Fisher River Cree Nation’s history can be traced back to the 1840’s when Norway House became the hub of Hudson Bay Company’s fur-trade and supply lines, and an administration centre for Rupert’s Land. Norway House was the location where furs from as far away as Great Slave Lake were traded for trade goods from England. The employment that was created drew hundreds of Cree people from the Hayes and Nelson River systems. However, in the 1870’s, the local environment had been nearly trapped-out and the Hudson Bay Company started to wind-down its operations. At the same time, the Hudson Bay Company introduced steamboat transportation on Lake Winnipeg which replaced its need for York Boats and the people who operated them.
This combination caused at least 200 Cree people to be put out of work. So, on the advice of local missionaries, a segment of the Norway House Cree who called themselves the “ChristianIndians of Rossville”1, decided to locate further inland on lands more favourable for agriculture and other traditional activities. In 1874, representatives of this group, led by Chief David Rundle, wrote the federal government requesting support to move to their southernmost hunting region around Grassy Narrows and the present day Icelandic River.
A request was also made to the federal government for a Treaty to be made to secure their lands, resources, and way of life. In the fall of 1875, Lieutenant Governor Alexander Morris concluded Treaty Number Five with the Norway House peoples, and gave Davis Rundle’s people the present reserve at Fisher River.
However, there was a delay in the move due to an outbreak of small pox in the Icelandic colony just south of the proposed reserve site. So, in the summer of 1877, when the quarantine was lifted, 200 people (43 families) made the 200 mile journey south to the present day Fisher River Reserve. Upon arrival, the people built homes and divided up the land to be used for farming.
In addition to farming, the people took part in the seasonal labour provided by the fishing and lumber industries.2 Throughout the 1880’s many more families from northern Manitoba joined the original settlers.3 In 1908, the band signed the adhesions to Treaty Number Five which brought more people into the band.
How We Came to be Here at OCHEKIWI SIPI
In 1874, Chief David Rundle and a group of Rossville maskekomowak wrote to Lieutenant-Governor Alexander Morris stating their intention to and requesting assistance to relocate further south to Grassy Narrows/White Mud River region on the western shore of Lake Winnipeg. They had family there already, and the land and fisheries were good. In the summer of 1875 they were denied because the land was being reserved for an Icelandic settlement. The government instead offered them land at the mouth of the Fisher River. Unlike other Treaty No.5 Band who received 160 acres per family, Fisher River only received 100 acres per family.
Our ancestors were signatories of Treaty No.5 (1875) and Treaty No.5 Adhesion (1908). Treaty No.5 was negotiated at Norway House on September 24, 1875 by Chief David Rundle and Councillors James Cochrane, Harry Constatag (Koostatak) and Charles Pisequinip on behalf of the Norway House Band. Charles Pisequinip remained in Norway House when the rest relocated to Fisher River. In 1908 the Treaty Adhesion Commission travelled throughout present-day Manitoba to sign up families and communities missed in 1875 and 1876. A number of Treaty Adhesion families joined Fisher River.
In 1877, Duncan Sinclair, Dominion Lands Surveyor, surveyed the Fisher River reserve. Based on the treaty formula, the original reserve included 9000 acres for 90 families. On March 2, 1878, Duncan Sinclair submitted his survey report to the Surveyor General along with his plan of Fisher River. Since then there have been a number of additions to the original reserve.
How We Made Our Living
The Fisher River community had a diverse economy. In the early years everyone farmed but the land and annual flooding of the river did not support full time agriculture. Raising livestock, hunting, trapping and gardening continued until recent times but with no full time work available at home, many had to leave the community to take on seasonal labour jobs with local farmers, at the lumber camps and in the fishing industry. Fishing has always been an integral part of Fisher River life. Fishing continues to be a major income source for Fisher River families whose members are from a long generational line of fishermen.
There were many fishing camps along Lake Winnipeg including Matheson Island and Snake Island. During fishing season, entire families moved to the camps to lend a hand. Parents believed children benefitted from living on the lake and helping out. Families remained at the camps until fishing season was over but would make the trip home to Fisher River for Treaty.
Around 1882-83, the men began working in local lumber mills around Birch Point, Lake St.George and Kinonjeoshtegon (Jackhead). The mills employed community men for many years. In the summer they worked in sawmills and in the winter they worked in lumber camps for minimal wages. Elders can remember cutting wood for twelve and a half cents an hour.
A Hard Life, A Good Life
Elders share many stories about how life used to be. While we all celebrate our growth, developments and successes, Elders also long for a return to the time when a sense of community was strong. It was not easy. They had to work hard, they recall, but for them it was a better way of life because everyone worked together. The people knew what needed to be done and they all pitched in, even kids. Wood was chopped for old people; everyone helped build houses, churches and schools; hunters and fishermen shared their meat; women made quilts; and people helped each other raise their children. They even celebrated Christmas together at the church hall under a huge Christmas tree filled with presents. They did their best to ensure that no one went without and they built the community together.
People had to be self-sufficient. The store was a luxury not a necessity. They picked berries for jams, tended small gardens for vegetables and raised livestock. Food was preserved and stored in the cellar. Many families used herbs and plants to cure ailments such as weecase for colds sore throats.
Community members after a successful hunting tip. Moose meat was often smoked and dried for storage and pemmican.
For the elders, “Pashtamowin” is an important concept that is vital to a community’s well being and should be a guiding principle in everyday life. Treat everyone with respect, kindness and consideration. If you don’t then it may come back to you or your family. Do not pass judgement because you do not know the people you meet.