Told by Eliza Bobbish Webb, Chisasibi
Transcribed and translated by Brian Webb
I wanted to share the story of the times when I went with my father on the hunt. This was before his sons were capable of hunting. My two brothers were younger than I. He told me to help him out all the time. I was at the age to help. I don’t exactly know how old I was when I first accompanied my father on the hunt.
This was what we first did in the fall. This was when we still lived at Ahchigunigip (Seal River). We always lived at Ahchigunigip. We paddled there. There were times when only my father and I paddled when my mother was not well. It seemed as though my father and I were the only ones paddling even though that place is far. We also sailed when the wind was in our favour.
In the fall, the seal was really sought after. The seal was used for everything. Boots were made from the seal. The meat was eaten. The seal oil was saved. Back then, store-bought lard wasn’t around as much to be used for making bannock or used to dip your food that was too lean. This was why the seal was very important. The seal was also fed to the dog teams. The dogs were strong and robust because of the raw seal blubber that was fed to them.
We lived at the mouth of Ahchigunigip where people used to hunt for geese. Geese were harvested and were sometimes salted. The salted geese were stored in barrels. People also made dried goose. The geese that were salted were kept in barrels.
People stayed there for a long time, only until the geese were gone for the winter. Sometimes, the shore would have a crust of ice all around. This was when we traveled up the river to where the trees are. There are no trees at the mouth of the river at Ahchigunigip. Only shrubs grow there.
We traveled up the river and lived where the trees are. The snow fell and before the frost set in, my father would tell me to go with him down to the coast. We sometimes used the dog team. He would tell me to go with him down to the coast to look for seal. The ground would be covered with snow but the water on the bay had not frozen yet. We would head down to the coast with our dog team. We didn’t live that far away. We lived at the treeline. We lived in tents. My father and I headed to the coast and strapped the canoe to the sled so that we could paddle around. Sometimes, we left our canoe out there near the coast. My father tethered the dogs at the stop where we paddled out from. I was at the bow of the canoe and my father was at the stern. This was what we did when the wind was totally calm.
There were times when so many seals would pop up to breathe and my father didn’t have time to have a good aim to shoot them. I would tell him, “Father, I’m so afraid of the seal popping up.” He would say, “What will the seal do to you? It won’t bother us. The seal doesn’t bother around with anybody.” I was probably still very young when we did this to be so fearful of the seal that popped up to breathe on the water.
Sometimes, he would kill one seal or two seals or even three seals. We would head back to the shore. We had not paddled out far. We paddled to where the islands were and simply floated there. You only floated when you hunted for seals. You didn’t paddle around. This was when the water was calm. We would paddle to shore to bring in the seals my father had killed. We headed back to our home. We used the Inuit-type sled, the long one. We took the seals back home that my father had killed. He would ask me, “Why did you fear the seals so much?” I would say, “I thought that they would tip over our canoe.” He would say, “Don’t be so silly. Seals don’t do that to people.”
At our camp, he would distribute his catch with the others we lived with at camp. Everyone was given meat and blubber. My mother cleaned the sealskins and I used to help her. I don’t really remember my sister Maria living with us. She was in the hospital for a long time. This was before when I went to residential school. A winter lodge was made. Our tents still stood there and the people went over during the day to build the winter lodge.
I always knew my father wanted the lodge to be built near a good source of firewood. That area was burnt by a forest fire. This was at A Nadoyashich (Little Point). This was an area of burnt standing trees from a forest fire long ago. It had a good supply of firewood. This was where we lived near. The groups of trees that didn’t burn in the forest fire, this was where our lodge stood. This was to be the shelter from the wind and blizzard. Our camp always stood in the lee.
It was only later that I knew why my father wanted to live in that area so as to not too far from firewood. Only women gathered firewood in the past. The women secured the firewood. The young girls went with their mothers to get firewood and brought firewood back to camp. The teaching started at a young age. This was what I used to do as well.
Then the extreme cold set in. When the nets were first set beneath the ice, the fish were so beautiful, the ones laden with roe. These were the fish that people really wanted. These fish were roasted whole. They were so delicious when they were roasted whole on a roasting stick. When the cold set in, my father told me to accompany him to set a fishnet under the ice. When it was safe to be on the ice, we set the fishnets beneath the ice. I would help him. I mostly brought the things to him that he needed. I would also pull the net string.
In mid-winter, it was very cold. It seemed to be much colder back then than it is now. It used to be extremely cold. We didn’t have much warm clothing either. I remember my grandmother. I used to stay with her. She would give me rabbitskin to wear as socks. My father and I would set out by dogsled. I was filled with joy as we rode on the dogsled. Sometimes we would be traveling for a while. We went through the forest and on lakes. I would hear my father chanting as we rode on the sled. I wonder what he sang about. It was probably about what he was doing and what he saw. I was happy to hear my father sing. I knew that he was content with what we did.
When we checked the nets, I would be so cold. My feet would be so cold even though I was wearing rabbitskins as socks. I would be so cold. It wasn’t only one net that we checked, we checked many fishnets. My father also tended the nets for others who could not do much for themselves in old age. He would set the nets and check the nets and we would bring their fish to them.
After we checked all the nets, there were times when we caught so many whitefish and sometimes lake trout. My father would say, “Let’s go to the trees and we’ll make a fire and we’ll drink.” I would be so cold. I would not tell him that I was cold.
We used to check the fishnets. My father made me pull the net string to pull the net under the ice. We would go ashore to where the trees were. There were times when the forest was still green and hadn’t been touched by a forest fire. But we still made a fire there. My father made a huge fire and I was filled with happiness because I was so cold.
We would bring along a fish pot and this was how he boiled fish. He would boil a fish that was slightly big. He’d say, “We’ll eat this one.” I was filled with joy to be with my dad. When the fish was done, we’d eat. If there were spruce boughs around, this is what we used as plates. He scooped out the fish from the pot and place it on the boughs and this was how we eat. I was filled with happiness. The hot broth was so delicious as well. This was what warmed me up. I felt like the cold left me. We then got ready to head back home. We left the net string there. As we traveled back home, I would start feeling the cold again because the ride was so long. There were times when we traveled against the wind. These are my memories of being with my father.
When he hunted for seals during the winter, I never went with him. The other men at camp went with him. But during the times before the harsh cold, that was when I went with him on the seal hunt. These are my memories of my father.
I was always glad to go hunting – ptarmigan hunting. I would leave on my own to go hunting. Many times, I brought food back home for us to eat. Others have mentioned witnessing the times of hunger. I did not experience this myself. But there were times when food was barely enough. The store-bought food always seemed to run out. This was what people ran out of. People always had the traditional Cree food.
Scaffolds were made to keep meat frozen during the winter. Ladders were also made. This was where people kept fish. Fish was what sustained the people. Fish were plentiful where we stayed. I used to go fishing and hunting seals with my dad.