Dorothy Polson embodies the beauty and strength of a traditional Muskeego grandmother. Turning 70 this year, Dorothy was bom in Amos, Quebec, where she still resides. Her parents were born in Waskaganish in the James Bay region of Quebec and raised Dorothy speaking her Cree language and living traditionally off the land.
“I was born on the land and have been trapping, hunting and fishing for more than 50 years,” Polson said in an interview in 2000. “In 1978 two game wardens brought me a medium sized beaver and asked me if I could skin it because they wanted to know how it died, so I did. They were more excited about me skinning up that beaver in 20 minutes than they were about how it died. I didn’t know that they were timing me, 1 just skinned it up the way I always did. They told me about a trapping conference in Quebec and said that trappers competed in skinning competitions there.” So Dorothy gave competition skinning a try and from 1980 to 1993 she won the contest for the Women’s Canadian Championship for beaver skinning and handling at the Annual Meeting of the Ontario Trappier’s Association ten times, seven times consecutively, 1980 – 86, ’88, ’92 and 1993.
“Dorothy is a real treat to watch as she is a traditional woman who rough skins the beaver and then uses a bone scrapper to scrap the pelt. It is rare to be able to watch someone with the skills to still use these types of tools. It’s a shame that she couldn’t make it this year,” said Giselle Downey, Manager of Trans Canada Trapline Co. Inc. (a trapping supply company) and wife of Mark Downey, the president of the Fur Harvesters Auction Inc. at this year’s convention.
Caught off guard and without her skinning tools at the annual Fur Harvesters Convention in North Bay in 2000 (the last time she attended), Poison found herself once again competing. Many seasoned trappers and spectators gathered around her table eagerly awaiting a chance to watch a “traditional” at work, especially one whose reputation preceded her.
Polson, like many other Native trappers, doesn’t consider herself a professional trappier; “professional” being the title that non-Native trappers give themselves. Poison shares her stories about trapping and hunting with a sense of humour common to Aboriginal people. She finds it humorous that she is considered a “professional” for doing something that she was taught to do at a young age in order to survive, handling pielts that result from trapi-ping is something that Poison enjoys doing. She is very humble and somewhat shy when talking about a lifetime spent in the bush.
“My mother loves what she does, she doesn’t look at skinning up a beaver as a career, it is more like second nature to her. In the winter of 1999-2000 hunters in our village brought her about a hundred beaver and she skinned them all. She goes hunting by herself, gets her moose and brings it back to town on her own or she organizes her friends, many are widows now and they go off hunting together. They always bring back their moose,” said Alfred Polson, Dorothy’s son.
Many whispered comments were overheard during Polson’s skinning competition at the 2000 convention, which she completed with a combined time of 30 minutes and 27seconds, taking third place and this with borrowed tools. Many spectators, trappers and nontrappers alike were keenly interested in her use of a traditional moose bone scrapper.
“I could have done up that beaver in about 20 minutes if I’d had my own tools,” she explained at the time. “I use a bear bone scraper that belonged to my parents and it is a lot lighter than the moose scraper I borrowed to use today.” “My mother can do up a small beaver, skinned and nailed to a beaver board in 10 to 11 minutes,” stated Gloria, Polson’s proud daughter.
After Poison was finished her event and the convention official was putting the beaver carcass in a bag she asked him what he was going to do with the beaver. He informed her that it was going in the garbage, “Why do you want it?” he asked her.
“There’s a darn good mead there,” Polson laughed as he handed her the beaver.
Dorothy Polson may not have taken first place at the 2000 convention, but then she didn’t even intend to compete. And she still managed to bring home supper.
Polson laughs these days as she explains how she has to camouflage the wild meat that she prepares for her grandchildren to trick them into eating beaver, moose, bear and rabbit.
“I was raised on a diet of wild meat and food that we hunted and gathered. I raised my 13 children on a diet of mostly wild meat and traditionally prepared food. But my grandchildren were not raised on wild meat and are more used to fast food. But if 1 cook moose with rice and soya sauce like a stir fry or with macaroni they’ll eat it or if I cook moose or bear steaks they’ll eat it. If I cook moose meat in the oven as a roast they won’t touch it. I think that it is very important for kids today to get the benefits from eating traditional foods it gives them a connection to their culture, their history. I wish that my grandchildren liked to eat the foods that we grew up with the way that we ate it but they won’t. So I have to be creative with how I prepare the traditional foods that I give my grandkids. They won’t eat beaver unless I cook it outside over an open fire then they’ll eat it. They like rabbit with dumplings though.
Asked if she and her widowed friends got their moose last fall, Poison said that she and her widowed neighbour and friend who is 62 still spend time on the land together hunting, trapping and fishing. Last fall they were unable to go hunting but the hunters in the community made sure that Dorothy still got her moose.
“Some of the younger hunters brought me a moose. They left it for me in my backyard to skin and butcher. That’s the hard work. Last fall some of our trappers also brought me about 30 beaver to skin up for them which 1 did. So even when I can’t get out into the bush I am given a good supply of wild meat for my freezer,” laughs Polson.
“It’s been 15 years since my husband died and now with a house in the village to care for it’s harder to spend lots of time on the land. When I was raising my kids we were on the land all the time. Before my husband died fifteen years ago he did a lot of the work but when he died I had to do all the work. My younger children were till still at home then and I had to provide for them. I didn’t have a choice the work had to be done.
“The kids these days have it so much easier. I like to take my grandchildren out on the land as often as I can. My kids come to our camp when they can but most of them sure working. 1 have one grandson who is six who wants to be with me in the bush all the time that makes me proud. In May the kids get a kind of spring break, that’s when I bring my grandchildren into the bush with me and we go to our camp. We trap beaver, set snares for rabbit. We spend a week at our camp in the bush. We’re all looking forward to doing some fishing too.” Polson is also busy finishing a Cree language and culture course that she started in 1999. This program is affiliated with McGill University. She will graduate in June and then intends to teach language and traditional cultural skills to the children and youth at the school in her community.
“There were 10 sessions of 50 hours each and I just completed the last 50-hour session. I’ve learned all the different Cree dialects in the James Bay region. I’ve relearned a lot of the language that I grew up with but had forgotten since my parents passed away. I raised my kids speaking English. That was a mistake, and now I want to teach my grandchildren and the other children of our community. The hard part was learning fill the different dialects. We went to different communities to learn each dialect, in each community I kept getting told, ‘that’s not how we say it, this is the way we say it.’ We also learned about traditional foods and cooking, tanning and moccasin making and a lot of other cultural things that my mother and grandmother did when I was growing up,” explained Polson.
Gloria Polson is very proud of her mother’s accomplishments. “Graduating from this course is important to her and has helped her to remember her language,” she said. “Unfortunately, she didn’t raise us speaking our language even though she was fluent in Cree then. One of my favourite memories of my mum when we were growing up was that on Sundays she would sit us all in the living room and she would sing Anglican hymns to us in Cree. I’m glad now that she has all her language back.” This grandmother is also busy with her grandchildren’s hockey and broom ball schedules and tournaments and is currently preparing to head into the bush the first week of May with her friend to trap spring beaver to fill the freezer.
“I was talking with an old man the other day and he told me that the Elders say that this year the spring will be late and long. They know this he said because the cow moose that they have shot recently are carrying calves that are still too small to be bom soon like they should be. The old ones know these things. The fall was good for trapping and hunting but it was longer than usual and now the spring say the old ones will also be long,” stated Polson.
Dorothy Polson is a wise and knowledgeable traditional woman yet even at almost 70 years young she still consults with her Elders whom she says know many things that kids today would be wise to learn.
Abby Cote, North Bay Correspondent