Culture
Mark Rendell

ICYMI: A Day With Muriel: Stories From Ndilo’s Matriarch

Bonding with eagles, the secrets of smoked fish, and other scenes from a life well spent

Originally published March 13, 2015:

Hanging on Muriel Betsina’s wall, on the left side as you enter the kitchen, is a large black and white photo. At the picture’s centre, an 18-year-old Muriel rests her forearms on a rocky ledge while the rest of her body disappears off a cliff. Her hair is wild and her smile is toothy and contented as she squints into the sun. Beside her are two young eagles, wings molting and beaks open. Neither Muriel nor the eagles seem startled by the other’s presence.

It’s an incredible tableau, like something out of a children’s story. But the 1962 image is real, Muriel assures me over bannock and a cup of milky tea – a photographic trace from a spring hunt long ago when she befriended a family of eagles and was twice saved by them.

Muriel and I are sitting at the kitchen table in her house in Ndilo. It’s very much a grandmother’s table: plastic tablecloth, paper plates covered with crumbs and cookies, a sewing machine and a large bag of bannock. The 71-year-old is wearing glasses and her hair has thinned with age, but she still has the full cheeks and deep lines framing her mouth that the photograph captured 50 years earlier.

I had spoken with Muriel a week before for an unrelated story, and thought she’d make a wonderful subject for our weekly Yellowknifers profile. It was meant to be a short, 30-minute chat. Two hours later I’m still at Muriel’s table, enraptured by one of the best storytellers I’ve ever met.

***

Muriel creates her own floral designs, and will spend up to four weeks on one pair of toppers | Photo by Angela Gzowski

It was April, 1962. Muriel, her father, uncle and a team of 22 dogs were camping at Trout Rock, around 40 km outside of Yellowknife. The men were there to trap and hunt. She was there to do the “women’s work,” cooking dinner and scraping and stretching the furs they brought back.

One morning, she saw two eagles swoop past the camp, clutching branches and mud in their talons. They were building a nest on a nearby cliff ledge, “just like a chair, flat, I bet from the end of the table to here.”

For the next few weeks, when her uncle and dad were out hunting, Muriel would sneak away from work to peer from the top of the cliff into the nest, where two eagle chicks had just hatched.

“You seen an eagle flying, boy, are they ever handsome! When they hatch from their egg, boy, they’re one of the ugliest birds I ever saw, oh my God!”

She spent every spare minute watching the eagles and soon began slacking on her work.

“I come back to the tent one day and dad says, ‘Something’s wrong, my girl, what’s happening? How come you didn’t skin all that muskrat and beaver?’

“’Dad,’ I said, ‘I’m watching the eagles.’

“’My girl, you’re playing with something that only bird nature or eagle nature will allow, they don’t want anyone to be around.’”

Good advice, perhaps. But for Muriel, it proved not to be the case. After she’d spent a month peeking into the nest, the eagles become accustomed to her presence. She began tying a rope around a tree and scaling down the cliff, closer and closer to the nest each day. One day, in late May or early June, she made it the whole way down to the ledge.

“I sat there, and the mother makes me sit, they trusted me by then, two months. Watch me, she says, and then she flew away. So I babysat, and I had my jacket open, and the little one were so small they just crawl into my jacket, sometimes their little heads sticking out my sleeves. It felt so warm.”

Babysitting the eagles became a daily routine and her father gave up trying to keep her focused on work. When June rolled around, he and his brother headed back to Yellowknife, but Muriel opted to stay, with two dogs and a tent. She’d become part of the eagle family and wasn’t about to leave.

“One time it was raining for four days – just windy, windy, they call that ice wind, it takes all the ice away from the main lake – miserable weather for four days. What am I going to feed my dogs? It’s too windy to set nets or hunt.

“All of a sudden I hear a cry right outside. I knew it was the eagle. They dropped two rabbits in front of the tent. I took two rabbits, gave the insides to the dog and saved one for myself.

“Another time a bear came close to my tent, those two eagles, boy, I’ll tell you, they were just jamping and jamping the bear so the bear won’t come close to the tent. They really protected me!”

***

Muriel and her eagles | Photo courtesy Muriel Betsina

Back at Muriel’s kitchen table, we’re joined by a teenage grandson with a bowl of instant noodles. He’s one of Muriel’s 22 grandkids. With seven children, 22 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren, most still living in Ndilo, it’s not a stretch to call Muriel the matriarch of the place. Her eldest son, Ernest Betsina, is also the community’s chief.

Throughout our conversation, sons and grandsons wander in and out of the kitchen, making phone-calls, checking on Muriel, grabbing a bite to eat. It’s the kind of communal scene Muriel loves, having grown up in an equally communal, though very different, setting.

She was born in 1944 on the shores of Great Bear Lake, in a small camp of five or six families and as many tents. Her parent’s tent was the largest, raised off the ground with three or four logs to give the interior extra height. When the community held drum dances, theirs was the tent of choice.

“You have no floor and by the time you finish dancing, the spruce bows that they use for the floor is all gone. They move all the blankets out so there’s enough room to go around. All of us kids sit right against the wall, and I remember the older women and the teenagers just dance.”

Although her father’s trapline ran along Great Bear River between Tulita and Deline, she rarely saw either community. The one time she did visit Tulita, she was in awe: “I never seen that many people in my life!”

It was a childhood spent chasing geese along the shores, watching insects and helping the women cook and stretch hides, while the men hunted caribou for food and fox, muskrat and beaver to sell to the HBC for $50 a fur.

“Everybody worked, you worked from day until evening. Every season, you don’t waste one day, every season is different.”

“My dad, he talked to us every night about what we we’re expecting pretty soon. ‘Pretty soon our menu is going change,’ he says. It’s going to be springtime, we’re going to eat our favourite food: muskrat and beaver and ducks and geese. We know springtime is going to come, longer daylight. Us kids are getting happy, we can slide down, we can play longer, we can visit the nets.”

“When the fall comes, my mother takes muskeg, long muskeg, not the short one, every one of the women they collect this, and they reach as high as they could, they put all this muskeg inside a tree, because birds aren’t making nests no more, winter is coming. Guess what that’s for? That’s what you call disposable diapers.”

Muriel’s life on the land continued until she was nine, when she was taken away to residential school in Fort Resolution. “Everybody cried, the whole community cried, my parents cried and all my cousins and my mom’s friends cried. That’s a dungeon, I don’t like talking about it, God forgive me.”

“But my mother always said, when you know what kind of life it is out on the land you’ll never go without anything, because you’ll always remember.”

***

It was 1963, the year after Muriel met her eagles, when she landed a job in Yellowknife, cooking at Con Mine. Her parents had taken her out of residential school the year before and moved to the city, where they rented a place on Latham Island from an elder.

“I felt like I was back in the community again. I felt the kindness of the people. They share things like food, they even want to teach you how to sew and all that.”

Because she’d been put to work cooking for the other students in the residential school, essentially as child labour, she was already an experienced cook.

“They were looking for some girls to work at Con Mine, because everybody goes on holiday in the summertime. The boss really liked me, because the rest of the girls, they washed dishes and cleaned tables, but me, I bake bread, donuts, buns, cinnamon rolls, and I make all kinds of pies, cake, everything.”

“Boy, in the kitchen there, I’ll tell you, I got a lot of good buddies, just about every employment man there was my buddy. They would protect me. They were so kind to me. I said, I’m not here to look for a boyfriend or anybody, I just want work. I have to work for my two sisters who were back in school.”

Muriel worked in the Con Mine kitchen for two years. Each morning, the cook would pick her up at 3:00 a.m. She’d work all day, catch a ride home around 8:00 in the evening, get five or six hours sleep, and do it over again. It was around this time she started noticing a young Yellowknives Dene man, Frank Betsina, who would come around to play cribbage with her dad almost every evening. She ignored him for the most part, slipping tiredly past them after a long day and into her room.

“One day my dad says, ‘this guy comes see me every day to play crib. But I don’t think he wants to see me, I think he wants to see you. He’s out the door as soon as you go by.’”

Eventually Frank got up the nerve to ask Muriel out to the Gold Range Diner for some pop. She went. But she still wasn’t convinced.

“When I was in residential school I heard a lot of abuse, [of] young women. Because their husbands are drinking, they get abused. I could hear yelling and cursing. I made up my mind at that time, I’ll never marry a Dene.”

One day her dad confronted her about this.

“’I’m going to give you a gift, my girl,’ he says. ‘Are you ashamed of me?’”

“’Dad,’ I said, ‘I love you, never once did that cross my mind.’”

“’I’ve been watching you for a couple of years, my girl. Most of the men that drive you home, they’re all white. Why’s that?’ he said.”

She told him about what she’d seen and heard in Fort Resolution.

“He said ‘I’m a Dene, you ever see me raise my voice at the kids or mom? There are a lot of good men out there, a lot of good Dene guys. I’m telling you this because I have a gift from my great grandfather to my grandfather to my dad to me. I want you to have that gift: to be who you are, to be a very, very powerful First Nations person. You see me as a hunter, what I do for your mom and her kids. This is the gift I want to give you. My grandchildren, my great-great-grandchildren, I want them to have what I gave to you: the gift, to be First Nations and to be treaty.”

It took another year of courtship, but Muriel eventually said yes to Frank’s proposals and they moved into a room in his parent’s house in Ndilo to start a family.

***

Frank passed away in 1998, and Muriel has since moved into a house on the other end of Ndilo. In front of the residence, one of her sons is tinkering underneath a jacked-up car. In the backyard, there’s a teepee where one of her nephews lives – “He loves it. He wants to learn to be Dene. He’s an international cross-country champion 1972” – and a large rack for drying fish and meat.

“I stay in Ndilo all the time, I do my moose hide, my caribou hide, I make dry fish, that tent over there, that’s where I smoke my trout, my dry fish.”

She grabs some smoked trout from the freezer.

“You put in the oven, 400 for five minutes, just tears apart. To me trout is the best for dry fish. Whitefish, I like it when it’s really dry dry, a couple hours smoked and I put it away. But they get freeze burn faster. But trout is so rich, it doesn’t get freezer burn fast, so rich with oil, makes you look young too.”

She tells me she’s thinking of starting a tourism business where people come to her house in Ndilo, eat smoked fish and other traditional victuals and listen to her stories.

In her basement is a freezer full of moose hide, yet to be tanned, and the full body of a porcupine. Her son caught it, and she’s kept it to make needles from the quills. She brings up a bag of half-finished mukluks, gloves and gorgeously beaded toppers. She tans her own leather and designs her own intricate floral patterns, often spending four weeks beading on a single pair of toppers.

“Mom said, ‘My girl, you got to learn to be patient, cut out material, sew old material, take it apart and fix the mitts again and do it over again and make it neat, always work neat.’

“And the eagles, boy, what good teachers, I didn’t know. I learned so much from the eagles. About parenting, about how clean they were. Any little bones, they take it with their claws and drop it somewhere. Their nest is so clean.”