A Cree Christmas by Helen Davis Evans

Helen was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, but at the age of nine went with her mother Chlo and brother Dick to Winnipeg where her father Rees Davis helped draft the plans of the hydro electric power plant at Island Falls. Early in 1930 the Davises moved to Island Falls where Rees became superintendent of the Churchill River Power Company. While studying at the University of Utah in 1941, Helen met and married Fred Evans and moved to Bountiful, Utah where they raised a family of three.

Even through the thickness of my fur-line hood, I could hear the ice crack as it stretched like a huge piece of elastic, then popped, opening up jagged lightning streaks of water in the lake. My father and I snowshoed steadily across the lake toward the Cree Indian village [Sandy Bay], hoping the distant sounds of the ice breaking would stay distant and that we could avoid falling into one of those cracks. It had been dark since 3 p.m. for we were in northern Saskatchewan and it was Christmas Eve. The 50 degrees below zero kept the air so cold and clear that it crackled with the slightest sound. Even the northern lights could be heard as well as seen as we moved quickly as our snowshoes allowed. Low across the lake, instead of our normal view of pine trees, the northern lights flickered and moved, changing colors on the white snow. Like a rainbow tangled in a fog bank, the colors danced: purples, greens, reds, yellows and blues shimmered and shifted and sang in a low hum, hum of eerie music and spectacular display.

As we moved into the village and neared the schoolhouse on the hill, we could hear music of another kind, the voices of the Cree children practicing the Christmas carols they had been learning in English. The evening had been planned just for my father, the “boss,” or rather, “the great white father” as the Cree word for “boss” translates more accurately.

It was my father, as superintendent of the Churchill River Power Company, who, in the early 1930s had hired and trained the Crees to be carpenters, tractor drivers, painters, and to run the boats and canoes and portage the seven lakes between the power plant and the mining town of Flin Flon, Manitoba, to transport our mail and supplies. As the natives became more proficient, they were able to augment the hunting and fishing they did for a living by hiring out as skilled laborers. Father had houses built for them, replacing their crude cabins and teepees of moose skins; a hospital with a nurse, a schoolhouse with a teacher and a church followed. In 1944, he donated an organ to their church so that for the first time, they had music.

Father was not only superintendent of the power company, but judge, referee, counselor and mayor to the 20 to 30 families living in the “company town” of Island Falls. To keep a spirit of unity and build a feeling of community, Father organized many activities and built a recreation hall. We had indoor tennis and badminton courts, basketball, and a bowling alley, a dance hall and a curling and skating rink. Once a week a movie was flown in. The workers at the plant all donated their skills for the good of the community. We even had “live” music for dancing: our piano player was the storekeeper; the banjo player was an operator at the plant and our carpenter played the violin.

The highlight of summer activities was the weekly baseball game between our camp at Island Falls and the native Cree village. Father was always the umpire. All the children came arrayed in their finest and brightest dress.

Now the Cree people wanted to pay tribute to my father by having their children sing for him, in English, the Christmas carols they had so painstakingly learned, accompanied by the organ he had given them, symbolic of all that he had made possible for them. The excitement they felt poured out as we opened the door to the schoolhouse, enveloping us in a warmth that was both emotional and physical. The brightness of the lights and a beautifully decorated Christmas tree hit us with an almost tangible jolt. As we looked about us, dazzled by the heat and light, we saw the children.

Every child’s face lit up in smiles; the “boss” had come to hear them sing and they wasted no time in getting right after it. Carol after carol they sang, first in English, and then again in Cree. We sat bathed in love, moved and thrilled by their obvious joy in giving; tears glistened in my father’s eyes.

Time has no doubt imparted a certain glow to this occasion. When I think of it, I see again the colors of the northern lights, dancing to their own eerie music. I feel the cold bite in the air and hear the ice crack in the distance and see the schoolhouse on the hill. But no picture is clearer, no photograph more accurate, than the vision of those children singing their hearts out for my father on that Christmas Eve so many years ago.

[Reprinted from the December 24, 1989 Deseret News Spectra.]