Articles

My Papooses Got Pyjamas

HELEN ELLIOTT November 15 1949
Articles

My Papooses Got Pyjamas

HELEN ELLIOTT November 15 1949

My Papooses Got Pyjamas

HELEN ELLIOTT

THE only explanation I can give why I applied for a position with the outpost hospitals of the Red Cross is that by the end of my nurse’s training I was chockful of an inspiring collection of high resolves in search of an outlet.

I had no idea where I would be sent. It never occurred to me, until the superintendent of nurses called me into her Toronto office one summer’s day in 1940, that an organization would send a brandnew member of its staff, without a day’s experience, to take charge—all by her lonesome of a remote spot 1,000 miles away and so far up that it straddles the Height of Land on one of its northerly humps.

Armstrong is a tiny dot on the railroad timetable map. Once when I was 18 1 took a transcontinental train trip and stared at the succession of little dots on the map which mark the settlements of the North. Each one seemed the same: a huddle of houses in a cramped clearing around the track; a woman, drab to me in complacency, standing in the doorway of each, her children around her, watching the train.

Only morons, I remember remarking to my neighbor across lower 6, would want to live there. Now I was 32 and I had become one of those “morons.”

Only after 1 had taken over my one-nurse, pintsized hospital (capacity four beds, including my own) did 1 realize firsthand that the train was the one link to civilization for those people.

Men are needed in the bush and their wives go with them; babies are born there. Children grow up; others die there. And some of the rest of us go along to help.

Armstrong is 100 miles north of Fort William, a straggling little settlement of 300, strung out along the railway track, the black forest crowding in around it.

My little hospital was spang in the centre of the

settlement, directly across from the station. The spruce and hemlock crowded into the back yard and stretched off into the north.

I suppose you could say that this hospital of mine was fairly typical of the 32 outpost hospitals that the Red Cross operated in Ontario at that finie. (There are 28 operating now, and two building.) At any rate 1 got my share of maimed loggers, sick townspeople, and feverish Indian children.

A Strip-act Was Convincing

{T IS about the Indians that I want to write. My early experiences were with them for they came to me in the blueberry season in August, a month after I arrived. The problem of the Indian is too big to dismiss in a few words. All I can do is tell you about a few I know—a few of those who live in the great silence.

Rose, aged 15, was my first Indian patient, the first of a collection of six or seven children. The prettiest had the disposition of a snapping turtle; the only one who had ever attended English school had the manners of a gorging buzzard; the filthiest on arrival turned out to be one of the dearest children I ever nursed anywhere; and the only clean one died.

Rose was brought to the back door by her father who just grunted and pointed at the child whose face was swollen on both sides like puffballs.

The doctor had to come from down the line so I brought Rose in and put her to bed with ice to her face. Getting her into the bedroom, let alone into bed, took both persuasion and patience.

Rose was frightened as well as ill and mistrusted both the walls that were about to close in on her and the pale stranger who was trying to entice her in. Following a spate of Ojibway by the father that seemed to clear away at least some of the girl’s doubts, Rose crept into the clean little bedroom and the father went back to their tent.

Here was my first lesson on how shy the Indian

women are. Already I was wishing that the father had taught Rose his few words of English for the child knew none.

1 presented her with clean pyjamas and indicated by pantomime what I wanted her to do with them, but she clung determinedly to her rags. The only other way I could show her was to give her a playby-play demonstration of how to don pyjamas, so I stripped and put them on. This seemed to cheer her up. Probably finding out that we were approximately the same under our clothes put her at ease.

She still would not undress but at least she looked less like someone about to ascend the gallows. 1 dressed again and left her and the pyjamas alone together.

Half an hour later I poked in again to see how things were going, but, unluckily, picked the very time she had screwed up enough courage to get out of her own clothes. She had only her dress off but at the sight, of me, she flashed under the bedclothes like a woodchuck into its hole.

This setback took hours to overcome and it was not till evening that Rose parted with her clothes, which 1 immediately drowned out back.

Long before this, in fact within a minute of her arrival, the house reeked, but to bathe her in the state she was in would have required force. When she had at last undressed and the ice and pills were doing their stuff, I filled the galvanized tub.

How to get Rose into it and washed? I had no intention of doing another strip so I indicated with a pointing finger that she was to step into it. Any of you who have tried to get a bucking calf through a doorway can picture Rose being got into that tub.

She was pathetically thin, appallingly thin, and so pretty when the swelling came down, with cheeks the rose of her name, and dark patient eyes.

Her teeth were nothing but rotten stumps and had to be extracted—all of them. The doctor frequently had to be dentist. But he was suspicious of more wrong than teeth, and it was arranged for Rose to go to the city for a chest X-ray. She was riddled with tuberculosis so she was sent to the sanitarium, far from her own people.

I never saw Rose again but I have a bead belt given to me by the father. I heard of Rose once more. She was unhappy and her family were lonely for her. How to make them understand the need for (he long, weary treatment —without even the comfort of a visit or of letters? I do not know what became of Rose, but i doubt if she is still alive.

Ida, Sour as Cider

Little Ida was a different sort. She was as pretty as a red poppy in the sun and had the sweetest smile and the sourest disposition in Northern Ontario.

One morning at 5.30 I was awakened by a continuous pounding on the door, while Nippy added to the din as he aimed his barks at the keyhole. The west train was in and it had brought me two Indians with a stretcher made of two poplar poles and someone’s coat.

Lacking English, they just pointed with an air of saying they had done their part—now it was up to me.

Propping my eyes open, I could see nothing but a bundle of rags and some rabbit fur. I looked questioningly at them but received only a grunt so peered at the bundle again. This time from out the fur, snapped two black eyes.

Here I was with Ida, aged eight. They had brought her from 50 miles down the line because of injuries which included a dislocated elbow.

I motioned them to bring her in, but a better look at the bundle in the light of the lamp and 1 hustled them out onto the veranda again. It crawled.

Only Stephen later surpassed Ida for dirt. Before l dared touch her 1 put on a doctor’s gown and wrapped my head in a towel.

The only clothes she had on were two cotton dresses that could have stood alone (and probably walked away). They went into Lysol. Ida herself was ducked into a tub of bichloride of mercury, including her head—very definitely her head.

And before l was well started 1 was

sure, in spite of my armor, that I too was crawling from head to foot.

Ida was too badly hurt fo cut up any dust—then. By the time the doctor saw her she was clean, rested, and all set to use her smile on anyone she thought she could wangle anything out of. And what a sunrise of a smile that little brat could produce.

That night the elbow was set, a cast put on and Ida slept from exhaustion.

Next morning no father appeared to take charge of her so I began to enquire about him. Oh, he had gone back on a freight and when Ida was better I was to send her along on any train that happened to be going that way. Talk about being left holding the baby!

Ida was sturdy and determined and definitely of the opinion that she was being held captive by this strange, pale woman. When she was once over the pain she picked up fast, but the better she felt the worse was her temper.

And she was determined to escape. I had to put a bolt on the door across the very top to keep her in, and I found her —plaster cast and all—trying to shinny up the door after it.

From Rabbit Skins, a Cape

And every morning at the crack of dawn Ida opened her mouth and howled. It was a long, drawn-out wail —half despair, half rage. There was no sleep for me from then on.

On the third morning of this I showed some temper myself. Ida couldn’t understand English, but she knew the meaning of a two-foot stick that I shook under her nose. My own eyes must have been flashing sparks by then and I ended the demonstration with a mighty whack on a nearby chair. It dented the chair but it would have been worth smashing it for the peace that followed.

Ida and I at last knew how to get along; she was no angel but she knew now that I wasn’t either, and from then on there was neither wailing at dawn nor attempted escapes at eve.

I used to put a cup of milk and two slices of bread beside her after she was asleep and in the morning she was happy with these until I got up. 1 left the stick on the chair as a reminder in case of any backsliding.

One day when I could at last concentrât e on any good qualities the child had it occurred to me that she was a beauty. Color had come back into her cheeks which were deep tinted; her hair was as smooth and shiny as a black mirror. Her looks were against all reason—at least, against all the reasoning of what the well-fed child eats; Ida treated all fruit and vegetables with the mistrust she might have reserved for a dish of arsenic.

All she would have was meat and bread, not even a potato. At first she scorned milk but came to like it. But for three meals a day, every day, it was meat, bread and milk. And she blossomed fit for a poster for a child health conference. (But remember Rose without teeth at 15.)

When Ida was able to get outdoors, I kept a wary eye on her the first day for fear she would head straight for the bush. But all she did was take deep breath of the clear air, and the', sit down in the middle of our so-called grass. And there she sat and sat and sat, hour after hour, perfectly content, with her hands folded in her lap and her eyes on the distant bluff.

The time came when she should be going home, but I could not put a child on a train to have her dropped off in the middle of the bush even though the doctor assured me she would be all right. I thought I was left with Ida for life when word came to me that another Indian would take her back where she belonged.

My next difficulty was clothes for her. The days were sunny and warm enough, but it was now September and snappy cold after sundown. All 1 had for her were the two cotton dresses (ragged but now clean), and the rug (now free of livestock). The blanket 1 had burned.

I pinned one dress on to form panties; the other continued as a dress. Then with safety pins, I fashioned from the rabbit skins a cape with hood that had the air of a custom-made product.

I took Ida over to the train where she flashed smiles right and left and many a wayfarer turned for another look. She was worth it. With her black hair and eyes, the tawny rose-tinted skin and natural grace, the child was beautiful.

There were never two children with me at the same time. Stephen, nine years old, was brought in by his father one night on the late train. But the train had been only the last few miles of a long journey which included 250 miles by canoe.

Stephen had an infection after an injury and was an extremely sick boy. The first to get wind of them— literally

-was Nippy who started to raise the roof even before they reached our path.

1 had thought that nothing could be filthier than Ida but Stephen was, by far. Poor child, he was as frail as a wisp of smoke and about as limp. He was much too ill to go through anything more, but cleaning him up was necessary. His straight black hair was an uneven Buster Brown cut, with every sticky strand thick with nits.

1 hastily donned my armor and my appearance did nothing to allay Stephen’s fear of this white woman, the first he had seen. I had to add to his terror bv going straight at his head with a pair of scissors, but the little fellow was game and there was never a whimper out of him as 1 snipped away.

When that was done, he went into a tub of bichloride of mercury. If is the truth that that tub had a solid scum of dead lice over it. Call them pediculosis if it makes you feel more genteel, but they were lice to me.

Modern Miracle: File Bluebag

Stephen was so ill that the effort of the cleaning up should have made him worse. Instead, he slept like a lamb all night and in the morning had already begun to improve. One of the nicest presents I ever received was Stephen’s smile that morning.

Stephen’s smile was not bestowed lightly, and later, when I knew the boy better and saw how seldom he did give one away, I realized I had received his highest compliment.

The father returned to the wilds and I had instructions to send Stephen back to Ombabika (northeast of Lake Nipigon, when he was better, from where he would be passed along the trail back to his father.

The boy was with me for three weeks. I never enjoyed any patient anywhere more than I did Stephen. He was obviously happy in his new environment. When he was able he would wash himself until he glowed. 1 gave him a pair of blunt scissors and the old mail-order catalogues and he spent hours cut ting out pictures.

One day when he was on the porch I took out a tub of water and started him boat building. On a sudden thought, I went for the hluebag and blued the water. Stephen’s slow smile spread from his mouth clear into his eyes as he pointed to the water and then at the sky.

He had wonderful hands that were a joy to watch. With applicators for

masts and tongue depressors for hulls, we made ships rigged with string. Stephen never tired of his fleet which sailed the washtub manned by paper men from the catalogues.

The time came when Stephen, too, had to be put on a train with his name pinned to him, and each hand clutching a paper bag one with his treasures, the other with food.

I can still see his eyes as they watched me while the train pulled away—such a little boy, still not understanding what was being done, but always ready to accept whatever came.

He was a fine child and no matter what dirt there may have been on the outside, he was a clean little soul within.

“Squaw Stopped to Have Baby”

Indians are very fond of their children; most of the youngsters are spoiled. There is one exception to this: twins are regarded as an ill omen. I saw two scrawny mites dying in hospital as a result of neglect—they were twins. In the same family were five other children, all regarded affectionately.

I never had enough to do with the women to feel I knew much about them. They babbled happily among themselves but they were shy of the rest of us. The papoose (and usually one per woman at all times) is laced into one of those contraptions that hang down the mothers’ backs called a likanagan. There the child rides like an Master bunny poking out of an egg, fat and contented, and not changed according to the accepted standards. Around Indian abodes you will notice quantities of moss drying

this is the equivalent to our diapers.

Don’t look at a chubby Indian baby and go off with the notion that it all goes to show how well babies thrive without all our newfangled ideas. That one is doing all right but what about some others?

Once an Indian family came en

masse to see me about something to do with the mother. The husband named Mike could speak English and I asked him how many children she had had.

“Eleven,” said Mike.

“Eleven?” I asked counting heads (you can be sure the whole family is along like the tail of a kite). “I see only five. Where are the others?”

“No others,” grunted Mike.

“Six dead! What happened to them?”

“Nothing happened—just died.”

'Phis family lived the year round several miles out in the bush and used to come in every summer for supplies. Their arrival was nearer to schedule than that of the trains but one Saturday they were late.

Mike stamped into the store decidedly grumpy. He marched up to the counter and grunted, “Huh, late this morning. Wife had to stop and have baby.” There they all were — wife and brand-new baby as well. She had just stopped at a stump on the way and had

it all over in no time.

The last of my Indian children was Peter. He died. His death came in September between the trickle of summer patients and the avalanche of winter work. He was 12 and was brought in by his Cree parents, one Friday on the local from 60 miles down

the line.

Peter was beautifully dressed a good suit, snow-white shirt handmade with tiny stitches, handknitted socks, and moccasins so soft and fine they must have been doeskin.

The father carried the boy across from the train; and put him down at the doorway, for he could still walk a Continued from page 39 little. As the boy came into the room 1 saw that he could not walk straight but turned left and would have crashed into the wall had he not been stopped.

Letting the sick child walk was not callousness on the part of the father. He was terribly concerned about his son. but they could speak no English whatever, and the only way they could explain w’hat was wrong was to let me see for myself. I sent for the doctor.

Peter had meningitis. He had first become ill six weeks before. The parents had sent word out for a doctor but no one troubled to go. The boy had begun to improve, but suddenly he was worse.

Peter became much worse the first night in the outpost hospital and the next day I sent for the priest for I thought the lad was dying. He received the last rites, but did not die that day.

It took 10 days and 10 nights for Peter to die. Only someone who has watched helplessly through such a terrible death can know what it is like. Each morning he couldn’t live until night, and each night it was impossible ffor him to last until morning.

At first he could speak a few words iin Cree but soon his speech went. Then,

as the disease pulled his neck backward until the back of his skull touched his spine, and his backbone bowed backward like a hoop, he could no longer swallow.

Through all this the child was alert and conscious every minute, and never once was he anything but patient. The only muscles he could move were his eyes which grew softer and clung to me every second I was within his sight. Peter’s dying eyes gave me what was probably the truest benediction I ever had.

He died in the middle of an afternoon. In a few minutes another Indian came to do what he could to help. 1 needed help badly. A coffin had been shipped out but I did not realize until I saw it being carried over from the station that this part, too, was up to me.

The coffin was brought into the wardroom and laid across two chairs, and I dressed Peter in the beautifully made clothes he had come in and in which his parents wanted him buried.

We put Peter into his coffin but the white satin lining seemed cold and friendless to a little Indian boy, so we covered it with hemlock.

We screwed down the top and Peter was ready for his journey Home. -fa