"What charming solitudes! and what life was there!
Yes, life was there! inexplicable life."
OF the country in which Mr. Bompas was to play such a grand part for so many long years, we are able to give an account, chiefly in his own words. [The substance of this chapter is taken from the Bishop's two volumes, "The Diocese of Mackenzie River" and "Northern Lights on the Bible," by kind permission of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge and Messrs. J. Nisbet and Co.] It is a region of about 1,000,000 square miles--the fourth of all Canada. Two mighty rivers, the Mackenzie and the Yukon, pour their icy waters into the Arctic Ocean and the Behring Sea. Between these the Rocky Mountains lift their hoary peaks as a huge barrier.
"The great Mackenzie River is the longest in the British dominions, being, from its source to its mouth, upwards of 3,000 miles long. It bears the name of Mackenzie only after passing through Great Slave Lake, whence its course to the sea is about 1,200 miles. It averages about a mile in breadth, with a swift current running about three to four miles an hour. From about 150 miles above Great Slave Lake to the sea there is no great obstruction to the navigation, the few rapids being inconsiderable. In the upper part of the stream it is called by the names of the Athabasca and Slave River.
"The banks of the Mackenzie River are mostly high and clothed with pines. The shores are stony, except in reaches where soil is being cut from muddy banks by the encroaching water. Islands occur at intervals in the course of the stream. The chief features of interest along the river occur where the mountains or jutting crags border the channel. There are first the Nahany Mountains, to avoid which the river takes a sudden bend to the north. Next is noticed the bold precipice known as the 'Hill by the River-side,' a sheer cliff which drops into the water on the right bank of the stream. About 150 miles below this is Bear Rock, an imposing headland immediately below Fort Norman. In the same vicinity are seen constant natural fires burning on the river-banks, and fed by underground coal or mineral pitch. These have been on fire for at least a century--in fact, ever since the discovery of the river.
"Just above the Arctic Circle, the Mackenzie River narrows into a gorge or canon, between high perpendicular cliffs, known as the Ramparts. These cliffs are fantastically scarped by Nature into a semblance of towers and turrets, and present a pleasing aspect. The gorge is about ten miles long, and seems to form a stupendous portal into the Arctic world. Immediately beyond these cliffs is situated Fort Good Hope. Below this point the river sometimes expands into the appearance of a lake, and at other times narrows, when hemmed in by rocks, till the single stream reaches Point Separation, about lat. 68°. From thence the river divides into numerous channels, which widely expand as they approach the sea, till at the coast the delta of the river measures probably about fifty miles across."
The principal lakes in the far North are three--namely, Athabasca, Great Slave and Great Bear Lakes. Athabasca Lake may be about 150 miles long; Great Slave Lake is counted about 300 miles long; Great Bear Lake is only about 200 miles in length, but as it will measure about the same in width, it probably contains more water than Great Slave Lake.
"In attempting a succinct view of the natural features of the diocese at large, it may be stated generally that its northern border, consisting of the country within about 100 miles of the Arctic coast, is known as the 'Barren Lands,' from its being quite denuded of trees by the blasts of the frozen ocean. To the south of this belt the whole country is generally clothed with pines, except so far as it is intersected by lakes and small marshes. The lakes are of every dimension, and so numerous that in scanning the country from a height you will sometimes deem the surface to he more water than land. The soil among the pine-trees is generally covered with a yellowish moss, which forms the natural food of the reindeer, and a more succulent moss generally occupies the marshes, though these and the small lakes are often fringed with grass, which, near the trading-posts, is mown for the cattle.
"One noticeable feature of the country is the burnt wood. From various causes fires are apt to run through the forests in the drought of summer, and these reduce the pine-trees to bare and blackened poles. In a few years after such a fire an undergrowth springs up, and soon young saplings begin to replace the timber trees that have been destroyed. The charred poles, however, of the consumed forest remain standing for many years. Such a burning of the forests will often change the course of the migratory reindeer, and perhaps leave a country hungry that has been rich in provisions. The spectacle of a blazing forest, when one pine-tree after another flares up in sparkling splendour, is a sight of startling magnificence."
Crossing the Rocky Mountains westward, we come upon the Yukon River. It is a noble stream of over 2,000 miles in length, flowing into the Behring Sea about lat. 62° 30' N. Only a portion of it flows through British territory, about 639 miles, the remainder being in the United States territory of Alaska. It flows through the entire length of the Diocese of Yukon, and has many fine feeders, the most important of which are the Stewart, the Felly, with its branch the Macmillan, and the Teslin. Though generally known as the Yukon for its entire length, this river for some distance from its source is called by various names, such as the Lewes, the Sixty Mile, and many others. The principal lakes through which this stream flows are Lake Bennett, twenty-five miles long, Marsh Lake, nineteen miles long, and Lake Laberge, thirty-one miles in length. Besides these there are splendid lakes and rivers over the entire country, filled with many fine fish.
The climate in the Yukon is unequalled anywhere. The winters are clear, cold, and crisp. The thermometer falls very low at times, but so dry and still is the air that the cold is felt far less than in many places of a higher temperature where the air is moisture-laden. The summers are warm and pleasant. The snowfall is not heavy, except on the mountains, while the rainfall in summer is light.
In considering the inhabitants of the far North, we can only touch the hem of the question, on which so much has been written. For those who wish to make an exhaustive study of the natives of this land the admirable article, "The Canadian Denes," by the Rev. A. G. Morice, in the Annual Archaeological Report of 1905, will be most helpful. Though Mr. Morice differs from Bishop Bompas in certain points, we will in this short account follow the Bishop's views as set forth in his writings. The natives of the far North may be divided into three classes: the Tenni, Tukudh, and Eskimos.
The Tenni, who live towards the south, are known by different names, such as the Chipewyans, Yellow Knives, Dog Ribs, Big River Indians, Slave Indians, Nahany or Mountain Indians, and others. They are of a sallow complexion, of the Mongolian type. They have coarse features, thick lips, and prominent cheek-bones. They live in conical tents or lodges, with a frame of poles, and covered with dressed deer or moose skin. "In spring they make canoes of birch bark for water travel and chase. In the fall of the year they make birchwood snow-shoes for winter voyaging. Their tents are floored with a litter of pine-branches, and warmed with a pine log fire in the centre. Their dress is of moose or deer skin trimmed more or less with beads or dyed porcupine quills, except so far as they may be able to purchase clothing of European manufacture.
"Many of the Indians have erected wooden log-houses, after the fashion of the whites, which they are quite competent to do, but they seldom inhabit these long. Their fondness for roving, or an increasing scarcity of wild animals round their fixed abode, soon drives them again to their tent. Moreover, if a death occurs in their house the Indians have a superstitious dread of remaining there.
"The whole of the Tenni race seem to be of a sickly habit, and are rather dwindling in numbers. They do not seem to be much addicted to ardent spirits, nor are these now supplied to them; but they have an inveterate propensity to gamble. Though almost wholly free from crimes of violence, and not much inclined to thieve, yet heathen habits of impurity cling, alas! still too closely to them, and they exhibit the usual Indian deficiency in a want of stability and firmness of character. This Indian race seems to have been free from idolatry before the arrival of Europeans among them, and they had some knowledge of a good and evil spirit, and of rewards and punishments after death."
The Tukudh Indians live farther to the north, and extend westward beyond the Rocky Mountains. They, too, are known by various names, such as the River, Lake, Valley, and Mountain Indians. They have sharper features, are "more lively and intelligent, as well as more cordial and affectionate, than the Tenni. Their eyes are inclined to be small and pointed, rather as the Chinese. From this circumstance, probably, they obtained from the French the sobriquet of the Loucheux, or squint-eyed, for they are not really affected with squint.
"The Tukudh make their tents in the shape of a beehive, with bent poles for the frame, and the tent covering is formed of deer-skins with the hair on, and turned on the inside, the skins being softened by scraping. Their camps thus become nearly as warm as a log-house."
Many customs of these northern Indians are very interesting. "The women's dress mostly consists of a long leather coat trimmed with cloth or beads, and sometimes a cloth hood for the head. The women's faces until recently were often slightly tattooed with dark lines on the chin, formed by drawing a thread loaded with gunpowder or colouring matter under the skin. The men were formerly addicted to painting their faces with vermilion, but this has fallen into disuse among the tribes in contact with Europeans.
"The Indians are fond of rings, earrings, bracelets, and necklaces, and they formerly pierced the cartilage of the nose for the insertion of a shell ornament. Belts are tastefully manufactured by the Indian women of porcupine quill-work. This or bead-work, and the making of shoes, form their chief employment. The old women employ themselves in twisting grass, or roots, or sinew into twine for sewing or fishing-nets. The men and boys are often busied in shaping bows, arrows, snow-shoes, sledges, or other articles.
"The Indians were formerly accustomed, instead of burying their dead, to place them on high scaffolds above the ground; but this habit was probably owing to the ground being for many months in the year frozen too hard to dig it. The raising on scaffolds was also a greater preservative than burying underground, from the ravages of animals of prey. Since mingling with the whites, however, the Indians conform to European habits of burial. . . .
"None of the Indians of Mackenzie Biver seem to have been acquainted with the use of plants or herbs for medicines. In their medicine-making they used only the charms of drumming and singing. The Esquimaux, with the drumming and singing, combine an address to an invisible spirit supposed to have power over the disease.
"In sickness the Indians are very pitiful. They soon lose heart, and seem to die more from despondency than disease. Their need is often not so much medicine as good nourishment and nursing; but this is hard to obtain. Food is often scarce for those in health to seek it, and for a sick Indian it may be hard to find a friend in need. The constant removals are trying to the weak and infirm, and in times of distress those who cannot follow the band are left behind to perish. Indians have been known to devour their own children in cases of absolute starvation; but such cases are rare, and may, perhaps, be attributed to a temporary mania. Those who are believed to have perpetrated such an act are feared and shunned.
"Chocolate is a favourite beverage with the sick, where it can be obtained, and is looked upon as a medicine. The Indians universally give it the name of 'ox-blood,' because it was mistaken by them for the blood of the musk-ox when first they saw it used by the whites. Rice, which is called 'white barley,' is another luxury coveted by the sick. Elour is known by the Tukudh Indians as 'ashes from the end of heaven.' Tobacco is 'warmth and comfort,' and the pipe the 'comforting stone.'
"All articles in use by the whites are named by the Indians without hesitation, according to their employment. A table is 'what you eat on'; a chair, 'what you sit on'; a pen, 'what you write with.' A watch is called 'the sun's heart.' A minister is with them 'the speaker,' and the church 'the speaking-house.' So a lion is called 'the hairy beast,' and the camel 'the one with the big back.' A bat is called 'the leather-wing,' because such is its appearance. Thus an Indian is never lost for a name. A steam-boat, before it was seen by the Indians, used to be called 'the boat that flies by fire'; but since they have seen it, 'the fire-boat' seems to be name enough.
"The Esquimaux differ much in appearance and habits from the Indians. In complexion they are as fair and fresh-coloured as ourselves, and do not differ much in feature from northern Europeans, but their eyes are rather smaller, and their faces and hands somewhat chubby. . . .
"In stature the Esquimaux of the mouth of the Mackenzie River are, many of them, large and tall, and of muscular frame; but the women are mostly below the average height of Europeans. The dress of men and women is nearly alike, but the coats differently shaped. The material is white deerskin, tastefully decorated with beads and trimmed with fur. The men wear a circular tonsure on the head. They have also the inconvenient custom of piercing each cheek with a hole, to admit the insertion of a large bead, often surrounded by a white disc or tablet of ivory nearly 2 inches in diameter. ...
"The Esquimaux, both men and women, are immoderately fond of tobacco, which they smoke differently from other people. The bowl of their pipe is less than half the size of a thimble, and two or three whiffs are all they use on each occasion. This smoke, however, they swallow, which produces a transient intoxication or even unconsciousness, under the influence of which they occasionally fall from their seat. . . .
"The skill of the Esquimaux workmanship is considerable, especially in carving needle-cases and other small ornaments out of the ivory of the walrus tusks. Their spears, bows and arrows, and other implements, are all neatly contrived. Their canoes are well framed and covered with seal-skin. These have no natural tendency to keep upright, but the reverse; yet the owner will ride them over the ocean waves as on a prancing steed. When his waterproof coat is secured over the mouth of the canoe, he will turn a somersault, canoe and all, from side to side in the water. They have a singular way of throwing a spear from a hand-rest at the musk-rat, so as not to overbalance the canoe, the management of which probably resembles somewhat &at of a bicycle.
"Their provisions consist mostly of the flesh and Qu of whales, walrus, and seal. These they hunt, not in their canoes, but embarked ten or a dozen together in a larger boat covered with walrus hide. In their common travels this large boat is managed by the women, who convey the tents, bedding, and utensils therein, while the men paddle about and hunt in their light canoes. The Esquimaux wives thus become superior oarswomen.
"The dwellings of the Esquimaux vary at different seasons of the year. In the fall and early winter they dwell in houses partly excavated and lined with logs covered with poles, and over these with earth or snow. They are thus much warmer than they would be quite above ground, and it is not their habit to use fire in their dwellings. If fire is required for cooking they make one outside. If fuel is at hand they prefer to cook their food; but if fuel is wanting or cooking inconvenient, they eat their meat or fish raw without trouble. In fact, meat or fish frozen can be eaten raw without so much distaste, the freezing having an effect on the tissues somewhat similar to the cooking. The taste of whale blubber is not unlike raw bacon, and it cannot easily be cooked, as it would liquefy too soon. Seal-oil is the favourite luxury of the Esquimaux, and it is indeed sweet, but somewhat mawkish and sickly.
"When the winter is advanced, the Esquimaux leave their excavated dwellings, and build houses or even villages of frozen snow. These are constructed with such ease and speed that, as Milton's imagined palace, they seem to rise like an exhalation from the earth. The blocks of frozen snow are cut out of the mass with large knives, and built into solid masonry, which freezes together as the work proceeds, without the aid of mortar. Being arched over, a dome-shaped house is formed, with a piece of clear ice for a window, and a hole, through which you creep on all fours, for a door or entrance. One-half of the interior is raised about 2 feet, and strewn with deerskins as beds and sofas, in which the long nights are passed in sleep, for which an Esquimaux seems to have an insatiable capability and relish.
"In summer the Esquimaux camp in deer-skin tents. They then visit the trading establishment of the Hudson Bay Company at Peel River, about 100 miles from the sea-coast, and there they barter their furs for tobacco, kettles, and axes. They do not purchase European clothing. In the autumn they often hunt for reindeer or fish for herring, which they store for winter use; and they seem to prefer these when somewhat rotten.
"The character of the Esquimaux is, unhappily, still rather treacherous and murderous. They are great thieves and soon angry. They are, however, capable of attachment and gratitude, and are some of them quite free from ill-will. They are willing to accept instruction in the Christian religion, though they have not yet learned to obey its dictates. Though in some respects disgusting in their domestic habits, yet in their manners to a stranger they are courteous and even ceremonious."
Concerning the Indian languages the Rev. John Hawksley says:
"They are radically different. In the Diocese of Mackenzie River the natives of the northern part, in the Peel River district, speak a totally different language to those of the southern, and the same condition exists in the Diocese of Yukon.
"The Bishop had sufficient knowledge of these various languages spoken by the different tribes in his vast field of work to enable him to communicate with them in their own tongue.
"The Indians do not give up "the use of their language when they become Christianized; on the contrary, they cling tenaciously to it. Quite a number speak a broken kind of English, but only when compelled to do so."
Speaking further of them, he says:
"They nearly all wear European dress, and like it. None of the Christian Indians retain their old dress, though they sometimes wear a modification of it when out in the woods hunting, because of its suitability for that purpose.
"Their capacity for civilization is very limited; none become business men. Some do take up voluntary lay-readers' work, and four of the Tukudh tribe have been ordained deacons.
"The Indians of the North do not seem to be dying off. There are the average number of births, and in some cases large families. The children do not seem healthy, and many die in infancy."