Affection and Kindness"
and "Utterly Fearless":
A regional CBC radio program ran a contest to identify some great British Columbians. They requested listeners write in and submit names accompanied with short biographical reasons as to why the person they were nominating was Great. This prompted me to respond and I wrote a short piece about a North Coast woman named Odille Morison. Her obituary in the May 25th 1933 edition of the Prince Rupert Daily News plainly stated that she was the greatest woman that Northern British Columbia has ever produced".
In her own time she was a well respected Tsimshian interpreter, nurse, ethnographer, woman of faith, entrepreneur, devoted daughter, wife and mother, yet she has remained essentially unknown to British Columbians including her own descendants. It seems strange that a woman of such strength and character was overshadowed by images of the 'founding fathers' and provincial pioneers. The following story will introduce readers to Odille's life and her hidden legacy. It will show that she is truly worthy of recognition, not only for her talents but more importantly for her commitment to greater understanding and for her work in bridging cultural boundaries with vigor, integrity and compassion.
Young Woman of the Fort and Mission
Odille was born on July 17, 1855 at Fort Simpson on the North Coast of British Columbia near what is now Prince Rupert. She was the second child of a local Tsimshian woman known as Mary Quintal/Curtis and her father was a French Canadian Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) employee, Francois Quintal.
Odille's mother's family belonged to the Raven crest and were members of the Gitlan tribe, one of at least nine Tsimshian tribes who resided seasonally at Fort Simpson. Mary was recognized as a professional healer and midwife, helping not only local aboriginal women during child birth but also non-native women who were the wives of missionaries and local merchants in Southern Alaska.1 Odille's father Quintal, was at least twenty years older than Mary and had been stationed at Fort Simpson since the late 1830s. When Odille was two years old a young British missionary named William Duncan2 arrived at the Fort with the intention of establishing a protestant mission for the regional aboriginal population.
After five years of limited success, Duncan and several other Tsimshian converts reasoned that relocation of the mission was necessary to limit what they deemed as negative influences of Fort life on the newly baptized. A group of about 70 converts traveled with Duncan down some 20 kilometres south of the Fort to the site of an abandoned ancient Tsimshian village. The new mission village of Metlakatla was formed and soon the population swelled while a Small Pox epidemic ravaged nearby First Nations populations. When Quintal died in April of 1862, Mary took her two children Peter and Odille to the Metlakatla where they, and other members of their extended family, remained.
As a child Odille was immersed in at least three languages (French, Tsimshian and English) as well as the trade lingo of Chinook. As a school girl in Metlakatla, Odille was singled out by visiting Anglican clergyman as a bright scholar. The students, 'read, write, cipher, and can translate easy books into their own language and vice versa.'3 In 1870, as a young adolescent, she wrote at least three letters to Duncan while he was on a year long trip to England. Her words are full of praise and thankfulness to both Duncan and to her God. She was an extremely devoted young Christian and took up teaching the younger girls in the community at Duncan's urging. More importantly she acted as a community correspondent for others in the community as she was not only a fluent speaker but could also write in English. Ever conscious of her responsibilities she closes one of her letters with an apology for her poor writing as there were 'so many people in the house troubling me to write their letters.'4 Her Tsimshian relatives and other community members relied upon her and a few others of her generation, to pass along their urgent messages and greetings to Duncan. They trusted her skill as a communicator but more importantly they recognized the integrity by which she conducted the task.
In August of 1872, when Odille was 17, she married Englishman Charles F. Morison, a young clerk employed by the Hudson's Bay Company. Morison had come to the Victoria as a young man in 1862 where his brother worked for the colonial government. When his brother died in the winter of 1863, Morison decided to remain in the province and sought work wherever it was to be found. He first found employment on the Cariboo wagon road, then with the Collins Overland Telegraph project which eventually brought him up to the Skeena region. After the telegraph project folded, Morison remained in the area and found work with the Hudson's Bay Company based out of Fort Simpson where Robert Cunningham was in charge. Cunningham worked as a missionary at Metlakatla several years before, but became romantically involved with one of the young Tsimshian converts named Elizabeth Ryan. She became pregnant by Robert Cunningham, and they hastily married in 1864. He was eventually dismissed from the Christian Missionary Society (CMS), much to the great satisfaction of William Duncan. Over the next two decades the couple maintained a rocky relationship. Robert Cunningham sometimes left Elizabeth alone for months at a time and there were rumours of Cunningham having affairs with other women. As Elizabeth Ryan Cunningham was Odille's maternal aunt, it is easy to see how Morison would have had plenty of opportunity to meet Odille and become enamoured with the attractive, intelligent and multi-talented young woman.
Odille and Charles' marriage was conducted while Duncan was away and when the Metlakatla missionary in charge, Robert Tomlinson, was asked to perform the ceremony, he refused in 'a most insulting manner.'5 It is not clear why Tomlinson refused to wed them. He and the CMS did not favor non-native men marrying Tsimshian converts. William Duncan, on the other hand, was more likely angry to lose such an important community member whom he had come to rely on as a teacher and cross cultural role model. Moreover, Odille may have experienced some feelings of betrayal as she had looked to Duncan as a father figure after her own father died when she was just 7.'6 Undaunted by Tomlinson's refusal, the couple took matters into their own hands: they boarded the Navy ship the HMS Scout to be married by the ship's chaplain.
The newlyweds made their home at the Fort Simpson where the surprisingly young Odille acted as hostess, interpreter and even corporate representative when Morison was away on trading missions. In January of 1873 Canadian Pacific Railway surveyor and photographer, Charles Horetzky, arrived at Fort Simpson. He had crossed overland through the Pine Pass, through to Fort St. James and on to Hazelton and then down the Nass River. Desperate for a warm meal and bed, Horetzky was very grateful for the hospitality shown by Mr. And Mrs. Morison. He stayed with them for several days where 'the most cordial welcome awaited [him] from that gentlemen and his wife, whose kindness and attention I shall never forget.'7
Horetzky was just one of many visitors who stayed with the Morisons and recognized their contributions and service to the community. Other missionaries on route to the Nass or back to Metlakatla often called in at the Fort. Anglican missionary William Collison, his wife Marion, and their two small sons for instance, journeyed across Hecate Strait with Haida Chief Weah and his family members, after spending their first winter on the Queen Charlotte Islands. Their journey took three days and Marion Collison suffered from exhaustion and some unspecified illness. Collison wrote that he 'was compelled to perform a small operation, under which my wife fell away in a faint, but instant relief was afforded, and a good nights rest gained. Mr. and Mrs. [Charles F.] Morison who were then in charge of the Fort, showed us every kindness, and under the care of this lady my wife rapidly regained strength and spirit.'8
Methodist missionaries Emma and Thomas Crosby also stayed with the Morisons in 1874 when they first arrived in Fort Simpson. Emma wrote frequently in her letters home to her mother of her appreciation and friendship with Mr. and Mrs. Morison. As it turned out Odille's mother Mary, who was visiting from Metlakatla, attended Emma on the birth of several of her children. After the successful, premature delivery of her first child later named Jessie, Emma wrote to her own mother about Mary's skills.
'She is a woman experienced in nursing white ladies in the Fort & elsewhere and always said she would take care of me when I was sick. So she came, and after a little Mrs. Morrison came too. This must have been near five o'clock. They seemed to understand it at once and when she said to my husband, in Chinook, 'You had better get everything ready,' we understood it too. Well, this gave me something to think about. 9
When Lord and Lady Dufferin made an surprise visit on their tour of the North Coast in 1876, it was Odille who translated and showed the Governor's entourage around the fort, as her husband Charles was away from on business.
Daughter, Healer and Matriarch
Through out her life Odille remained close to her mother and her maternal Tsimshian relations. 'As a teenager in Metlakatla, she wrote in her letters to Duncan how she missed her mother who was busy caring for Mrs. Walden at Fort Tongass in Alaska 'who recently had a baby girl.' After Odille and Charles left the North Coast for a few years in about 1878, Odille's mother Mary Curtis remarried to Massett Haida Chief Weah in July, 1879 and returned with him to Massett on Haida Gwaii (QCI). Unlike her first marriage to Quintal where the age difference was great, Mary's second marriage seems to have been based on mutual affection as well as social status. Weah was a few years older, and also a widower. He also owned the largest traditional long house on the North Coast. She on the other hand was a valuable asset to any community with her 'professional skills' as a midwife and healer. After Weah died in 1883, Mary returned to Metlakatla where she lived until her death at the age of 87 in December 1917.
Upon returning to the North Coast in early 1880s Odille and Charles had several homes at Hazelton, Metlakatla and Port Essington. In Port Essington Robert Cunningham's business interest had expanded up the Skeena River to Hazelton and Morison was hired as manager. With the birth of their daughter Helen in March of 1883, it appears that the main winter residence was Metlakatla although they frequented Port Essington and Hazelton in the spring and summer months.
From 1883 to 1892 Odille gave birth to four surviving children. (Helen 1883, Victoria 1887, John in 1890 and Charles George in 1892) It seems that these new additions settled the family somewhat into a seasonal rhythm and Odille found ways to keep herself very busy at Metlakatla. The new Bishop William Ridley arrived in 1879, and the theological, political and territorial strife between he and Duncan began shortly after. This rift and accusations of violence between these two missionaries didn't have much direct impact on Odille's family until they returned in 1883. Odille's language expertise was put to use by Ridley as she translated Bible passages, hymns and parts of the prayer book into a written form of Coast Tsimshian. While William Duncan had encouraged fellow missionaries to learn and preach in the native language, he did not readily support translating or publishing works in the Native language. Ever the pragmatist, he thought it more efficient to concentrate on reading and writing in English only. To some degree this made sense at Metlakatla where there were different regional dialects of not only Tsimshian but also Nisga'a and Gitxsan and even Haida as new converts came and went over the years.
William Ridley, however, had other ideas and set about having the specific passages then entire gospels and prayers translated. Odille most certainly took up this task with a sense of purpose and dedication as it was her area of expertise. In later years however it became a source of anger and resentment as she waited for some acknowledgment for all of this hard work. It is not clear if she was ever paid for this work although it would have been culturally appropriate to do so. I have seen several references to this work in Ridley's name without mention of her contribution. Odille resented this blatant oversight for the rest of her days and I sense her anger still when I read her words on the back of the photograph of the diocesan staff taken circa 1890. It reads:
"Bishop and Mrs. Ridley together with the members of the Diocesan staff. To the Bishop and his wife, ascribe by Mrs. Charles Morison, still alive, is due the credit for the translations of the prayer book, much of the bible and many hymns into the (Tsimpshean) language.'10
Despite her obvious grievances over the translation issue, Odille and her extended Gitlan family staunchly supported the Bishop over William Duncan's charges and accusations. When the final break between the two factions occurred, her family stayed behind at Metlakatla BC, while close to 800 other Tsimshian converts made the move to New Metlakatla Alaska in the summer and fall of 1887.
At this time in her life, Odille's relationship with extended maternal family must have been extremely close. Besides her mother's sister Elizabeth Cunningham, there was her Uncle Charles Ryan and his family. The Tsimshian are traditionally a matrilineal society where title, social rank and crest are passed through the mother's side rather than the father's. Odille's maternal roots were perhaps more important than her father's french Canadian family and this was not lost on her English husband. Charles Morison's family in England did remain in contact with him and developed a fondness for his Canadian family. As the younger son of a middle class merchant family, Morison was not likely to inherit any great fortune when his father George Morison died in Dec. of 1874. With his growing family, work for Hudson's Bay Company and Cunningham, plus financial investments in the Georgetown sawmill, Morison's business prospects were better in British Columbia.
Letters to Odille from Charles' spinster sister Olive, and from his younger brother Whiston, speak of a warm and loving relationship yet tempered with regret for never having met. In December of 1900 Olive wrote that her 'greatest happiness is seeing Whissie' who lived in London with his wife. Whiston never had children of his own, (his wife was seven years his senior). Sister-in-law Olive took an active interest in Charles and Odille's children, wanting to know their birth dates and ages as 'she didn't remember them exactly.' She concluded her letter with 'much love to you all and hoping soon to hear from you believe me, Your very affectionate sister , O. Morison.'
When Olive passed away in 1908, Whiston sent several personal items to the Morisons from Olive's estate. She truly considered Odille her sister and looked forward to her letters with great interest, not only for news of her brother, but of the comings and goings of the North Coast. This illustrates Odille's ability to establish and maintain family ties and bridge major cultural differences with her letters and caring nature with a spinster Victorian lady who held her in high esteem.
Ethnographer and Cultural Teacher
On her Tsimshian family side she integrated her responsibilities as the eldest daughter of an eldest daughter into her busy life. One major incident which radically impacted the course of her future and continues to ripple down through time was the death of her aunt Elizabeth Ryan Cunningham in February of 1888. Despite the struggles of her relationship with her husband, Elizabeth had managed to maintain her a sense of faith and purpose as both a healer and Christian convert. On one fateful journey she embarked on a canoe trip with the Anglican A.H. Sheldon and several other young men to visit friends and tend to the sick in Fort Simpson. As they neared Port Essington on the return trip, a heavy gust of wind filled the sail causing the canoe to split, sending everyone was into the frigid Skeena River. Out of the five in the canoe only one young Tsimshian man survived.
This is one of the reasons why Odille was present at Port Essington in June of that same year. Tsimshian protocol would suggest that she, as the eldest niece, was to support and assist the grieving family left behind. We will never know the full reason but it demonstrates the mobility by which these women moved between different locations on the North coast. And it shows that they were not tied by any means to a 'mission' despite the best efforts to install Victorian values of sedentary life by the missionaries.
That summer Odille met a young anthropologist named Franz Boas. He wrote in his diary of meeting Mr. Cunningham, then going to stay at his residence where Tsimshian was the only language spoken in the house. 'Mrs. Morrison, the interpreter whom I wanted, is also here. I have never had a better opportunity to learn a language; I learned more yesterday than in a week elsewhere. Today I shall try to find out something of the old customs.'11
This confidence which Boas had in Odille's abilities and unique position as cultural intermediary are evident in his commissions between the years 1888 to 1894. In the Fall of 1889 Odille's sixteen Tsimshian proverbs were published in The Journal of American Folklore. Her ease and ability to transcribe Tsimshian concepts into English is obvious. It is also interesting to note that she choose to write of proverbs rather than any legends or Tsimshian myths which is what Boas wanted most. Again this speaks to her understanding of cultural protocols where ownership of stories belong to specific households and chiefly titles. In short, they were not hers to tell to Boas and despite her acculturation and missionary upbringing she maintained the deep social values of her Tsimshian community. She always wrote both the Tsimshian language first then the English translation underneath when composing ethnographic work.
In 1891 Boas wrote again to the Odille requesting her assistance with the collection of Tsimshian artifacts and 'implements' for the upcoming worlds fair to be held in 1893 in Chicago. Odille sent well over 140 items to Chicago, including two totem poles. She also sent ten pages of ethnographic information on the use of crests amongst the Tsimshian and two tales of origin of the Tsimshian People. A final explanation reveals Odille's own integration of the traditional Tsimshian spirituality and indoctrinated Christian message. She wrote:
'The Indians had a belief in a Supreme Being which they called a 'chief who dwelt above' and ordered all things all things for their good. When speaking of Him they always said 'Heaven.' They also believed in an Evil spirit which they call 'Tk emshem,' who went about showing people to do all things. The chief in heaven being a Passive Being. Tkemshem continually urging people to do things contrary to the will of the Heavenly Chief.'12
In North Coast legends Tkemshum (or Txamsen) sometimes appears as Raven; the Trickster figure who often intervenes in human affairs. It is interesting that Odille placed this Trickster character in such a negative light, yet the Supreme Being (Heaven) is the positive character is also 'passive.' This seems to be a rather unsophisticated view of Tsimshian spirituality heavily influence by Christianity. It is hard for me to believe that someone so in tune with her community could attach such negative attributes to a Trickster figure. I suggest she may have been tailoring these explanations with her potential audience in mind - namely the non-Native fair-goers of 1893. No doubt she would have wanted to put her Tsimshian heritage in the best light as progressive and 'civilized' people. To be 'civilized meant to be Christianized and the majority of Tsimshian had converted to some form of Christianity - even if it was only nominally.
All of these items were purchased from local First Nations or were commissioned by Odille and Charles at Boas' request. A constant problem appears to have been the delay for reimbursement by Boas to the Morisons. On more than one occasion Charles wrote to Boas informing him of the cost of shipments to Chicago, and how he was out of pocket almost $400.00. This substantial amount of money, coupled with the constant headaches of transporting the goods to Chicago may have ended Morison's relationship with Boas. There is no recorded contact after the 1893 exposition, and no further ethnographic work between them. Boas had actually left Chicago for more stable and permanent employment at Columbia University in New York. To this day, however, it is Odille's Northwest Coast collection which comprises the bulk of the Chicago Field Museum's entire holdings of Tsimshian artifacts.
Mother, Grandmother and Community Role Model
Charles and Odille's four surviving children were well liked and respected in the North Coast communities of Port Essington, Hazelton and later Prince Rupert. Their youngest child, Charles George died in 1904 at the age of 12 from a sudden illness and was buried in the Hazelton cemetery. This was quite a blow to both parents as 'Charlie' was the baby of the family and was their 'darling boy' as inscribed on his headstone.
Their eldest daughter Helen Miranda married local rancher and businessman J.C.K. Sealy in the fall of 1905. There is evidence in family letters to show that Helen was sheltered somewhat as the eldest daughter. In one letter to Odille from sister-in-law Olive Morison, she writes that it is too bad that the Morisons couldn't be together in Hazelton over the winter since they want to keep Helen from 'that man.' When they were together in Hazelton the Morison household was known as a welcoming gathering place on many a chilly winter evening. A regular social event was a musical evening at the Morison's where visitors were entertained by dramatic readings, organ recitals and solos by Morison children and others of the community.
Retired Hazelton police constable 'Dutch' Sperry Kline wrote a tribute to Odille in the 1960s to attest to her great singing voice and ability to move old miners to tears as she sang of lost loves and sentimental songs like 'Rock Me to Sleep Mother, Rock Me to Sleep' or 'What are the Wild Waves Saying?'
After six years of childless marriage, eldest daughter Helen Morison Sealy was hospitalized and underwent surgery for ectopic (tubular) pregnancy. After several weeks in hospital she too passed away in February of 1912 joining her brother Charlie in the Hazelton family plot. Of the two remaining children, John and Vicky, only Vicky married and had children.
No doubt the happiest times for Odille and Charles were in their retirement at Metlakatla where they lived from about 1915 until they died in 1933. Both Charles and Odille took an active role in the church community there, in charge of the mission in its declining days. Vicky would come to visit with her two boys Alan and Monty, although the small family moved to Vancouver after WW1. Her husband Allan Cameron Aldous passed away in an accident in the mid 1920s. Their son John Morison also served in WW1 and worked at several different clerking jobs around the North Coast. He was well known for his great singing voice and his ability to tell wonderful stories; talents inherited directly from both his father and mother. It was John who recorded his father's memories as a typed manuscript in 1919 and then re-wrote the entire manuscript in the mid 1960s. Both copies were donated by John to the BC archives, for curious researchers to discover his father and by extension, his amazing mother.
Knowledge of Odille's Tsimshian heritage was not passed down to her surviving great-grandsons but her caring nature and quick wit and intelligence certainly were. These two brothers, Howard and Patrick, were surprised and pleased to learn of their First Nations ancestry. This information was not life changing but rather an interesting piece of family history which directly connects them to a special place and time in the hearts and landscape of Northern BC.
Cannon Rushbrook stated in her eulogy of 1933: 'During her active years she was known as a woman of affection and kindness and of being utterly fearless in pointing out right from wrong. Her efforts were tireless in her ministrations to the sick and the needy.' As with her mother before, Odille was one of many 'great' northern women who served their communities with integrity, intelligence, leadership and devotion which are the expectations and hallmarks of Matriarchs in both cultures.
1 Mary was known as Mary Quintal/Curtis
and Mary Wiah after her marriage to Massett Haida
2 See Peter Murray's The Devil and
Mr. Duncan,(Victoria: Sono Nis, 1985) and Jean Usher's
6 Odille sent a letter to Duncan in
June of 1870. She wrote 'On the Queen's Birthday the people here
7Charles Horetzky, Canada
on the Pacific: being an account of a journey from Edmonton to the
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