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An Interview With Joe Iron, Sr.

Ruth Iron, with permission from the Northwest Eagle

Joe Iron Sr. is an elder from Canoe Lake reserve and has a lot of memories from his childhood and later life that he would like to pass on to the readers of the Northwest Eagle.

He lives with his grandson Jason. His wife passed away a couple years ago. Talking with Joe, it is easy to see why that he would like to tell his memoirs to the younger generation; he has a lot of old pictures.

Joe pauses and lights a cigarette, then after a couple of puffs, he starts by saying that life was poor and it wasn't easy at all. It was lucky, he adds, that his dad was self-sufficient and was a real good hunter. Joe doesn't remember being hungry-there was food on the table at all times and compared to others, his family ate pretty good.
Joe Iron, Sr. In those days, a person had to work in order to survive because there was no form of assistance as there is today, with social assistance, social security and family allowances. Working in those days meant a person had to go hunting, fishing, trapping or looking for seasonal work that sometimes paid as little as $1 per day.

In those days, there was nothing to distract a person from his work or family. Not like today, Joe laughs, saying "such as bingo" which he notes is played every night. He adds that past years, there was hardly any alcohol to create family splits or general ill feelings towards one another. Joe says 'kayas', a Cree word that means yesterday or long time ago and is quite often used by elders who want to relate a story, "I didn't drink in (kayas) my early years. Not till after I got married did I take my first drink."

But he adds, "I knew I had to work in order to support my wife so I went looking for work." He was to find work at the mission (now known as the Beauval Indian Education Centre) during the summer and continued to work till fall. At this time, he decided to quit working for the winter and concentrated on trapping which was a common occurrence for a lot of people back then. He would move his family to Durocher Lake and spend the winter there, where his parents would also join them to winter at the small lake located a couple of miles west of the Canoe Lake junction.

Back then, there was an abundance of wildlife which made it easier to hunt and ensure the availability of moose meat for their diets. On top of this were the ducks, geese and fish which gave the native people a variety of meat to choose from. Joe reminisces that they didn't have much in a materialistic sense but they were able to enjoy life for the natural rewards.

He recalls that no one ever said they were too lazy to work and that people toiled day after day to survive without complaining; while in comparison today people are at times too lazy to work. As he continues talking, he notes that people were nomadic and that moving was done regularly depending where their food supply could easily be available. People moved all over, he adds. His family would winter in Durocher Lake while others would move to Keeley Lake and other places. People who moved to Keeley Lake would spend their time fishing at Whitefish Lake or the creek. He recalls that when people fished, they wouldn't use nets but would just spear the fish at the creek when the fish were in their migrating patterns.

Once a large amount of fish was caught, people would smoke or dry the fish and construct small sheds in which the fish could be stored so they wouldn't spoil. One other advantage was these sheds would prevent animals from sneaking into camp and stealing the food that had been so painstakingly prepared by the women of the camp. Thus, the storage and preservation of food meant the people would have enough food to last through the winter months with no fear of starvation. Here Joe stops, lights a cigarette and states, "people lived to survive, nothing more."

Joe remembers it was hard trying to obtain work and that one winter he had to go to Waterhen Lake for logging and that he went with this other feller Tom Durocher from Canoe Lake. He recalls that there were no power saws back then and they had to use cross cut saws for logging. At that time, the going rate for logs was ten cents each, and if they happened to cut 100 logs, then they'd make $10 which would have to be split between them. Even while working, they would have to hunt to ensure they'd have enough to eat.

Come spring, both men realized that it was time to move on and Tom went back to Canoe Lake, while Joe, needing more work, moved to Dorintosh. He was able to obtain work with a farmer who needed to clear land for crops so Joe, along with others from

An Interview With Joe Iron, Sr.

Ruth Iron, with permission from the Northwest Eagle

the Waterhen Lake Reserve, worked for the farmer for a couple of months.

At this time, Joe was joined by his wife and parents who had travelled up to the Dorintosh area to also look for work. They must have worked for at least a couple of months until it was time for the Stampede in Meadow Lake. At the Stampede they met up with people from Cold Lake, Alberta who invited them to visit Cold Lake. Since summer had arrived, the Iron family went on to Cold Lake.

He mentions that the time period he is talking about was in 1945, so, the method of travel to Alberta was by horses since he recalls there were no trucks or cars back then. They stayed in the Cold Lake area for a while since Joe was working in the hay fields. At the end of August, it was time to go home to Canoe Lake, so they started travelling back, and on the way, stopped at Joseph Bighead Reserve to visit with relatives who lived there. The Iron family arrived back in Canoe Lake just in time to start the preparation of preserving food for the winter months.

After that story about the days of yesteryear, Joe sat back and had another cigarette while he continued to reminisce about his youth which was gone but not forgotten. Once he finished smoking, he started in on another story which is actually a brief history of the Iron's. Before getting into the tale, he pointed out that his grandmother had told it to him when he was young and that some parts are not quite clear and he's unsure of the events or names of the people concerned.

He also mentions that along with this story, some of the factual information he received is from a book he read on Poundmaker and Big Bear.

As the story goes, Joe believes his great-grandmother was the wife of Big Bear. And apparently Big Bear was an abusive sort of man who blamed his wife for any misfortunes that occurred. The lady in distress realized that she should escape, so one dark stormy night she packed her belongings and got her five sons and daughters ready to go along. The lady packed her belongings into the canoe and headed north on the Loon River.

It is important to note it was spring when the lady made her bid for freedom so it was quite convenient for her to use the waterways.

The woman continued on the Loon River to where it connected with the Beaver River then she followed that to Ile a la Crosse. After she arrived in this community, she moved to Canoe Lake where she was to remain for the rest of her days. So, the children of this woman were to remain in the Canoe Lake area and marry into other families. During this period of time he speaks of, Treaty Ten was not yet signed. When a surveyor census of the people was taken, one of the men was called "Pewapiskos" meaning Iron.

Thus, the agent at that time decided that Iron would be easier to speak so the agent wrote that name in the book. With that, Joe Iron Sr. ends his narration of past times.