Popular Science Monthly/Volume 32/March 1888/The Indians of British Columbia

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A PICTURE of the Indians whose life we intend to describe in the following pages does not bear the well-known features of the renowned hunters and daring warriors whom we are acquainted with from "Leather-Stocking" and other Indian stories. They are no noble figures roaming on horseback over the endless prairie; they are a quiet people of fishermen, whose appearance is so different from that of our Indians that at first sight one feels astonished and disappointed. They are of short stature, light complexion, with prominent cheeks, straight black hair, and sparkling black eyes. Their type reminds one so much of that of the races of Eastern Asia that in British Columbia they are generally considered the descendants of shipwrecked Japanese navigators.

The stranger who first visits Victoria, the capital of British Columbia, is struck by the great number of Indians who live in the city. They wear clothing of European style. The men work on the wharves and steamers, sell fish and skins, or are occupied in different trades, particularly as carpenters. The women wash and work for the whites, or stroll idly about the streets. The suburbs of Victoria are almost exclusively inhabited by the Indians. There they live in miserable, filthy shanties and sheds, or even in thin canvas tents. The city has about thirteen thousand inhabitants, and of these about two thousand are Indians who stay there over summer. Besides these, about three thousand Chinese, many Sandwich-Islanders, a few negroes, and a white population coming from all parts of Europe and America, live in the city. The internationality of the population and its easy-going ways give it a peculiar character.

But this is not the place to study the customs of the Indian. We must visit him in his village, where he lives undisturbed by the contact with Europeans, according to his ancient customs.

When the rainy season of fall approaches, most of the Indians who worked in Victoria over summer return to their villages, either in their own canoes or on board of a small steamer plying between the city and the settlements all along the coast as far as the boundary of Alaska. When in the fall of 1886 1 visited the Indian villages of that district to study the languages and customs of the natives, I joined a young Indian, who after a few years' absence was returning with his wife and children to his country. Soon the houses of Victoria disappeared from our view, and at the small miners' town of Nanaimo we had reached the terminus of European civilization. Dense woods, uninterrupted by fields or houses, cover the mountains and descend to the shore. No lighthouse warns the ship of the dangerous rocks and shoals which obstruct the narrow straits, and it seems almost incredible that it is only a few hours since we have left the busy town. The European population of the coast consists of a few traders, salmon-fishers, and missionaries, who lead a lonesome life among the Indians. Four days we had sailed through the narrow waters and approached the home of my Indian friend. He was unable to restrain his impatience any longer. By singing and dancing he expressed his joy at the return to his countrymen. At last the village appeared, which had been hidden from sight by a long island. It consisted of a row of well-built wooden houses, painted with gay figures, standing on a small opening. Canoes dug out of a single tree lay on the beach. As soon as the villagers heard the steam-whistle, they manned some boats and set out to meet the vessel. The luggage was thrown into the boats, and we sat down on top of it; the Indians paddled toward the land, while the steamer slowly disappeared from view. My friend had informed one of the chiefs of the village that I wished to stay with him. He came up to me in all his dignity and invited me to follow him into his house. Here I was at my leisure to look about among the people among whom I was so suddenly thrown.

The only garment of the natives consists of a cotton shirt, and a woolen blanket thrown over the shoulders like a toga; the women wear petticoats besides. Their hair is arranged in two braids, while the men tie a gay kerchief or a piece of skin round their heads to keep back the hair. Wondering, they surrounded the stranger, curious to know what might have induced him to visit their lonely village.

The house forms a square, the side of which is about fifty feet long. It is built of heavy planks which are tied to beams. The roof is also built of planks, and rests on a long timber which forms the ridge of the house. This timber rests on two pairs of uprights, one standing in the front and forming the door, the other one standing in the rear of the house. They are beautifully carved, and represent the crest of the house-owner. Around the walls an elevated platform, about four feet wide, is built, on which there are small sheds serving for bedrooms.

Each corner of the house is occupied by one family, their partition being divided from the rest by screens made of mats. An enormous carved chair, large enough for a whole family, stands in each of these compartments facing a blazing wood-fire. The smoke fills the whole house, and escapes only slowly through a small opening in the roof and through the chinks of the planks.

The arrival of the stranger was an interesting topic of conversation, and groups of men and women were seen in eager discussion in our house and on the street which runs in front of the houses. My friend tried to explain to them that I did not intend to interfere with their feasts and usages, and that I did not want anything but to stay some time in their village and to trade with them. His endeavors, however, were unsuccessful, and the chief deemed it necessary to arrange a general council in which the presence of the stranger was to be discussed. In the evening I was told that on the next day a great feast was to be held and that my presence was requested. Of course I felt highly honored and was glad to have so soon an occasion to observe the peculiar feasts and customs of the natives.

Early in the morning all families were astir. The young men went out in their canoes at daybreak and returned about nine o'clock with heavy logs in tow, which were drawn upon the beach, split, and carried into the house in which the feast was to be held. Here men and women were busily engaged in preparations. The compartments were torn down, the frames and screens being taken away. The house was swept, and wood for a large fire piled up in the center of the building. Dried halibut, which is kept in large boxes, and fish-oil, which is preserved in tubes made of dried kelp, were taken from the store-rooms and served in enormous carved wooden dishes which represent the crest animal of the host's family. When everything was prepared, the men assembled. Women are not permitted to partake in the feasts except the eldest daughters of chiefs—if the eldest child happens to be a girl. Their faces are painted red and black; they are wrapped up in their best blankets; their hair is carefully arranged and frequently covered with eagle-down. A few old men carry carved sticks, and all sit on mats which are spread at the foot of the platform which encircles the floor of the house. The host and a young man who was hired for the purpose looked after the fire. When all were assembled, one man took up the drum, a large box made of bent wood, which is painted with the host's crest, and began beating the time with his fist. The old men joined him with their dancing-sticks, the rest of the men clapping their hands. Then the singing-master, who instructs daily the old and young men, started the tune, and the chorus joined him after a few bars. When the text of the song is long, he calls out the text of every verse, while the time-beating goes on and the chorus repeats the words, singing. The first song was a war-song:

"Do not fight with daggers; kill your enemies with your arrows. Thus the chief said, and his heart was glad when he had killed his enemy. He was as strong as two thunder-birds when he went into the battle."

An ancient law demands that four songs be sung before the meal can be served and the debate can be opened. The young man dished out the meal, and while all were eating one of the chiefs rose, wrapped his blanket around him so as to leave one arm free, and began his speech. Of course, I did not understand him, but I saw from his expressive gestures that he spoke of me. After his long speech was finished, an interpreter was sent to me and translated the contents of the speech into Chinook.

I have to remark here that the Canadian Government tries to suppress the feasts of the natives, and that the Indian agent had occasionally threatened this tribe to send a man-of-war if they would not stop their feasts. As I was unknown to any of them, and even my friend had made my acquaintance only vary recently, I was suspected to have come there in order to report to the Government, and to send a man-of-war. Therefore the chief spoke thus:

"We want to know whether you have come to stop our dances and feasts, as the missionaries and agents who live among our neighbors try to do. We do not want to have anybody here who will interfere with our customs. The agent has told us that he would send a man-of-war if we should continue to do as our grandfathers and great-grandfathers have done. But we do not mind his words. Is this the white man's land? The agent says this is the Queen's land; but no! it is mine. Where was the Queen when God sent down Qanikila?[1] Where was the Queen when Qanikila gave this land to my great-grandfather and told him, 'This will be thine'? My father owned this land and was a mighty chief; now it is mine. And when your man-of-war comes, let him destroy our houses. Do you see those woods? Do you see those trees? We shall cut them down and build new houses, and live as our fathers did. We will dance when our laws command us to dance, we will feast when our hearts desire to feast. Do we ask the white man, 'Do as the Indian does'? No, we do not. Why, then, will you ask us, 'Do as the white man does'? It is a strict law that bids us to dance. It is a strict law that bids us to distribute our property among our friends and neighbors. It is a good law. Let the white man observe his law; we shall observe ours. And now, if you are come to forbid us to dance, begone; if not, you will be welcome to us."

I was expected to answer this speech, and did so through the interpreter. I assured them of my friendly intentions, and said that I would not send a man-of-war—well I might promise that!—that I had no intention to interfere with their ways and customs; and, in order to show that I was their friend, I invited the whole tribe to a feast on the next night.

The effect of this speech was very great. It seemed that all of a sudden the former distrust had vanished. Every one was eager to assure me that the Indians' hearts were glad when they heard my words, and that they hoped to see me long in their village. Soon after this the feast was at an end; the men carried the rest of their meals home to their wives and children, who returned the empty dishes the same night; and now every house was still and quiet, the inhabitants having gone to sleep.

The next morning they took up their regular occupations. Fire-wood was carried into the houses and the fires were lighted. Men and women got water from the near brook, and were busy washing their blankets and petticoats; the old men sat lazily on the wood platforms which are erected on the sea-side of the street, and looked at the fishermen who were out at sea in their canoes, talked over the events of the day, or passed the time in gambling. The platform is the favorite place of the Indian. There he sits for hours and hours, wrapped up in his blanket, and leaning on the heavy board which forms its balustrade. Clumsy steps cut out of large trees lead from the street and the platforms down to the beach, where fish are drying, where heavy logs of drift-wood are piled up for fire-wood, and where large cedars, which have been cut down with great difficulty and towed to the village, are burned out and dug out to become in the hands of the skillful native a swift and strong boat. Children are playing on the beach. They paddle about in small canoes and practice all kinds of sport.

About noon the hunters had returned, and the natives prepared for the feast which was to take place in the evening. They were determined to celebrate it by a great dance. In the flattering way which is characteristic of these tribes, one of the chiefs said to me: "When a great chief comes here, we do not always honor him by a dance, but as you are good and a mighty chief, and as you come from a far-away country, we wish to make your heart glad. Go into your house and await us!" The house in which I lived was prepared in the same way as described before, and I hired a young man to cook the meal for the sixty men whom I was expecting. When the meal was ready, the dancers had finished their preparations. The wife of my host took her place near the fire, and kept fish-oil ready for pouring it into the fire, which then blazes up and lightens the whole house. Now the dancers had assembled at the opposite end of the village. With sticks and fists they beat the time on the walls of the houses, and slowly approached, singing the dancing-song. Now the door of the house was torn open and the dancers appeared, one of the chiefs—a man of over sixty years—first. He was clothed in an old uniform and carried the British flag. The next day I learned that he had received both from the Superintendent of the Indians of British Columbia, with an appointment as sheriff, and the particular instruction to watch that no dances were held! How well he performed this duty was seen on the evening when he came into our house, the chief dancer, flourishing the flag and dancing in grotesque movements. The walls of the house shook under the heavy fists and sticks of the dancers who beat the time outside and now entered one by one. The two dancers next to enter had each a blanket tied round his loins, the upper part of the body being naked. A carved wooden snake with two heads—the fabulous Sisiutl—was tied to the waist, and about their necks they wore rings of hemlock-branches. In the right hand they carried two sticks ornamented with gay ribbons; in the left they flourished bows and arrows. Their faces were painted black, and their hair was kept back by a tie of seal-skins with a bunch of red feathers attached to it. These were followed by two men wrapped up in white blankets and wearing stuffed mink-skins as head-dresses. The next dancer carried a rattle in his hands, which he hid under his dancing-apron. Then the rest of the dancers rushed intc the room and formed a wide circle around the two men carrying the snake-carvings. Now began a wild song in which the chorus occasionally joined. As soon as the chorus fell in, the minks and the man carrying the rattle rushed into the center of the circle and jumped about in the wildest fashion. The women and children who stood by became greatly excited, and it looked very droll to see the little ones, who could hardly stand on their legs, dancing and imitating the motions of the performers. After the first round was finished, a new cry was heard outside, the door opened, and in came twelve boys, all naked, their little bodies whitened with lime, and all kinds of figures painted on them in red and black. Their hair was rubbed with a mixture of oil and lime, and looked like the bristles of a brush. The leader of the boys was an elderly man, who remained standing in the entrance of the house with uplifted hands, and directing the boys by rhythmical motions of his arms and his body. The figures of these dances were really artistic and symmetrical. At the end of the performance all left the house in grand procession and made a terrible noise before the entrance of every house of the village. If the owner's wife made the fire blaze up by pouring oil into it, this was an invitation for them to come in and perform a short dance. Where all remained dim and dark they passed by.

This dance had been invented when the daughter of the chief of a neighboring tribe married the young chief of this village. When the approach of the bride was announced, the men connected three boats by heavy planks, thus forming an extensive platform. They went on this raft to meet the strangers and welcomed them dancing this dance on the water. The boats of the young woman were loaded with her dower: boxes filled with blankets, valuable copper plates, and the gyiserstal—the latter being a heavy board, cut so as to represent a human jaw-bone. The front is set with sea-otter teeth. This object is given to the bridegroom, who thus obtains the right to command his wife to talk or to be silent.

The marriage ceremonies of these tribes are very complicated. The young man must buy his bride from his future father-in-law before he gets his consent to marry her. But even then the formalities he has to go through are not at an end. He must come into the house where the girl lives and sit down next to the door. Then the girl's parents know what he comes for. They scold him and abuse him as much as they can for two days. On the third day the mother gives him a mat to sit on, and on the fourth he gets a little food. Then he is invited to the fire, and the parents give their consent to the marriage. The chief of the gens to which the young man belongs now comes in great state and brings the price, which was agreed upon beforehand, to the parents, who in their turn on the next day pay a certain price, through the chief of their gens, to the parents of the young man. Then both parties give a great feast. At last the friends of the young man go to fetch the bride. They cover the road leading from their house to the beach with gay mats and embark in their boats. After a few hours they land before the house of the girl, though it may stand close to theirs, and lay mats from the beach to the house-door. Then the chief of the girl's gens dresses himself up with all his dancing-ornaments, takes her by the hand, and leads her to the boat, where she is received by the chief of the bridegroom's gens. Then they return to their house, and the marriage ceremonies are at an end.

The efforts of the missionaries to Christianize these Indians have in most places been very unsuccessful. The history of the mission is quite interesting, and has been the subject of some publications in our journals and newspapers. But, as in all these only one side of the Indian question in British Columbia has been presented, a few remarks on the state of affairs, which is not without influence upon our Alaska Indians, may not be out of place.

The first to take up the work energetically was Mr. Duncan, who established himself at Fort Simpson among the Tsimpshian tribe. His influence upon the Indians has been enormous.

These results have been brought about by the peculiar method Mr. Duncan applied in Christianizing these Indians. He did not deem it unworthy to trade for his pupils, and to teach them to work, instead of instructing them in the Christian faith alone. Thus he improved their condition, and was remarkably successful. In order to protect his adherents from the influence of the heathenish Indians and of the worse influences of the white traders, he emigrated with them from Fort Simpson and founded the settlement of Mestlakahtla, or more properly Meghtlaqatla (gh being pronounced like the German eh, and g being a very guttural k). He succeeded in keeping the destructive whisky-trade from his followers.

His success encouraged the missionaries of other churches. The Catholic Church had tried to convert and civilize the tribes on both coasts of Vancouver Island and the mainland opposite. After a long series of years, they abandoned the task among the so-called Kwakiutl tribes in despair. Their success among the tribes on the mainland opposite Victoria was far greater, and on the west coast of Vancouver Island they are making rapid progress at the present time.

When the Catholic Church left the Kwakiutl tribes, the Church of England took up the work, but with little or no success; while near Victoria they and the Methodists were successful. From experience derived from a life with the Indians of all these tribes, it may safely be said that the only successful way of civilizing these tribes—and this refers to the Alaska tribes as well as to those of British Columbia—is to teach them to work. Then they will gradually abandon their fearful cannibal ceremonies and Shamanistic dances.

The traditions of these natives make them very ready to accept the Christian faith, as their principal legend tells of the Son of God, who descended from heaven and traveled all over the world, doing miracles everywhere. But I must state here that even the sincerest Christians among the Indians, who observe Sunday and preach in their churches, are not thoroughly civilized; that is, their way of thinking is not ours, but still under the influence of their ancient customs. The best proof of this is the fact that any one returning to a heathenish tribe will again adopt their mode of life, a very few perhaps excepted. This is not meant as a reproach to the missionaries or Indians. It is founded in psychologic laws, and we only consider it a mistake to believe that an acculturation to our civilized ways is a thorough civilization. This is true in regard to Duncan's Indians and all others.

Though remarkable progress has been made and the condition of many tribes has greatly improved, a general dissatisfaction exists among the Indians of British Columbia, which led to disturbances among those of Metlakahtla. There are two reasons for this state of affairs, which is of some importance, considering that 38,500 Indians live in British Columbia. During the last few years, reservations were allotted to each tribe and the rest of the land declared government land. Now, the Indians of the coast are not migratory, but claim to be autochthonous in their several districts. All tribes, from Puget Sound to Alaska, believe that the Son of God gave every gens a piece of land which they consider their personal property. In confining the tribes to reservations, the single man feels that his property has been taken from him without equivalent compensation. Treaties have not been made according to these facts with every gens, as these ethnological facts are unknown to many of the officers, and therefore the Indians feel as though they were treated unjustly.

The second reason for the discontent among the Indians is a law that was passed, some time ago, forbidding the celebrations of festivals. The so-called potlatch of all these tribes hinders the single families from accumulating wealth. It is the great desire of every chief and even of every man to collect a large amount of property, and then to give a great potlatch, a feast in which all is distributed among his friends, and, if possible, among the neighboring tribes. These feasts are so closely connected with the religious ideas of the natives, and regulate their mode of life to such an extent, that the Christian tribes near Victoria have not given them up. Every present received at a potlatch has to be returned at another potlatch, and a man who would not give his feast in due time would be considered as not paying his debts. Therefore the law is not a good one, and can not be enforced without causing general discontent. Besides, the Government is unable to enforce it. The settlements are so numerous, and the Indian agencies so large, that there is nobody to prevent the Indians doing whatsoever they like.

The efforts of the Canadian Government to introduce agriculture are likewise not very successful. It is true that in some districts the extent of farming-land is considerable. But the Indian does not want to till the soil. The sea yields fish and seals; the woods furnish roots, berries, and deer; and the articles of European manufacture which he wants are either obtained by barter or by a few weeks of work in the canneries, saw-mills, hop-fields, or on ships. The industries to which the Indians of that region take readily are carpentry, canning salmon, etc.; and the introduction of proper methods of fishing and canning fish, of lumbering, and of trades connected with it, would be more probable to lead to satisfactory results than that of agriculture.

  1. Qanikila is the son of the deity in the traditions of this people.