Project Canterbury

Great Bear Lake

By W. C. Bompas.

From Church Missionary Intelligencer, September, 1867, pages 275-277.


THIS large lake is about 200 miles long by 150 broad. The Hudson's-Bay Company's Fort, known as Fort Norman, is situate at the south-western extremity of the lake, in lat. 65 north, long. 123 west. The lake remains covered with ice from the beginning of November till the end of June, or eight months out of the twelve. The adjoining coast is covered with snow for a nearly similar period viz. from the middle of October to the end of May.

During the short summer many pretty wild flowers, of small kinds, grow on the shores of the lake, especially those of a lilac colour, one like a small azalea on the marshy ground, and one like a "Clarkia" amongst sand; also wild roses, anemones, &c. Many varieties of small ground berries also spring up very quickly during the summer months. They ripen in the fall, and many of them remain all the winter under the snow, so that, on the return of spring, they are found at once ready for eating, for the benefit as well of man as of the ducks and geese, which fly across the lake in great numbers at the time of their spring and autumn migrations.

The temperature of the shores of the lake is cold, even in summer. The thermometer, on some warm days shows summer heat (76º Fahr.) but generally there is a cool air from the lake, at least until the ice has quite disappeared. During the present season (1866) there have not been many successively fine days without clouds and rain intervening, but in other seasons there has been less rain.

The mosquitoes are troublesome, but for a [275/276] shorter time than in other parts of the surrounding district. They continue only from the end of June to the end of July.

During most part of the year fish are found plentifully in the lake, especially in the fall. The chief kinds caught at Fort Norman are herring and trout. The herring are about twice the size of the salt-water herring, as caught in England, but resembling it in form and in the structure of its bones, as well as in taste, which is delicate and good. The herrings are caught with nets, and, in the winter, are speared through a hole in the ice. One man will in this way, at times, take a hundred a day. The trout are large, weighing from 20 to 30 and sometimes even from 60 to 70 lbs. The appearance and taste are much like rich salmon. In the fall they are so fat that lamp-oil is extracted from them. They are taken with cod-hooks and with nets, and as many as twenty to thirty may be caught in the day. In other parts of the lake white fish are caught; and particularly at one point, about three days' journey from the Fort by land, it is said that white fish may be taken in any quantity the whole year round.

In spring a few wild geese are shot, but these do not remain during the summer near the Company's post, but at the further end of the lake. The principal supply of food is deers' meat. Of the migratory rein-ddeer, bands of many thousands traverse the lake in winter. Last winter from 3000 to 4000 deers' tongues were brought to the Fort by the Indians, together with about 12,000 lbs. of dried deers' ribs, and more than an equal quantity of fresh deer meat was brought to the Fort by the Company's servants. But, with all this, it is said that the number of deer seen on the lake last winter was such, that the number killed would not be at all missed from them. The Indians would very commonly kill an animal, and take only its tongue, leaving the carcase to rot.

The hides alone would be valuable in England, could they be transported thither; but this country, at present, seems almost shut out from the rest of the world through the difficulty of transporting its produce.

In summer the deer migrate to the barren grounds on the shore of the Arctic sea, principally, it is supposed, led by their instinct to shun the mosquitoes, which abound in the woods in summer. The Indians follow the deer for their summer hunts until the snow falls, when both deer and Indians return to the neighbourhood of the lake. Besides the deer, the Indians hunt, for the Company, furs of the beaver, marten, fox, &c., for which they are paid by the Company in supplies of clothes, kettles, axes, beads, tobacco, &c., brought from England for the purpose. For meat they are paid only in ammunition.

From the intercourse which the Indians have now for some time had with the whites, and especially from their receiving from them European clothing, the appearance and demeanour of the natives has lost much of its savage character. At the same time, in morals or intelligence, in the arts of habits of civilized life, it does not appear that the Indian has been at all raised or improved by trading. This appears a complete answer to the question whether trade of the Gospel is to be the instrument for raising the barbarian to the ranks of civilized men.

In some things the Indians show considerable skill--in the manufacture of their birch-bark canoes, of their snow-shoes and leather moccasins; in making twine, fishing-nets and rope, and moose-snares therewith; in working with porcupine-quills and beads; in all this the natives are proficient; and the Europeans are content to learn these arts of the natives, or else to employ them to work for them in these matters. On the other hand, it does not clearly appear what the Europeans have taught the Indians, unless it is the habit of smoking and playing cards; so that the balance of obligation would seem to remain in favour of the savage. With respect to moral character, too, though the heathen have not much to boast of, yet it is generally admitted that the preference should be given to them rather than the whites, or, at least, that the natives have learnt more harm than good from us, even though, in this district, the white man has not yet introduced that fatal destroyer of the Indian race--alcohol. In health the Indians have sadly suffered by the arrival of the white man among them, having already become liable to several European diseases. They appear to be gradually losing their native hardihood, partly, perhaps, through the constant use of tobacco; while the use of copper kettles, in a filthy state, from which the tin lining soon disappears, endangers a slow poisoning from verdigris.

By imparting a true and sound religion, the white man might atone for, or at least supply, a remedy for all these evils; but, no, in this he sins against the Indian worst of all.

The Indians here were quite free from idolatry. Their religion owned a good and an evil spirit, together with the immortality of the soul, and retribution after death for good or evil done in this life. How is it now? A bishop, seven or eight priests, several brothers, and perhaps sisters, too, are industriously teaching these 5000 credulous Indians (the whole estimated population of the district) [276/277] the established principles of idolatry and superstition. The whole of this company of priests append to their names the initials O.I.M., or Devotee of the Immaculate Mary; and they are sworn to uphold the glories of the Virgin, and especially the doctrine of her immaculate conception, as invented and promulgated by the present Pope.

Every Indian, therefore, on seeing the priest, receives from him, first, a brass medal, to wear round his neck, with the letter M. on the one side and an image of the Virgin on the other; secondly, a rosary, with, alternately, ten small beads, for as many Ave-Marias, and one large one for a Pater Noster; thirdly, he gets a gaudy-coloured pictures of the Virgin, surrounded by prayers to her; and fourthly, when baptized, he receives a small crucifix. All these idols he is industriously taught to honour and worship, and is forced also to kneel down in the priest's presence, and worship the cross or the Virgin's image. When, besides this, he has been taught that if he visits the Protestant Missionaries he will at once die, and go to the big fire, the poor credulous Indian's religious education is then at last complete.

Do the noble ladies of our land, when they wrap round them their highly-prized fur, consider that they cannot choose but be indebted for this luxurious boon to the half-naked savage roaming the woods, houseless and homeless, in a temperature nearly 100 degrees below the freezing point, wrapt in his single blanket, and kindling in the deep snow his solitary fire, owing his preservation and food (not daily food perhaps) to the one great Father, who regardeth not the rich more than the poor, for they are all the work of his hands?

Oh pray for the souls of these poor Indians, that they may become our brethren in Christ, that so their pitiless state on earth may be forgotten in the joys of the one common heaven above.


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