Friday, November 10, 2017

The Lansdowne Letters: The Inexplicable

My father arrived in Lansdowne House curious and filled with anticipation;
but, as he later reflected, "abysmally ignorant and unprepared"
as he ventured into the domain of his aboriginal brethren.

My Father's Luggage
Off-Loaded on the Father's Island
Lansdowne House, Northern Ontario, Canada 
September 1960
Photo by Don MacBeath
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

Nothing in my father's Maritimes background
had prepared him to work among the Ojibwa,
and his one-day orientation by the Indian Affairs Branch
did not help or inform him about his new post in the north.

Today we are accustomed to having knowledge and information
literally at our fingertips, an internet search away.
A half century ago nothing about the obscure Ojibwa
was easily or quickly available to someone living in rural Nova Scotia.

With packing on short notice and traveling to the distant North,
there was no time for my father to research
the Indigenous people he would be living among. 
He plunged into his northern adventure uninformed
about the Ojibwa whose children he would be teaching.
Some of the things he encountered he could never explain.

My Father as an Undergraduate
Unprepared for the North
Acadia University
Wolfville, Nova Scotia, Canada
Circa 1946
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

As a result of his experiences, my father later recommended:
The prospective Indian teacher would do well to acquaint himself
with some of the more commonly held attitudes and beliefs of the Indians.

You may not believe these attitudes and beliefs;
but nevertheless, just because they seem strange,
and even ridiculous to the white man,
they still play a large part in the everyday life of the Indians.
I do not advocate that you believe in or subscribe to
the various beliefs, attitudes, and customs of the Indians,
just don't mock them, especially publicly or in a derisive manner.

The main goal of Indian education is to change the Indian
as much as possible for the better and to prepare him
for eventual integration with the white population.  Naturally,
a lot of these old beliefs and superstitions will have to be eradicated,
but this will never be accomplished by ridicule.

One of the surest ways of antagonizing any race and uniting them
against you is to ridicule anything which they believe in strongly.
The Indians are intelligent and quite capable of learning
by example; and good examples are, I think,
some of the most effective teaching aids which you have at your disposal.

A New Indian Teacher
Departing for the First Day of School
Lansdowne House, Northern Ontario, Canada, September 1960
Photo by Uno Manilla
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

I have had some experiences up north which just are not explainable
by white standards, experiences, or knowledge.

While I was at Lansdowne House, I had as one of my pupils,
the grandson of the local sachem or medicine man.
He was a mischievous and troublesome child,
and on several occasions I was forced to reprimand him,
and once or twice I had to chastise him.

The medicine man took great exception to this treatment of his grandson.
He came up to the school with an interpreter and put  a curse on me.
He said I would become sick in three weeks.

Of course, I didn't believe any of his claims,
and I told him so and laughed at him.
I continued to laugh at him, right up to the twenty-first day,
when I was as sick as a dog.

The medicine man also put a curse on the male nurse
and told him that he also would get sick in three weeks.
He was one day out with Mike,
for Mike did not get sick till the twenty-second day.

I am glad that the medicine man did not get too angry at me,
for he evidently had quite powerful medicine.
He cursed one of the Indians, telling him that he would die in three months.
In spite of all medicinal and spiritual assistance, the Indian died on schedule
three months to the day after the curse was pronounced upon him.

My Father's Students
Celebrating Halloween
Lansdowne House, Northern Ontario, Canada 
October 1960
Photo by Don MacBeath
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

Conditions are improving among our native population,
and have come a long way, even since the 1940s;
but, such conditions and improvements are relative,
because the Indian was so dreadfully backward,
superstitious, and ignorant, even as recently as 1940.

There is a reasonably well-authenticated case of the indescribably
cruel and primitive treatment received by an insane woman
at Lansdowne House during the early years of the last war.
Sarah, wife of John (last name omitted), 
became insane or otherwise deranged.

John cut a hole in the floor of his shack,
two and a half or three feet square
and dug a hole of these dimensions to sufficient depth
that when Sarah was placed in the hole,
her chin was just level with the floor.
Here she spent the last four years of her life.

She was allowed out only to answer the calls of nature.
Apparently the calls she answered were many and varied,
for during this period she gave birth to two children.

The whole event, including the birth of the two children
is recorded in detail at the nursing station at Lansdowne House
and was confirmed to me by the resident priest.

What has never been explained to my satisfaction though is this:
If there was a nurse and if there was a priest at Lansdowne House,
why was this allowed to persist?

Father Ouimet and My Father
Father Ouimet was likely a young priest in Lansdowne House
during Sarah's mistreatment.
Photo by Uno Manilla
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

I experienced a few inexplicable things too, but mostly later in Lac Seul.
I don't know the source of what I heard in Lansdowne House
that bothered me more than any other.

Likely I heard it from my mother or from Maureen McRae.
To an independent, precocious girl it was unimaginable:
Indian women sometimes killed their newborn girls
to spare them a life of hardship and misery.

A Few of Dad's Girls
Celebrating Halloween
Lansdowne House, Northern Ontario, Canada 
October 1960
Photo by Don MacBeath
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

A Challenging Land
 James Bay Area

Till next time ~
Fundy Blue

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

1.  Unpublished Handbook:
     Recorded in Dad's unpublished The Northern School Teacher:  A Hand Book To Be Issued To All
     New Entrants To The Teaching Profession In The Indian Schools In The Sioux Lookout Indian
     Agency, 1966, Introduction, page 1 and Pages 22-23.

2.  Mike O'Flaherty:
     Mike was the nurse at the nursing station and had to handle whatever came up,
     especially when the planes could not fly.  My father was helping Mike type medical
     records when he came across the story of John and Sarah.

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

4.  Maureen McRae:
     Maureen was married to Duncan, one of the two Department of Transport employees
     in the community.  They were good friends of my parents, and Maureen took me under
     her wing when I arrived in Lansdowne House.  She taught me to sew.

Maureen McRae
Hauling Groceries, 1960
Photo by Don MacBeath
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

For Map Lovers Like Me:

Location of Lansdowne House
Known Today as Neskantaga
Hudson Bay Lowlands (green)

Lansdowne House Lies in the Wilderness
West of James Bay


  1. Translates as " It's The War"??? When my Mum's sister was a missionary/teacher in a very remote area in New Zealand, a older man of that bush area came, with toothache. He pointed to the offending tooth, Aunt had the pliers, the tooth came out.The next day, same man was back, and now pointed to the next tooth " Wrong one" he said. I so sympathise with your Mum, even with a good local and an oral surgeon, not my fun time at all. Love those last photos, brilliant, and the little hut with a fire inside,. the DEW looks like it goes from Prudhoe Bay or even further West, 3,600 miles, across Victoria Island, Baffin Island, and to Greenland. I also found data on the White Alice Communication Systems. ( WACS). Yes, it is so true, we can find out everything (almost) about anything at the touch of a keyboard. Have a wonderful Saturday, down here, Sunday morning, cool, damp, grey, grass is green, flowers are blooming, and like " Pippa Passes " All's right with the world". If only that were true worldwide. Fond greetings to you both up North.

    1. Hi, Jean! I'm finally back in business and can reply to your comment. I'm sorry that I accidentally published a partial draft of this post near the end of October. I'm sure it had you scratching your head in perplexity. "C'est la guerre" was used as an expression in Canada meaning roughly, "Such is life" when you are going through a rough time or situation. Now Canadians are more apt to say, "It's all good."

      I enjoyed your story about the Maori man who came for dental help. I saw the movie "Cast Away" with Tom Hanks. To me the most horrifying event in the movie was when he got an accessed tooth and had to bang it out with a rock. Dental events are my nightmares, and they can become life threatening for me.

      I can't remember what the last, brilliant photos were! LOL I often use an earlier post as the template for my current post; sometimes two. So I can have quite a scramble as I write.

      I hope that you continue to experience a welcome spring. We have sunshine and, hopefully, warmth today. Right now our fireplace is on and I'm wrapped up in a warm robe. "All's right with the world" in my small corner. I am profoundly grateful, but I often wonder why I should be fortunate when so many have such a harsh time. Sending you and Hugh hugs and well wishes!

  2. Looking back at this time living in an era now when our government is making a valiant attempt to give back to Indigenous peoples their right to live and be the way that they were for so long, it is difficult to understand the approach taken by governments back eradicate native culture and assimilate them into a culture that couldn't have been more different. No wonder it never worked and we/they are in the state in which we find ourselves.

    1. It's going to take time before our Indigenous peoples recover from this difficult Canadian past. Have a great Friday, Jim! I keep checking yours and Ron's blog posts! Take care, my friend!

  3. Exceedingly interesting FB.
    You have a very good blog.
    I should contact you by e-mail.
    I follow a blogger - very few - like about 8 I comment on - this blogger is
    also from Colorado and has a very good farming report. Lives near Delta.

    1. Cheers, Colin! Thanks for your kind words. I'll send you my email address when I get home from an appointment for which I have to leave in a couple of minutes. Thank you for visiting. Have a good one!

  4. Wouldn't want to mess with that medicine man. Makes you really think at times. Or maybe he just said three weeks so he had time to make the "curse" whole by slipping something into the water. Why such things were allowed to persist and even today some things are allowed to persist when there are people around to stop it, is beyond me. Maybe ignorance is bliss kinda thing?

    1. Hi, Pat! The Ojibwa have a tradition of strong medicine men, so I wouldn't mess with them either. There is a lot in this world that I don't understand. People should speak up more. Have a good one, my friend!

  5. What a fascinating post, as always!
    I can only say that your Dad brought such wisdom and intelligence to his position.
    So sad to know about the woman being kept in that hole and that some of the women killed their newborn baby girls. So terrible.

    1. Hi, Kay! So many terrible things go on in this world! I do hope that you are enjoying a happy Sunday with Richard! Take care, my friend!

  6. Very interesting! I have always had an interest in learning more about the people living in northern Canada. I have friends that spent several years living there.


    1. Thanks, Mary Ann! I appreciate your stopping by and a kind comment.

  7. Very nice your blog and article. I like this blog thank for sharing.


  8. I simply can't imagine how stressful it must have been to be dropped off and expected to teach without much information to prepare ahead of time. That medicine man, I'd avoid him at all costs for fear of getting cursed!

    1. Hi, Theresa! I think a lot of people were careful around the medicine man! I'm sure that it was stressful for my father, but he enjoyed his autonomy and the simplicity of living in the North. Take care!

  9. I'am glad to read the whole content of this blog and am very excited.Thank you.


  10. Incredible stories..and the variety is lovely. Love the photos too

  11. Oh dear Louise this post gave me strong shiver and i am still feeling something waving in my stomach!

    i think your father was very strong and confident person to face all these stren environment all the sudden which were totally new to him and for worst than one can think off.

    Dear Louise after my matriculation when i got govt job as teacher by the cooperation of my principal who became meanwhile superintendent of whole district schools i could not say yes to the job because the school where i was appointed was far in mountainous area which was really backward and being a young girl i could not dare to accept the offer .

    I really appreciate the recommendations of your father as i too believe that if you have to rise the one who is fallen you have to lean first to show your concern and intention instead of be opinionated and strict instantly.

    These are scary situations which you mentioned here my friend .I can imagine the dread you must have faced while being there and by realizing that medicineman could turn his curs into reality which is so frightening and undefinable though.
    i felt pity and dread for sara who was force to live like nail in floor for four years and still she gave birth two children oh my this is so inhumanly .
    killing their own girls to save them from the misery of being alive in crucial circumstances is such a shame for humanity .
    thank you for sharing these wonderful facts form your life at landshore house Louise!!!
    i liked all the photos of your father who was really a handsome man!

  12. Your blog was absolutely fantastic!
    Great deal of great information & this can be useful some or maybe the other way.
    Keep updating your blog,anticipating to get more detailed contents.


Thank you for your comments! I appreciate the time and energy you put into making them very much.