Tse-loh-ne (The People at the End of the Rocks)

Journey Down the Davie Trail

Keith Billington

The Tse-loh-ne from the Sekani First Nation were known as “The People at the End of the Rocks.” This small band of people lived and thrived in one of BC’s most challenging and remote areas, 1600 kilometres north of Prince George in the Rocky Mountain Trench. They were isolated and nomadic, and survived by following the seasons, walking hundreds of kilometres each year, hunting and harvesting food as they travelled.

In 1988, Keith Billington, a former outpost nurse in the Northwest Territories, worked as the band manager for the isolated Sekani Indian Band at Fort Ware. In addition to his role as an administrator, he performed dental work, sutured victims of violence, delivered babies that wouldn’t wait and prepared deceased persons for burial. Several years into his new job, Billington was invited on a traditional Sekani trek. The travellers would follow the Aatse Davie Trail using pack dogs, traversing 460 kilometres in some of BC’s roughest terrain. Like the Tse-loh-ne before them, they carried little food, relying instead on what they could hunt or gather.

Throughout the twenty-five days it took the party to hike from Lower Post to Fort Ware, Keith and his companions suffered cold, starvation and injury. They faced grizzly bears, swollen rivers and the incessant rain so typical of northern BC. Their adventures offer a poignant glimpse into the hardships and rigours of the Sekani people, who have one foot in their past and the other in their future—a people who reluctantly try to adapt to today’s values knowing that change is inevitable.

In the Beginning…

The Jet Ranger helicopter flew north for two hours along Williston Lake and then up the Finlay River. After sighting a small cabin, the pilot brought the machine down from three thousand feet, banked to the right, and descended with the nose tilted slightly up to a landing on the riverbank. The downdraft from the huge rotors whisked leaves and debris into the fast-flowing river. A few dogs tied up behind the cabin took refuge in their broken-down boxes and then, as the noise and motion slowed down, a man peered out of the cabin door and walked slowly towards us.

He was a tall, lean, angular man dressed in blue jeans and a black western shirt. His shoulder-length black hair was crowned with a black cowboy hat. He smiled and walked over and greeted me, shaking my hand in the brief handshake used by most First Nations people. He told me that his name was Emil McCook and that he was the Chief of the Fort Ware Indian Band.

After exchanging a few words of greeting, I explained why I had literally dropped in at his cabin in a helicopter and asked if I could take a sample of blood and cut a small swatch of hair from each member of his family. I was employed at that time by “Indian Health”—part of the federal department of Health and Welfare. I travelled throughout northern BC as a nurse working on special projects. This one required me to collect blood and hair samples from First Nations men, women, children and babies and to have it tested for mercury poisoning.

In 1960, Minamata Disease, or mercury poisoning caused by industrial pollution, was discovered. It was caused by people eating fish contaminated with methyl mercury from polluted rivers and seas near Minamata, Japan. Concern that Aboriginal peoples with a diet containing substantial amounts of fish—and who also lived near mine sites, as the Fort Ware Band did—might also develop this disease emerged, and the tests I conducted grew out of this concern.

The Chief was very cooperative and asked me to follow him into his small cabin. It was built of unpeeled logs on the bank of the Finlay River, with Prairie Mountain rising steeply behind it. Small children ran around and stared with awe at the helicopter and then ran and hid as I made my way over to the cabin with Emil. The dogs tied up behind the cabin now greeted us with loud barks and Emil gave them a curt shout, which silenced them. A small pocket-sized dog ran around loose, looking quite out of place in this environment. Later I found that this little creature was the special pet of Fanny McCook, the Chief’s wife.

Considering that I had arrived unannounced, the Chief seemed to accept my presence as quite an ordinary event. I found out later that Emil had been dealing with government bureaucrats both in Fort Ware and down south for many years and nothing I did was likely to surprise him.

The cabin was hot, with a woodstove burning even though it was a warm day. When Fanny McCook asked if I would like tea, I realized the stove was necessary for cooking. The Chief’s wife was a large woman and looked a bit severe, but she was quite shy and I found that she covered her shyness by being quiet as she went about her business. Later, I was to see that she had a great sense of humour and loved to tease.

Several small children giggled and peeked shyly out of a small bedroom, jostling one another so that they could get a better look at this bearded stranger that had suddenly descended upon them. When I repeated my request after telling Fanny why I was there, she called out in a loud voice, “You kids come here!” They crowded into the main room of the cabin, giggling and tried to hide behind Fanny, peering at me from the safety of their mother.

I took samples of hair and blood from Emil and Fanny, then Fanny called the children forward. So far they had thought that it was a lot of fun as their parents submitted to my probes. They came forward willingly enough to have their hair samples cut—but when they realized that the syringe and needle I was preparing was for one of them and I started to take a blood sample, they suddenly became reluctant and the older children pushed the smaller ones in front of them. As each patient had a Band-Aid applied, the next one asked in a small voice, “Does it hurt?” Finally, with Fanny’s help, I completed my task and told Emil that I would send him the test results when they had been processed. (Fortunately, the test results didn’t indicate any problems.)

Emil had a long river boat tied up on the Finlay River, a boat he had built himself, he told me proudly when I asked him about it. Going with the river current, he could travel down to Fort Ware in about half an hour, although it took him longer coming back, especially if the boat was loaded.

I chatted with the Chief and his wife for a while and asked about any other people living in the area. They told me that most people would be in the village at this time because it was the start of the school year. His children, who could now see that all danger to their bodies was over, escorted us to the helicopter with shouts and giggles, demonstrating their relief as we prepared to depart.

As the helicopter took off, the family was soon engulfed by the trees, the river and the mountains. As I looked down at them waving at us we swept over towards the village, I had no idea then how the future would bring me into a close relationship with them all.

“This book is well-illustrated with archival and contemporary photographs of the people mentioned, and it also offers a map showing Sekani territory. Caitlin Press has a distinguished record of publishing authors with intimate knowledge of people and places in British Columbia … The book is a good read as well as an important contribution to BC First Nations history.”

BC Studies