Algonquin Legends and Customs
Based on the Manuscript of
Juliette Gauthier de la Vérendrye
The Colors of the Sunset
There was once an Indian boy, who supposedly was very good-natured, only every day at sunset time he would start to cry and cry, and his parents could not stop him. The called upon all the Indians of their tribe to come and see him, asking them, each in turn if they knew what ailed their child.
Among the many Indians, present was an old Medicine Woman, whose name was Kisisok8e, the Sun Woman. “It is the colors of the sunset your child craves for, ” said the Medicine Woman witch. “You must go to a certain place and there, at the bottom of a large lake, you will find all the colors of the sunset.”
The child’s father consented to go in search of the colors. “The lake is very far,” the Witch Woman warned him. After many days, traveling by canoe, the father finally reached the lake of the sun. He saw many strange looking people guarding the lakeshore, and among them was an enormous fish, a polly-wog, whose name was Podonch (Oga. Pike fish), who had a great big belly and a small puckered mouth. The chief caught the polly-wog, and glued his mouth with sturgeon glue, so as the other fish on the shore would not hear him calling for help. He stunned the polly-wog and pushed him into the water, then, in one leap, the Indian dived to the bottom of the lake and started to search for the colors of the sunset. After much searching, the chief found the beautiful colors, and he brought them back to his child.
And ever after, at sunset time the father would give his son the powdered colors of the sun to play with, and never more did he cry when the sun was setting.
Podonch was severely punished by the other fish, for not having guarded the lakeshore, and allowing the chief to carry away the secret colors of the sun. And, for his punishment, they left him his gills to breath from. And, ever since, all the polly-wogs have been born with small puckered up mouths.
Three Loons Swimming Among the Water Lily Pods
The cry of the loon serves as a mating call, for the Indians. When they hear the loons calling, to one another, and uttering a certain cry, a plaintive one, they know there is a moose or deer nearby. “It is always a sure warning,” said Two Black Beaver Woman, “the loon hardly ever fails us. Otherwise, we have to use the hunter’s horn to call the moose, or deer to us.”
The Sun Woman Kisisok8e
My grandmother, the Sun-Woman Kisisok8e, never ate until the sun had touched a certain plant, then she would eat, said White Caribou Woman. She told me that when the Bear-head was in the sky, it kept turning all the time, and that is how she could tell the different seasons. The Bear-head was in the form of seven stars, and from the Bear-head she could tell if it was going to be a cold, or warm winter.
A Rattlesnake for Tootache
When we were children, said White Caribou Woman, my great-grandmother, the Sun Woman would catch a rattlesnake, and when we suffered from toothache, she would make us bite into the snake’s body several times, and when she would let the snake loose, this would cure our toothache. It also preserved our teeth from decay.
It would never consent to bite into the rattlesnake, and today my teeth are all gone. If only I had listened to my great-grandmother the Sun Woman, I would still have my teeth. My sisters and brothers all have good teeth. My great-grandmother believes in all snake cures. (There exists several species of rattlesnakes in southwestern Ontario. The massasauga is found most frequently. None are reported in Québec.)
The Indians made their own false teeth from hardwood and inserted the tooth in the cavity. Mostly cedarwood was used.
La Nouvelle-France La Fleur de Lys
The Algonkian Indians always depict La Fleur de Lys (The Lily of France, French emblem) on their basketry, as a symbol of friendship.
Many of the older Indians are named Louis, in memory of the Kings of France, said White Duck, chief of the Little Nation of the North.
Indian Children’s Clothing
All the children’s clothing was made of young deer hide, smoked, or washed. In case of illness, the children were dressed in pure white deerskins and unsmoked. White chased the evil spirit away. A newborn child has also dressed in pure white deerskins.
Head Gear Worn for Hunting White or Grey Partridge
The women wear a bark headgear dress, trimmed with partridge wings, for hunting partridge. A bard headband is also worn with feathers.
There used to be a white partridge in the Upper Gatineau valley. Therefore the women wore this headdress of partridge wings to hunt both white and grey partridge. A headdress is also made of the tail feathers of the partridge, and worn also for hunting, and for the partridge dance. The dance brings good luck, and the wings keep away the evil spirits such as the eagle feathers.
The partridge wings are also worn in the hair as an ornament. The headband made of bark undulated to imitate the mountains.
The Indian Hammock
Hammocks were hung high in the tree for a young child. Both large and small hammocks were used by the Indians. They were made of birch, ash (or mountain ash), or basswood. The basswood hammock was the best, it did not break so easily.
The hammocks were dampened, every now and then, to keep them pliable, they were good and strong and long lasting.
The hammocks were woven, basket weave (interlaced), cut in long thin strips of wood, tied at both ends with Watap (roots), and attached to two tree posts.
To hunt the beaver, the Indians would use a toboggan made of either birch bark or cedarwood, laced with babiches or thick moose sinew. The toboggan was entirely outfitted for hunting beaver.
Spears, paddles, nets, the different traps, were all placed in the front part of the toboggan. Space was left at the back for the food containers.
The toboggan was either drawn by harnessed dogs, or by hand.
Sap, Canoes, Fuel etc.
When the sap oozes from the maple tree, it is time for the Indians to gather their bark, for making their canoes and birch bark containers and pictorials. The bark is then the right color, a brick red.
Canoes are also made of elm bark.
It was an ancient custom for the Indian woman to gather birch bark fuel, for hunter’s fires.
Tooth designs were also made from leaves and used as a pattern, for making designs on moccasins or buckskin clothing.
Patterns were bitten n thin sheets of birch bark, and used for porcupine embroidery designs, for basketry, or moccasins. In each dent, a porcupine quill was inserted.
Walking sticks were also made of birch bark, and coiled around a stick. The stick was not removed.
Rattles are made of birch bark and filled with small pebbles. Pictorial designs cover the rattles.
Birch Bark Torches
There are different kinds of torches used by the Indians, some are rolled on a stick, others are made of pieces of rough outer bark, and attached to a cleft stick.
Green bark does not flare, the dry bark makes a nice bright fire. Large and small torches are used when traveling through the bush at night. Birch bark is perfumed and has a very pleasant odor when burning.
Tree fungus, inserted in a short wedge stick, and worn on the headdress, or hat, is used by the Indians, when walking through the bush, against black flies or mosquitoes. The fungus is used green, and there is no danger of fire. The smaller kind is used.
Blue, black and red were the most difficult dyes or colors to obtain among the Indians. They were kept most preciously and were used only on special occasions such as ceremonial feasts.
The Indians would paint their faces and their bodies, using these colored dyes for their secret markings. The women were entrusted with this form of decoration, working at times an entire day on one single body. Red and yellow ochres were also used.
The dyes were kept, some of them in small birch bark envelope-shaped containers; others were kept in powdered form in small buckskin pouches. The paint brushes were made of moose or deer hair, and fastened to a small stick. Small twigs were also used to apply the paint.
A slight coat of gease was first applied to the skin. Few mordants were used as a fixative for the skin, grindstone (sandstone) being the favorite mordant used among the Indians, or certain astringent barks, infused. many vegetable dyres, or mineral, have their own mordants. Wood ashes were often used.
The women always went in search of dye plants, or minerals, never the men. No one was ever told where the dyes had been found. “Only an Indian can keep a secret,” said Black Beaver woman.
Our Sledge Dogs
In summer we could let our dogs loose in the bush. We could not care for some hundred dogs, dog food being scarce. In the fall, when the first snow fell, we would set traps in the bush to catch the dogs; they had almost become wild. We would pad the traps with soft feathers, so they would not get wounded. We fed them and harnessed them all winter.
White Caribou Woman relates how the Algonkian Indians of Baskatang would sow their corn first in clay. A large bag was made, the clay inserted, and the corn kernels were planted in the clay, and in a few days the corn would germinate, and then it was planted in the ground. The bag must have been made of untanned leather, so as to hold the humidity. It would think the raw skin better, such as the one used for holding the sap.The winter corn was braided and hung to dry, and used when needed, steeped in water overnight.
Fishing in Wintertime
We would fish in wintertime by drilling holes in the ice. To attach the fish, we would through bones or deer or moose in the hole. It seemed the fat from the bones would rise to the surface, and attach the fish. We always had a better catch, when we used bones, said White Caribou Woman. The old bones were the best. We would make our chisels out of bone, and in later years the Indians used the steel chisel.
Fishnets were made from willow bark, interlaced. The teeth were used in bending the bark, and splicing it.
Fish eggs, the spawn of the carp, is used as food by the Indians. We would gather the spawn on the tenth of May.
Turtle eggs, birds, seagulls were also eaten by the Indians.
Canulah, the Fox and the Bear
In springtime, in thawing season, Canulah, and Indian fisherman was fishing through the ice. The fish he caught he put on his sled, and started for home. There was a fox, who had crossed his trail, ahead of him. The fox lay on the ground, as if he were dead, so the fisherman, when passing by, grabbed the fox the tail, and put him on his sled.
But the fox came to and spied the fish, so he jumped off the sled, and fled into the woods, carrying away all of the fish. On his way, the fox met with a bear. The bear, on seeing the fox with the fish, asked him where he got it. “I just sat on the edge of a hole, on the ice, and when the fish would nibble at my tail, I would quickly jump away, and the fish would cling to the end of it”.
So the clumsy bear thought he could do the same. But he sat on the edge of the ice, and he put all of his tail into the hole. he sat too long and froze most of his tail off. And ever since, all the bears have been born with very short tails.
“In the olden days, and in another world,” said Canulah, “all the bears had big long tails”. (Legends of the Bush-Men Indians).
When Hiwatha was a small boy, he lived with his grandmother Nokomis. He always wanted to sing. “You must go the forest and listen to the birds and copy them”, said Nokomis. Each morning, at sunrise, Hiwatha would go to the forest and listen to the birds singing, but he never could retain their songs. “You must try once more”, said his grandmother. The following morning Hiwatha went back to the forest, he listened and listened to the birds, and tried to imitate their songs. Suddenly he heard some beautiful music and it came from afar. Walking slowly, he followed the echo. Then he came upon a high waterfall, it was a waterfall that gave forth music. At once Hiwatha started to sing, and he called his song the laughing waters. Out of the wood of alder, he carved a flute and played his song. Ever after, when Hiwatha went to the forest, he would take his flute along and would play and sing the song of the laughing waters to the warbling of the birds. “And that is how the Indians obtained their music”, said White Caribou Woman.
(1) “Algonquin Legends and Customs”, Daniel Clément & Noeline Martin, Canadian Ethnology Service & Canadian Museum of Civilization, The Algonquins, edited by Daniel Clément, 1996, pages 123-154. Through these excerpts from the manuscript of Juliette Gauthier de la Vérendrye, Algonquin customs and legends, collected in the 1940s, the words of some Algonquin men and women from the Upper Gatineau valley were brought to life.
(2) Hiwatha is the name of an Iroquois hero. It is included here as an example of Iroquian influence on the Algonquin.