Friday, August 19, 2016

The Lansdowne Letters: Dogs and Death

Whenever my mother, Sara MacBeath, opened the latest letter
from my father in Lansdowne House, we never knew what to expect.

The contents could be funny, shocking, poignant,
or alien; but to me, they were always fascinating.

Guaranteed I longed to see and to experience it all!

A Hitched Dog Team 
Cambridge Bay, Northwest territories, 1953
Credit / Mention de source :
J. C. Jackson. Canada. Department of Indian and Northern Affairs. 
Library and Archives Canada, e010674356 /
Flickr:  BiblioArchives/Library Archives Canada  License

On Monday, January 16, 1961 
My father wrote to his extended family:

Well Hi There:
I meant to tell you something else about dog teams,
but I got off on that prospector tangent,
and I didn’t have time to tell you last night, so here goes.

It is very interesting to watch them training a pup to be a sleigh dog.
I have never seen a whole team trained at once,
but judging from the difficulties that I related to you the other day,
it must be an exasperating job.

The way that they break in a pup with an experienced team,
though, is quick and produces results.  
Of course, it is kind of rough on the pup, especially if he is a stubborn one.
They just hitch him in the middle of the team and start traveling.  

The pup comes along whether he likes it or not.
He has two options, he can come on his feet or he can be dragged.  

I was watching them train a reluctant pupil a while ago,
and he elected the latter course.
He just lay on his back and put all four feet straight up in the air.

A Playful Sled Dog
Pixabay:  badamczak80   Licence:  CC0 Public Domain

That did hold things up for a moment.  
The driver just started the team, and off they went
at a rather lively clip, dragging the pup.
They must have dragged the poor animal about half a mile
before he managed to get his feet under him.

As I said, it certainly isn’t too humane,
but it sure does produce results.
After his rather rough initiation, this pup,
while he objected strongly to be harnessed,
always behaved well once he was hitched to the team.

Crossing the Ice
Pixabay:  skeeze   Licence:  CC0 Public Domain

The Indians are very cruel to their animals, all except their cats.
They only feed the dogs enough to keep them alive in the summer,
because it is the summer and they aren’t being worked
and are not earning their keep.
As a result, the dogs are just about starving in the summer.  

Even in the winter their diet, while it is ample, is a long way from being luxurious.
All the dogs are fed on frozen fish – one or two fish a day being their daily ration.

Full Speed Ahead
Pixabay:  violetta   Licence:  CC0 Public Domain

It is not that the Indians are purposely cruel;
it is just that compassion is one quality
that seems to be missing in the Indian’s makeup.

One of their children could be dying on the floor,
but the Indian would just sit there and watch it.
Oh they are concerned and sorry that they are going to lose the child,
but they wouldn’t be half crazy like I would be if it were one of mine.

Their attitude seems to be that if it is going to die,
it’s going to die, and that’s that.
They will wail and mourn something fierce after the child is dead,
but the only emotion they express during the dying is extreme interest.

If an Indian dies, they don’t hold anything like a wake or a lying in state.
They are terrified of dead bodies, and they don’t even wait
for the body to cool before they get it out of the house.

The Father says that he has, on several occasions,
gone into the church to light the fire in the morning
and has tripped over the dead body of someone that has died in the night.
The Indians wouldn’t even wait till morning to get it out of the house.

If the person died at two, he would be put outside at five after two.
If they can’t get him to the church, they will tie him up in a tree,
away from the dogs, till it is time to bury him.

Well on this cheerful note, I’ll end.
Bye now,

Love, Don. 

Ojibway Mothers and Babies
Fort Hope, 1910
(about 50 miles SW of Lansdowne House)

I think there are many things that White people
did not understand about the Ojibway people a half century ago.

Perplexing behaviors that my father observed,
like the way that the Indians treated their dogs,
were probably rooted in their not too distant past
when life was tenuous and survival was uncertain.

John J. Honigmann wrote in his 1948 anthropological report
on the Attawapiskat Indians west of James Bay
that the Indians expected to be hungry and to lack food
because in the past they had faced serious starvation 
in lands chronically short of large game animals.
Understanding that makes their treatment of dogs fathomable.

I don't know how my father learned about the behavior
of the Ojibway with regard to dying and death.
It's apparent that he discussed the topics with Father Ouimet.

I'm guessing there was a lot that my father didn't know and understand
about local Ojibway beliefs and practices.

He and Father Ouimet represented the government and the church,
and no matter how well-liked they were personally,
their institutions were pursuing policies of assimilation
by suppressing native languages, cultures, and traditions.
I would not be surprised to learn
that the local Ojibway kept many things private, hidden.

I had several close Ojibway and Métis friends.  
Based on the intense conversations we shared,
I don't for a moment think they lacked compassion.

I think my father mistook fatalism for dispassion.
Again, I think the fatalistic streak I observed among 
the Ojibway and Métis I knew was rooted in 
the experiences of generations of their ancestors
living in a severe and intractable environment.
Wawatay ~ Northern Lights
Symbolizing Some of the Ojibway Teachings and Practices
Pixabay:  diapicard  Licence:  CC0 Public Domain


My only experience with death and the Ojibway in Lansdowne House
happened one weekend morning when the nurse,
Mike Flaherty, dropped by our house.

He was on his way over to the Island to see Father Ouimet
and wanted my father to go with him.
My father wasn't home, but Mike stayed to chat briefly with Mom. 

Curious me had to ask why he wanted to see Father Ouimet.

"I have a package to give him," said Mike,
reaching into his pocket and pulling out
a small object wrapped in brown paper.

"What's that?" I asked, looking more closely.

"It's a dead baby.  I'm taking it to Father Ouimet so he can bury it."

"That's a baby?" I exclaimed.  
"It can't be any bigger than a pink eraser!"

"It's a fetus," said Mike, glancing at my silent mother.
"The mother miscarried and wanted me to give it to the Father."

"But it's so tiny!  It's hardly a baby."

"It is a baby, and you can't just throw it away.
It means a great deal to the mother
that Father Ouimet gives it a proper burial."

I was speechless.

Well, I better get on," he added, 
tucking the dead baby back into his coat pocket.
"Tell Don I'm looking for him,"
and he headed out the kitchen door.

I was shocked at the juxtaposition 
of Mike casually slipping the paper-shrouded fetus into his pocket
and the grief of the mother who had lost her baby.
I wondered if the rituals of the church would alleviate her sorrow.

That was the first time in my young life that I sensed
what a real and tragic loss a miscarriage must be to a woman.
It was also the first time that I sensed
the power of the Roman Catholic church
and the comfort that faith might bring.

I may not have learned much about Ojibway beliefs,
but the incident swiftly precipitated 
a series of fascinating conversations with my mother! 

Till next time ~
Fundy Blue

Bay of Fundy out of Westport, Brier Island
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved


1.  Miles to Kilometers:
     1/2 mile = 0.8 kilometer  

2.  Father Maurice Ouimet:
     He was a member of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate,
     a missionary religious congregation in the Roman Catholic Church.

3.  Treatment of Cats:
      My father wrote in his letter of October 11, 1960:  "The Father tells me, that in spite of
      all his efforts and the efforts of the Protestant Padre, the Indians still consider that all cats
      have either a benevolent or malevolent spirit residing in their bodies and treat them with
      considerable deference."

4.  John J. Honigmann:
     Honigmann was an American anthropologist who conducted field-based research on the First
     Nations people of the SubArctic of Canada, including the "Attawapiskat Indians" in the area on
     the western coast of James Bay.  One of his papers was Foodways in a Muskeg Community:  An
     Anthropological Report on the Attawapiskat Indians.  The report was written in 1948 and
     distributed by the Northern Co-ordination and Research Centre, Department of Northern Affairs,
     and National Resources, Ottawa in July 1961.

5.   Mike Flaherty:
      Mike was the nurse at the nursing station in Lansdowne House,
      and he provided basic medical services for the White and Ojibway people
      who lived in the community.  

6.  Wataway ~ Northern Lights:
     Wataway means Northern Lights in Ojibway.  It is also the name of a newspaper serving the First
     Nations peoples of Northern Ontario.  One of the Ojibway teachings is that the northern lights or
     wataway are the spirits of their ancestors celebrating life and reminding the Ojibway that they
     are part of creation.  The dancing northern lights make a path for souls to follow as they journey
     to the next world.

For Map Lovers Like Me:
Location of Lansdowne House
Known Today as Neskantaga

Map of Northern Ontario showing adhesions to Treaty No. 9 
covered by the Report of Commissioners Cain and Awrey. 
Map 30. Ontario: Department of Surveys, 29 Sept. 1930
J. L. Morris fonds
Reference Code: F 1060 Folder 3, map 30, AO 6907
Archives of Ontario, I0021544
- See more at:

Copyright Information: © Queen's Printer for Ontario
"The materials on this website are protected by Crown copyright (unless otherwise indicated), 
which is held by the Queen's Printer for Ontario. 
If credit is given and Crown copyright is acknowledged, 
the materials may be reproduced for non-commercial purposes."


  1. How did they bury bodies in the winter? When I lived in a ski town in New York State, they didn't bury bodies in the winter cause the snow and ground and old cemetery with missing records that made it hard to find where to dig. So they put caskets in a crypt and interned them in the spring.

    1. That is an intriguing question, Sage. Also one I don't know the answer to. I have a vague memory of someone talking about building a fire to unfreeze the ground so that a grave could be dug, but I can't be sure of where that memory comes from. I'm going to have to see what I can find out. I hope all is well with you!

  2. I think I would've been just as shocked that baby was wrapped in brown paper like that.
    They faced a rough life and that was probably just their way of dealing with it.

    1. I was shocked enough to never forget the incident. I can see that tiny package in the nurse's hand and feel how stunned I was that the package contained something not bigger than the pink eraser I used at school. I was also rocked at the thought that this was a baby, because the idea at the time (in my background) was that a baby became a baby when it "quickened" or moved the first time. As a ten-year old I was taking it in and reacting emotionally, but not really processing everything or asking questions that an adult might. I was being hit with all these strong realizations and trying to handle them. Mike, the nurse, was frank and blunt, and that was not unusual for him. I have several vivid memories of eye-opening lessons learned from him. Have a great weekend!

  3. A very thoughtful and thought-provoking post indeed, Louise. Well done!

    Death traditions among prairie First Nations people are different, whether due to cultural differences or perhaps the passage of time from the 60s to now, I don't know. There is always a wake held, at home, with the embalmed deceased present in an open coffin. Sometimes there are several wakes, with the deceased travelling to each one. It always freaks me out a bit because I am not a fan of open coffins.

    1. Thanks, Debra! Your comment meant a great deal. I appreciate the feedback, because the more I work with something the less objective I become. That was a difficult post to write because I had to precisely nail down and define memories and emotions and fact check everything. Not so pleasant was checking to make sure about the pink eraser size outlined in the paper. Yup, that memory checked out. I sometimes feel like I'm walking through a mind field, especially when I'm dealing with sensitive and controversial topics. I tell the truth as my father and I perceived it, always aware that everyone's perspective is unique.

      I'm currently reading Wab Kinnew's illuminating memoir "The Reason You Walk."..He hails from the Winnipeg area, but his Ojibway family came from Ontario on the north side of Lake Superior and was moved to the Onigaming reserve near the Manitoba border. Knew refers to a wake held for his grandfather at a residential school that his father attended, so the more southern Ojibway were holding wakes. More details to hunt down.

      I hate open coffins. They do freak me out! No open coffin for me! Cremate me and have a hell of a good party in my memory!

      "Well on this cheerful note, I’ll end." Haha! Enjoy your weekend!

    2. Oh yes, I know of Wab Kinew! A very impressive young man. I haven't read any of his books but I remember hearing him broadcast on CBC news and radio out of Winnipeg a few years ago. He just got elected this spring to Manitoba's provincial legislature. He ran for the NDP, I believe, so that means he's sitting in opposition since the NDP government got defeated by the PCs.

    3. I had a feeling that you might know of him, Debra! I hadn't heard that Kinew got elected to Manitoba's legislature. That's exciting! I am thrilled to see First Nations people standing up, after all that I saw when I was in the North. He will bring a valuable perspective to Manitoba's government. He is an excellent writer, and his family history over three generations is fascinating.

  4. Wow, sure that spurred many a conversation indeed. Yeah, a lot of their beliefs and ways of life probably stemmed from living in such harsh conditions. Sure odd behavior to an outsider though.

    1. Odd behavior indeed, Pat. One thing I have learned in life as I have lived among a variety of cultures and traveled is that behaviors are grounded in what the land demands of its people in each area. That's why I am fascinated with setting in writing. I have also learned not to judge but to try to understand the reality behind the behavior. Shoulda, coulda been an anthropologist or an historian, but I chose rocks because they are much simpler to understand! LOL Have a good one!

    2. I have jumped into your blog after missing many, many posts, Louise. It seems I have lost the blogging muse although I keep hoping it will come back because I haven't lost the photography muse at all. That darn camera goes everywhere I go. :) As for this post, I found it disturbing, but very, very well written and radiating the most wonderful honesty. I have struggled with the native people's treatment of their dogs for years. I just don't understand how anyone can allow another living being to suffer. But, I have also come to some of the same approaches to life you espouse: not judging, and trying to understand "the reality behind the behaviour" is vital to the realization of my hope for a more peaceful world. Anyhow, many thanks for staying in touch, and for keeping this wonderful project going!!

    3. Hi, Carol! Thank you for this wonderful and thoughtful comment! I just came here from Facebook after finding your comment there, and now I've found this! Thank you for your understanding! As I said on Facebook, I knew you would find this a difficult post to read, if you happened to. Trust me, it's hard to keep myself going, because there is so much that is difficult and that I don't understand.

      I've missed your presence in the blogging world. Some of the other bloggers I know have been struggling with a lost blogging muse. It's a big time commitment! If I may make an observation regarding your blog ~ you wrote fabulous blogs and shared so many great photos, but your posts were long! (Ironically I'm saying this after writing the above long post.). I know how long it takes to put together a post, and I KNOW how long and hard you worked on each one. If you do find your muse again, you could take the materials and photos you typically put in one post, and break it up into a number of posts. Just a thought!

      Just this morning I downloaded and printed the Canadian government's "Truth and Reconcilliation" paper ~ all 200 pages of it! I think I will bring it to Victoria and study it there. It should prove fascinating.

      Hoping to see you in the not too distant future!!! Hugs to you!

  5. Dearest Louise, it was so difficult for me to read this without shedding tears. I guess I just have trouble comprehending how any person can have such lack of compassion. My father was a very gentle man! Even if he found a spider in our apartment he would pick it up in his fingers and open the window and put it outside...he didn't kill it. I realize that compassion is sincerely lacking in some people but I just can't understand that. I suppose I should feel blessed...and I do, and am! And this lack of compassion seems to be prominent not only among the Indians but among people in China and Spain today...with the amount of animal cruelty that goes on there it just makes me cringe.

    Thank you so much for sharing your posts, dear Louise, I appreciate and admire both your father's and your own talent for writing. Hugs. :)

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Linda! I knew when I put this post up, that it would be difficult for people to read and understand: from the treatment of the dogs, to the dead and dying, to the baby in the paper bag. When I started this journey, I promised myself that I would tell the truth, even when it's hard. There is so much I am trying to understand from the past and how it affected the future.

      The cruelty in this world is hard to comprehend. That's why I treasure your blog that shares so much that is good in this world! We must never lose sight of the fact that there are many, many good and decent people all around us. I loved the story about your father's gentleness. I have the same kind of man in my husband. Terry, too, catches insects (especially spiders because I'm a little scared of them) and releases them outside. It was his gentle goodness that attracted me.

      Thank you for your constant support and feedback. It means a great deal to me! Enjoy your weekend! Sending you a great big hug and lots of love!

  6. Most of your father's letters are entertaining or informative or just telling about his life. But this one really went into the culture of the Indians and their beliefs. It is hard to understand their ways. While the rest of the world was moving on this pocket of population held tight to old traditions and beliefs.

    1. Hi, Peggy! Thank you for sharing your thoughtful comment. It is hard to understand the culture and beliefs of the Indians, but I always try to think in the context of their history and all that they have suffered since Europeans came to the new world.

      btw ~ I can't remember if I told you, but a day or two after you wrote about the drowning of the Seneca lands near your home, I read about that incident in "The Inconvenient Indian" which I finished a few days ago. Your comment really made it seem real and present.

      Have an awesome weekend! Terry and I are off in a few minutes for drinks and dinner on our "Friday Night Date Night," Sending you a hug!

  7. This was a fascinating read; perhaps one of your best so far, Louise! But I have to say that I found it incredibly hard to read. I felt a pain right down to my soul. I imagine it must have been very difficult for you to write. Different cultures have different beliefs, traditions and ways of dealing with things. It's interesting to learn about them, although not always easy to comprehend.

    1. Thanks, Martha! I felt like it was one of my best posts when I finished it. I am settling into my voice and gaining confidence in my writing. I've also made peace with some harsh truths I experienced when I, myself, went up North. I couldn't even think about them when I started this journey. More than anything I want to understand, and understanding is healing. Thanks always for your thoughtful comments! Enjoy your weekend with your awesome guy!

  8. This was a very intriguing read. I think the cultural differences make it difficult to understand their ways. They are very superstitious and I think it is not so much lack of compassion as it is a bit of fear of the spirit of the deceased, as once the body dies the spirit then is free to wander. I think I read somewhere they felt it was a bad omen to keep the body around. This could relate to only certain tribes, I am not sure.

    Also, while my heart feels for the animals, I think they were concerned with conserving food for the people I guess it is about perspective and hard times. Who can say?

    We cannot fully understand their plight as we have not walked in their moccasins. Thank you for sharing these wonderful letters.

    1. Hi Truedessa! Thank you for your thoughtful and perceptive comment! You are absolutely right ~ until we have walked in their moccasins, we can not truly understand! Thanks for sharing your knowledge about the wandering spirits. Have a lovely weekend!

  9. Hello,
    I was just rambling around blogs and stumbled onto this. I was moved by the stories you tell here. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Thanks for visiting, NW! It's always nice to have an encouraging comment from another writer!

  10. A very moving post, Louise. And I concur with Martha that it must have been difficult to recall this dramatic time in your life......dealing, or at least trying to, with death for the first time. I remember my first time and it was difficult to understand for me.

    I agree with you that First Nations peoples learned over the years to keep certain things to themselves and not share with white people. It's like comparing apples and oranges when our two cultures are standing side by side. Your father, I am sure, was still fresh and naive about the Indian culture in which he found himself. And besides, as you said, their agenda was to assimilate, so they really were not encouraged to be objective.
    Great food for thought, Louise, and your 'letters' continue to intrigue us.

    1. Thanks, Jim! Your consistent support and feedback means so much to me! I just downloaded and printed the Canadian government's Truth and Reconciliation Commission's report on residential schools. Should make for some interesting reading in Victoria. Have a happy Monday, Jim!


Thank you for your comments! I appreciate them very much.