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The Nascopies

The Indians inhabiting the interior of Ungava, or, it may be said with equal propriety, the interior of Labrador, are a tribe of the Cree nation designated Nascopies, and numbering about one hundred men able to bear arms. Their language, a dialect of the Cree or Cristeneau, exhibits a considerable mixture of Sauteux words, with a few peculiar to themselves. The Nascopies have the same religious belief as their kindred tribes in every other part of the continent. They believe in the existence of a Supreme Being, the Ruler of the universe, and the Author of all good. They believe, also, in the existence of a bad spirit, the author of all evil. Each is believed to be served by a number of subordinate spirits. Sacrifices are offered to each; to the good, by way of supplication and gratitude; to the evil, by way of conciliation and deprecation. Their local genii are also supposed to be possessed of the power of doing good, or inflicting evil, and are likewise propitiated by sacrifices; the "men of medicine" are viewed in nearly the same light. A few of them who visit the king's posts, have been baptized, and taught to mutter something they call prayers, and on this account are esteemed good Christians by their tutors; while every action of their lives proves them to be as much Pagans as ever; at least, to those who look for some fruit of faith, and who may be ignorant of the miraculous efficacy of holy water, and can form no idea of its operation on the soul, they appear so.

Of all the Indians I have seen, the Nascopies seem most averse to locomotion; many of them grow up to man's estate without once visiting a trading post. Previously to the establishment of this post they were wont to assemble at a certain rendezvous in the interior, and deliver their furs to some elderly man of the party, who proceeded with them to the King's posts, or Esquimaux Bay, and traded them for such articles as they required. So little intercourse have this people had with the whites, that they may be still considered as unsophisticated "children of nature," and possessed, of course, of all the virtues ascribed to such; yet I must say, that my acquaintance with them disclosed nothing that impressed me with a higher opinion of them than of my own race, corrupted as they are by the arts of civilized life.

The Nascopie freely indulges all the grosser passions of his nature; he has no term in his language to express the sensation of shame; the feeling and the word are alike unknown. Many circumstances might be adduced in proof of this, but I have no desire to disgust the reader. Previously to our arrival here, there was not such an article of domestic utility known among them as a spoon; the unclean hand performed every office. They take their meals sitting in a circle round a kettle, and commence operations by skimming off the fat with their hands, and lapping it up like dogs; then every one helps himself to the solids, cutting, gnawing, and tearing until the whole is devoured, or until repletion precludes further exertions, when, like the gorged beast of prey, they lie down to sleep.

The Nascopies practice polygamy more from motives of convenience than any other—the more wives, the more slaves. The poor creatures, in fact, are in a state of relentless slavery; every species of drudgery devolves upon them. When they remove from camp to camp in winter, the women set out first, dragging sledges loaded with their effects, and such of the children as are incapable of walking; meantime the men remain in the abandoned encampment smoking their pipes, until they suppose the women are sufficiently far advanced on the route to reach the new encampment ere they overtake them.

Arrived at the spot, the women clear the ground of snow, erect the tents, and collect fuel; and when their arrangements are completed, their lords step in to enjoy themselves. The sole occupation of the men is hunting, and, in winter, fishing. They do not even carry home the game; that duty also falls to the lot of the female, unless when the family has been starving for some time, when the men condescend to carry home enough for immediate use.

The horrid practice still obtains among the Nascopies of destroying their parents and relatives, when old age incapacitates them for further exertion. I must, however, do them the justice to say, that the parent himself expresses a wish to depart, otherwise the unnatural deed would probably never be committed; for they in general treat their old people with much care and tenderness. The son or nearest relative performs the office of executioner, the self-devoted victim being disposed of by strangulation.1 When any one dies in winter, the body is placed on a scaffold till summer, when it is interred.

The Nascopies depend principally on the rein-deer for subsistence,—a dependence which the erratic habits of these animals render extremely precarious. Should they happen to miss the deer on their passage through the country in autumn, they experience the most grievous inconvenience, and often privations, the succeeding winter; as they must then draw their living from the lakes, with unremitting toil,—boring the ice, which is sometimes from eight to nine feet thick, for the purpose of setting their hooks, and perhaps not taking a single fish after a day's hard work. Nevertheless, they must still continue their exertions till they succeed, shifting their hooks from one part of the lake to another, until every spot is searched. They understand the art of setting nets under the ice perfectly. Towards the latter end of December, however, the fish gain the deep water, and remain still to the latter end of March. Not a fish enters the net during this period.

Partridges are very numerous in certain localities, but cannot be trusted to as a means of living, as every part of the country affords them food, and when much annoyed at one place they move off to another.

It will be seen from the foregoing remarks, that the Nascopies, like all other erratic tribes, are subject to the vicissitudes their mode of life necessarily involves; at one time wallowing in abundance, at another dying of want. Fortunately for themselves, they are at present the most independent of the whites of any other Indians on this continent, the Esquimaux excepted. The few fur-bearing animals their barren country affords are so highly prized, that the least exertion enables them to procure their very limited wants; and the skin of the rein-deer affords them the most comfortable clothing they could possess. They have a particular art, too, of dressing this skin, so as to render it as soft and pliable as chamois, in which state it becomes a valuable article of trade.

As trading posts, however, are now established on their lands, I doubt not but artificial wants will, in time, be created, that may become as indispensable to their comfort as their present real wants. All the arts of the trader are exercised to produce such a result, and those arts never fail of ultimate success. Even during the last two years of my management, the demand for certain articles of European manufacture had greatly increased.

The winter dress of the Nascopie consists of a jacket of deer-skin, close all round, worn with the hair next the skin, and an over-coat of the same material reaching to his knees, the hair outside. This coat overlaps in front, and is secured by a belt, from which depends his knife and smoking-bag. A pair of leather breeches, and leggings, or stockings of cloth, protect his legs, though but imperfectly, from the cold; his hands, however, are well defended by a pair of gauntlets that reach his elbows; and on his head he wears a cap richly ornamented with bear's and eagle's claws. His long thick hair, however, renders the head-gear an article of superfluity, but it is the fashion. The dress of the women consists of a square piece of dressed deer-skin, girt round them by a cloth or worsted belt, and fastened over their shoulders by leather straps; a jacket of leather, and cloth leggings. I have also observed some of them wearing a garment in imitation of a gown. The leather dresses, both of men and women, are generally painted; and often display more taste than one would be disposed to give them credit for.

The traveling equipage of the Nascopies consists of a small leather tent, a deer-skin robe with the hair on, a leather bag with some down in it, and a kettle. When he lies down he divests himself of his upper garment, which he spreads under him; then, thrusting his limbs into the down bag, and rolling himself up in his robe, he draws his knees up close to his chin; and thus defended, the severest cold does not affect him.

Considering the manner in which their women are treated, it can scarcely be supposed that their courtships are much influenced by sentiments of love; in fact, the tender passion seems unknown to the savage breast. When a young man attains a certain age, and considers himself able to provide for a wife if the term may be so debased—he acquaints his parents with his wish, and gives himself no further concern about the matter, until they have concluded the matrimonial negotiations with the parents of their, not his intended, whose sentiments are never consulted on the occasion. The youth then proceeds to his father-in-law's tent, and remains there for a twelvemonth; at the end of this period he may remain longer or depart, and he is considered ever after as an independent member of the community, subject to no control. Marriages are allowed between near relatives; cousins are considered as brothers and sisters, and are addressed by the same terms. It is not considered improper to marry two sisters, either in succession or both at the same time.

The Nascopies have certain customs in hunting peculiar to themselves. If a wounded animal escape, even a short distance, ere he drops, he becomes the property of the person who first reaches him, and not of the person who shot him; or if the animal be mortally wounded and do not fall immediately, and another Indian fire and bring him down, the last shot gains the prize.

In their intercourse with us the Nascopies evince a very different disposition from the other branches of the Cree family, being selfish and inhospitable in the extreme; exacting rigid payment for the smallest portion of food. Yet I do not know that we have any right to blame a practice in them, which they have undoubtedly learned from us. What do they obtain from us without payment? Nothing:—not a shot of powder,—not a ball,—not a flint. But whatever may be said of their conduct towards the whites, no people can exercise the laws of hospitality with greater generosity, or show less selfishness, towards each other, than the Nascopies. The only part of an animal the huntsman retains for himself is the head; every other part is given up for the common benefit. Fish, flesh, and fowl are distributed in the same liberal and impartial manner; and he who contributes most seems as contented with his share, however small it may be, as if he had had no share in procuring it. In fact, a community of goods seems almost established among them; the few articles they purchase from us shift from hand to hand, and seldom remain more than two or three days in the hands of the original purchaser.

The Nascopies, surrounded by kindred tribes, are strangers to the calamities of war, and are consequently a peaceful, harmless people; yet they cherish the unprovoked enmity of their race towards the poor Esquimaux, whom they never fail to attack, when an opportunity offers of doing so with impunity. Our presence, however, has had the effect of establishing a more friendly intercourse between them; and to the fact that [pg 130] many of the Esquimaux have of late acquired fire-arms, and are not to be attacked without some risk, may be ascribed, in no small degree, the present forbearance of their enemies.

Footnote 1:
"Quidam parentes et propinquos, priusquam annis et macie conficiantur, velut hostias cædunt, eorumque visceribus epulantur." The Nascopies do not feast on the "viscera" of their victims, nor do I believe the inhabitants of India, or of any other country under heaven, ever did. Yet the coincidence is singular, in other respects, at such a distance of time and place.

Notes of a Twenty-Five Years Service in the Hudson's Bay Territory, 1849


Notes on Hudson Bay Territory


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