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Manitoba History: An Interview with Moses Neepin

by Lily Wokes and Greg Thomas
Parks Canada, Winnipeg

Manitoba History, Number 5, Spring 1983

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct all inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

Lily Wokes, a longtime native of Churchill, conducted two interviews in Cree with Moses Neepin, a Cree Indian and longtime resident of the Bay area. Besides working for the Hudson’s Bay Company at York Factory, Neepin lived at Port Nelson and at Churchill. The first interview took place in March, 1978 in the company of Captain Richard Holt, who is writing a book on the history of the York Factory/ Churchill area. Lily Wokes, who conducted this interview and then did the English translation, carried out a second interview with Moses in October, 1981. This second interview concerned York Factory and its environs. Gary Adams, the Parks Canada archaeologist responsible for York Factory, was particularly interested in what Moses could recall about activities and structures in use at York Factory during his residency in the area. Greg Thomas combined the two interviews to focus primarily on Mr. Neepin’s memories of York Factory. He also included the comments of Lily Wokes, as they provide a very illuminating commentary on the Cree perception of events and language, and on the history of the Hudson Bay region.

Moses Neepin

Q. When did you start to work?

The first time I ever worked—I worked for the Company (H.B.C.).

Q. What year was this? 1913 or when?

1913 I think. No that’s not right. Let me think. 1912 is when I got married—it was before this so it must have been 1909. So while I worked for the Company I still trapped in the winter time.

Q. What was your job?

At York Factory, [1] we were looking after getting hay for the cows. I worked only two years before they made me the head workman. It seemed in all my jobs like carrying mail, or taking the bosses or the police from one place to another, always very quickly, they put me in charge.

Q. Were you paid with money?

No, just with a letter. When I worked for the Company I received 50 cents a day. That was $3.00 a week.

Q. What was York Factory like at that time?

It looked very good. The big house was really good. The houses that had been built a long time ago were still sturdy and looked to be in good shape.

Q. Whereabouts did you gather the hay?

There is an island that floats in the middle of the river. There the hay grows to a good height and there were flats (sandbars) where we could spread the hay out to dry. We carried it on our backs to this place (York Factory). I want to say, about the Company. The custom they had, which worked really well. Not only the best men—the ones who could do hard work—they were not the only ones to be given work, so they could eat and feed their families while the time was not right for hunting and trapping. There was all kinds of work to be done—like cutting trees to make lumber boards and cutting wood for fires. No one went hungry. The old people, although they were not able to do any heavy work, did have work also.

York Factory, April 1951
Source: Parks Canada

Q. What can you tell me about the white bears?

Oh yes, we saw the white bears as they came off the ice in the summer and again when they would be leaving. Generally though, they timed their arrival from inland just in time to go onto the ice. They did not stay around for too long. I can tell you of one incident that happened there one morning when we went to the ice house to get the daily ration of salt geese, we found a big white bear sleeping there, so we ran to the clerks’ residence and told them about it and one of the white men came out and shot the bear. That day one of our people got extra pay when he was asked to skin the bear. Like I say this was not a very common occurrence. Of course, the bear meat was used by the people, some of it was put away for dog food.

Q. What other kind of food was put up for use as dog food?

Well at times we would bring in seals. The bosses suggested that we make use of the seal meat ourselves but our people could not stand it. I really tried to eat it, but it made me ill. Even when we were told that the people of the ‘north’ loved it, we still didn’t eat it, but put it up for the dogs.

Q. Oh yes Grandfather, [2] I wanted to ask you about the white whale. [3]

Oh yes Grandchild, I participated in the catching of them; funny thing about them is that they seemed to be able to think because once they knew they were being hunted, they would disappear, sometimes for a couple of years. Do you know anything of this, Grandchild?

Q. It is said that they are an intelligent animal. Of course, you know they are not a fish?

Oh yes, I know that. I want to tell you a little story about them, not them but my woman (his wife Arabella Neepin, 1887-1975). When I went with her to go and see the whales being pulled on shore, I said to the men, “I see you have already scalded the hair off.” And the men knowing that I was playing a joke on her said, “Oh yes, we got that done.” So when we went back to our place, Arabella said, “I saw some white whales but the hair was already removed; next time, I go right away so I can see what they look like with their fur.” Of course everyone heard about this and had a good laugh and my woman laughed the hardest. [4]

Q. So you used the fish—white whale, white bear and some seals for dog food.

Oh yes, and even at times caribou. Dogs did even more work than men so they had to be fed as well if not better. Now I hear of people paying a lot of money to buy food for dogs that they use for toys and I can’t understand that. While I am speaking of food, it seems like we were always concerned with having a good supply. Of course I can remember one year when we waited and waited for the big boat to come in from the land across and finally the bay froze. Later people arrived from the river of strangers (Churchill) with a letter telling the people at the great house (YF) that the ship had come late to them and had unloaded all the supplies there and had gone back. So I guess this is one of the reasons that the white men [5] were always concerned about having a lot of different wild food at the great house. So of course we did a lot of hunting. I will tell you how this was done. There was always one senior hunter. The one I knew was William Wastasicot (Brightnose), a very well known hunting leader. Sometimes even those who owned guns would go back to using bow and arrow so it was not as noisy and we were more experienced in its use. One thing that we were instructed to do was not leave our decoy geese out for too long a period of time as the geese would get wise to them and not be fooled into coming in to land. At times we would get a great number of geese.

Q. So were these frozen like the fish?

Not exactly. First of course fresh geese would be made available to all the families and the rest were put in tubs (wooden barrels or casks) with salt in between the layers and then these tubs would be put into the ice house. And for those of us who worked for the Company, geese would be given out on a daily basis. My family being quite large I was given three salt geese. Of course rations were given to all new arrivals also but only the ones who were working at the time would get the salt pork rations. I guess if one was to lay around he wouldn’t need the extra fat. I must mention the way that it worked. The ones who hunted would do the killing, but there was another team of men who spent their time getting the meat out of the bush. Each man was allowed four dogs. Of course those were the big Eskimo dogs who did not travel fast but could really pull a lot of weight. Grandchild, I have been thinking about things I have heard about the Company and it bothers me. I know in some places people had reason to feel that the Company hurt them but I would tell you one other thing that they did. If our people wanted to go to another area, the Company would take them, and all their belongings in Company boats, sometimes taking three or four days. The people wouldn’t have to pay. The treatment was equal to all. The ones who were not too fortunate one season would still get food rations. Of course we knew in a way the ones who made good that season were in some way paying for helping the ones less fortunate, but then at times everyone of us had need of help. It is only lately that this sharing has ceased to work.

Q. Getting back to your career, how long did you carry the mail? [6]

I carried the mail for one year and worked one year for those who measure the land.

Q. Did you ever travel from York Factory to Churchill? (The Cree word for Churchill is Man-tay-seepee, meaning the “River of Strangers.”)

Once I walked in the summer along the shoreline, with my brother carrying a pack-sack of letters. In the winter we used dogs. I walked in the front of the dogs breaking trails. [7]

Q. How were you paid when you carried the mail? Were you paid in a different way or how?

No, this was all part of working for the Company. You were expected to do all kinds of work, anything that needed to be done, cutting wood, carrying hay, mail, all these things. At times for example we had to transport officials (the bosses) from one place to another. Some who would be arriving and going inland to other posts and some on their way home after finishing their time here. Some would be going on to Norway House and places like Gillam where the iron road had already reached.

Q. When you were travelling what kind of food did you carry?

Pemmican and flour (2 lbs), salt pork (2 lbs), tea and sugar. We didn’t get lard but we used the fat from the pork for our bannock.

Q. What was Port Nelson like? There seemed to be many houses and it looked like it could have been quite a big place.

There were not that many houses, and as you know, the government rejected that place because the water was not deep enough for the big boats. When they realized their mistake, they just abandoned everything. The work houses where the bosses stayed, the big house—all were left. As a matter of fact, I bought one of those buildings, a good house it was too. I paid $50 for it.

Q. So when did you live there?

When I quit working, we lived in my house and trapped from there. It was good.

Q. Are you getting tired my Grandfather?

No Grandchild, I can tell you a few more lies yet.

Q. All right Grandfather, I am happy that you visited with us. This man feels honoured to have talked to you.

It was a very small thing. I was happy to have tea with you and talk with you.

Lily Wokes
Source: Parks Canada

Lily’s comments

1. The Cree word for York Factory is “Kitchiwaskiegan” meaning the Great House.

2. Although Lily addresses Moses Neepin as “grandfather,” this does not indicate a direct family relationship but is a term used generally to show respect.

3. The Cree word for beluga whales is “wapameg” whish sounds a little like a fish that is white.

4. I want to say at this time that it is the way of our people to play jokes of this nature. The greatest pleasure is to be able to put one over on someone. Both the one being fooled and the one playing the trick truly enjoy this.

5. White men is my word, the word that our people use cannot really be translated. Okemou means king; that is what they called the factor or manager. Misti Kemou was big king or boss. Okimasis was little king or clerk. Kitchi Okemou was The King like the King of England. Misti Kemou was commonly used to describe one who thought he was important. It was sort of a put down like “big shot.”

6. You have to realize that there is no Cree word for mail, more like letters. Letters and books are called the same thing. That which you write on or read.

7. In the late 1970s an expedition took three days by skidoo to travel from Churchill to York Factory and in the summer ten days to walk one way.

Page revised: 27 October 2012

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