Tales from the Welsh Marches

We have a wild flower garden at the top of our lawn. It was an initial attempt to reduce the amount of mowing we have to do here, but it has proved to be so much more than that. Today, it is a froth of white cow parsley with bright yellow cow slips peeping out underneath. But it reminded me of another flower garden from a long time ago.

The Flowered Indian Trail

by Wilma Hayes

When northeastern Saskatchewan was surveyed and settled by Europeans at the beginning of the 20th Century, a system of ancient track ways already existed on the landscape.

These were the Indian trails.

Found throughout the province they soon disappeared under ownership and plough and the migratory life of the native population soon came to an end.  But if you know where to look, these pathways to the past might still be found.  

One such trail crossed our farm east of Bjorkdale (N½, 13, 43, 12, W2).  My grandfather, W L Hayes, purchased this half section from the railway in about 1926. It lay along one side of a shallow valley and in walking the land, he discovered a well-rutted trail across its eastern end.  The ruts were the product of travel by generations of Cree Indians with horse-drawn travois. The travois was made from two long poles lashed together at one end and secured over the back of the horse, leaving the other ends to drag on the ground behind. Between them a sling carried the goods that the Indians took from camp to camp. The trail ran from the Nut Lake Reserve near Kelvington to outposts further north and in a sheltered dip on my grandfather’s land was a regularly used campsite. It was well chosen as a small creek ran through it and the site was sheltered by a grove of small aspen trees.  Wild herbs and berries grew strongly and there are probably wild strawberries, blueberries, pincherries and saskatoons there still.  

By the end of the first quarter of the century, some of the Indian people still lived off the land and although there was shelter and safety to be found on the reserves in the wintertime, spring, summer and fall saw them following the old ways.

The Indians were sensitive to camping on private land and so when it was sold to my grandfather, they looked immediately for other land on which to camp for the summer.  Such sites were by now becoming more and more difficult to find and my grandfather gave them permission to remain.  Throughout the years that they still came, my grandfather and later my father came to know them well and often offered them work on other parts of the farm. The older men of the camp were honourable, hardworking and sensitive to the times around them – times that must have been unsettling and uncertain.  

Naturally, their Indian names were difficult for us to understand and so they and we adopted a system of “englishifying” that seemed to satisfy everyone.  There was Charlie Tom, Jack Squirrel, Indian Frank and Indian Margaret.  All of them had numerous and beautiful children with round faces, dark hair and dark eyes, although we had to be quick to get a glimpse of this charm since they were always shy and ducked quickly behind their mothers’ and grandmothers’ skirts.   As a small child myself, I remember seeing their white canvas tents in the valley, columns of fine white smoke curling tightly into the summer sky and the children who, unlike us, seemed to have complete immunity to the worst of the province’s carnivorous mosquitoes. They would depart as suddenly as they appeared and there would be hardly any sign that they had been there at all. Apart from ruts in the earth, the only other evidence left behind was a wealth of fine archaeology dropped in the sandy soil for the future to seek and understand.

One of the older Indian men known to my grandfather was called Nikotash.  It’s unlikely that this was his Indian name, but it was as close as we could get.  He was tall and upright with long thin braids, a face and skin that hid his age so well that we never knew just how old he was.  He was old enough to have received a medal from Queen Victoria – an icon that he wore with considerable pride.

Nikotash and his wife visited my grandparents often, where she would sit cross-legged on the floor with her face to the wall, too shy to communicate.  Nikotash and my grandfather would talk and in the manner of men past and present, they put the world to rights and planned the future for their children.

My father recalls my grandfather hiring Nikotash and several others to clear some land for him.  The Indians arrived, with children, horses and all and promptly disappeared into the bush.  For weeks there seemed to be no activity and many a neighbour nodded to another at the futility of hiring Indians for any kind of work.  Suddenly, one day, they discovered the entire area cleared of standing timber.  It seemed to have happened overnight.  What my grandfather knew that the others did not, was that the Indians cleared land from the inside out, rather than the other way round!

In time of course, the old people died and the younger ones no longer felt the pull of the land.  The summer time migrations slowed and eventually ceased, but the little triangle of land on which they camped and over which the rutted trail ran was never ploughed in the 70 years that it remained in our family.  It bloomed each summer with wild onions, Bergamot, Three-Flowered Avens, Yarrow, Bluebells, Tiger Lilies, Wild Liquorice, Cowslips and tall, soft prairie grass.  The meadow provided beauty and a connection between antiquity and the present day; a floral legacy from the people who used them, understood them and left them for us to love.

Wilma Hayes