At a time when Indigenous people couldn’t leave the reserve without travel documents, new friendships developed in unlikely places
On a bright spring day in 1909, my great-grandfather, James Greyeyes, set out to capture wild horses on the Plains of Saskatchewan. He was one of the few Cree people who was free to travel off reserve, at a time when First Nations people were forbidden to leave without travel documents. This is because he and the Indian Agent that oversaw the affairs of our community had struck a deal.
James caught wild horses, tamed them and sold them to local farmers and labourers. Trading in horses was how James fed his family. He bought his freedom from the Pass System by giving the Indian Agent a cut of the profits.
Born in 1877, when the Cree still roamed free on the Great Plains, James would become a witness to the end of our way of life and the beginning of the cultural genocide orchestrated by the Government of Canada and the Christian churches. By age nine, his whole world had changed. The last of the Cree to roam the Plains were forced to live on reserves.
Fed a strange new diet of scarce government rations, they experienced widespread hunger. When word started to spread that the local Oblate missionary, Father Louis Cochin, was taking in male pupils and feeding them lunch, James was sent to study under him. He was converted into the Catholic faith and learned how to read, write and speak Latin to relieve his hunger pains.
Seeking an opportunity to extinguish any vestige of nomadic nostalgia, the Government of Canada conducted an experiment to convert several Indigenous communities to agriculture. As a young man, James readily took to farming and grew barley, oats and hay on his allotted 160 acres. Despite his success, agriculture did not provide him with a decent living.
The success of First Nations farmers like James led to complaints of unfair competition from white farmers. Consequently, Indian Agents were instructed by government authorities to sell Indigenous crops at inflated prices, favouring non-Indigenous farmers.
Indigenous farmers could consume eggs, milk and butter but were forbidden from slaughtering animals entrusted to their care, forcing many Cree men to sustain their families through hunting and trapping off reserve, surreptitiously, without permission to leave — a serious offence under the Pass System. The horses were James’s sole property.
It is for this reason that on that fateful spring day in 1909, James set out to capture more horses. As he rode onto the Plains, he came across a new settlement of Doukhobors, Russian exiles who had recently arrived in Canada. What he saw there shook him to the core. The new settlers were breaking ground so they could sow crops and, since they didn’t have horses, the women of the colony were pulling the ploughshare, ankles and skirts deep in mud.
After watching the scene for a few minutes, James turned back and headed home. He selected some of his own horses and returned to the Doukhobor settlement. As he spoke only Cree and the Doukhobors only knew Russian, he made them understand through gestures and a little Latin, that he was lending them his horses to plough their fields. He then continued his journey to capture wild horses.
‘When I asked kôhkom about it, her eyes grew very wide’
Three weeks later, James returned to the settlement to collect his horses. He was happy to see that the crops had been planted and were sprouting out of the ground, but when he saw his horses, he immediately grew angry. They were in very poor shape. They had lost weight and one of them was limping. Without one word, he took his horses and headed home.
On the way back to the reserve, he had time to reflect. He reasoned with himself that as newcomers, the Doukhobors may not have had the necessary knowledge or resources to take proper care of horses. So, he returned to the settlement the next day with fresh horses. This time he was accompanied by a young farmhand who was instructed to stay with the Doukhobors and teach them how to care for horses.
When he came back a month later, he found the horses in good health. He decided there and then to gift the horses to the Doukhobor settlement. Over the years, James enlisted other people from Muskeg Lake to help the Doukhobors establish themselves in Canada.
I came across this story while I was conducting research into Cree terminology related to horses when I was a graduate student. When I asked kôhkom (Grandmother) if she knew anything about it, her eyes grew very wide. She said that she had never heard this story as it happened four years before she was born, but that it explained a lot of things.
She told me that throughout her childhood, a man with a long grey beard would visit near the end of summer. The children were terrified of him and would hide when he came. His long beard was not unlike the beards worn by some Oblate fathers and the children feared that he had come to take them to residential school.
Kôhkom said the man would always come with a cart full of gifts for the family: clothes, blankets, baked goods, tobacco and intricately embroidered tablecloths, pillowcases and handkerchiefs that her mother would only take out on very special occasions. Kôhkom said that this man would sit and smoke with her father. They spoke very little but when they did, they communicated in Latin.
Manon Tremblay is the senior director of Indigenous Directions.
Donskov, Andrew. (2019). Leo Tolstoy and the Canadian Doukhobors: A Study in Historic Relationships. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press.
Newhouse, David R., Voyageur, Cora J., and Dan Beavon. (2010). Hidden in Plain Sight, Contributions of Aboriginal Peoples to Canadian Identity and Culture. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Joseph, Bob. (2018). 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act: Helping Canadians Make Reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples a Reality. Indigenous Relations Press.
Read about the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation on September 30 and events taking place at Concordia, and register for Pîkiskwêtân, Concordia’s Indigenous Learning Series.