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In Their Own Voices

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Fred Stenson: The TradeIn his Giller Prize-nominated novel The Trade, Fred Stenson writes about the meeting of John "One Pound One" Rowand, Chief Factor of Fort Edmonton and Methodist Missionary Robert Rundle, upon Rundle's arrival at the Fort in 1840:

Meticulously, the man was slicing meat into tiny pieces on his plate. Once in a long while, he'd insert one between a narrow opening of lips. Many sighs told how weary he was, even of the need to chew. Every time he spoke, a complaint came out. His fatigue. The lightness in his head.
 
"Almost a delirium." 
 
The missionary seemed at pains to convince the Chief Factor and his family of the arduousness of his journey. He had started well from Norway House but had grown sick during the last two days. 
 
"A sort of fainting sickness." 
 
Every word shrank him smaller in the Chief Factor's eyes. What would the Indians make of this?
 
 At the same time, One Pound One forced a smile. He had been instructed, all the way from England, to make the best of this missionary, to make him comfortable and to tolerate the confusions he produced in the trade. But when the missionary started in about the Indians, his intention to go out from the forts to their outlying camps on the prairie, it was too much to bear in silence. 
 
"Reverend, listen. There's much bloodshed on the prairie nowadays. Ambushing on the trails. Even torture for its own sake. The smallpox made it worse. The old ones died and the young ones are full of anger." 
 
One Pound One talked around the sharp point and keen blade of his dagger as he worked to free a cord of fat trapped between his teeth. 
 
"Our trade has suffered greatly with the Americans pushing up from the south. It's all disorderly. Their bad liquor and the rest." 
 
"Who . . .who is it that sheds the blood?" 
 
To ask this, the missionary had drawn his thinly encased spine straight. He meant the white fur traders were somehow to blame.  It was exactly what One Pound One, in his furies of the past week, had expected. Still, he managed to keep his temper. He laughed. 
"Why would a trader kill an Indian, Reverend? If you know nothing about fur trading, maybe you know something about farming. Does a farmer kill his milk cow? Would there be a Hudson's Bay Company here at all if we went around killing our milk cows?
 
He had no idea how deep the ignorance ran inside this little man, so he spread it on thick. It was the Indians who killed the Indians, he said. Blackfoot killing Cree. Stone Indians killing Blackfoot. He had even known Bloods to kill Piegans, though those two spoke the same language and had an alliance when threatened. It had gone on forever, before a single beaver or piece of dried meat was traded to a white man. 
 
"But where does the killing take place?" The missionary had his cup in a death grip.

Eat him alive, One Pound One was thinking. Dead within a month and me held to blame
But patience was his rule. Carefully, artfully, One Pound One described the prairie for his guest. One day the buffalo were on it like ants on a hill. Next day a place of emptiness. The only cover, grass. 
 
"Out there, Reverend, life can leave you between one breath and the next, and you might never see nor hear nor smell your fate." 
 
One Pound One took a rest from his meal to light his clay pipe, one of several in a line by his plate. 
 
"Do you think for all our guns and horses we are masters on the prairie? When my Governor sends me there, I go, but I count myself lucky to return." 
 
The Chief Factor was looking hard into the missionary's eyes. He leaned forward so the table cut him across his stout middle. 
 
"This prairie you are so anxious to visit is a place we hardly know. The Indians have been there for who knows how long and not a footprint. No houses, no grave markers. Nothing to know them by. Do you see why it's of no use to ask me where the killings take place?" 

"You mistake my meaning." 
 
The missionary's face was pink and glistening with sweat. He pushed his plate away. A pile of meat thick in lumpy gravy, a mealy potato, barely touched. 
 
"I refer to the killings near the fort," he said, his voice straining.

"You asked where? The killings near the fort happen near the fort. Why not say what you mean?" 
 
Two of One Pound One's daughters came in to fetch away the dishes. They took the missionary's plate, but One Pound One guarded his with his foreman like a jealous dog.
 
When the women were gone, One Pound One changed his tone, became almost submissive. He admitted that much of the killing did happen on the lines of travel to the fort. When the Indians came to trade, they were breaking old rules of territory. The area around the forts became a place of murder and plunder. No matter how carefully the traders orchestrated the comings and goings of the rival tribes, it happened that way.

 

Citation Sources
Stenson, Fred. The Trade. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2000, pp.250-252.


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