One of the most fascinating archival finds of my PhD research was a wonderful letter (in four parts) written in Cree syllabic. I came across it while researching the Adhesion to Treaty Six, which was signed by the people of the Montreal Lake and Lac La Ronge regions of Saskatchewan on a brutally cold February day in 1889.

Such files are usually read by Canadian researchers on microfilm, under the short name of ‘RG 10.’ RG stands for Record Group, and RG 10 files are primarily from Indian Affairs. These are critical files for researchers, from a time when correspondence was letters (not email or social media). While the files are mostly written by, for, and back and forth between those employed by Indian Affairs, there is the occasional fascinating jewel of a letter written by a local person. Even more rarely, there is a wonderful letter written, in Cree syllabic, by local First Nations leaders.

I took scans of these letters immediately, although I can read neither syllabic nor Cree. They languished in my digital files while I worked my way through other research, which eventually became my book, Forest Prairie EdgeThe following is an excerpt that explains the Treaty Six Adhesion:

“After years of agitation and repeated requests from the boreal bands in the north Prince Albert region, the Crown finally agreed to offer treaty. The difference between an internal adhesion and an external adhesion was crucial: an internal adhesion added people to existing treaty stipulations; an external adhesion added both new people and new lands to an existing treaty. In the latter, treaty terms were at least somewhat negotiable.

“The external adhesion attempted to sort out a dual problem. On the one hand, there were bands with homes in the north Prince Albert region, within the boundaries of Treaty 6, that had not been offered treaty. Securing an external adhesion, which acted essentially as a new treaty, clarified the uncertainty of who was, and who was not, in treaty relationship with the Crown. Although there is nothing in the official records to act as confirmation, an external adhesion could negate continuing calls for arrears in treaty annuity payments.” 

“The second problem came from the commercial interests of investors in Prince Albert. Surveyors, scouting and marking out timber berths, realized that the boundaries of Treaty 6 did not entirely cover the potential area of forest resources that the Prince Albert community believed was within their economic sphere. In short, the land ceded by Treaty 6 did not correspond to the boundaries of the Saskatchewan District of the North-West Territories[i] or Prince Albert’s intended commercial empire of northern boreal resources. Officials at Indian Affairs explained: “The object in getting the surrender just now is in order that the Govt might legally dispose of the lumber in that Section permits to cut which have in some cases already been issued.”[ii] It was a somewhat frantic and belated effort to legally rectify a serious error—the government was issuing timber permits on land that had possibly not yet been ceded by treaty.”

During the treaty negotiations, the Cree leaders from Montreal Lake had a somewhat different view than their Lac La Ronge counterparts in what should be included in the articles and terms of the treaty, and what should be included in the initial and subsequent treaty payments. The syllabic letters that I found were sent to Ottawa after the treaty negotiations were complete and the treaty signed, but before the first payment came in the fall of 1889. The letters came from the Montreal Lake leadership, outlining in further detail their thoughts on the treaty, and what would be most useful to them as part of their treaty payment. They had clearly had some time to think, and wanted to send a message on their expectations and needs. However, it is not known if anyone working for Indian Affairs at the time was able to translate these requests.

The letters are a mix of Cree syllabic and English handwriting, and are written by three different people: Chief William Charles, councilor Benjamin Bird (who wrote 2 of the four pages), and councilor Isaac Bird. In 2016, I met Dion Tootoosis at an event in support of Prince Albert National Park. I told him about the texts, and he Angela Custer at the Saskatchewan Indigenous Cultural Centre took the project in hand. With the help and advice of Arok Wolvengrey and Solomon Ratt, the Centre was able to translate the syllabic into today’s written Cree, and for my benefit, to English.

Cree Syllabic one_001

Page one, from Chief William Charles, who also requested (in English) matches, and a copy of the treaty document.

Cree Syllabic One (from Chief William Charles)


  1. nimithwîthihtîn, ninanâskomâw kihci-okimâskwîw
    I am happy, I give thanks to the Queen
  2. mîna otatoskîthâkana ôta ê-nakaskamâhk
    and also her workers, here where we meet
  3. mâka nipakosîthimonân kita-kitimâkihtahk nipîkiskwîninân
    but I hope she listens with compassion for our talk
  4. ôma kâ-wî-isi-kâkîsimototawâyahkik nîci-tipahamâtwânânak
    this where we are going to pray for our fellow treaty people
  5. nistam kâ-tipahamâtohk pîhonânihk sônîyâwak nîstanân
    the first treaty payment here at (Ft. Carlton or F. La Corne) for us
  6. kâ-ati-otayâniyâhk êkosi nitisi-kâkîsimonân
    to have clothing, this is what we pray for

It seems clear that the translation of Fort Carlton or Fort La Corne is a bit incorrect, as this document references the treaty terms signed at Molanosa. The expected fall treaty payment for the Montreal Lake band would take place at the south end of the lake, in what would become their home reserve. But otherwise, the Chief greets the Queen and asks for compassion for his people.

cree syllabic two_001

Page two, from Benjamin Bird.

The second page is from Benjamin Bird, who was an outspoken councilor both at the negotiations and as shown by his two syllabic pages.

Cree Syllabic Two (Benjamin Bird)


  1. hâw êkwa nîsta nititwân ninanâskomânân

    me too I say we give thanks to

  2. kihci-okimâskwîw êkwa ê-wâpahtamâhk okitimâkîyihcikêwin

    the Queen and we see her compassion

  3. okiskinwahamâkîw (syllabic too faded to read) isinamâkîw??

    teacher __________the one who hands out

  4. sôniyâwa kitakî-wî-mîthikoyâhk

    money, to give us back (Give us back the money)

  5. mostoswak ê-ohci-pî-mîkicik mistikonâpêw

    cattle, we were supposed to be given, by James Smtih

  6. amêwistoyân mâka itwêw ka-ohci-pamihikawîyâhk

    the bearded one said, this is where we will be well taken care of

  7. êkotê kihci-ohci-pamihihcik, tâskipocikan

    from there we were supposed to be taken care of; rip saw

  8. cîkahikana, pakwâyinîkana

    axes, canvas

  9. mônahihcikêkâkana athapiy-asapâp

    hoes, twines for nets

  10. pîminahkwâna, pâskisikana, akahamâtowin.

    ropes, gun, ration

  11. ninohtêpathihikonân kâ-pî-pipohk mîna tânithikohk

    we are short this winter and how much

  12. kâ-pî-asamikawîyâhk

    we were given to be fed

cree syllabic three_001

Page three, from Isaac Bird. Note: in English, Isaac added: requested also for cooking stoves and trowels

Cree Syllabic Three (Isaac Bird)


  1. nimithwîthihtînân kâ-isi-pihtamâhk
    we are happy that we hear
  2. î-kî-kitimâkîthimikoyâhk kihci-okimâskwîw
    that the Queen shows us compassion
  3. ______ ikosi nîsta î-isi-tipâhtamân
    this is what I hear also
  4. anihi nitâsotamâkowininâna
    those things we were promised
  5. mîna kitakî-wî-tipahamâkawiyâhk
    we were supposed to be paid out
  6. sôniyâwak
  7. ikwa mîna kotaka nipakosîthimonân
    and also we are hoping
  8. î-wî-natotamâhk
    to ask for other things
cree syllabic four_001

Page four, from Benjamin Bird.

Cree Syllabic Four


  • âhaw êkwa nîstanân niwî-nanâskomânân

yes, and we give thanks

  • kihci-okimâskwîw mîna otatoskîthâkana êkwa

to the Queen and workers and

  • kâ-sâsakwîthimot ayi-misiwî-askîhk ê-pê-tamâkoyâhk

Where her roles all over the land, she brings us

  • otinamâtowina ninanâskomânân mîna

her care (responsibility), we give thanks and

  • nimithwîthihtînân ê-pî-tipahamâkoyâhk

we are happy she came to pay us

  • nitaskînâhk êyak-ohci okitimâkîthimowinihk

our land, we are calling on her

  • kâ-wî-natomâyâhk mistiko-nâpêw ninatotamânân

compassion for us. James Smith we ask

  • okanawînamâkîw kistêkiwiyiniw, tâskipocikan,

the Indian Agent for: rip saw,

  • kâ-wâskâwîpiniht, kinipocikanisina,

wheels (Wagon), files for saw,

  • kîskimana, napaki-cîkahikana, athahikîhikana,

files, flat axes, rakes,

  • nanâtohk kiscikânisa, maskihkiya,

seeds, medicine,

  • ayawinisa, pîkopicikânisa, ê-kâsisiki

clothing, ploughs, sharp (nails)

  • sakahikana, wâpamoni-pîskowâsînamâna

nails, window panes

I was absolutely delighted to receive these wonderful translations. They speak to me in a clear voice, across the years, of local leadership working hard to put their people to the best advantage in the negotiations of the treaty. The requests show a wonderful mix of boreal forest tools, such as rip saws for forestry and net twine for fishing, with local agricultural needs such as rakes, hoes and seeds. Window panes and nails for building strong homes fitted well with calls for medicine and clothes. Isaac Bird spoke loudest about money payments, which should have (but did not) include back payment for all the years between the original signing of Treaty Six in 1876, and the new signing in 1889.

With the help and support of the Saskatchewan Indigenous Cultural Centre, these detailed syllabics and their modern translations can now be shared with you.

[i] Ray, Miller, and Tough, Bounty and Benevolence, 144.

[ii] LAC, RG 10 Vol. 3601, File 1754, Superintendent General of Indian Affairs, Edgar Dewdney to Indian Commissioner Hayter Reed, 6 December 1888.

[Hey everyone. I’ve been away from my blog for a long time (for good reasons, I do promise). But I have a lot of bite-sized pieces that I’ve published in various places, sitting on my computer. I’m going to start bringing them in here.]

*** NOTE: this piece was originally published in Rural Roots August 21st 2014 ****

John Beames is a western Canadian author “who does not deserve to be as completely forgotten as he has been,” wrote Dick Harrison in 1977, commenting on prairie writers.

But, even in Prince Albert, the town he worked so hard to make famous, Beames is all but forgotten.

Born in India in 1889, John Beames was the son of a British army officer, well-used to traveling and adventure. Taken to Britain, Beames entered public school until the family relocated to Canada, taking up a homestead farm north of Prince Albert when the land was opened for settlement, about 1906.

John Beames.SaskHistoryOnline

Prince Albert author John Beames. Courtesy SaskHistoryOnline

As was the case with most homesteaders, local jobs brought extra cash. Beames worked as a lumberjack, a millhand, and did some trapping. He also hauled freight on the winter trails north from Prince Albert, taking goods up the old Montreal Lake trail. Eventually, he became a bookkeeper and started writing stories for pulp magazines. By 1926, stories such as “Cuff Her, Riverhog” and “The Price of a Pelt” found their way into Short Stories and Ace-High Magazine.

The Ace-High Magazine had a tagline of “Western Adventure and Sport Stories,” and sold for 20 cents a copy. Its covers showed cowboys, in hats and chaps and guns and handkerchiefs, glorying in action. Beames published forty-four short stories in Ace-High, eighteen in West, as well as other pulp publications.

His work brought a distinctly northern flavour to the magazines. Lumberjacks, freighters, trappers and bears, gold mining and prospecting, trees and muskegs seasoned his stories.

Beames moved to Toronto in 1928, persuaded by his editor to write full-time. The Great Depression curbed his writing, as so many pulp magazines suffered in the economic crisis. But Beames, with the weight of practice, wrote three novels that put Prince Albert on the fictional map.

Army Without BannersArmy Without Banners was published in 1930. The main characters, Billy and Maggie Clovelly, are cast as pioneers homesteaders in the northern bush. “Real, wild, new country – that’s what I like. Fences give me a pain in the neck.” The nearest town is Riverton, a mask for Prince Albert, but the town features little in the story. Instead, Beames recreates what it was like to build a homestead, then a neighborhood, then a community, with each quarter slowly filling and the land changing from bush to farmland.

The characters face typical homestead stories, from digging a well to building a homestead shack, getting rooked by an implement dealer and taking freighting contracts in winter to make a little money. Church services and community parties, with a mix of cultures, brings the homestead world to life.

In the end, all that civilization was too much for Billy Clovelly, and he sells his farm to move even further north, to the Peace River country of Alberta, to start all over again in a place with no fences. “He was not made for civilization, but appointed by fate a scout, a spyer-out of the land.”

Two more novels followed in close succession, both with a clear focus on the city of Prince Albert: Gateway in 1932, and Duke in 1933. In both these novels, the city is renamed Gateway – a play on Prince Albert’s tagline, “Gateway to the North.” River Street is Water Street, “three miles long, with a sawmill at either end, and followed the wide windings of the Sweetwater River,” a fictional version of the Saskatchewan. Central Avenue became Maple Avenue, and the “train went no further, and from the banks of the Sweetwater to the Arctic there stretched the Northern wilderness.” Both were published in Britain by Ernest Benn Limited, no doubt to an audience still eager for rough-and-tumble stories from the far-flung colonies.

Gateway tells the story of Richard Black, a handsome ne’er-do-well bachelor who inherits a store on Water Street and struggles to both turn a profit and escort the prettiest girl in town, Molly McLay, in style. The rival for Molly’s fickle affection is Conquest Gates, owner of the local flour mill. Side characters abound, and Beames has a deft touch when it comes to writing local language. A rival store owner, Mr. Isenberg, described a customer: “I don’t give him no credit, it’s cash or trade mit dot deadbeat. He bring in some botter an’ some Seneca root just now an’ trade, I don’t give him no credit.”

In some ways, Duke, his final novel, is Beames’ best portrayal of Prince Albert. In it, he takes the theme of town boosterism, real estate booms and how they can be created. The central character, Marmaduke Ming, becomes the “Duke,” a real estate man complete with a vapish wife who strips him of money and pride.

But the heart of the story is the rush to build a power dam at Thunder Falls – which Prince Albert residents would recognize as La Colle Falls. “The river came foaming down a littered stairway of granite rock and leaped out in a bold and beautiful curve, to fall into a boiling basin forty feet below.” The novel follows the power-dam idea through politics, engineering, raising money, and ultimately the bust that stopped the project and sent Gateway/Prince Albert into a tailspin of debt. Duke Ming, in the end, goes off to fight in the Great War in 1914.


 La Colle Falls during the build. RA-1796-2 Courtesy of Saskatchewan Archives Board

While the old Western Producer book publishing series re-issued Army Without Banners in 1988, both Duke and Gateway are rare finds. Only the lucky will find one of the few copies. I bought mine through rare book hunts and treasure them. But I suspect, with Beames’ connection to Prince Albert and its fictionalization into Gateway, that there are still a few copies of these books hiding in P.A. family bookshelves.

Tammy Roberts

Recently, I started following Saskatchewan-based writer Tammy Roberts. While I don’t always agree with her stuff, she is doing some excellent research work and asking some hard-hitting questions about provincial politics. This is her latest:

Recently a SaskParty Cabinet Minister – a really, really lovely person who I truly like – said to me, “You know, you could write something nice once in a while.” I want to. I really do. But after the SaskParty’s absolutely absurd behavior this week – and outright attempts to mislead us, it won’t be happening today. […]

via The Saskatchewan Government: Making Kellyanne Conway Blush — OURSASK.CA

Actually, that’s an arbitrary number. I’m pretty sure that I made more mistakes than that — and I have no doubt that the people who interviewed me saw more than I remember.

But my goal is to help others who might be chasing the academic dream to…reveal…to you what I know for sure that I did wrong during my short-lived time attempting to land an elusive position as a tenure-track faculty member somewhere in Canadian academia.

Continue Reading »

Swamp Fever

I’ve been working a little bit on a little side project, which I’ve known about for years but kept putting in the bottom drawer of my research life: swamp fever.

What, Merle, is swamp fever?

It’s equine infectious anemia, and let me say right from the outset, that it remains a terrible killer of horses. The Merck manual, that guide for all veterinarians, notes that it is a non-contagious virus. And it can kill a horse, either quickly or very slowly.

Others have likened EIA, or swamp fever, to a horse-form of AIDS. In fact, some researchers have pointed to the work done to find a vaccine for swamp fever as holding out some possibilities for AIDS researchers. 

So, it’s viral, and non-contagious. Except when spread by blood. In this case, EIA is spread by the bite of a fly. Any biting fly. So, EIA is found more readily in places where there may be a lot of biting flies.

Like a swamp. Or a low-lying swampy region, filled with luscious grass and abundant water. The bottom of a pasture. Or, the edge of a forest.

In western Canada, swamp fever rose to critical prominence as agriculture grew. First noted with alarm in the 1880s, it was a disease of the edge, of the new homesteads created in the bushy places, where water is abundant. It was not, nor is it now, a disease much found or noted on the open, dry plain.


Symptoms were distressing but distressingly difficult to pinpoint. A high fever. Or a small one. Or one that bounced around. Lethargy and extreme tiredness. Flesh wasting away while an animal gorged itself, eating itself to starvation. A change in personality. Depression, in an otherwise happy, playful, even spiteful animal.

How do you tell the vet: my horse is depressed? How do you tell an early 20th Century vet: my horse is depressed? It’s a symptom that hadn’t really been invented yet. It wasn’t an available condition.

Results could be quickly lethal, or distressingly chronic. A horse could seem to recover, but with any work, could relapse. Another horse could sicken and die within days, leaving a farm with limited horsepower. In a busy season, swamp fever was a disaster. For a small farm with few resources and little money, it could be the straw that breaks the farm’s back.

But here’s the real problem: another horse can look completely healthy, but be carrier. Those are, in fact, the most problematic. Because in order for an outbreak of swamp fever to occur, there must be a carrier present. There must be a sick horse nearby, for the biting flies to feast upon, to spread the disease. The obviously sick ones can be quarantined. The healthy carriers, with no obvious symptoms, are the deadliest.


There has been well over 100 years of research on EIA, across multiple continents, with no cure and no vaccine. It remains a world-wide scourge of horses, donkeys, and mules.

Horses — and farms — which catch swamp fever go under immediate quarantine, for life, or face euthanasia. It puts a huge burden on farms to keep an infected animal alive, for limited purpose. Yet, the human-animal bond can be strong, and some farmers are willing to isolate and keep their horse, using all necessary precaution, to help it live a decent life.

A rural farm 100 years ago usually didn’t have that luxury.

Peeling Back the Bark

In just two short paragraphs, the Edmonton newspaper account captured the destruction and relief felt that all were safe after a wildfire overwhelmed the town:

Swept away in the maelstrom of a raging forest fire which descended upon the place like a furnace blast on Monday afternoon, the little village … is today a mere smouldering mass of ruin and desolation, and its entire population is homeless and bereft of all personal effects, save scant articles of clothing which could be worn through the nerve-wracking struggle the people were forced to make to preserve their lives.

The absence of a death toll in the catastrophe is due to the heroic measures taken by the citizens, who rushed into the waters of the lake and defied suffocating heat and smoke by means of wet blankets. Only such measures saved many of the women and little children, the intensity of the fire being shown by the burning of the very reeds along the shore and…

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As the geeky, skinny glasses-wearing kid who thought recess was best spent in a warm corner of the playground with a good book, it will come as no surprise to those who know me that I love museums. I am fascinated by the many ways that a museum can take an object and draw people into its story, find connections, and give a bit of a sense of context, drama, and intrigue.

When I moved to Saskatoon as a teenager, I spent hours at the Western Development Museum site of Boomtown 1910 (now with a funeral home…shiver!!). A lot of my time was concentrated over the three days of Folkfest, when the WDM hosted the old ‘Pioneer’ Pavilion. My Dad’s good friend Llew Bell and his extended family — and his kids, who were my age — would be there every year, playing as ‘The Cottonpickers,’ bringing old time dance music into the wee hours. It was where, in their old bus parked out back, I had my first taste of rye and Pepsi (urgh) and watched hundreds of delighted dancers swinging to the sound of Llew belting out ‘Old Time Rock and Roll.’

But what I love best about the WDM is how it flows and changes over time. While some of the old favourite exhibits retain their enormous staying power, others are built that reflect a keen eye for a broader breadth of Saskatchewan stories. See for example the Fuelled by Innovation  exhibit, or my personal favourite, the story of Saskatchewan’s Cancer Bomb fronted by none other than our own Sylvia Fedoruk. (Yes, I’m biased by the fact that I’m in the middle of co-writing Sylvia’s biography. So what?)

If you haven’t been to the WDM for a while, it’s time to see what’s happening. You’ll be blown away, as I always am, by totally new stories of the place that you thought you knew: Saskatchewan.