They say you canít choose your
relatives. But you can go an awfully long way to find them, which is why
Orkney woman Kim Foden is halfway across the world, sitting wrapped in a
ceremonial blanket, eating bannocks made by Native American relatives
On a day-to-day basis the bannock makers are known as Yvonne and Carol.
Their great-grandfather, a Cree chief, had negotiated for the reserve
land the tribe still lives on. His Indian name was Ahyahtuskumikimam.
His Scots name was William Twatt and his grandfather had been an Orkney
As members of First Nation tribes gathered in Canada last week for the
125th anniversary of the signing of Treaty 6 - which created Sturgeon
Lake Reservation - Yvonne and Carol were among those using the native
Cree names they have adopted, and not the Scottish surnames that show
These are Scotlandís lost children - fathered by the Scots employed by
the Hudsonís Bay Trading Company - now distanced by ocean, prejudice
"These people are our cousins - direct descendants of the same
forefathers," says Foden, whose maiden name is Twatt, and who
discovered that the Indian chief who founded the Sturgeon Lake First
Nation was a cousin of her great-grandfather. "I had no inkling of
any of it," she says. "But I work as an Orkney tour guide
during the summer and I was fascinated by the number of Canadian Indians
with Orkney surnames who had been turning up recently to trace their
relatives. I started digging into how this peculiar connection had come
about and discovered I was part of it."
On 23 August, 1876, in order to avoid confrontation with settlers, seven
Cree chiefs signed away 121,000 square miles of Saskatchewan and Alberta
to the Queen in exchange for one square mile of reserve land for each
family. Only one chief was native. The rest were grandsons of Scotsmen -
with surnames like Spence, Tait, Macdonald, Twatt and Calder.
"William Twattís grandfather Magnus Twatt had come from Orkney to
work for Hudsonís Bay in the late 18th century," says Foden.
"White women were not allowed there and so the men took native
wives. The children were given the traditional family names of their
fathers and were often bilingual, and sometimes fluent in Gaelic,
Scots-English and Cree."
As trading spread inland and north, the genetic mix became more and more
diverse. Scots surnames are common among Inuit people in the Arctic
circle and the native music - played on the fiddle - is jig, reel and
"It was really weird," says Orkney musician Len Wilson.
"A group of traditional Inuit fiddlers from Aklavic in the Arctic
Circle came to Orkney last year, and I picked up my fiddle and started
playing along. I knew all the tunes."
Many of them clutched sepia photographs handed down through the
The links formed with Indian tribes was mutually beneficial during the
pioneering days of trading and fur trapping, but once native skills
became surplus to modern requirements, so did the mixed blood races.
Their white fathers and grandfathers were dead and links with the old
country severed. Though they were accepted by maternal relatives, their
aboriginal blood was not pure. They became known as "metis" -
"Look, itís stamped on my business card, Metis, and Iím proud
of it," says Canadian businessman Bob Armit, who has made an
emotional trip to Orkney to find his roots.
Armit talks the talk with great conviction, weaving ancestral links
round an Orkney captain called James Calder and a Cree princess called
Maria. No links are found, but making the journey back to its root
source has been his main objective and he leaves happy.
Until the present generation of adults, the mixed race people were not
allowed lawyers, the use of public information services, or even to
travel off the reserves without a permit.
"I met this wonderful chap called Alexander Dietz," says Foden.
"Heís dedicated his life to helping people trace their genealogy
back and find links with their families. Up until the 1960s whole
families of children were forcibly taken away from their families and
put into residential schools - a kind of mass education programme.
"They grew up not knowing their own parents or where they came
from, and werenít allowed to go into libraries and archive departments
to find out. I told my uncle and he said, ĎThis is unbelievable. How
dare they treat the sons and daughters of Orcadians like this!í"
Yvonne and Carol are philosophical. They too, had been taken into
residential school when very young, together with brother Harold.
"Our mother, William Twattís great-granddaughter, was a
determined and practical woman who made sure we knew this was not her
doing and she loved us," says Carol. " We were not scarred for
life, as many were ."
"Dysfunctional families are the order of the day around the
reserve," says Foden. "These are kids whose parents had no
idea about parenting because theyíd never experienced it. Yvonne told
me about a woman she knew who couldnít pick up and hold her children
because she felt it was wrong to touch them. No wonder alcohol and drug
abuse is rife. These people had no self-worth for so long."
Harold, while assuming the tribal name of Kingfisher, has donned the
Twatt family mantle and taken responsibility for upholding the rights of
the reserve and its people. "There are lots of issues to
resolve," he says. "The reserve used to be thickly wooded but
in the early 20th century an American logging company stripped it and
altered the way of life. It is only now we have got compensation."
They now rent out the cleared land to farmers off the reserve who grow
oil seed rape. He is trying to find money to set up heritage tours and
"They have such a quiet dignity," says Foden. "I never
heard a bitter word, only facts. They say they canít move forward
without forgiving and the rest of the world could learn a few lessons
Nearly two centuries on, she sees the non-confrontational nature of the
Orkney islander and the self-denial of the Scots-Presbyterian still
"One thing that shows theyíve definitely moved on from Scotland
though - they deep fry the bannocks!"
Canadaís Orkney pioneers
A STAGGERING number of families across Canada have Hudsonís Bay
Company origins. Many of them have Orkney roots, as Kim Foden discovered
when her husband, Robert, organised a surprise visit to Sturgeon Lake
for her 50th birthday.
"I was amazed just driving through some of the major cities like
Winnipeg - there were street names like Kirkwall Avenue and Thorfinn
Place, and surnames like Tait and Spence and Flett cropped up all over
According to Bryce Wilson, curator of Orkney Museum, the services of
Orkneymen were in great demand when it came to exploring and navigating
the relatively uncharted Northwest Territories during the 18th and 19th
"At one time, around 70 per cent of Hudsonís Bay employees were
Orcadian," he says. "Their skills with boats were second to
none, and when it came to breaking out new trading routes, and
navigating unknown lakes and rivers, they were first in there."
It was Orcadian doctor John Rae who was responsible for mapping over 600
miles of Canadian wilderness, and for discovering the last link in the
Northwest passage through the Arctic seas linking the Atlantic to the
Pacific. It was during a mapping expedition in the early 1850s that he
learned the fate of the sailors from John Franklinís naval expedition
and was condemned by Charles Dickens for reporting that the unfortunate
men had resorted to cannibalism while in the final stages of hypothermia
"The reason Rae survived in the wilderness was because, like the
other Orkneymen, he was reared in a harsh and exposed environment and he
knew that the secret of survival was to adapt and go native," says
Wilson. The Orcadians respected the native peopleís skill and
knowledge and learned from it, and the unions they formed with native
women evolved into stable family units."
When contracts ran out, the men usually decided to stay in Canada rather
than hope that their God-fearing Scots-Presbyterian families back home
would accept such relationships. Some of course did go home, most of
them alone. "As a bairn I always wondered where the snowshoes in
the shed came from," says retired builder Frankie Johnston,
"but nobody would ever give me a straight answer. I have jewellery
- native heads and carvings that were handed down to me - and I would
love to find out more, but the old folk who knew the answers are gone so
I donít suppose I ever will."
Orkneywoman Mary Bichan, now in her seventies, remembers her
grandparents talking about the Indian wife who came back with her
husband and spent her days squatting on the floor rather than use a
chair to sit on.
"I think she must have been so miserable and lonely. I donít
think she spoke English and folk looked on her as strange and different.
She never went out of the house and it must have been a terrible
Bichan herself remembers two boys who were sent back to Orkney by their
father after their native mother died in Canada. "They went to the
parish school and soon spoke broader Orcadian than the locals. They grew
up and I donít know where one of them went, but the other was a
blacksmith and barrel-maker - he was just known locally as Willie
Wheelie because he made wheels and hoops for carts. They were the
exceptions though. Most of the men just kept that part of their life
separate from their other life and if they came back they came on their
own. Itís a shame. It wouldnít happen nowadays, but that was the way
of things then."