Survival Story
Told by John Blackned

Many people in southern Iyiyuuschii still remember Richard Preston. As a young anthropologist, Preston came up to live with the Crees in the mid-1960s. He observed the Cree culture at work in the bush, and recorded many great stories, events, and the Elders and hunters of the day. His observations were published in his 1976 graduate thesis, Cree Narrative: Expressing the Personal Meanings of Events.

Preston, now a professor emeritus at McMaster University, has graciously agreed to let us reprint one of the stories. -Ed.

This is another story about a very old man. He was older than the man who ate his moosehide pants. The only way he could walk was with a cane. He depended on a stick for a cane. If the people don’t have any food, they don’t travel very far but move more often. That is why they decided to leave the old man behind. They would rather leave him behind than wait for his death. They said to the old man, “We are leaving you behind. Don’t bother coming.” The old man did not try to go.

He thought, “I guess this is the last time I will see winter.” They left him behind. He did not have any food. The people had hung fish baits on a tree. He started collecting these old fish baits. He had a gun. They did not take his gun away. Also, he had the coverings on his tent.

He tried hunting for partridges, although he used a cane. He tried to fish. Finally, he managed to fish. Sometimes he would hunt for partridges. He would make new trails to hunt for partridges. He was able to kill enough to eat. At last, he could kill very little.
It was long ago, when his Mistabeo left him, as his Mistabeo had said to him, “I am going to leave you.” He had asked his Mistabeo, “Why do you leave me? You came to me, I didn’t go to you. I will ask you once more to come to me. When I am starving, I want you to come to me.” His Mistabeo had told him, “You think you will always be a good hunter and will not starve.”

Finally, he could not walk. Then, he started melting snow from inside his tent for water. He had rebuilt his tent in an area with a lot of trees, he thought, “I guess this is where I will lie, nobody will be able to prepare me for my death.” All he did was sleep, sleep, as he did not have any food. He was lying down for two days already, and it was over 10 days that he did not eat.

When he woke up, it was daylight. He thought, “I still can see another day.” He thought, “Maybe, this is my last day.” He was not asleep as he was just lying there. He made a fire. He still had some firewood inside his tent. He had closed his door.

Then he heard someone at the door of his tent. Here was his Mistabeo. He thought, “I guess this is his visit when I told him to see me once more.” He thought, “I don’t know why he came to see me because I am going to starve now.” His Mistabeo asked him, “Why are you lying there?” He answered him, “I haven’t eaten for a long time, that is why I am lying like this.”

He had tried to go hunting in the area where the partridges would be plentiful, but he had not seen any partridges.

His Mistabeo said to him, “If you go east, straight ahead, there is someone there who wants to see you. There are a lot of women there too, who would like to see you. Here you are lying down like this!”* He answered back, “How could I see them because I haven’t eaten and I can’t move?” His Mistabeo told him, “Why can’t you walk? Look, here is a partridge outside your tent on a tree,” as Mistabeo opened the door of his tent. He sat up. He thought, “I am not going to make a fire.” As soon as Mistabeo told him about the partridges outside his tent, his Mistabeo went out.

Mistabeo had told him that he was sure he saw two partridges outside his tent. The old man had already prepared a hole in his tent for his gun. He had tied his gun to one of the tent poles. He thought his gun would rot. He hated to see it rot as he was very fond of holding it. He tried to get up, he was able to move. He thought he was sure he would be able to go out. He had crawled around before he could get up.

His Mistabeo had never told him a lie. He went out. As he opened the door of his tent, he thought, “I am going to look for the meat” (partridges in the trees). As he went out, he saw a partridge on a tree close by. Quickly, he took his gun. It was loaded. He shot it. As he shot it, he fell back. At least, he could see that he killed it as it came down from the tree. He saw another partridge. He took his partridge and his gun inside his tent so he could load his gun. He took his gun out again. He shot the other partridge very well, as he did not eat for a long time. He took his other partridge and started to pluck it. He thought, “Now I can have food in me.” As he was looking around, he saw another partridge. He thought, “Mistabeo never told me about the third partridge.” He loaded his gun again. He shot it and, again, he fell back. He tried to stand still. He went to get his third partridge. Then, he started to cook, only one partridge. He ate half of it.

He thought, “I am going to try and put my snowshoes on.” He thought, “There is no reason why I can’t walk, because I ate.” Sure, he was able to walk as he carried his gun. He was walking around hunting for partridges. He saw other partridges. He killed a lot of partridges. He thought, “I will be able to walk better again.” He thought, “I will be able to go and see the person who wanted to see me.” (His Mistabeo had told him that he would be able to kill a lot of meat.)

His Mistabeo had told him before of the place where someone was awaiting him (where there was a porcupine up in a tree). He thought, “I will not go there right away, I will try to go tomorrow.” He thought to himself, “If I eat again, I will have a lot more strength in my legs.” The next morning, he started on his way. As he was walking, here, he reached a porcupine up in a tree. He killed it. He left it there. He went on again. His Mistabeo had told him that those who wanted to see him were out on a lake, a small lake, not a very big one, that is where they are.

As he walked on, he recognized a lake. Here, there were a lot of caribou gathering around. He started to count them, as when he used to hunt caribou, he would always count them. Of course, he had his bullets with him. The reason he took his gun was when his Mistabeo told him that someone is waiting for him, he thought he referred to more than one someone waiting for him.

Then he started going to where the caribou would be closer. There were 20 of them. As soon as he was close, he started to shoot them. Again, he fell back. As he went on shooting, he fell back after every shot. He tried to stand still but he fell back. He tried very hard to stand still. At last, he killed them all. He started to work on them. He managed to ccver them up, close to the shore. He took a little of the meat to take home as he still remembered his porcupine and partridges.

He decided he would move to the lake and rebuild his tent there. As he was working on his caribou meat, his Mistabeo talked to him. His Mistabeo said to him, “They don’t have anything, the ones that left you. You have been given a lot of meat, although you are alone. Really, they don’t have anything. You can’t hardly see their faces. They are always very short of food. Sometimes, they don’t eat for two or three days. You only didn’t have food for a short time.” This happened around the last of February. He went home with the meat of the caribou that he carried home, he had a feast for himself. He also had some caribou fat. Then he moved to the lake.

He did not have a lot of tent-coverings and so he used a lot of boughs. He cleaned all of the caribou meat. He made fat from all of the marrow of the bones. It took him a long time, as he was alone. Finally, he knew that spring was coming and that he would stay there until summer.

Where he left his canoe for the winter, he saw another canoe before his canoe. He was closer to the other canoe than his canoe. While he was working on his meat, he could see the geese flying. He always saw the spring birds and ducks. He was very pleased when he saw the flying of geese, ducks and other birds. He had been sure he was going to starve to death. At last, he had all of his caribou meat dried.

He thought he would not stay where they used to stay in the spring. He was in a different place. He thought he would not bring his canoe yet. He thought, “When they reach my canoe and see it, they will be positive that I am dead.”

He started to move again. He moved all of his meat. His Mistabeo had told him, “Not one of them will have killed any deer when they see you again.” He had also told him that all of the meat that was supposed to be given to them was all given to him.

When the people finally came for their canoes, the old man’s canoe was still there. The people are not sure that he is dead. They paddled back from their hunting grounds. The old man’s canoe was still at the same place where they left it. Now the people were very sure that the old man was dead. They were paddling for awhile, and they saw a smoke at the point. They all wondered, “Who can it be?”

The old man had rebuilt his food-storage stand (cache) in a place where it could be easily seen from a distance. They did not think he was the old man, they thought he was another person.

The old man had enlarged his tent. When he saw them, he entered his tent and watched them from a hole in his tent. Finally, he heard them coming to shore. He did not move. At last, he could hear their footsteps to his tent. Finally they opened the door. They all asked him, “What kind of a stranger are you, not to come down to meet visitors?” The old man answered them, “I am the stranger who you left behind to starve to death.” He started to laugh after he answered them. He said to them, “Here I am sitting here; you all thought I would starve to death.”

All of the Indians were very surprised. They had thought he would starve to death as he was not able to move or hunt.

He said to them, “Come on in, come on in. Well, come in.” His Mistabeo had told him that the people would be coming back. He had cooked some meat. He said to them, “Go in, go in.” He asked them to tell a story of all the happenings since they had left him.

They told him that they were sure that they were going to die as they did not have any food. He told them that he was like that too as he was alone trying to hunt. He started to dish out the meat from his kettle. He started to feed them.

He said to them, “This is from the person who you left behind and thought he would starve to death.” After he gave them some food, he told them that they thought he would not be able to survive and also that he was not capable of hunting. He said to them, “Now, tell me a story of the number of caribou you killed.” They answered him, “We did not kill a single caribou.” He said to them, “I only remember hunting for caribou once, but there were 20 of them.” They were all very surprised, wondering how he could possibly hunt, what with the poor condition he was in when they left him.

He told them to enlarge his tent. They all helped enlarge his tent. Finally, he had a big feast. He said to them, “I will not be satisfied until we eat all of the meat I have. Then I will know that it was not wasted. You should be sorry for leaving me behind. If you did not leave me behind, you could have been all feeding on this meat all winter. Never leave me behind again until I die. Never leave me again. If I starve to death for leaving me behind, if I starve to death, you all will starve to death, too. I did not say anything to you when you left me. I only thought that I probably will not starve since they left me to starve.”

After all of his meat was eaten, he stopped having feasts. They started to live with him until his death after that.

*Note here that references to persons are Cree metaphors referring to animals that are desirable for food.