The Indian Dog

Ohnemoos is the Ojibwa Indian word for dog; if tliere is more than one dog, it becomes Ohnemoosuk. And there always is more than one Indian dog: there is, in fact, a great unwanted surplus of Ohnemoosuk, and nowhere is one more conscious of this than at Big Trout Lake. I have been in many Indian villages in the extreme Northwest of Ontario, that territory ending on the desolate shores of Hudson Bay, and, while always conscious of dogs as a background as natural as woodsmoke, muskeg, and forest, mostly I retain the more vivid impressions of the inhabitants.

The settlement of Big Trout is on a small island; the time was spring, when the ice was newly gone out, and to the ranks of the already undernourished canine population were added the dogs that had followed families back across the ice from the winter’s traplines, and were now marooned there on a few hundred acres of barren land. One could no more escape their presence than they could escape themselves. It would be the rare dog who would depart again before freeze-up; who would be valued enough to take up space in a family canoe, and reach the canine paradise of the summer fishing camps, there to gorge on fish guts and suckers.

Poor dog, poor Ohnemoos, is just another mouth to fill in a harsh country, and as such to be disregarded by the Indian, who has a hard enough job filling his children’s mouths. The dog is back almost where he started in his relationship with nomadic man, one of a ring of hopeful jackals or wolves circling the seasonal camps, already convincing himself that some benefit must stem from an association with man. He must fight for his existence, starve or survive; this is the inexorable rule of nature which has governed man’s own evolvement and which prevails still in the attitude of the Indian to Ohnemoos today: nature is of necessity pitiless.

The canine word has gone around that the white man is notoriously wasteful with his potato peelings and eggshells, his bits of gristle, burned toast, or apple cores. Besides, often he feeds at least one extra waif along with his own dog: today might be the very day he will take on two. Round and round the Island the scavengers go, ever hopeful that the next round will produce some minor miracle— perhaps a beaver pelt, scraped clean and stretched to dry on a frame, will blow down from a roof’s safekeeping; perhaps a snowshoe, with a tasty moose-hide thong, or a moccasin stitched with nourishing deer sinew, from a platform cache; perhaps, with any luck, there will be a chocolate-smeared child’s face to lick, a fish bone here, a fledgling there. Whatever it might be, the lean snarling bitches with litters will almost certainly pounce first. And I, exploring the island on my own rounds, come to recognize each one of the pack: thin, often mangy or lame, fiercely cringing, warily aggressive, sneakyeved, for the most part unlovely pariahs.

Or so I thought at first, shocked and unhappy, fresh from a society that must pay for the privilege of owning a dog, and is liable to prosecution for neglecting it. But when I came to know them better, Ohnemoosuk of Big Trout Lake taught me an affecting lesson; ragged and gaunt they might be. an SPCA nightmare, but they had an unquenchable spirit and ebullience. One day, I watched a mangy half-grown pup drag up an old fishing net from the sand and tear off along the beach with tire whole sorry pack in high delight after him in a glorious tumbling game of tag, and I realized that we do dog an anthropomorphistic injustice when we link him with terms of pathos and maudlin sentiment: dog is an incurable optimist, whatever his circumstances,

Pepra was a good example of a super-scrounger, and the one I came to know the best. Thin as a greyhound, blond and leggy, with artful wolf eyes that could take on a professionally abashed expression calculated to melt the stoniest heart, she looked as though she had not had a square meal since the day she was weaned. Theoretically she was not ownerless, belonging to one Susannah, a somewhat flighty character who had other things on her mind—such as an assortment of children and no husband. Pepra must have had me marked down from the moment I stepped out of the Cessna onto the dock, for she came begging around the door of my shack almost before I had unrolled a sleeping bag, and soon established herself as the top dog cleanerupper after meals.

I encouraged her, for her very obvious attempts to charm amused me; then one cold evening I made the fatal mistake of allowing her to push her way in for a warm by the stove, after which she became extremely possessive. No sooner had she established her status than she dealt briskly and forcibly with any other beggars at the door. She is bound up inextricably with memory of Big Trout, for Pepra was not going to lose sight of her meal ticket for one minute if she could help it. Every inch that I explored of the island was in her company; and as she seemed to have innumerable friends and relations among the other hunger-restless clogs, they usually tagged along too. After a while I became resigned to the fact that if I wanted to search for fossils or flowers or artifacts, every stone that I turned over, every plant, was going to be examined by my interested following as well.

They were a raggle-taggle train for the most part, often snarling and fighting among themselves over some morsel picked up on the way. At first if their quarrels took place too close for my comfort (I am unreasonably terrified of the noise of dogfights) , all I had to do was pick up a stick or stone, brandish it threateningly, and all would cringe off with flattened ears and lowered tails—a parody of servility, for their eyes remained bright and watchful. They were either very intelligent or very anxious to please, for in a remarkably short time quarreling was confined to a tolerable distance; they seemed to be only token demonstrations, teeth and noise and little else. After a while all I had to do was say “psssss,” a noise I found no dog could stand, and order was instantly restored.

Having no option, I spent many hours observing the individual and pack reactions. Pepra had developed a fascinating technique that some of the smaller dogs were just beginning to adapt for themselves: she would collapse on her back at the first warning snarl over some tidbit, the traditional surrendering, but taking care to collapse her hips on the morsel. Meek and apologetic, she would lie there, tail tip quivering placating!)', while tradition now demanded that the victor step back stiffly to acknowledge her acknowledgment of defeat: then, quick as lightning, she would stretch her head backward along the ground, swiveling her hips while at the same time the middle of her body was righting itself; and before the other dog had time to grasp the meaning of this U-bend wriggle, she would be off with the morsel, fast as the Judicrous shaggy greyhound she resembled.

There were two pups in the pack that interested me particularly as a study in contrasts. They were very alike in coloring and height and the shape of their heads, and may well have been litter brothers, but while one was plump and jolly, the other was very thin and nervous. The plump and jolly one I knew was regularly fed at the nursing station, and only came along for the fun: he was the goodnatured butt of the rest of the party, being forever jumped on, rolled over, or buffeted. The other was a sickly, irritable thing, with little energy, forever sitting down to scratch. One day he sat down near me to have a prolonged session with his fleas, and I noticed that he had a rope collar on. It was already straining cruelly around his growing neck, so I cut it off. Where the woolly fur had been chafed away on his throat there was a raw crescent of skin. He was such a poor little runt that I could not overcome Lite eternal (white man’s) urge to be a do-gooder: I had a tube of calamine-based ointment in my pocket that I always carried around to stop me from scratching mosquito bites, and I applied some of this to the raw throat. I should have known better. Within seconds he had disappeared entirely from view under a scrimmage of excited dogs. Whether it was the calamine or the base, it was obviously a canine delicacy. When the pup eventually emerged he had been licked clean and his throat was twice as raw from the rasping tongues. And before I had time to put my glove back on I thought my ointment-smeared fingers were going to be sucked into the avid mouth of Walleye Junior, an unprepossessing character with one blind eye, who looked like a small moth-eaten wolf. I never interfered again.

Walleye junior and Walleye Senior were an interesting couple who used to join us from the other end of the island. Senior was one of the oldest, a most indomitable dog, with half of his left car missing, two toes on his left front paw, and almost all the hair from his left flank. I used to try to imagine what possible combination of circumstances had brought about these losses. He was a surly dog, which was hardly surprising. He and junior made an eerie picture together: about the same height, they always ran with the opaque white eyes between them, so that one got the strangest impression of a kind of dual three-eared head with a pair of tinted glasses on the inner eyes, and an outer pair of sharp upward-slanted eyes enclosing them. Of course I tried to convince myself that they stayed together as an arrangement of mutual benefit, but common sense tells me now that the blind eyes likely were congenital, and that the pair were probably siblings and had always naturally run together. At the time I was watching them I was so engrossed in an atmosphere of the fiercest determination of survival that I would have believed anything.

Sometimes I returned to the shack after one of these afternoon expeditions along the trail that passed close to the fenced-in compound of the weather station. There, in safe and solitary glory, sat the only pedigreed dog on the island, a springer spaniel: from his smooth-domed head with the long marcelled ears to his frilly leggings and gleaming Fauntleroy shirtfront, he was immaculate—and as exotic there as the Little Lord himself in the Northern bush. My scaramouch friends gazed through the fence in silent awe; there were never any rude scufflings or derisive barks: Ohnemoos knew his place apparently (although I must admit I wondered if he would have kept it, and what he would have done to those ears, if the fence had not been there). Lord Springer in return gazed through and beyond the hungry peasants at his gate. I thought he looked infinitely bored and rather stupid. At the end of two weeks I had added “effete” into the bargain and felt positively sorry for him.

I was fascinated and also strangely moved by my following’s reaction to me over the time I spent with them. Apart from Pepra, there was no association with food, for after the ointment episode I never carried so much as a piece of chocolate with me: I had seen bow easily one might become a rather battered bone of contention. And apart from that, they were too many; anything left over to share after Pepra had been around would have been a useless drop in the bottomless maw of their hunger. They got nothing from me except my remote and somewhat schoolmarmish presence. They came only because of their strange, age-old craving for man’s company. I began to understand why the Ojibwa had placed them uniquely somewhere between man and spirit animal in the mythology evolved countless centuries ago.

Ohnemoosuk of Big Trout lead a most wretched bare existence by any standards, yet the overall impression was that they were not turned mean by it. The skeptic might say that they were too weak horn general malnutrition to be savage, and to that I can only point out that any excess energy I saw was spent in chasing one another in play. Vet less than a hundred miles away in another Ojibwa settlement, Ohnemoos of Fort Severn gave a very different impression.

One day, lured by the prospect of fossils to be found on the riverbed, and tales of monster speckled trout just beyond the outgoing ice on the Pippiwatin River, I went up to Fort Severn with one of the nurses bound on her monthly visit. We flew there in a Cessna, and I watched below me the spruce and poplar of Big Trout change to barren land—at one point so desolate in its conformation of wavelike ridges, the long-drawn-out gleam of lakes lying in the hollows, that it looked as though the whole empty are of world had been left when some global tide went out forever at the beginning of time. The horizon seems so round, the earth so flat there, that Hudson Bay was not visible where it merged with the tundra until we were almost on it—an endless stretch of bleak ice, with a thin line of clear blue water lying offshore.

The tiny windswept community is huddled on the high clay banks of the majestic Severn River just before it sweeps into the bay. It was free ot ice now, and the Cessna landed in midstream, then taxied in until the floats rested against the landing at the bottom of a forty-foot day bank. As I climbed out onto the slippery, treacherous clay, two small balls of fur detached themselves from the carcass of a gull and went for my boots; getting a firm grip on the lace holes they started worrying them like the gull so that I lost my balance and nearly fell in. They clung like furry limpets until the Indian who was holding the wing kicked them, whereupon they fell upon one another. One was snow white, with long guard hairs, like a polar bear cub, and the other was its chocolate-colored brother, both with the most savage demoniacal little fates I leave ever seen on puppies, without a trace of the milk-blue innocence one usually finds in the eyes of anything so young. I met them again later, and they were fighting for possession of what I thought was a bone, but on closer examination turned out to be a clog’s foreleg. Probably Mum’s, I thought; it would be in keeping with their characters it they had polished her off when she weaned them.

They were my introduction to the dogs of Fort Severn: better-looking than their brothers of Big Trout in that they were bigger, with more Husky in them than Indian clog, but the fiercest dogs that I have ever tome across. There was not one answering spark of canine good feeling in their cold eyes when they lit on anyone who was not their owner. The largest, the sled dogs, which were still plentiful here, were—thank heaven—staked out, their eyes wicked, their teeth bared as one passed by. Those wandering along the river path were thin and small, of the type that slinks off with raised lip when threatened, then creeps up stealthily behind with teeth at the ready for unwary heels. Plainly the smell of a white person was anathema to the lot of them. For the first time in my life I felt uneasy—to put it mildly—among dogs. Walleye Senior was a veritable Nana compared with this lot: I would not have trusted one further than I could kick it—and then with armor-plated boots.

Fortunately my faith in canine nature at Fort Severn was restored by one half-grown pup. He was a most engaging character, an indeterminate fawn and brown, the thick woolly coat making him seem quite substantial—until one patted him and felt the ribs sharp beneath—with one amber and one greenish blue eye in a pointed intelligent little face. I met him at Father Saigan’s, the Oblate missionary, which explained his unusual friendliness, for the kindly little father had been feeding him scraps occasionally from what must have been his own very meager larder: it had been eight months since the supply boat, and another two would pass before it could return through the ice of Hudson Bay.

I was on my way to look for fossils, and stopped by at the tiny shack that was his rectory to see what he had found. He showed me some beautiful specimens: so I borrowed his rubber boots, the pup crawled out from his refuge behind a pile of logs, and we set off along the path that gradually sloped down from the riverbank—a dirty walk in ankledeep clay.

It was an enchanting day, with a soft spring wind blowing, and at last a mile or so of beach in tide-washed smoothness, marred only by my Father Saigan footprints and those of the running, leaping, spring-mad puppy. The brown tundra landscape was desolate, Daliesque, with house-sized slabs of graving ice piled haphazardly on top of one another at the edge of the tidal limits, as though giant children had been playing there with building blocks; and all the time a background of noise, rumblings and growlings, grindings and sighings, as huge chunks crumbled and fell. My heart was in my mouth several times when the pup climbed up the rotten ice. jumping from block to block after gulls; but he must have been an old hand at the game, for always he leaped to safety just before a segment roared apart.

We walked on, and soon the settlement was far behind, and there was just the pup and myself in the whole world, walking, it seemed, nearly at its rim, two infinitesimal figures in the vast primeval emptiness. Because these terrestrial proportions so diminished us, because the pup was reduced to the whole proportionate measure of my circumscribed world, it was as though I saw every detail of him intensely magnified and clear: the fleeting lights in his tawny and blue-green eyes, every responsive quiver to the wind in the curved side slits of nostrils, each individual whisker antenna above his eyebrows, beneath his chin, standing out singly, even the separate action of his claws in the sand. I can see them yet in a clear timeless photograph taken by the heightened perception that was my mind’s eye that clay.

He chased sandpipers that rose in a wheelinggroup only to settle again further on, he rushed barking to the water’s edge whenever an Arctictern broke off from its watchful circling and plummeted down to the water, he dug for digging’s sake as I turned over occasional smooth glacial boulders in my fossil quest. His enthusiasm so infected me at one point that I ran too; and my enthusiasm infected him in turn so that be leaped at me and grabbed the canvas shoulder bag and made off along the edge of the water, my precious specimens scattering as he went. But nothing mattered on a magic day like this. The fossils had been there for a million years and more: they could wait another million before I returned to pick them up.

Sometimes we looked up to the quick winging of paired ducks, and once to the slower majestic beat of Canada geese, flying so low that I could see the workings of the pinion feathers and the two neat contrasting lines that were the feet, tucked demurely into the snowy rump. They seemed to awe the pup as much as they did me; as he gazed up in wonder, the strap of the satchel dropped from his mouth, and I was able to retrieve it at last.

We turned when the tide came flooding back, for I had no wish to be caught leaping not so lightly on the piled-up ice blocks. I returned to Big Trout that evening with no fossils, no specimens of anything, but with the most vivid and exhilarating memory of an afternoon spent with a strange vagrant dog, part Husky, part wolf, part Indian clog, who had thrown in his lot with a stranger human for a day. He followed me down the steep, slithery ramp to the Cessna, when the land was washed by the mellow glow of the late Northern sunlight that turned his eyes to mismatched topaz, and bathed him in the short golden glory by which I shall always remember him.

And I wondered for the hundredth time as we flew back, what quirk of evolution thousands upon thousands of years ago impelled dog, alone of all the animals in the world, to throw in his lot with man, even as this pup had done this afternoon. He had no evolutionary need of man either: as his cousins wolf and jackal can testify, he could get along perfectly well without him. He chose deliberately, uniquely, his lot. The enigma fascinates me.

Pepra was waiting for me at Big Tront; protesting her undying love and admiration, she indicated that she had spent a hungry day. I taught her that evening to bark “please" and offer a paw for the reward of food. She learned both within about ten minutes. By the time I left Big Trout she was greeting me with her new repertoire on every possible occasion, and I felt that her future subsistence was assured at the hands of all visitors to the island: only a heart of solid stone will resist the frantic message of that disarming paw. D