The Hudson’s Bay Company, which celebrated its 350th anniversary last year, had an immense economic impact on Orkney in a time of otherwise little opportunity, providing income and employment locally and to many hundreds of men who went to work for it in northern Canada.
The voyage from Stromness to the James Bay area of Hudson Bay in the early 1800s was long and arduous. The officers and crews on board the Company’s ships may have been in fine condition when they set out, but by the time they had completed that Atlantic crossing many were in a depleted state.
Historian Dr Winona Wheeler, an Associate Professor in the Department of Indigenous Studies at the University of Saskatchewan, will be speaking at next year’s Orkney International Science Festival about how the Cree people of that area took these men under their wings and treated them as their own. In this interview she sets the scene for her talk.
Back then, even in the early 1700s, these travellers understood about scurvy and they tried to stock up on food stuffs that would help, but that was a pretty lengthy Atlantic voyage, so by the time they got here they were in pretty bad shape. They were pale and pekid and they hadn’t bathed for two months, and our people, who were fastidious bathers, felt sorry for them.”
Under the care and attention of the Cree – the maskekowininiwak (Swampy Cree people) and asiniskow ithiniwak (Rock Cree people) – the Hudson’s Bay Company men had time to heal and regain their strength. In fact, they not only healed them, but also taught them how to heal themselves and survive in a harsh, rugged territory which was partly permafrost.
These Orkney men were pretty tough so that really impressed the Crees that these guys could pull their weight in this country. But they didn’t have the skills to survive on the land, so those skills were shared and it wasn’t long before you started seeing Hudson Bay Company men – especially servants, because they were poor – adopting Indigenous clothing like moccasins and furs for protection, and learning how to hunt and fish.”
The Cree willingly shared their knowledge with these potential trading partners, teaching them the seasonal cycle of the wilderness and the migratory patterns of birds and animals, especially caribou.
They were sharp traders who already had an established network of trading partners. They were a small part of an Indigenous trading network that went all the way from Chile to Alaska, and they were keen to expand their enterprise with these Europeans, but on their own terms and conditions. Any notions the Hudson’s Bay Company men had about a quick turnaround were soon squashed.
Our people approached them in the same way they would other people they wanted to trade with by establishing trading relations, but those were not simply economic relations because we did not compartmentalise different aspects of our life. We didn’t separate trading from religion, we didn’t separate family from making a living. Everything was interconnected and so when we set up trading relationships they were also social, cultural, military, familial. We made family because you don’t trade with potential enemies. You trade with people you trust, and the way you cement those trading alliances is through social relations, through inter-marriage and through adoption, and then you bring them into your way of doing things.”
The Europeans on the other hand had only come to trade and instead found themselves feasting, smoking the pipe, listening to speeches, engaging in ceremonial gift giving and prayer, and generally being immersed in Cree customs and way of life.
To protest would have been futile and ignorant. They were very much the new kids on the block, so if they wanted the furs they had to abide by a set of rules and ways of doing business that had been in place long before they arrived.
Basically, we Indigenized a global economy. Hudson’s Bay Company was a multi-national corporation that had to ‘go Indian’ to get business done.”
And for most of the men it wasn’t difficult. They were welcomed, accepted and cared for, and the bonds that were forged were strong. Secure and trustworthy relationships were embraced and appreciated in that rugged environment in the early years.
Medicinal knowledge was also shared. While the Hudson’s Bay Company had brought their own doctors with their apothecary chests, it wasn’t long before their supplies ran out and they had to rely on Indigenous remedies.
Chief among those was amiskowesinâw (beaver castor/glands, castoreum), which contains a secretion that has similar properties to asprin. This was dried, powdered and mixed in tea or hot water and it didn’t take the Hudson’s Bay Company long to recognise the value of this product and the profit it attracted.
They exploited the hell out of it. They were shipping tons of it to Europe and these were just little sacks inside the body of a beaver. It had a huge effect on beaver population. The beaver provided so much — fur, meat and castor. It was overexploited and our people participated in that over-exploitation.”
Another popular medicine was muskrat root or rat root, so called because muskrats like to chew on them too. Known to the Cree people as wîhkês, this root was used to cure a wide variety of ailments from fever to cleansing the respiratory system.
I can remember my granny grinding it up and putting it in hot water with lemon and drinking it and suddenly breaking out in hot sweats, face bright red, and granny would laugh and say ‘it’s working it’s working!’ ”
Wîhkês is still used today. It is found in the low marshy areas along the shoreline and it is common for people dig it up and carry a piece with them in their pocket. If they feel a little unwell, they simply break a piece off the root and chew it until they have extricated all the goodness. Seneca snakeroot is used in much the same way as an expectorant, a poultice for swelling and many other uses, and the Hudson’s Bay Company would pay people to harvest these roots for them to take back to Europe.
Ways to trade
The Hudson’s Bay men were shrewd businessmen. They lived for many years among the Cree people and took advice from them about the kind of goods they would like in return. They listened when they were told a blanket wasn’t thick enough, or a rifle muzzle was too long.
Change goes hand in hand with new ideas and new tools and the arrival of the copper kettle completely revolutionised the lives of the Cree women. Prior to its arrival making tea or soup had been a slow and arduous process involving either clay pots which were prone to breaking or a moose or caribou stomach filled with hot rocks. Trade with North America spurred an industrial revolution in Europe.
But it wasn’t just about trade. It was about making a living too and medicines and good food. You can’t look at those things independently. You also have to contextualise that in terms of social relationships and alliances.”
And these alliances held and were further strengthened by Hudson’s Bay Company men taking Cree wives and having mixed-blood children. When Winona first came over to Scotland to take part in a science festival event in Moray some years ago, she joked that it was the first time she had met McNabs, Sinclairs, Andersons and McDougalls who were white.
This coming year she will be giving a virtual talk as part of OISF’s 2021 programme and it is hoped she will be able to participate in the 2022 festival in person.
Building up history
Winona specialises in Indigenous history of Western Canada. She has worked extensively in land claims research, treaty rights and land use, and has a particular interest in oral history. Right now she is on sabbatical, finishing off a book on the community history of her own reserve, Fisher River Cree Nation, based on oral history work and interviews conducted with elders in the 1990s.
The one thing about doing indigenous oral history which I find very unique is that it’s based on what we call wâhkôhtowin, which is relationships. You establish long term relationships to the point where I’ve had elders call me 10 years later and want me to come over and visit or help them out with something. It’s a reciprocal relationship. You are asking them to share their knowledge that they have acquired over a lifetime and that’s a huge ask, and not something to be taken for granted, and in return you give of yourself. You see if you can meet any of their needs as well.”
Another remarkable aspect of oral history is that its vitality is maintained not only in the recordings but also in the written documents which result from it. In the recordings the life and passion of the voices can still be heard, and the memory of the person evoked in a very realistic and present experience.
Winona’s late husband Tyrone Tootoosis inherited a huge oral history collection from his own father who had interviewed elders in their own language and Tyrone also interviewed in the language.
He explained that just because something is on a recording doesn’t mean it is dead. It’s not dead because it teaches and continues to teach and stays alive through the listeners. And that’s a pretty special gift when you think that these people who spoke and whose voices we recorded are dead now.”
For Winona, transcribed oral histories also maintain their dynamism through context. In one particular context a story will have a particular meaning, but when that same story is placed in a different context new meaning and understanding can emerge and in that way it goes on living.
I love to do oral history. I like hanging out with old people and because I’m a land claims researcher as well I’m always cognisant of change over time and chronology. I look through the trained historian’s lens through one eye and then through the other eye I interact and experience and view through the Indigenous worldview lens. We call that two-eyed seeing, seeing through both lenses.”