Tag Archives: Saskatchewan

Where it is

When I called Archie to ask directions to his ranch, they were a bit vague. I was coming from the south, Big Beaver way, I explained. “Oh yes, well take the road up the hill there and then you’ll go through the coulee, and you’ll pass the place that used to be Clarks’, and then take the north-south road for four miles and then take the first east-west road.”

Archie is 95, so you could attribute the ambiguity of these directions to a failing mind. But not so. Archie is sharp as a tack, and as he described the way to his ranch in his careful way, I was picturing the roads in my mind. It’s an area I know pretty well, well enough that I knew to simply keep heading in a northeasterly direction, and somehow, I’d make it.

And I did, without a single wrong turn. Archie’s directions were borne out of a lifetime of living in the same place. And my ability to follow them was based in my short lifetime of getting to know rural southern Saskatchewan – understanding how it’s laid out, patterns of road maintenance, and perhaps a tiny bit of instinctual wisdom. Local directions are often vague like the ones Archie gave me, sometimes almost incomprehensible to a stranger. Last week, when traveling to a northern town, I was told how to get to the venue where I was hosting a workshop: “it’s down where the old hospital used to be.” The old hospital no longer exists in tangible form, and I had never been to this town before. Those directions were almost useless to me. But to the person giving them, the map composed of memory made absolute sense. The place just is where it is.

In rural Saskatchewan, there’s almost no use talking about kilometers. Metric measurements just don’t fit on a landscape that was laid out on the old imperial system. But even so, measuring miles still somehow doesn’t take the amount of time it’s supposed to. Four miles on a straight paved road is not the same as four miles on a twisty-turny up-and-down gravel road. You can set your odometer all you like, but somehow it doesn’t always seem to turn out. As for GPS coordinates – you can give them a try, but I wouldn’t rely on them. It’s almost as if these places move, shift themselves in different types of weather, or sidle back and forth in tune with the rotation of the earth. They just don’t want to seem to line up with maps and measurements -at least not precise ones. Or so it seems to me. I’d rather rely on directions of the type Archie gave. I trust them more.

A place is where it is, and it takes as long as it takes to get there.

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Rounding the Curve

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.

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?