By James Rose
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

In Winnifred A. Weir’s acclaimed book of local history, Tales of the Windermere (published in 1980), two prominent, historical Indigenous families of the Columbia Valley are profiled: the Morigeaus and the Kinbaskets. The Morigeau family history in the Columbia Valley goes back to when Francois Baptiste Morigeau found his way to the valley from Quebec in the 1850s. His grandson, Martin, later became Chief of the Akisqnuk First Nation in the 1960s.

In this article, I want to share two of Winn’s colourful stories about Martin Morigeau’s childhood. The bond he had with his father, Baptiste, and his appreciation and awe for the natural world in each story is evident. In the preface to her book, Winn wrote: “Most of the original tellers of these tales have gone to join their ancestors. Others were children during the period these tales cover, and their family recollections have added colour and realism.”

“One day, Martin came home from hunting gophers with the other boys of the band,” Winn wrote. “His black eyes were wide with excitement. ‘They said there were once great hair men here, bear men, who dug up dead bodies and ate them,’ he told his father. ‘It cannot be true.’ His lip trembled with the excitement, half hoping that it might be true, half dreading that it was.”

‘We don’t know.’ Baptiste [Martin’s father] put his hand out to calm the boy. ‘I heard that story from my father, and I have seen bones said to be those of the giant men. They lay on the upland flat east of the lake. My father said the bones were about 300 years old. They had sinew necklaces strung with animal teeth, so they were not animal bones.’ But did they really eat dead people? Martin asked.’ Who is to say, son? Some said the huge men would hide in the bush listening to [Indigenous women] wailing for their dead. Then they would watch where they buried and at night they would dig up the bodies. It is what the old [Indigenous] say. I do not know.’

‘How big were the bear men?’ Martin’s eyes were round with awe.’ Some say skeletons were eight feet tall and their footprints were wide as a bear’s and twice as long. Some say their bodies were covered with hair. There are many tales.’”

Winn later discussed Martin’s empathy toward wildlife in the face of danger.

“Of all the Morigeau children,” Winn wrote, “it was Martin who was avidly curious about his grandfather, Francois, and about the early days in the valley.” His father told him about the great fire of 1886 when the forest was aflame and the skies were black by day and red by night.

‘Great tree brands were tossed about in the wind,’ Baptiste said. ‘Setting fires in new places. Many [Indigenous] took refuge on the island that is in the sloughs near Wilmer. They kept wet in the water of the river because the heat was so great.’

‘What happened to the animals, Pa?’ Martin asked, always aware of his fondness for the wildlife. ‘Many of them died in the fire. Many took refuge in the river. It was a sad time for people and the animals alike.’