In a previous article, I described acquiring two rare pictures involving natives along the Chilcotin River. This art accompanied an 1868 article in a popular French hunting magazine written by a “big game” hunter, Henry Gaillard. In that note, I showed how the foreground picture of a hunting scene depicted the key moment in an assertion of indigenous sovereignty.
The second illustration shows a fishing scene. It has exceptional dramatic power. This may explain why Harper’s Weekly reprinted a cropped version in the United States. Sadly, this reprint did not include any of the following: the article supplying its context, the title’s reference to the “Chilcotin River” or the engravers’ names. It mentioned only “Oregon.”
“La rivière Chilcotin (Orégon)” – La Chasse Illustrée, Feb. 1868.
Image courtesy of the Dragon Heart collection.
Ever since, this picture has been archived as of interest only in the United States. In this way, what seems the earliest image of a Tsilhqot’in community, from an apparent reference to the Chilcotin War, became lost to notice. It did not help that all natives seemed the same to Gaillard. He supposed, absurdly, that these 100 or so living in pithouses along the Chilcotin River were nomadic Chinooks from Fort Astoria. All of these would have been survivors of the smallpox epidemics of 1862/63 and, in this area of higher density usage, some of these survivors may have been Secwepemc.
Magazine editors in the 1860s often divided a picture and assigned sections to different artists. So it was that two highly regarded French engravers created this scene. Their more usual work was on grand themes drawn from great literature. Etienne Huyot signed the left side. He is better known for some French bank note engravings. Yan’ Dargent signed the right. He has become so well regarded that a whole museum is now dedicated to his work.
Gaillard does not give enough information to locate this village site precisely, beyond saying that it was on the north bank of the river near a gorge. The bank was, “…marshy soil with thick tufts of hazel, stunted arbutus…birches, willows, aspens, and almost everywhere a thick grass, sometimes waist high.”
Approximate location of the events described in Henry Gaillard’s article from La Chasse Illustrée, Feb. 1868.
After reconciling with the village, Gaillard said he and his French Canadian “mountain man” guide, Andre, went to see where the men were fishing. Rounding some large rocks on the trail, Gaillard poetically described what seemed a flock of large herons on some rocks:
Imagine in place of a long neck and beak, a man holding a long spear serving as a harpoon. But once I had fixed on the nature of the actors, it remained for me to discover how they had been able to occupy these rocks in the middle of the river. All around them, the river seemed deep to me. A rapid current struck violently against the rocks and large flecks of foam floated on the eddies. It seemed impossible that these men should have swum out to the places where I saw them but there were no canoes in sight either.
Later, I learned that the river bed has rocks covered with a meter of water. The natives know them perfectly and this allows them to take up their positions. A false movement, however, gives them an unpleasant bath for the waters of all these rivers are cold as ice.
After they left their stations in the river, they busied themselves on shore packing the product of their fishery, about 15 salmon weighing three to five kilograms. They proposed to sell these at a European establishment about 30 km away.
I admired the incredible skill with which these natives plaited an envelope of rushes around each fish to protect it from the air. When they had finished only the outer contours of the salmon remained visible.
Bob (the community headman) selected a salmon of four or five kilograms and we went to the village for lunch. In front of Bob’s hut, two women were grilling the deer I had given them and cooking a large bread made of milled acorns mixed with cornmeal.
Gaillard’s account of their interaction with this community underlines a theme that one can draw from other reports of that time. Namely, like most native communities, this one openly welcomed visitors who showed the ordinary respect due from guests and who abide peacefully by the established laws.
Those who had different experiences tended to be those who would act disrespectfully or who came with an underlying agenda to subvert the laws. This latter group included those who focused on extracting profits only for themselves without benefitting caretaker communities.
Gaillard reported thinking many times that he had found among so-called savages the true essence of civilization while finding the most advanced savagery where one would have expected refined civility. That is, the true “heart of darkness” referred to by Europeans was not found in distant places inhabited by indigenous peoples but in the homelands where the forces promoting colonization or exploitation for pure profit originated.
In that light, this picture has some interesting features. Since this work was divided between two engravers, they can only have worked from a common sketch. We do not know who created this sketch. Gaillard may have created it himself. More probably, it was someone who had the benefit of an interview with him. And, most probably, the interviewer who created the sketch was one of the two engravers who may have been on hand as Gaillard handed in the article. This gives significance to details not covered in the article itself. These details would be the semi-independent work of different creators.
LEFT: A watchman on the distant bank. | RIGHT: A European holding a spear while watching the leading native fishermen.
First, notice that the native community is shown as having posted a watchman on the distant bank. Probably, it was just such a watchman who had noted Gaillard and Andre arriving to hunt without permission in the first place. This would explain why the community already had them under observation when Gaillard shot his deer. In addition, there was the vigilance of the Elder who insisted that Gaillard disarm while in the village, as noted in my previous article. Andre’s awareness of this constant vigilance to protect the community at many levels may explain why Gaillard reports him as repeatedly referring to it as something outsiders must overcome. “The watchman” is a constant theme in North Pacific cultures.
Second, in the foreground, the picture shows a European holding a spear while watching the leading native fishermen. He appears poised to learn the secrets of sustaining life in this New World setting. Yet, neither Gaillard nor Andre ventured onto the rocks. If they had, Gaillard is certain to have noted it.
This scene actually never occurred in real life. Therefore, its arrangement was created primarily to symbolize the naïve European of good faith willing to learn the wisdom of the New World. This may have been derived partly from Gaillard’s theme that living more in the outdoors and closer to the earth, as these natives did, was a comparatively better life. “Better” because it seems more spiritual, more in-the-moment and less purely materialistic than the order of life commonly found in modern cities.
In the background, the picture shows another drama. It contrasts with the first. The illustrator has portrayed Andre, the only other person wearing boots, as the only one with a fish. But his back is turned to the rest; that is, to the community. Once again, a vigilant “watchman” has him under careful observation. This symbolizes concern with importing from the Old World an unspiritual primacy of self-interest that might threaten the very concept of community: with “every man for himself,” there can be no space for the spiritual experiences more conducive to peace.
Yan’ Dargent, the French painter and illustrator who signed the right side of the Fishing picture.
This picture is comparatively unique in another aspect. It shows natives relaxed, in control and as the central focus, while the Europeans are a tentative presence on the margins. Those surrounding the apparent leader here also have been highlighted like some of the angels in Yan’ Dargent’s more admittedly devotional works.
Perhaps it is not mere coincidence that the work shows, in all, 12 figures, recalling the number of Christ’s original disciples. To draw out a latent analogy that might have been more apparent to Yan’ Dargent’s usual rural Catholic French audience of 1868, that would make the central native a Pauline figure pointing a new way to grace, just as Paul the Apostle founded churches in the Old World. Ironically, the picture’s deeper theme, as created by the visual artists working daily with greater themes than mere hunting and fishing, seems against the accompanying article’s mundane outward racism.
“Saint Houardon voguant dans une auge de pierre” – Yan’ Dargent’s 1859 painting in the Eglise Saint-Houardon at Landernau.
In any case, these two pictures are small treasures for hunters seeking a New World. The point is not to idealize indigenous communities as one might imagine them to have been. But, instead, to highlight traces of under-represented values so they might be re-invigorated. If the first picture shows an assertion of indigenous sovereignty, the second highlights the importance of a constant vigilance to preserve and renew one’s community through an ongoing practice of mutual benefit. Self-sufficiency requires a healthy community.
This is what “hunting and fishing” and sharing community meals seems all about. Distant artists might treat it all with limited understanding, but it is a tested way of life with its own values and hard choices that the Tsilhqot’in sought to preserve through the Chilcotin War. And again in 1872 when they concluded a treaty that would have kept the whole valley of La Rivière Chilcotin (Orégon), up to the distant ridges, as a preserve for this other way of life.