Tag Archives: Saskatchewan

Jesse James and Other Scoundrels and Heroes

Growing up,  I knew folk from my community who claimed to be a relation of the infamous Jesse James. I’ve talked to more than one landowner who claims that Sitting Bull and his followers “rode right through the yard” though at the time, it wasn’t a yard yet. The Big Muddy Valley claims the #1 stop on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’s Outlaw Trail.

All of these claims are…just that. Claims. Whether historically true or not, they conjure evocative images. Why do so many communities want to be affiliated with the tragic, political mess that was the Sitting Bull saga? Why would anyone claim kinship with a notorious criminal? Why are people proud to speak of the Big Muddy’s reputation as a playground for horse and cattle thieves?

In the Old World, there were many folk ballads concerning Robin Hood, the outlaw of Sherwood Forest who famously stole from the rich to give to the poor. In the West, similar ballads about Jesse James emerged, though there was no real evidence he ever held up trains out of any sense of philanthropy. The money he distributed to his followers was to secure loyalty. And yet, the idea of James as a folk hero endures. Sitting Bull is, depending on who you talk to, another folk hero, the man who defeated Custer and defied the American government by seeking refuge in Canada. On our side of the Medicine Line, we grasp onto the Sitting Bull story, make much of the few years he spent in Canada. Certainly, it was a historically significant event. But it is much more significant in our local folklore. Sitting Bull’s story occupies a much larger space in our imaginations and collective memory than in any history textbook.

The cowboy outlaws of the deserts and plains of western North America have been romanticized in film, song, poetry, and in the collective imagination, including here in southern Saskatchewan. Notorious outlaws like Dutch Henry, Sam Kelly, the Pigeon-Toed Kid, and others were known for rustling cattle and horses on the Canadian side of the Line, driving them down to be sold in Montana, then turning around and herding them back up across the Line to be sold again on this side. They had a few tricks to help evade capture, but in the end they all met ignominious ends – either winding up dead somewhere, in jail, or simply fading into obscurity. Their hijinks only lasted a few years, but the stories we tell about them are still going strong.

We venerate the underdog, the rascal, the ones who thumb their noses at the status quo, for they are living out our secret desires to throw off the shackles of whatever our particular life has us chained to – responsibility, poverty, unrequited love, unrealized potential.

The West is a land of myth and legend. Its landscape lends itself to these images – to people who live on the fringes, people who are as wild as the geography itself. I can’t say I wouldn’t want to be a relation to Jesse James myself.

 

avonlea-hoodoo
Avonlea Badlands, September 2014.

 

The Gap is Treaty 4 Land

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.

treaty_map
Photo Credit: Office of the Treaty Commissioner

 

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada Calls to Action

Understanding Treaty Four

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Whistle down the heavens

The other day, a young man of Cree heritage told me this:

“When I was a little kid, I was scared of the northern lights. Because if you whistled at them, they would come down and take you away.”

This is old lore from the North, where the woods are thick and the lakes deep. In the north, I’ve noticed, the sky seems closer to the land. The northern lights shimmer with more depth, more urgency. They are not so rare, so transitory as they are down here in the South.

I talked to a few other people from the North that day, and learned that this is a common belief, the sort of warning grown-ups pass on to children: don’t whistle, or the northern lights will come and steal you away.

And where do you think the northern lights would take you, if you dared to call them down?

Why Didn’t I?

This past summer I drove halfway around the world. I never left the prairies, but still, the amount of road I covered would stretch halfway ’round this earth, if one cared to measure miles in that way. The road still stretches out before me, but now there is some time to slow down, to stay put, to reflect, to remember. To ask myself questions,

Like,

Why didn’t I take that one back road, that one somewhere out west, down south, near the line, the one that had that old house, that old barn, that abandoned homestead? There’s so many roads like this, so many abandoned homesteads, I’ve photographed lots already, I don’t have time, I’m already running late.

Why didn’t I stop that one time, that time I really wanted to when the sun was setting behind me and bathing everything in a coppery light, casting my hair into shades of flame in the rearview mirror, a light so dense I could feel it? How many sunsets do I need to take pictures of? I don’t have time, I’m already running late.

Why didn’t I stop near that slough, the one that was full of pelicans gracefully and serenely bobbing amongst the cattails, brilliantly white? There’ll be more pelicans to see, they’re kind of far away anyway and besides, I don’t have time, I’m already running late.

How many back roads did I take? How many times did I stop to take photos, to sit on the hood and just gaze all around me, how many times did I roll the windows all the way down so the heat and the dust could come in and cover me over? How many times was I on some abandoned highway and felt so much at home that I believed I could live there, at 100 kilometres per hour, forever? How much did I relish every moment of it, even when my eyes were gritty and my shoulders ached? How many times did I arrive at my destination breathless just in the nick-of-time or even a little bit late because I just had to stop to look at that church, to drive through that decaying village, to try to capture the brilliance of the springy green grass? How often did I speak aloud my wonder at the all-encompassing beauty of the hills, how many times did I express my love for every cow, rabbit and antelope that I whizzed past? How much more could I have seen, stopped for, photographed, marveled at?

And yet, why didn’t I do more?

Stink Lake House

Shadows Lengthen

As the season changes, so too does the light. Shadows lengthen. It’s hard to know if the autumn foliage of the prairies is really THAT brilliant, or if it just seems that way because of how the sun sits in the sky, slanting at just the right angle to pick out every hue. But of course, the light and the leaves must conspire. Nature is full of such beautiful conspiracies.

This is what a perfect autumn day looks like in the Deep South. It just so happened to be the day of a total lunar eclipse, when the entire moon is obscured by the shadow of the earth. Shadows and more shadows. But there can only be shadows when there’s light. And we have the best light anywhere.

Lament for Cecilia

O, Cecilia!

You most faithful of all faithful hounds

You Argus waiting at the door

You protectress of hearth and home

O, Cecilia!

You, of the freckled snout

You of the ever watchful gaze

You of the snowy white chest

O, Cecilia!

You of the fearsome midnight bark

You of the sweetest temper

You, who loved us more than life itself

O, Cecilia!

You, who always knew when someone was almost home

You who curled up near the door

You who braved every fierce blizzard

O, Cecilia!

You who drank from cricks and swam in dugouts

You, born on this farm and knowing no other home, not caring to even muse on such a thing

You who were free as the wind but who stayed for love and love alone.

O, Cecilia!

You, illl-begotten get of Winnie, muttiest of mutts and the purebred boy-next-door.

You who were such a gift to us, adored by the world,

You of the aristocratic name – Cecilia, noblest of all.

O, Cecilia!

You who saw every sunset and every moonrise on this farm since the day you were born (not counting those few days at the vet, but they hardly count)

You who knew every speck of this place, sniffed every scent there was to sniff

You who were too dainty and too pretty to bother with porcupine quills and would never dream of getting skunk sprayed

O, Cecilia!

You who kept the coyotes away, even when I saw their eyes glowing in the darkness just across the road.

You who let strangers know they were welcome only if we said so

You who greeted old friends like old friends

O, Cecilia!

You who needed to be by your master’s side

You, who would follow us anywhere and everywhere, even if it led to your death

You, who were everything a dog is supposed to be be, and more

O, Cecilia!

You will run like the wind with Lizzie now, and howl at the moon with Winnie, and roll in the grass with Fiona and Ariadne, and chase cars with Javel and Shep and curl up near the door with Gus and bark at the coyotes with all the Nicks who came before you.

This farm is an empty place without you.

Cecilia of the freckled snout. October, 2013.
Cecilia of the freckled snout. October, 2013.

Gleaning

“And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, nor shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner.”
                                                                                                                             – Leviticus 23:22
Glean
1. to gather slowly and laboriously, bit by bit.

2. to gather (grain or the like) after the reapers or regular gatherers.

3.to learn, discover, or find out, usually little by little or slowly.

4. to collect or gather anything little by little or slowly.

5. to gather what is left by reapers.

All life is a gleaning, especially when you’re a Virgo.
In the Middle Ages, when all agricultural work was done by hard labour, it was the women and children’s job to go out into the fields and glean. Every grain was precious in those famine-ready times. Nowadays, giant machines can do in one day what once took weeks. But still, there are gleanings left behind. No women and children out gathering them, except for me today.
Born in an exceptional year when harvest was already done (drought), I am nevertheless borne of the harvest season and so every year on my birthday I go out to gather my own small harvest. I like to have a bit of wheat around the house, if only  for decorative and symbolic purposes. I take only a tiny amount from the field – that which stands at the fringes, or was missed by the swipe of the combine. There will be lots left for the geese when they come in their huge flocks next month. They are master gleaners. For them, like it was for medieval peasants, gleaning is a matter of survival.
For me it is nothing more than a past-time. A bit of a hobby. I’ve been fortunate to always be well fed. I work hard, yes, but not in the way the medieval peasants worked. I do not toil from dawn ’til dusk.
But even in this easy society I found myself born into, I have come to realise that all of life is work, or at least it should be. It’s a constant gleaning, a continuous methodical gathering of information, of facts, of flotsam, of flashes of insight. It is about taking the time to bend and stoop and squint and figure out what is good and what is not. To not take everything, but to leave some behind, for the geese, for the wind, for the earth to break down and absorb. For the poor and the travellers. To glean is to find out who you are and what it means to be you in this world. And to try to be the best you can be.
Wheat
On the ripe. August 12, 2015.
Gleanings on the home quarter. September 16, 2015.
Gleanings on the home quarter. September 16, 2015.

All of a Sudden, This. (Wroxton)

Driving on an unfamiliar road far from the Gap, yet still very much in Saskatchewan (though drifting close to Manitoba). Different landscape, different cultures who call it home, different cues to those cultures. A rich, gently undulating landscape. The land had a feeling of weight to it. Farms nestled in stands of natural aspen and birch. An abundance of water in creeks, sloughs, full-fledged rivers (the Swan and the Assiniboine) And then all of a sudden, this. A church in a community that looks to be in its death throes. But I know better than to think all tiny towns are dying. They are as full of life as the people who choose to live there still. And yet this church, this church, as well as the grain elevator peeping over its shoulder, might be nearing the end. It stands straight now, but what is its future?

Wroxton. September 3, 2015.
Wroxton. September 3, 2015.
Wroxton. September 3, 2015.
Wroxton. September 3, 2015.
Wroxton. September 3, 2015.
Wroxton. September 3, 2015.