Insight: Of blood, heart, soil and sky

In the Canadian province of Alberta, situated in Lac Ste. Anne County, is a little hamlet called Gunn. It is very attractive but not one of Canada’s outstanding beauty spots. However, for me it holds a certain charm, fascination and personal connection.

Buffalo Bill's Wild West performers in Fraserburgh. Picture: National Archives
Buffalo Bill's Wild West performers in Fraserburgh. Picture: National Archives

Gunn is not unfamiliar because my father built a house there styled on the old pioneer wood and stone structure. I loved the design and fabric of the house but my attraction to it was further enhanced by its location; it was situated beside a lake. Just steps away was a jetty and on a summer evening it was wonderful to sit there and watch the Canadian sunset.

The lake was known to the native Cree population as Manitou Sakhahigan, which means “Lake of the Spirit”. Long before European settlers and missionaries arrived, it was visited by the Cree and other native peoples because they considered the water to have healing properties. In 1843, Father Jean-Baptiste Thibault established a mission on the south shore and decided to rename the lake after his patron saint. Thibault spent most of his life working with the Métis, a people of mixed Indigenous and European ancestry, generally Scottish or French.

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Now, on the northwest shore of Lake of the Spirit, the Alexis Indian Reserve 133 is located. The Alexis Band of Stoney Indians settled on their traditional hunting grounds at Lac Ste. Anne after Treaty No 6 was signed in 1876. The Stoney are part of the cultural division of the Sioux and they are the only Siouan people who live entirely in Canada. Between 1871 and 1921, the Crown negotiated 11 Numbered Treaties to address aboriginal claims to land. However, the treaties were never in the best interests of the native population; they had serious effects on their land claims, health, welfare, cultural, spiritual and human rights and marital status.

The 32nd annual Squamish Nation Youth Powwow in Vancouver. Picture: Canadian Press/Shutterstock

In my search for knowledge about the area around Gunn, I was to discover that the hamlet played a part in the history of the Hudson’s Bay Company; it was named after a Scotsman, Peter Shearer Gunn, who worked for the company.

According to archival records, he was born in Thurso, Scotland. At the age of 21 he left Scotland to join the Hudson’s Bay Company. He was employed as a labourer in 1883. By 1888 he was acting as a company translator having become fluent in Cree, one of the many native languages spoken in Canada. It was vital for the company to have good relationships with native peoples because great reliance was placed on them to work as guides, scouts, trappers and suppliers. In fact, without the cooperation of the native population, it would have been difficult if not impossible for non-native employees to survive wilderness hunting and trapping, and for the company to succeed.

Gunn served in administrative roles, primarily, at Peace River, and he ended his HBC service at Lac Ste. Anne. He married a Scottish woman and they had ten children. Following his HBC employment he went on to become the Sheriff of Peace River and ended his career as a respected politician in the Legislative Assembly of Alberta. Interestingly, he volunteered to act as a translator for native people who were caught up in the judicial system. He was appointed Sheriff of Edmonton in 1916 and in the same year his son died while serving on the Western Front with the Canadian Forces. After a life well lived, Peter Gunn died in 1927.

The Scots gained a reputation of being fearless, going where others feared to tread. They have also been described as enterprising. This was certainly played out in their exploits and adventures in North America. Many of those experiences have now become legends, some a bit more fanciful than others. Most, good or bad, involve their relationships with First Nations or Métis peoples. Although I have never been a great lover of fiction, in his novel, Sick Heart River, John Buchan dramatically and beautifully describes survival in the wilderness of Canada, which in great part is due to the skills of two Métis brothers who had a Scottish father and native mother. It is a story about personal and environmental challenges and survival and, in one passage, Buchan describes the main character, Sir Edward Leithen, a Scot, watching Lew Frizel, one of the Métis brothers: “He found himself watching Lew, who, wrapped in his blankets, was smoking his short pipe, and now and then stirring the logs with the Spruce pole which he used as a poker… This was one of the most famous guides in the North. The country fitted him as bearskin fitted the bear. Never, surely was man better adapted to his environment… It could not have been only a craving to explore, to find out what lay far away over the hills. There had been an almost mystical exaltation in the quest.”

In those few words Buchan observed something about the Scottish mindset: do we need to push physical and psychological boundaries before we reach our comfort zone? If so, they were certainly challenged in our emigration to North America.

Historical enquiry into the Scottish connection with the native peoples of North America has primarily focused on the Highland and Island communities. However, this denies the many interactions that took place with Lowland Scots. It is well documented that the Highland Clearances were one of the darker events in Scottish history. Landowners changed land management practices; families and communities who for generations worked the lands under feudal tenancy agreements were evicted from their crofts or small-holdings. In desperation and in search of a better life many were forced to emigrate.

However, displacement from the land and subsequent emigration was not just a Highland tragedy. Lost in the historiography of the relationship between the Highland Crofters and the native peoples of North America is the story of the Lowland Cottars who were also forced off the land due to the changes in agrarian and land management practices. With limited chance of economic survival they became city dwellers or immigrants. Agrarian workers were not suited to city life and their influx to towns and cities led to housing problems, food supply and law and order issues.

New agrarian practices and the rise of capitalist ventures forced Cottars and Crofters alike into a life totally alien to them, and in order to survive, thousands left for North America.

There are many questions that still need to be addressed about the emigration of Scots to North America, particularly their relationships with native peoples. For example, did homeland displacement and traumatic transition have a brutalising effect on them and how was it played out in the new homelands and engagements with the native peoples? What are the real legacies and lasting effects of assimilation on cultural identities and belief systems?

To date, history has shown there were complex relationships and interactions between the Scots and native peoples of Canada and America. We know we fought with them and against them. We used their hunting, trapping and survivor skills which allowed us to survive new, challenging and dangerous environments. We also used those new skills to develop a highly lucrative fur trade. Tragically, our commercial aspirations impacted on many native communities and animal species.

We shared a love of the land but negotiated treaties that stole their lands from them. Additionally, we destroyed their hunting grounds with railroad expansion and polluted their environment with coal, oil and gas exploration. We admired and respected their democratic system of government but we used our own to subjugate them and destroy their way of life.

In 1889, the Kilmarnock-born Reverend John Maclean published a book titled The Indians Of Canada Their Manners And Customs. Maclean and his wife ran a Methodist mission near Fort Macleod in Alberta. They spent nine years among the Indigenous people, the North-West Mounted Police and settlers. In that time McLean learned the languages and customs of many native groups and he observed settler prejudice and law and order bias.

In his book, he argues that justice demands an intelligent impartial study of the Indians and the Indian question.

We Scots have never truly embraced our historical relationships with the native peoples of Canada and America. In the interest of blood ties, diplomatic and personal relationships and historical accuracy and integrity, we need to engage with that part of our colonial history regardless of how difficult, troubling and distasteful it is. In reality, we had much in common because we were brought together by receptive minds, open hearts, kinship ties and a shared belief in the power of justice even when it failed us in our own home lands. Our relationships should be treated as precious because they survived the vagaries of social and political upheaval, misdirection and human frailty.

Stories and information about the Scottish connections with the native peoples of Canada and America have amounted to an impressive amount of new research. Over the next few years the ongoing work of Beyond the Spectacle aspires to bring that history to life in creative, meaningful, inclusive, sustained and ethical ways.

Chief RoseAnne Archibald is the Regional Chief of Taykwa Tagamou Nation in Canada, with 25 years of experience in First Nations politics. She has dedicated all her adult life to serving and striving to create a better quality of life and future for First Nations people in Canada. She was awarded the prestigious Canada 125 medal for making a significant contribution to Canada through Aboriginal leadership.

In my initial contact with her I expressed an interest in her Scottish name. With her permission, I researched her genealogy. She is the great-great-granddaughter of an Orcadian who was employed by the Hudson’s Bay Company. He married a Cree woman while in the service of the HBC. This is not an unfamiliar story. Many fur traders, pioneers and explorers had native wives. Looking at records, despite the cultural differences, they were lasting and settled relationships. At last year’s Scottish Storytelling Festival, RoseAnne spoke with great eloquence and passion. She believes our shared history is invaluable to our understanding of who we are in today’s world and how our political aspirations can be acknowledged and fulfilled. She also believes, as I do, that it is important for us to stay connected to our shared heritage.

When she left Edinburgh she gave me a gift, a hand-made Pow-Wow bag, and inside, a pouch of tobacco. I know the significance of that gesture and I will always hold it precious and dear to me. In North American native culture, tobacco is associated with sacredness, healing and peace. I hope that through Beyond the Spectacle’s education, advocacy and creative arts projects the people of Scotland will reach out and embrace this fascinating aspect of our history, our genealogical connections and the heartfelt message in that little pouch of tobacco.

Yvonne McEwen is a research collaborator with Beyond the Spectacle, The University of Kent, and a Professor of War and Conflict Studies at the University of Wolverhampton