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Nature's Law
Spiritual Life, Governance, Culture, Traditions, Resources, Context and Background
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Report on Valentin Végreville’s Monograph of the Cree

Visual representation of nature's laws


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e-2) Translation: Medicine and Shamanism, medicine men, powers

With time and practice, a medicine man acquires such power that it is no longer necessary for him to bother with all kinds of rituals. Without singing, without preparation, without even worrying about it, distances vanish, (?) nature speaks to him, the most marvelous things happen. Here are two factual incidents which were related to me by eyewitnesses33. They took place at Île--la-Crosse, a few years before I was posted there as a missionary. It was the evenings of those beautiful days which we so rarely enjoy in this glacial climate. Several workers were taking a rest from their day, sitting on a bench in front of the outside door of the fort, enjoying evening’s coolness. The sun was near the horizon, its burning rays were losing their ardor, and only a few clouds dotted the blue sky. A light breeze kept the flies away and ruffled the surface of the bay in front of the fort which was hidden behind a point which was known as la Pointe des Gens des Terres34.

An old man who had spent his life as a medicine man and who had considerable renown throughout the region because of this, was sitting on a bench near the outside door of the fort. Sitting at his side were a few of the servants of the company known as the "Hudson Bay". All were mesmerized by his tales of yesteryear which the old man, Small, - as he was known - was spinning expressively in his lovely native tongue. He had just finished smoking a first pipe, had emptied the bowl and was preparing to refill it with a mixture of tobacco mixed with the bark of the red alder. He was holding a twist of tobacco and his knife, and was continuing his story, when suddenly he paused and bent his head in deep thought. All of the employees noticed this. "Is there something bothering you grandfather?", one of them said. "Yes, there is, my grandchildren. You see that crow on the roof of the barn. In its language, caa-caa-caa, it is certainly telling me a lie. It tells me that before I have finished cutting my tobacco and filling my pipe, a freight boat will be sighted at the Point. This can't be so. A York boat! What boat? The Athabasca boats came down three weeks ago, we won't see them for another month. And the boats from here won't make it back here for much longer, and what would a single boat be doing going North or coming here? How will it cross the portages when it takes the men from at least two or three York boats to drag just one barge across the shoals. It is nNothing but lies, that a York boat would arrive today!"

As they listened, all had their eyes on the point on the lake a mile away. In the interim, Small had finished cutting up his tobacco and was readying to stuff his pipe when there arose a thundering cry: "A Yorkboat! A Yorkboat with the sail set!" Against all expectations, a lone Yorkboat was arriving from Red River on an expedition heading North. It was sailing at a fast clip with a good wind, and no one could have passed it beforehand. Even if someone had been posted at the nearest look-out spot and had sighted it fifteen minutes earlier, it would have been impossible to make it back to the post in less than a half an hour. No one else had spoken to the old man to tell him this. How could he have known so exactly? Everyone was amazed and all were convinced it was the crow who had brought him the news.

f) p. 148, Subject, Ceremonies, Dances: Mata’i’uwin, Danse des échanges

I have included this extraordinary passage because of its great similarity to the potlatch. I have never read of this type of dance on the Canadian Plains and did not find any references to it in Jenness or Helm35. This is an example of the originality of the observations noted in this text.

Si la danse dont nous venous de parler est regardée par les Ne’iyawak comme un acte de religion, le mata’i’tuwin peut difficilement échapper  l’accusation d’escroquerie.

On annonce par son nom la danse qui doit avoir lieu; aussitôt, chacun de s’y rendre. Les invitants ont soin de se vtir de ce qu’il y a de plus usé dans leur wigwam; s’il y a une couverture toute trouée, un habit qui tombe en lambeaux, c’est cela qu’ils prendront. Tous les autres y viennent avec leur meilleurs habits ou au moins avec ce qu’ils se trouvent avoir sur le corps au moment de l’invitation.

On laisse libre un espace suffisant pour quelques danseurs. Tout le monde s’assied autour, les tambours et autres instruments d’usage se préparent  accompagner le chant et  battre la mesure. Le premier invitant laisse tomber sa couverture sur le sol; il se lve, vise dans la société celui qui a la couverture plus neuve et l’invite  danser. Celui-ci alors se débarasse de sa couverture et s’avance. Le chant commence, les tambours et cymbales retentissent. Les deux danseurs s’évertuent l’un en face de l’autre, tâchant de se surpasser mutuellement par le chant et les gestes. Au bout de quelques minutes, l’invitant cesse de danser, félicite son compagnon sur sa bonne mine : « Tu as dansé  la perfection, lui dit-il, tiens ! je te donne ceci» et lui donne sa couverture toute usée. L’invité emporte cette guenille, et l’autre  sa place apporte la couverture neuve qui lui a été donné en échange.

Un second se présente avec un habit en lambeaux; il invite celui qui a l’habit le plus fin et le plus neuf, danse avec lui et les habits d’échangent.

Les femmes dansent aussi avec les personnes de leur sexe, de la mme manire et aux mmes conditions.

Il arrive aussi, mais plus rarement, qu’on échange des choses d’un plus grand prix comme des fusils, des chevaux.

Personne n’est trouvé blâmable dans ce jeu. D’un côté est le droit et de l’autre le devoir. C’est la coutume, seulement celui qui s’est fait dévaliser s’en revient aussi pénaud que son adversaire est fier.

f) Translation: Ceremonies, Dances: Mata’i’uwin (Trade dance)

If the dance of which we have just spoken is considered by the Ne’iyawak to be a religious act, it is difficult to see the mata’i’tuwin as anything other than swindle.36

An announcement is made by saying the name of the dance, everyone must go at once. The hosts have taken care to put on the most worn out clothes to be found in their wigwam; if there is a blanket full of holes, an outfit which is falling apart in shreds, that is what they will work. All the others arrive wearing their best clothing or at least what they happen to be wearing at the time of the invitation.

A space is left clear for a few dancers. Everyone sits around the circle, the drums and the other instruments are readied to accompany the singing and to beat the rhythm. Le first host lets his blanket fall to the ground, he rises and chooses the one in the assembly who has the newest blanket and invites him to dance. The latter also lets go of his blanket and moves forward. The singing starts, the drums and the cymbals strike out. Face to face, the two dancers do their ultimate to outdo one another, trying to surpass each other by their singing or their gestures. After a few minutes, the host stops dancing, congratulates his partner on his demeanor, saying "You have danced perfectly, here, I give you this", and hands him his old worn-out blanket. The guest takes the rag, and the other takes the new blanket which has been given to him in exchange.

A second person presents himself wearing ripped garments; he invites the one who is wearing the finest and newest of clothing, dances with him and the clothing are exchanged.

The women also dance with other women in the same way and with the same conditions.

It also happens, but more rarely so, that items of great value, such as guns or horses, are exchanged in this way.

No one is to be reproached in this game. One is in the right to initiate it, just as it is the other’s duty to attend. It is the custom, the one who has been taken returns as downcast as his adversary is proud.

g) p. 72, Subject: Traditional tribal administration, leadership selection, ceremonies and rituals

Chaque camp ou tribu a un chef qui est nommé  vie, ou au moins pour un temps indéterminé, et qui a l’autorité d’un petit roi. Il doit cette autorité  sa bravoure et  l’ascendant qu’il a su acquérir, par les bons conseils qu’il a su donner et par la chance dans les combats. La naissance peut aider  faire nommer un chef, mais elle ne crée jamais un droit, et il faut qu’elle soit appuyée par les qualités propres du prétendant. Toutes les tribus sont loin d’tre aussi nombreuses les unes que les autres, et les chefs n’ont pas tous la mme influence. Un chef bon parleur, courageux, et doué du talent d’administration, attirera  lui plusieurs tribus avec leurs chefs qui deviendront ses conseillers, et augmentera ainsi sa puissance.

Son autorité consiste  pouvoir faire des traités de paix et d’alliance,  déclarer la guerre,  mener sa petite armée au combat,  ordonner les marches du camp et  juger les offences ou les infractions préjudiciables  toute la tribu. (Les crimes offensant les particuliers ou les familles donnent aux offensés le droit ou d’accepter la compensation qui est offerte de pardonner, ou de tirer vengeance de l’injure reçue.)

Son conseil se compose du chef comme président, des chefs subalternes, s’il y en a, et des principaux guerriers dans les circonstances ordinaires; dans les circonstances plus solennelles et pour des affaires graves, tous les hommes du camp doivent en faire partie.

La convocation se fait nommément, ou par un crieur. En hiver, tous se rendent au wigwan du chef, qu’on a agrandi au besoin pour la circonstance; en été le conseil peut se tenir sur la pelouse en plein air. Chacun des convoqués sait d’avance qu’il sera appelé, et, sentant toute l’importance de l’office qu’il aura  remplir, et l’honneur qu’on lui fait, il se tient dans sa demeure. Aussitôt l’appel, il se drape dans sa couverture, prend son calumet, et marche d’un pas solennel vers le lieu désigné. Il aura d faire grande toilette, c’est--dire se peindre le visage et orner sa tte d’autant de plumes qu’il a tué d’ennemis  la guerre.

Le chef  déj pris sa place;  ses côtés se rangent ses principaux conseillers puis chacun  mesure qu’il arrive s’assied de manire  former un grand cercle en avant du président. On lui présente un plat de tabac haché pour la circonstance; il prend son grand calumet de marbre noir ou blanc, y fixe le manche ciselé, peint de diverses couleurs et orné de rassades et de rubans; il le remplit, l’allume et en tire trois ou quatre grosses touches, puis le passe  son second qui en tire deux ou trois touches solennelles, et le remet  son voisin et ainsi de suite  la ronde jusqu’ ce qu’il revienne au chef. Si le calumet se trouvait épuisé avant d’avoir fait le tour de l’assemblée, on le remettrait au président qui le remplirait, et l’allumerait comme la premire fois. Ds que le calumet de cérémonie est en marche, chacun puise dans le plat et allume sa propre pipe, ou son calumet. Heureusement que le wigwam est spacieux et que la cheminée fait son office, autrement ce serait un nuage de fumée  étouffer.

Alors le chef, se tenant debout si l’on est dehors, demeurant assis si le conseil se tient dans sa tente, d’une voix plus ou moins solennelle (quelques uns crient  tue-tte) expose le sujet de la réunion et donne les raisons pour ou contre. Ds qu’il a fini sa harangue, chacun  la liberté de faire un discours et de donner son avis. Le chef d’un ton plus décisif résume ce qui a été dit, y ajoute de nouveaux développements, prend une décision et donne les ordres en conséquence; et l’assemblée se dissout,  moins qu’un festin ne doive se donner, ce qui arrive le plus souvent.

Le chef cris demande-t-il l’aide d’une autre tribu, ou désire-t-il faire ou renouveler la paix avec elle, il lui députera deux ou trois de ses principaux conseiller avec du tabac. Ceux-ci seront reçus avec solennité, dans une réunion pareille  celle que je viens de décrire; ils y exposeront l’object de leur venue, le motiveront; puis tout ce passera comme il a été dit. Ainsi se font les traités de paix et les alliances pour la guerre.

g) Translation, Subject: Tribal Administration, Leadership, Ceremonies

Each camp or tribe has a chief who has been nominated for life or at least for an undetermined period and who has the authority of a king. He owes this to his bravery or to the prestige he has garnered, from the good advice he can give or by his luck in battle. The chief can inherit his position, but this is not always so; the personal qualities of the individual greatly affect whether he is chosen or not. Tribes vary a great deal in size from one another, and not all chiefs have the same amount of influence. A chief who is a good public speaker, is brave and is a talented administrator will attract several tribes with their chiefs who will become his counselors, thus increasing his power. His authority consists in being able to make peace treaties or pacts with allies, to declare war, to lead his little army into combat, to organize any campsite moves and to judge offences or infractions detrimental to the entire tribe. (Crimes which affect individuals or families give them the right to either accept compensation which is offered to atone for the offense or to exact vengeance for the offense. In ordinary circumstances, his council is composed of the chief who presides, his secondary chiefs, if he has any, and of his main warriors; for more solemn occasions and for more serious events, all the men of the camp must belong to it.

The convocation is made nominally or by a crier. During winter, all go to the chief’s wigwam which, if need be, has been enlarged for the occasion; during summer the council can be held outdoors on the open lawn. All who have been convened know in advance that they will be called. Aware of the importance of the position he will fill and of the honour of it all, each stay in their dwelling and wait. As soon as the call is heard, each will drape himself in his blanket, take his pipe and walk solemnly to the meeting place. Their attire will have been prepared with great care, the face is carefully painted and the head decorated with as many feathers as enemies who have been killed in combat.

The chief has already taken his place; at his sides are seated his principal advisors and, as all the others arrive, they seat themselves so as to form a great circle in front of the president. The chief is presented with a platter of cut tobacco which has been prepared for the occasion; he takes his big black or white marble calumet on which he fastens its carved stem painted in different colours and garnished with rassades37 and ribbons. He fills it, lights it and takes three or four good draws from it and then passes it to his second-in-command, who takes two or three solemn pulls and then passes it on to his neighbour and so on and so forth until it goes around the entire circle and comes back to the chief. If the calumet were to run out of tobacco before finishing the circle it would be passed back to the president who would refill it and would relight it as he did the first time. As soon as the ceremonial pipe has passed, everyone takes some tobacco from the platter and lights his own pipe or calumet. Fortunately the wigwam is spacious and the chimney draws the smoke properly, otherwise there would soon be a cloud thick enough to choke in.

So the chief stands, if he is outdoors, or remains seated if the council takes place indoors in his tent, and in a voice that is more or less solemn (some of them shout at the top of their lungs) states the subject of the meeting and gives his reasons for or against the cause. As soon as he has finished his discourse, everyone is free to make a speech or to give his advice. After this, taking a more decisive tone, the chief will summarize what has been said, adding newer developments, make a decision and give the orders in consequence. The assembly is then dismissed, unless a feast be also given, which is what happens most of the time. Should the Cree chief wish to ask for help from another tribe, or if he wishes to make peace or renew a peace treaty with this tribe, he will send delegates of two or three of his principal advisors with some tobacco. They will be solemnly received in a meeting similar to the one I have just described; they will explain the reason for their visit and their motives, and everything will again be done as I have described. This is how peace treaties and war allies are conducted.

h) Folk tales: Légende des vieillards, p. 107-108

There are two sections of folk tales in the manuscript. The first part has two children’s tales and several legends, one about the thunderbird, a few about Wisaketsak (the trickster) and one about the "Stinking Bird" (or vulture)38. The end notes have a few more about Wisaketsak, in which Végreville points out similarities to biblical myths (Adam and Eve, the Flood, Joshua halting the sun) and interprets the Wisaketsak myths as to the European origin of the Algonquin nation, basing himself a great deal on a story about invaders known as "the Red Hands39.

La légende des vieillards commence par un préambule analogue  celui de la légende des vieilles femmes, puis on ajoute:

Dix hommes se trouvant ensemble entendirent  plusieurs reprises comme des coups de tonnerre ou des coups de canon, qui venaient du côté de la Montagne de Roches. Ils se dirent les uns aux autres : «Allons donc dans la direction de ce bruit, et voyons ce qui l’occasionne. Mais prenons nos flches, en cas que nous en ayons besoin; du reste si nous devons aller loin, il nous faudra tuer quelque gibier pour manger.» Ils prennent donc leur arc et leur carquois bien rempli de flches, et se mettent en route. Le bruit qu’ils entendaient plusieurs fois par jour seul leur indiquait la direction  suivre. Ils marchrent une premire journée, puis une seconde, sans rien trouver, mais le bruit devenait de plus en plus distinct. Enfin, la troisime journée, ils arrivrent au terme de leur voyage.

Que virent-ils qui causait ce bruit de tonnerre? Ils aperçurent un orignal énorme, bien plus grand que les pins et les peupliers que nous voyons ici. Il broutait paisiblement les rameaux de saules et d’autres arbrisseaux, qui croissaient au bord d’un marécage. Le bruit qu’on entendait  intervalles réguliers était causé par la fiente de l’animal qui, tombant  terre en masses considérables, ébranlait le sol par son poids. Les chasseurs, quoiqu’ils ne parussent que comme des insectes  côté d’un si grand élan, prirent cependant toutes les précaustions opportunes pour ne s’en laisser ni voir, ni entendre, ni flairer; car ils connaissaient la délicatesse des sens de l’animal.

Les arcs et leurs flches étaient trop petites pour le blesser  mort, ils durent s’en faire de dimensions proportionnées. Alors ils prirent leurs positions, le percrent tous  la fois de leurs flches et le turent. Ce n’était pas l’ouvrage d’un seul jour que de dépouiller, dépecer et éparer la viande d’un tel animal. Leur premier soin donc fut de lui couper une oreille don’t ils se firent un grand wigwam o ils pussent habiter, préparer leur manger et faire sécher la viande. Le mufle qui est non seulement la partie la plus délicieuse de l’orignal, mais la viande la plus gotée de tout animal sauvage, fit leur nourriture de chaque jour.

Ils levrent d’abord la peau, puis dépecrent l’orignal, en éparrent toute la viande, qu’ils firent sécher, partie au soleil, partie sur le feu. Cette viande ainsi conservée fut leur aliment pour eux et leurs familles pour toute une saison. Quand  la peau, il l’épilrent, l’écharnrent et la passrent en basane pour s’en faire des souliers et couvrir leurs wigwams.

h) Translation, folk tale: The Old Men’s Tale

The old men’s legend begins with a preamble similar to the legend of the old women40, then the following is added:

Ten men who happened to be together heard several times loud noises like cannon shots or thunderclaps coming from the Rocky Mountains. They said to each other: Let’s go toward that noise and let’s see what is making it. But let’s take our arrows, just in case we need them; besides if we have to go far, we will have to kill some game on the way to eat. So each took his bow and their quiver which was stuffed with arrows, and they started their trip. They could tell by noise they were hearing several times a day which way to go. They walked all day long on the first day and on the second without finding anything, but the noise was becoming more distinct. Finally on the third day, they arrived to their destination.

And what was causing this great thundering noise? They saw a huge moose, much bigger than the spruce and poplars that we see here. It was peacefully eating willow shoots and other bushes which were growing near a marsh. The noise that they were hearing at regular intervals was the animal’s droppings which fell to the earth in huge piles, shaking the ground with their weight. The hunters who were like insects next to this immense stag, nevertheless were very careful so that it did not see, hear or smell them, because they knew that these senses are very well developed in this animal.

Many of the aspects of the lifestyle had changed or disappeared altogether, but his description is mainly of the "way it was".

Bows and arrows were far too small to wound the animal, and they had to make some of the right proportion. They took their positions and pierced it all at one with their arrows and killed it. It was more than one day’s work to butcher it, cut it up and to slice up the meat of such an animal. The first thing they did was to cut off one of its ears with which to make a big wigwam where they could live, prepare their food and dry the meat. The muzzle of this animal being not only the most delicious part, but the tastiest part of all wild animals, was their food for each day.

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