(This story is reprinted here in memory of Gil, who passed away in December of 2014.)
Tall and lean, a little stooped. White beard, keen eyes, mostly bald. Gil Watson is an impressive looking figure. You can’t miss him. Especially when he is wearing his magnificently beaded leather jacket.
Archaeological work was Gil’s career for over twenty five years: in the field, in the lab and in education. He has been retired for nearly that long, but you would never know that to see him. For the past five decades he has been a familiar figure at conferences or in a classroom, on tours or at a dig. He is one of the founding members of the Saskatchewan Archaeological Society, and continues to serve on the board. He rarely turns down an opportunity to investigate a possible find, or to re-visit any of the dozens of sites he has helped excavate. He is always willing to explain Saskatchewan’s archaeological past to anyone with questions. He never misses the SAS fall tour. And neither does his jacket.
I believe I first met Gil in 1999 when, lured by an ad in the SAS newsletter promising northern forests and pictographs, a friend and I signed up for a bus tour to Stanley Mission and beyond. After that weekend, we were hooked. The weather was cold and rainy, the group an odd assortment of individuals linked only by their passionate curiosity, the tour an adventure into an utterly new yet incredibly old world. Gil was there, and maybe he wore that jacket (although with all the rain that weekend, he probably covered it up with rain gear.) In any case, over the course of ten years and at least that many archaeology trips, Gil’s jacket has become a familiar sight to me. Whether our motley group surges into the middle of a stubble field or gazes from a hilltop, climbs a cliff or searches the prairie for signs of an ancient camp, that jacket is like a beacon, always visible, often in the middle of a huddled group examining some find. It says more than just “Gil is here.”
It says “This is who Gil is.”
You cannot continually notice an unusual item like that jacket without admiring it. Like others, I commented on its beauty and wondered “Where did you get it?”
Gil was not reluctant to tell the story.
It was 1965 or ‘66. Canada gleefully prepared for its 100th birthday. The location of Fort Carlton, an old Hudson’s Bay post on the North Saskatchewan River, was scheduled for excavation in preparation for Canada’s Centennial in 1967. The site had long lain neglected, ignored, almost forgotten. Reconstruction of the fort was a project still years in the future. First came the grunt-work of excavating. It was dirty, tedious labour; but Gil Watson, the youthful archaeologist assisting Dr. Tony Ranere, was energized by the bits of history they unearthed daily.
Fort Carlton had once been a crucial link in the Hudson’s Bay Company’s mercantile chain. From 1810 until 1885, its location at the junction of land and river routes made it a convenient supply depot as well as a popular trading post. Bison meat from prairie buffalo hunts or supplies from Fort Garry came by wagon or Red River cart. Trade goods were ferried to points north by York boat. Carlton was the place to restock provisions for Fort Pitt or Fort Edmonton ... or to prepare for a long cold winter on the trap line. For the Bay’s Carlton post was as important to the First Nations of the northwest as it was to the traders. Every spring and fall a tipi village would spring up outside the fort as native trappers came to purchase tea, tobacco or gunpowder or to drop off payments of hides and furs. Some of them remained at the fort, becoming an integral part of the community. Cree or Salteaux or Metis found work here, the men as hunters or labourers, the women repairing snowshoes or dog harness, preparing hides for leather clothing or weaving willow baskets. Some stayed for a season, some for many years. The old life of hunting and trapping was always out there, waiting for them, whenever they were moved to return to it.
Who among them could have guessed how quickly their world would change? For generations they had fed and clothed themselves through their own initiative and the land’s bounty. But by 1876 the bison herds were destroyed and the people weakened by small pox and starvation. After much soul-searching but unable to find any alternative, leaders of the Saskatchewan Cree reluctantly signed Treaty Six at Fort Carlton. Poundmaker, Badger, Mistawasis, Starblanket. Their once proud land was carved up and given back to them in little pieces ... “like a piece of pemmican,” in Poundmaker’s words. The rest was surveyed, divided and opened to development. Skills and knowledge hard-won in a lifetime became obsolete. The Cree’s arduous, unpredictable, robust independence was gone.
Metis families who had established their farming villages along the Saskatchewan River heard the laments of their First Nations neighbours, and feared for their own claims to the land. Theirs was a lifestyle uniquely adapted to this time and place. French verbs with Cree nouns, farming one season and bison-hunting the next, pemmican and fiddle music, buckskin and woven sashes. Metis know-how was indispensible to the honourable company. But by the 1880s, surveyors’ stakes and encroaching settlement threatened their farms, villages and wintering sites. Repeated attempts to negotiate with the distant government failed. As a last resort, the Metis prepared an armed resistance and invited their First Nations kin to stand with them. When the North West Mounted Police stationed at Fort Carlton marched against the Metis at Duck Lake, the resistance fighters fought back, killing a dozen and forcing Inspector Crozier’s men to retreat back to Fort Carlton. Crozier chose discretion over valour. He ordered the indefensible fort abandoned, and retreated with his police troops and volunteers to Prince Albert.
So it was that in March 1885, soon after the first shots of the North-West Resistance were fired, Fort Carlton was burned to the ground.
Jump ahead to the 1960s. After almost 80 years, the former site of Fort Carlton was almost indistinguishable from any other point along the North Saskatchewan River. Except for piles of rocks from tumbled-down chimneys, and unexpected depressions indicating long-abandoned cellars, few signs of the old fort remained. Nature had reclaimed the land. Canada’s hundredth birthday was only a few years away. Reclaiming some of that history would be the perfect Centennial Project . Gil, having already done extensive work surveying other sites around the province, jumped at the chance to join this project as archaeological technician.
As Gil Watson and Tony Ranere measured, mapped and meticulously recorded each artefact uncovered, they were often interrupted by visitors. Local history buffs or amateur collectors came with their questions, eager to learn more about this not-so-distant but almost forgotten part of our history. Occasionally these visitors were First Nations people. Sometimes they offered comments as they recalled stories of past connections their families had once had with the fort.
One day, when Gil was alone at the dig, a family of three arrived. Two robust but elderly men half-carried a bent and aged woman across the uneven ground to the site where he was working. Gil greeted them, asked if they would like to look around. One of the men explained that the old woman, his mother, wanted to visit the site, see the excavation, find out what they were doing. He said that she had been born at Fort Carlton. She was now nearing her hundredth birthday. Gil immediately put aside his work. As he led them slowly around the site, explaining how they were mapping the locations of various buildings and showing them some of the items already retrieved ... here a brass button, there a musket pin ... the old woman nodded vigorously. Hanging on to her son’s arm for balance, she hung on their young guide’s every word. It must have looked a strange procession, the enthusiastic young archaeologist holding forth on his favourite topic to the taciturn old men and their tiny wizened mother. Matching her pace, they moved slowly from stockade through trading shop to the area archaeologists had identified as the barracks where labourers at the fort had lived. The bare trampled ground was marked by a few stakes and the rectangular excavation trenches. Yet it was enough. The woman’s wrinkled brown face lit up, eager words poured forth, an excited mixture of Cree and English. It was as though the years had fallen away and her faded eyes could once again see the buildings, the piles of provisions and the bustling activity of the old Hudson’s Bay post.
As they completed their slow shuffling circuit of the site, the old lady, tired but beaming, pulled a length of cord from her pocket. She motioned for Gil to bend forward and stretch out his arm. Puzzled, he obeyed. Deftly she measured the width of his shoulders and the length of his arm, recording each measurement with a knot. Then she returned the string to her pocket with an “Eh-eh, tanikee.”
Gil and his visitors said their goodbyes and parted company, the men and their ancient mother to return home and Gil to go back to work.
A few weeks passed, and Gil had almost forgotten his visitors. Then late one afternoon, he looked up from a trench he was back-filling to see two familiar graying men approaching. One of them carried a bundle.
“Our Mama, he make something for you.”
Brushing the dirt from his hands, Gil climbed from the trench. The man offered Gil the bundle. As Gil took it, a tanned hide jacket unfolded in his hands.
“What? Why? Your mother made this for me?”
The men nodded, and one said “She just an old kokum, but she still know how to bead pretty good.”
Gil stammered his admiration for the workmanship, and his thanks to their mother. The men seemed to feel that, their errand completed, there was nothing more to say. They nodded goodbye and left.
That was the last Gil ever saw of them. When he tried later in the season to find the old woman to thank her in person, he learned that she had died, just short of her 100th birthday.
Why did an old woman spend her last days making an elaborate gift for someone she had met only once? Besides showing the generosity of her spirit, it indicated her esteem and appreciation for the work he was doing. Traditionally, garments were decorated in direct relationship to the perceived importance of the wearer. The thunderbird emblazoned on the back of the jacket was, and is, one of the most important symbols of the Plains First Nations. Giving such a gift to a non-Indian was a powerful message of acceptance.
Through the next years Gil wore the jacket with pride and gratitude.
“One of my most precious possessions,” he often says, when acquaintances query him about it. Sometimes he adds, “I’ll never part with it, not for any price.”
And his listeners nod, almost understanding. It’s not only an interesting cultural artefact, expensive to replace. There is a certain nostalgic value ... Gil has worn it on countless occasions over the past forty-odd years, and it is saturated with memories.
Nostalgia. Recognition. Appreciation. All add their value to the jacket.
But more than that, I think, the jacket represents an encounter with the living past. Maybe it reminds him, and anyone who sees him wearing it, that the past is never really over. After all, what started out as an archaeological study for him was, to the old woman, her own childhood.
Academic jargon is a poor language for laughter or tears.
But an archaeologist might become a story teller.
A story can sometimes be truer than history.
And sometimes a jacket is not just a jacket.