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Indian Reserves Celebrating the "Big Holy Day"

Published December 03, 2007        by Matt

Tsan-is-tsis ak-o-to Omuk-a-to-yi-ksis-tsi-ku-yi?" "When will the Big Holy Day arrive?"

A month or six weeks before Christmas this is the question uppermost in the minds of the Indians and addressed almost daily to those whose lot is cast among them.

Being a Christian festival, it was unknown among the Blackfoot speaking people fifty years ago, but it has gained such a hold upon them that they now look forward to it as much or more than they do to the Calgary Stampede.

The writer remembers the difficulty he had in the early days in trying to make them understand the meaning of Christmas. When, with but an imperfect knowledge of their language, he told them through an interpreter that "God sent His Son into the world," the interpreter, whose grasp of English was equally poor, told them that "God sent Natos, the sun, into the world."

But the Indians realized that the day had some special meaning to the white man when they were all called together to a feast and distribution of clothing in the little log school building. It took a day and a night to prepare for the affair. Bales of clothing had arrived from
England, consisting of warm garments for men, women and children. This had to be sorted out in the Mission House the day previous, with blinds drawn, for swarthy faces would be pressed close to the window-panes with blankets drawn up over the heads to see whatever might be seen.

The whole night was spent in boiling beef and cutting up bread and then slicing the meat to make sandwiches and finally preparing a boiler full of good, black tea. At one such feast the greatest amusement, which might well have been otherwise but for the fun it aroused, was caused when by mistake a five pound package of Epsom salts was used instead of a similar quantity of sugar to mix with the tea. Packets of each were in the cupboard done up in brown paper as they had been brought back from the store, and the wrong one had been taken. The error was only discovered when some of the Indians began to ask for a further supply of Is-tsi-ksi-pok-ho, salt water! When the joke was explained to them they seemed to enjoy it, but it helped to shorten the party, for soon one by one everybody made for the door, and the distributor was left alone.

At ten o'clock in the morning the chief was told that all was ready, and according to Indian custom he walked through the camp crying. "Ni-nou-uk, a-ke-u-uk, po-kau-uk, O-muka-is-sto-wan kit-urnmok-o-au." "Men, women, children, Big Knife invites you to the feast!" And the camp was alive with a great throng of human beings of all ages, with faces painted all colors, with bodies clothed in flour sacks, striped demin, Hudson's Bay blankets or old buffalo robes, and decorated with earrings and necklaces, with bracelets on their arms and rings on almost every finger of both hands and composed chiefly of brass and copper wire twisted round in several strands.

The tea, food, and clothing had already been carried into the school room and placed at the far end of the building. When the door was thrown open the people poured in in one long stream. There were a few seats along the walls. These were soon filled by some of the leading men. The women and children squatted on the floor and as the Indians continued to stream in there was such a crush that they were like herrings packed in a barrel.

How to reach the people with the sandwiches was a problem.

They had to be passed along from hand to hand and the tea in the same way. There was no need for crockery of any description. The food was taken in the hand. The Indians all brought their own utensils for the tea. And what a variety of utensils there were! There were old wooden basins of native manufacture, tin cans holding half a gallon, and toilet articles of every description. Details must be left to the reader's imagination. The women carried under their blankets small sacks in which they deposited all the food and candies that the family could not eat, and large cans into which all the tea was collected. There was certainly nothing wasted.

The food having been all consumed, the next thing was the distribution of the clothing - shirts, mufflers or socks for the men, flannel petticoats or woolen crossovers for the women, warm dresses for the girls, and shirts, socks and woolen helmets for the boys.

The building at once became one mixed dressing room. The men and boys commenced to adorn themselves with their shirts, the women stepped into their petticoats, the girls into their dresses, and both boys and men left the school with their shirt tails flowing in the breeze, for having no trousers, only breechclouts and leggings, all of the shirt had to remain visible. Before they left, however, the children were all called upon to sing in their native tongue a translation of "0 come, all ye faithful," which had been taught them in school.

The poverty of the Indians in those days, when the annuity from the government of $5.00 per head was about all the money they could look forward to, and the rations doled out to them were the meagerness, made them only too grateful for the clothing which the missionary was able to hand out to them. The English bale was soon augmented by new and second hand clothing from the Women's Auxiliary of the church in eastern

Waistcoats were much-prized articles of clothing in those days, for the little pockets were found so useful in which to carry the ration tickets which had to be shown twice a week when going for the beef and flour. On one occasion a man became so angry because there were not enough to go round that he seized the missionary and demanded the waistcoat he was wearing - but he didn't get it.

On another Indian reserve, in addition to useful wearing apparel, several women's hats were sent up in the bale. One was a straw with a large feather which especially attracted the men. The missionary was mobbed by a number of the Indians in their desire to become its proud owner. The man into whose possession it came only retained it for a few minutes before he disposed of it to another in exchange for a Cayuse!

As time passed and the system of residential schools was established, the Christmas feast became a more orderly affair. The Indians were admitted in batches and were served the meal in the dining room, sitting up to tables provided with enamelware plates and mugs. The bread and meat was supplemented with apple pie or other dessert. The women still brought their small sacks and cans under their blankets to carry away all that they or their families could not eat. It was often a wonder to a new worker that the Indians were able to get away with such quantities of food and tea, until the receptacles under the women's blankets were pointed out to them.

The years went on, and as the teaching given in the schools and in the churches, which had now been erected for their use, began to be better understood, the real spirit of Christmas seemed to take possession of them. The Christmas service became the chief thing on that morning. The Indians arrived early in order to see their children in the residential school, and to bring them presents before the hour of service. The church was packed with worshippers who joined in the singing and prayers as heartily as a white congregation, and the offerings were quite equal in proportion to those in the white churches.

As means of obtaining a livelihood opened up, the gifts of clothing gradually ceased, for they were able to purchase all they needed from their own earnings. They still have a feast on a day during the festival week, when they are invited with their children to the school, and attend the concert or entertainment provided by their boys and girls.

But the Indians are not satisfied with that. They must now make feasts in their own homes. For this they work hard for weeks previous to Christmas. They go to the bush to cut dry wood and haul it into the city for sale. They drive for miles to locate and haul fir trees into town - all for this one purpose, that they may make a good feast and be able to invite all their friends.

The great change that has come over the Indians in this part of the country is inconceivable. The writer has been invited of late years to the annual feast given by Chief Joe Big Plume on the Sarcee Reserve. China cups and saucers for the tea, china plates for the food, which consists largely of canned stuff, fruit, nuts and candy, to say nothing of the pies and cakes that his wife and some of her friends have spent most of the previous night in preparing. All this is set out on long tables put up for the occasion. The people come in and sit down, as many as can do so at one sitting. When they have finished, another lot takes their place, a number of young women the meanwhile clearing the tables and washing up the used crockery. In the evening all adjourn to the council hall and wind up the day with an old fashioned dance.

By the first of the New Year, the Indians will be as poor as they were before they began to sell firewood and Christmas trees. But somehow they will find a way of providing for themselves and their dependents during the remainder of the winter.