The scent of roasting meat on the open fire made Keechani smile with contentment as she worked in silence mending the pelt moccasins worn by a controversial character of a man who befriended her people. Mr. Sam was an English fur trader in charge of this third expedition into the wilds of Northern Canada in search of a North West Passage and copper mines. The year was 1772.
She knew there had been other long trips when her people had accompanied this peculiar foreign man with skin the color of milk, but until now, there had been no women. Stories of starvation and other deaths from their reckless approach to the journeys made her wonder why she and the other females had not been included from the beginning. Instinct told her they would have made a difference.
The sound of any approaching human or animal never escaped her keen hearing. The crackle of twigs made her look up as Mr. Sam appeared with the ever-present journal under his arm. She had been with the expedition long enough to understand some of his mixture of English and Chipewyan. At least he tried.
“Good evening, Keechani. I see you have almost finished that fine work on my shoes. Thank you. That should last until we get back to the fort.”
She nodded and smiled. The strange men who sailed across the ocean to buy furs usually ended up needing some native assistance since they didn’t seem to consider the importance of bringing extra footwear to replace boots that eventually wore out. The gentle man sat down on a log nearby and filled his pipe, ready to talk, whether or not she understood.
“We should make rather speedy time tomorrow, barring bad weather.”
He fiddled with that leather bound thing filled with paper. It never seemed to leave his person. She knew he made many marks in his constant logbook-companion, and that he drew pictures. Her Chipewyan father, Chief Matonabbee, had tried to explain to her the meaning of a map, and that Mr. Sam had been sent to this land by something called The Hudson’s Bay Company to explore for a waterway many hoped existed. She had traversed every step of the two-year round trip with her people, and with this one odd white man who possessed a great ability to adapt to the wilderness and keep going. No passageway was found and they brought back only a small lump of copper.
He looked up from his scribbling to speak… this time to her father who had joined him. She saw her revered parent shake his head in somber agreement from time to time. Later, he shared the conversation.
“Daughter, our sturdy friend from across the great sea tells me he has made observations about the women in this tribe. He says you play a most significant role in the success of the fur trade; that you are strong and know-- often better than the men-- how to hunt and cook and make moccasins and covering from animal skins.”
Keechani felt embarrassment at her father’s words, but did not interrupt him to protest.
He continued. “Mr. Sam says that for some reason these native women are excellent at keeping peace and negotiating disputes and that you are an important part of the fur trading for The Hudson’s Bay Company. He holds all our females in great esteem and will be putting this witness down in what he calls a book, for others to learn about.
The next morning, Mr. Samuel Hearne, first European to prove there was no waterway through the country of Canada, found his new footwear sitting outside his animal-pelt tent, perfectly patched and ready for as many steps as it took to complete his journey.
Keechani and her sisters and wives of some of the men walked ahead of the tired group, preparing in advance for the night’s encampment. She felt appreciated and honored for her contribution, and hoped that it would ever be so for generations.
Sadly, respect for the Aboriginal women’s position in their tribes eroded to horrible depths, still apparent in some places. Certain European settlers called them pagans and forced them to relinquish their children to schools where they were treated badly. Many Chipewyan husbands succumbed to alcohol and to the degenerative behavior of spousal abuse…a thing reported still to exist.
So much for charting new territories and for Mr. Hearne’s recognition of a culture of amazing women. So much for progress.
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