A Hivernant Metis Camp

Situated in the sparse timber bordering a small tributary of the Saskatchewan River, the community consisted of French half-breed hunters engaged in the usual winter quest of buffalo. The camp consisted of some thirty, or forty, huts crowded irregularly together, and built of logs, branches of pine-trees, raw-hide, and tanned and smoked skins, together with the inevitable tepee. The camp was alive with horses, dogs, women and children, all intermingled. The half-breed hunters themselves walked around in their finest – ribboned, legginged, tasseled, and capoted.



Remnants of successful hunts were lying everywhere around: glistening buffalo skulls here and there, robes stretched upon a framework of poles and drying in the sun, meat piled upon platforms so as to be out of the way of the camp dogs, wolf, fox, and other smaller furs tacked against the walls of the huts, or stretched upon miniature frames hanging from the branches of trees. The half-breed women were busy drawing water and chopping wood so that at dark every little hut would be warm and enjoy the glow of firelight and the sound of violins scraped and sawed by a long-haired virtuoso were followed by the quick thud of moccasined heels.


Inside the cabins were bare floors of pounded earth, or half-hewn boards. In the corners would be a narrow beds of boughs, covered deep with buffalo robes; a fireplace of limited dimensions, a few wooden trunks; and a crude table and a few blackened kettles. Hung on the walls would be an armory of guns, powder horns, and bullet bags, and the rafters would be festooned with a myriad of skins and furs. The floorplan was small, but was the winter home to families from fifteen to twenty members of all ages and both sexes.


As a rule, the winter hunters are of French origin, descendants of the old traders and trappers of the Northwest and X.Y. fur companies, though by long intermarriage the blood of three or four nationalities often mingles in their veins.


The winter camp is the most perfect socialist and communistic community in the world. Its members hold every article of food in common. The general occupation of women throughout the winter was cooking and seeing to the men and the swarms of children, who eat freely of buffalo or other meat. A child scarce able to crawl is often seen with one hand holding a piece of meat, the other end of which is tightly held between the teeth, while the right hand wields a knife with which it saws away between fingers and lips till the mouthful is detached. The amount of meat consumed in a winter camp is simply enormous. In every hut feasting is kept up from morning till night, and it is impossible to enter the dwelling of a half-breed without being invited to dine. As a refusal is regarded as a slight to the host. No well-regulated Metis expects to leave his neighbor's door without a feast of the best food in the house.


As a consequence of so general a commingling of the sexes in the many huts of the winter camp, it occurs that when the young men are not engaged in dancing or feasting they are usually making love; and as there is a large number of young women and girls in every camp.

They receive the attention of their lovers with a degree of propriety and maiden coyness which reflects much honor upon their native modesty.


By some seeming incongruity the winter camp is also usually home to a local priest, and also to a free-trader who usually stays with the people until the middle of April, when the finally pack up their furs, collect outstanding debts, and make preparations for a return to the Red River settlement with the proceeds of the year's trade, while the half-breeds prepare for another summer of hunting on the plains.


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Source: Robinson, H. M. (1879). The great fur land, or, sketches of life in the Hudson's Bay Territory. G.P. Putnam's Sons.


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