On the 18 heading east, just out of Big Beaver, and the road drops down into a steep curve. It was icy so I had slowed down, and good thing because as I rounded the curve, a half-dozen prairies chickens and as many mule deer greeted me. Only one deer was actually on the road, and he bounded off quickly into the coulee at the side of the road to join his fellows. But the prairie chickens were in a panic, and one of them slid and skidded on the ice, wings flapping frantically, little legs all askew. It about broke my heart. Who hasn’t looked silly trying to keep upright on a slippery surface? Who hasn’t panicked in the face of something unexpected bearing down upon you? The hen righted herself and scuttled away, perhaps a bit embarrassed, and a lot relieved, to join the rest of her flock.
And I continued on down the highway because what else could I do?
The setting sun had cast a pinkish hue glowing on the hills that I kept driving down and into, and I hope the prairie chickens and the deer managed to find a cozy corner of a coulee to bed down in. As for me, I was driving into my own predicament, little did I know it. One quick decision to go forward when I should have turned back and suddenly, I was stuck in a snowdrift across a gravel road.
As I waited for my help to arrive in the form of a friend who I called upon in my moment of need, my thoughts turned back to rounding that curve, how I had been just as surprised by the deer and the prairie chickens as they were by me. As night fell darker and the cold grew even more bitter, a slight trickle of unease wormed its way down my spine. I had my cell phone, and help was on its way. I knew I would get out of my spot of trouble and get on home to my own warm bed. But sitting there alone in the cold darkness, well in the “middle of nowhere”, sitting in the middle of a road that no one had driven down in a good half hour, I thought about how movement can be arrested so quickly. I thought about how lucky I was. But even more, I thought about how lucky that prairie chicken was that I had slowed rounding the curve.
Hot lunch hour on Scarth Street and I sat on the same quad of benches as the old man fiddling. He played the same four tunes again and again. I wondered how long he’d been playing and how he learned. So I asked.
79 years, he’s been playing, since he was 4 years old. Where’s he from? Grand View Manitoba, just over the border from Yorkton. His mother was born there, grandparents came in 1869. I asked from where, though I could guess the answer from his accent: Kyiv, Ukraine, he said proudly.
His grandfather worked for 12 cents an hour on the railroad. When he’d saved enough, he bought a homestead for 12 dollars: “it was all boosh, that country.”
His grandmother taught him to play, she played in the Symphony Orchestra back in Ukraine. He still has her violin, a Strad, he says, though he doesn’t bring that to Scarth Street of course. He brings the violin he bought at the junk shop, though it’s old, from 1604, he says.
He comes 2 or 3 times a week to Scarth Street, for it’s something to do, he says, since he’s been alone these 39 years and there’s no one to talk to at home but the walls, and they don’t answer.
Finally I asked his name: Bill. Shook his hand and tossed a loonie in his case, it bounced twice before settling into the worn velveteen beside a couple toonies, another loonie, and some scattered small change. It was all I had.
I don’t know if Bill’s tales were true or not, and it doesn’t matter. I hope he keeps on playing there on Scarth Street.
When I was a kid, we learned about Louis Riel. We learned that there used to be a lot of bison everywhere and that First Nations people from various groups hunted them using bows and arrows and buffalo jumps and buffalo pounds, and that they made use of every part of the animal, down to the sinew. We were taught that a lot of place names in Saskatchewan, including that of the province itself, came from First Nations words, though besides place names, I knew no words in any aboriginal language. We learned that they had signed treaties back a long time ago which meant that the white people got most of the land. We learned that some bad things had happened, like residential schools. I attended maybe one powwow somewhere at one point in my life. This is not to cast aspersions on my teachers, who were good teachers. They were doing their jobs, teaching what was required of them from the curriculum. So we had to learn about some aboriginal stuff, but we also had to learn about a bunch of other stuff, and that was just the way it was and I didn’t question it. Always a good student and a thoughtful person, I figured I was pretty well-informed. I even went through two university degrees and by the end of it all I thought I was pretty smart, I knew a lot of stuff, I was no dummy, and I was certainly not ignorant.
Or so I thought. Last year I applied for a job with a cultural organization, and during the interview I was asked how much experience I had working with aboriginal people. I knew the question was coming, and I was honest in my answer – “none so far, but I’m interested in working with aboriginal communities.” It was the “right” thing to say, and it was also true. But I didn’t admit that I felt intimidated by the process, that maybe, it was easier to just go on mostly ignoring my aboriginal neighbours as I had done all my life to that point. It was pretty easy to do. There were no reserves within a couple hours of my home, I didn’t live in a city, and so I could go about my life without coming in contact with very many aboriginal people.
I got the job, and not long after I started, I attended a cultural event where I was supposed to talk about my role and the organization I worked for. I was supposed to talk about culture. It was the first time in my life that I was the only white person in a group, a fact of which I was acutely conscious. I was nervous that I would say something stupid, offend someone unwittingly, nervous that I would be regarded as the White Girl sashaying in with all my materials and my ready offers of “help.” I was smart enough to realize as soon as I arrived that I was not there to teach anyone anything. I was there to listen. And to learn.
I fell back on the comfortable, old “where are you from?” icebreaker to start connecting with people. I got answers like Beardy’s, Gordon’s, Standing Buffalo. I knew enough to know they were referring to reserves. But I had no idea where any of them were, and I didn’t ask. I realized, with that squirmy, embarrassed feeling – in fact, a burning-faced, ashamed feeling, that I had just stumbled into my own ignorance.
The map of Saskatchewan is “easy to draw, hard to pronounce!” as kitschy t-shirts proclaim with glee. It’s also hard to understand, just looking at it. Road maps are different from geological maps are different from the maps we carry around in our own heads. I realized in that moment that the Saskatchewan I knew was just one version of it, and a highly skewed version at that. I couldn’t place any reserves except for a few. They had no meaning in my map of Saskatchewan, and yet they meant everything. Their existence enabled my great-grandfathers to claim quarter-sections of land as their own. My home and everything connected with it, every single emotion tied to this particular patch of earth, owes its existence to those reserves and the treaties which had created them. And I knew so little, I this well-educated, self-aware, proudly intellectual person. I knew nothing at all.
That was the day I began my real education, the one I did not have access to in elementary and high school, the one I did not go looking for in university because at the time, it didn’t “interest” me. A year after my lesson in ignorance, I know that I have lessened it. I know better, I know more. I have faced uncomfortable truths and difficult realities. I have been welcomed, I have been taught. There is no going back, and I wouldn’t want to even if I could. There is only going forward, and this journey has only just begun.