Flora Beardy is a retired historic park translator from Parks Canada. Ms. Beardy also lived for a time at York Factory. For this book, Ms. Beardy interviewed and recorded a dozen Cree Elders who lived and worked at York Factory and then translated the stories into English. Robert Coutts, who was a historian at Parks Canada for over 30 years wrote the introduction of this book which provided a brief history of The Hudson’s Bay Company and the York Factory as contextual background for the elders’ stories.
Previously I have read a great deal on the North American indigenous peoples starting with my first journey through the South West US many years ago and continuing through subsequent trips in the United States and Canada. The books and articles I read had one thing in common – they were written by non-indigenous sources. This book is totally from the perspective of the Cree who lived and worked at the York Factory.
Reading these stories was like sitting around a campfire while the elders spoke – but instead of legends and myths, these are true accounts of their lives. From the wistful tone of one elder speaking of how the Cree used to live in balance and respect with nature to the somewhat bitter musings that one elder always felt hungry once he had to eat “white man’s food” that was never as satisfying as the food they used to hunt and grow themselves, this book is enthralling.
Let me share a few stories here, but I strongly recommend that you find a copy of this book and read it through. True slices of life, some full of love, some full of hurt, all of it captivating.
GROWING UP AT THE FACTORY – Catherine Anderson (1908-1990) lived at York Factory when she was young and while in school there learned to read the Cree syllabic bible. She also married at York Factory and had 8 children.. Her recorded reminisces offer a view of growing up at the York Factory as she recounts what she and her friends would do whenever a trading ship arrived at the port. The children would watch as the adults who were unloading the ships managed to pilfer and hide canned goods, meats and other items. Unbeknownst to the adults, the youngsters would pick up a few of the items, take them to the good store and the shopkeeper would actually pay them for what they brought.
EDUCATION – Mary Redhead (1920-2002) was born at the York Factory and was among the first children to be sent away for schooling at a residential school (more on these in a later post) and these children did not return home until they completed their schooling although other children from closer towns were allowed to go home. Mary said the reason given was that York Factory was too far and too remote to get to other than by airplane and that was just too expensive., So the children spent all their time at the school and were often hungry, given only one slice of bread, and even if they were given more than one slice they had to hide the extra or it would be taken away. This treatment was very confusing to Mary Redhead as she said the children worked hard at different jobs – cleaning houses and such, wherever they were sent for a week, so they didn’t deserve to be treated poorly.
RELIGIOUS TEACHING – Abel Chapman (1922-2000) did not go to school – rather his grandfather taught him how to live off the land, hunting and trapping. His grandmother was a storyteller and her grandchildren would sit around her, rapt as she wove tales and legends.
Abel opined that the white man needs to learn the true meaning of the Bible. He says the Creator provided everything on earth – all the people, the land, the water, the animals – to live in balance, have mutual respect, take only what is needed for survival, and protect the rest so that all future generations will enjoy the same bounty. However, he states the white man has done wrong. They have gone above the laws the Creator made, they want to own and control everything, even taking our hunting away. He says: “This is not right, to go against the Creator.”
I agree – and sadly this is even more true today.