. There were no set times for religious services, but they were held when most convenient, although some were held in connection with certain important events in the history of families. Thus feasts, in which there was more or less of the element of a religious rite, were held when a child was named, when the boy killed his first wild animal or bird, and when offerings were made to the dead. Even in the dog feasts a portion of the dog's meat was offered to the spirits and was supposed to he specially acceptable to them inasmuch as the dog possessed many remarkable virtues. Tobacco smoke was also supposed to be acceptable to the spirits, as it floated upward to them during the smoking feasts or feasts of the calumet. Other religious observances of the Ojibways were dances, vocal and instrumental music. In their dances the men and women never mingled, nor did they join in the singing of their religious hymns. The Ojibways paid more reverence to the rattlesnake than did other tribes living near them. This was evidently a survival of serpent-worship which forms so large an element in the religion of nearly all savage races and is especially prominent in the religions of more southern Indian tribes.

The Assiniboines lived in the district south of the Assiniboine river. They were a branch of the Sioux race and had been members of the Dakota confederacy which occupied the country adjacent to the Missouri. The members of this confederacy called the allied tribes Dakotas, that is "our brothers," but they called the Assiniboines Ilohe, which means rebels, for the Assiniboines had withdrawn from the federation and moved north about the end of the sixteenth century. At one time they occupied the country adjoining Lake Superior; but they were driven out of it by the Ojibways, and this may account for the long-standing enmity of the two races. The Ojibways called the Dakota tribes Nadowessi, a name expressive of contempt, for it means rattlesnake. The early voyageurs added the plural ending to the word and then abbreviated it to Sioux, a name greatly disliked by the people to whom it was given. The Assiniboines seem to have used heated stones in cooking, and this led the Ojibways to give them a name which became Assiniboines in the mouths of the French explorers. It is derived from assin, stone, and Bwan, Sioux. The English explorers, coming down from the north, heard of the Assiniboines through the Crees, whose name for their southern neighbors was derived from their words assiniy, stone, and Pwat, Sioux; and so the English obtained the name Assinipoets.

The Assiniboines were tall, well-made people, darker than the other Indian races of the country, and many of the women were considered handsome. The Assiniboines were buffalo-hunters and lived in villages comprising from one hundred to two hundred lodges. Their tepees and their dress were similar to those of the Plain Crees, and intermarriages between the two races were common. This fact did not prevent wars between them, for the Assiniboines were the most warlike of all the Indians of Manitoba, preferring death to capture, and treating their own captives with the greatest cruelty. Like the Crees, they became possessors of ponies as soon as possible, but unlike their neighbors, they continued to use bows in hunting the buffalo long after they might have obtained guns. They preferred the bow because it is a silent weapon.

The religious concepts of the Assiniboines were similar to those of the Indian tribes about them. They believed in a creator and governor of the world and in minor deities or spirits whom they called wakons. They seem to have regarded washing as a kind of religious rite, but in other respects their religious ceremonies resembled those of their neighbors. Their tribal government and the position of their chiefs in the community were like those of other Indian'races. As the Assiniboines belonged to an entirely dilferent family of Indian nations,-their language bore little resemblance to that of the Crees and Chippewas.

In all the Indian tribes of Manitoba, women were regarded as lower in the social scale than men, and they seem to have thought themselves honored in serving their husbands. The men were hunters and warriors, the women menials on whom all the hard work fell. They dressed, preserved, and cooked the meat, prepared the skins and made the clothing, set up and took down the teepee, carried the burdens, and cared for the children. Their more laborious life" caused the women to lose their upright carriage and good looks much earlier than the men, but through all their lives they retained their love of trinkets and bright colors. All the Indian races inhabiting Manitoba' were polygamous, and a man might have as many wives as he could support; but this fact generally limited the number to one. or two, although Ilearne tells us that Matonahee had eight. The husband usually obtained his wife from her parents by purchase, and she had little choice in the matter: yet the wife generally rendered her husband faithful, if not loving, service. Husbands could divorce their wives by simply sending them away.

All the Indian people were fond of their children, and while the casual observer might suppose that the little ones were allowed to grow up without any training, such was not the case. Boys were carefully instructed in all the arts of woodcraft and war, they were taught the tribal traditions, and drilled in their communal duties and religious observances when they reached man's estate. The girls were taught to do woman's work and to perform such social and religious ceremonies as they were permitted to share. Both boys and girls were taught the rides of good behavior, for the Indians had, and still have, an elaborate and rigid code of laws governing social intercourse. An Indian child received but one name, usually selected by the father. A boy's name was suggested by some animal, a feature of the earth or sky, or some event which happened about the time of his birth or the time of naming him; a girl was named after some bird, animal, or flower, and many of the names obtained m this way were very poetical.

The funeral customs of the different tribes varied a good deal. Some practised cremation; others wrapped the bodies of their dead in coverings of different kinds and placed them on platforms out of the reach of wild animals. Sometimes corpses were placed on the limbs of trees nr in hollow trunks. Interment was practised by some tribes after the coming of the whites, and the grave was often protected by a coping of wood. Most of the Indians left offerings of food, tobacco, firewood, or weapons beside the burial places of their dead for the use of the departed spirits on their way to the happy hunting-grounds; and bits of colored cloth and metal, bells, and other articles were often suspended on trees or poles around the grave to scare away malevolent spirits.

The early explorers and traders found a few bands of Esquimaux living in the district around the Churchill River and adjacent to Hudson Bay. Archbishop Tache tells that the name is derived from that given to this northern tribe by the Crees, Ayaskimew, which is made up of two roots—aski. raw flesh, and mowew, he eats. Thus an Esquiino is he who eats raw flesh. These people live in small bands and seem to have no tribal government beyond that which the father exercises in his family. The family is the unit and is free to unite with other families in any matter or hold itself aloof, as the father may decide. The bands move frequently in search of food and usually fix their camps near some body of water. They often leave caches of food at the camping grounds visited most frequently, so as to have a small supply there in case of an emergency. These provisions usually consist of the meat of deer or seals and the flesh of salmon or other fish, packed in skin bags. It is not always preserved in good condition, but that does not trouble the Esquimaux. Their summer lodges are made of skins of the deer, and their clothing is made from the fur of seals and the skins of deer and other animals. They used stone kettles and lamps, wooden trays or bowls, and scoops, spoons, and other implements made of horn or bone, when Europeans first came to the country, and they had some copper knives and hatchets. They soon obtained iron and steel implements from the whites.

These Esquimaux were a very gentle, quiet race, and as they lived in small bands which had no cohesion in themselves and no union with each other, they often suffered from the raids of the fiercer Indian tribes living around them. Hearne and other travelers have told us of occasions on which the Esquimaux were wantonly robbed and murdered by Indians when no provocation had been offered.

It is difficult to ascertain the number of Indians living in Manitoba when the white race first reached it, but the large estimates given by the early traders are probably greatly in excess of the real numbers. Only scattered remnants of the original tribes remain, and these have intermingled more or less so that it is not easy to distinguish tribe from tribe. Most of these Indians are now on government reserves, and efforts are made to teach them some of the arts of civilized life. Recent estimates place the numbers as follows: Crees, about 3,000; Assiniboines, about 1,250; and Ojibways, about 4,100.


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