Friday, November 20, 2015

"At length, the Rocky Mountains came in sight like shining white clouds"

David Thompson
Meeting the Peeagans [Piikani] for the first time, Bow River

At length, the Rocky Mountains came in sight like shining white clouds in the horizon but we doubted what our guide said, but as we proceeded they rose in height, their immense masses of snow appeared above the clouds and formed an impassible barrier, even to the Eagle . . .  A few miles beyond the Bow River about a dozen Peeagans met us; some of their scouts had seen us but could not say who [we] were;  they were well mounted and armed with Bows and quivers of arrows.  They gave us a hearty welcome, told us to camp where they met us, and could soon bring us good cow meat, and next morning show us to the camp.  Awhile after sunset they brought us two horse-loads of fat cow meat, we were hungry, and sat up part of the night roasting and eating as it was a long month since we had a good meal.

Two of them passed the night with us and were as anxious for news as any people could be, it was on affairs more or less connected with the tribe to which they belonged, the situation and numbers of the tribes of other Indians; whether at peace or at war, or any malady among them.  Early the next morning the rest of the party came and conducted us to their camp, where we arrived about noon.  All the elderly men came and gave us their left hand and said they were thankful we had come, as they were in want of ammunition and tobacco.  We separated ourselves two by two to three different tents where the most respectable men lived.  William Flett and myself were lodged in the tent of an old man [Saukamappee, Young Man, Cree born, Piegan Chief] whose hair was grey with age, his countenance grave but mild and open; he was full six feet in height, erect and of a frame that shewed strength and activity.  When we related the scarcity of the Bison and Deer they were pleased at it and said it would be to them a plentiful winter.  Their argument was; the Bison and Deer have passed the latter part of the summer and fall of the leaves upon the Missisouri, and have made the ground bare of grass and can no longer live there; they must come to us for the grass to live on in our country (the Bow River) and to the northward to the Kisiskatchewan where the snow is beginning to be on the ground.  The winter proved that they reasoned right for by the beginning of December, the herds of bulls which always preceded the herds of cows began to pass us for the northward; and shortly after the Stags and small herds of Doe red Deer followed by Wolves and Foxes.  After a few days the old man spoke to me in the Nahathaway language and asked me  if I understood it and how long since I had left my own country.  I answered that this is my fourth winter, and the Nahathaways are the people we trade with, and I speak the tongue sufficiently for common purposes.  Upon which, with a smile, he said "I am not a Peeagan of these plains.  I am a Nahathaway of the Pasquiau River." [Pasquia River] (a River that joins the Kisiskatchwean about fifty miles below Cumberland House) "that is my native country and of my fathers for many many winters.  I should have forgotten my mother's tongue were it not that some of my father's people come among us to buy horses and aid us in war."  I told him I knew the country, had wintered near it and hunted Geese and Ducks in the Rivers he mentioned.  He said "it is many winters since I last saw the ground where my parents lie.  I came here as a young man and my name is still the same I received (Sark a map pee, young man) as you know my country you can name the old men that now live there."  I named three old men, but he knew nothing of them.  I enquired if the Nahathaways did not give him news of his native country; he replied, they knew nothing of it and enquired what people were hunting there.  I informed him that the sons of those he left there hunted on the north bank of the River, many days march above it, that the lowest of them were on the west side of Eagle Hills and that his country was now hunted upon by the Indians whom in his time were eastward of Lake Winnipeg.  He remained silent for some time and then said, "What a stranger I now find myself in the land of my fathers."  Although erect and somewhat active, and in full possession of his faculties, yet from the events he related and upon comparing them with the accounts of the French writers on the furr trade of Canada, he must have been near ninety years of age, or more, for his relation of affairs went back to near the year one thousand seven hundred and this was now the year 1787.  (Note Between three and four years after this he died of old age.)  He was fond of conversation in his native tongue, and recounting the events of his life, the number and positions of the different tribes of Indians, how they were allied and the battles they had fought to gain the country of the Bow River (a distance in the direct line of about 800 miles in the direction of S54W).

About every evening for the time of four months I sat and listened to the old man without being in the least tired, they were blended with the habits, customs and manners, politics and religion such as it was, anecdotes of Indian chiefs, and the means of their gaining influence in war and peace that I always found something to interest me.  Upon the dreadful malady of the Small Pox whose ravages had ceased only a few years he did not wish to speak.  He said it was brought by a war party of their people who had attached a small party of the Snake [Shoshone] Indians that had it and it spread from tent to tent and camp to camp.

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