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Scotland's Lost Braves
by Kath Gourlay
Tuesday, 28th August 2001
The Scotsman


They say you can’t 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 named Kingfisher.

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 islander.

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 their heritage.

These are Scotland’s lost children - fathered by the Scots employed by the Hudson’s Bay Trading Company - now distanced by ocean, prejudice and neglect.

"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 Twatt’s grandfather Magnus Twatt had come from Orkney to work for Hudson’s 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 Strathspey.

"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 generations.

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" - the mixture.

"Look, it’s stamped on my business card, Metis, and I’m 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. "He’s 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 weren’t allowed to go into libraries and archive departments to find out. I told my uncle and he said, ‘This is unbelievable. How dare they treat the sons and daughters of Orcadians like this!’"

Yvonne and Carol are philosophical. They too, had been taken into residential school when very young, together with brother Harold. "Our mother, William Twatt’s 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 they’d never experienced it. Yvonne told me about a woman she knew who couldn’t 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 fishing holidays.

"They have such a quiet dignity," says Foden. "I never heard a bitter word, only facts. They say they can’t 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 evident.

"One thing that shows they’ve definitely moved on from Scotland though - they deep fry the bannocks!"


Canada’s Orkney pioneers

A STAGGERING number of families across Canada have Hudson’s 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 the place."

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 centuries.

"At one time, around 70 per cent of Hudson’s 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 Franklin’s 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 and starvation.

"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 people’s 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 don’t 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 don’t 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 existence."

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 don’t 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. It’s a shame. It wouldn’t happen nowadays, but that was the way of things then."


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