Child of Empire

Who were my ancestors? From earliest childhood I wanted to know. My grandparents, I knew, were children of “The Pioneers”. Homesteading days, in the 1970s still within living memory, had a status both legendary and sacred. Just three generations removed from the homesteaders who came from “down East” (Ontario) or “over there” (Britain, Europe), I knew the hardships they had faced (the back-breaking work, the sod houses, the brutal cold, the deep isolation) made our prairie way of life possible. It was all a little bleak. And, frankly, a bit of a bore. I longed to have forebears just a wee bit more fun. Bequeathing us more culture and less work. Most of all, I wanted roots that went deeper.

At school, we pushed colored pins into a map of Europe to mark from where in the “Old” World our ancestors had come to the “New”: England; Scotland; Ireland; Germany; Ukraine; Scandinavia; Poland; China. From all over they came to start fresh, to build a better life on land free but for the asking. The places on the map — “over there” — were shrouded in mystery and I had only the foggiest of notions about them. Kings, Queens, beheadings, burnings at the stake, wars, religious persecutions, outrageous accents, fancy clothes, and lots and lots of old stuff. All as real to me as fairy land.

Perhaps even more whimsical than Europe was the idea of great-grandparents. It turned out, however, that one of my grandmothers remembered her grandparents — great-great-grandparents, what?! — and she told me stories of her father’s people who had come north to Ontario from Pennsylvania.  Later still, when I was able to document Grandma’s version of her family history, I learned that my roots on this continent — in Canada and in pre-Revolutionary America — go much deeper than I had thought possible.

My curiosity about the past, though, initially took me in another direction. If, for example, the Canadian northwest had once been called “Rupert’s Land” then I needed to know who Prince Rupert was. I don’t regret studying British and European history, but as fascinating and worthy as those subjects are, I was oblivious to the story on the ground beneath my feet and in the air I breathed. The true story of our Canadian West that lives on and that we haven’t untangled yet.

The Canadian history we were taught (several times over) in school never seemed to have anything to do with the prairies. Even the fur trade, so vital to the opening of the West, became linked in my mind to London, Montréal and possibly the forests of northwestern Ontario. Sure we learned about Jerry Potts, Gabriel Dumont and Louis Riel. Of course we knew about the North West Mounted Police. But that history also felt remote. Saskatchewan seemed to me a place without history. A place without people. Except those bloody pioneers.

Growing up on a farm on the Canadian prairies, Indians were as real to me as castles on the Rhine or the Plantagenet kings. My level of ignorance about indigenous peoples is embarrassing to admit now. When I was really small, I had a vague conception that there were Indians in Canada, but believed I had only seen “real” Indians on TV. And they lived in the American West. The Old West. Not here. Not now. We drove by or straight through Indian reserves on summer camping trips to Waskesiu or Jackfish Lake, but we certainly never visited a reserve. Our school had one Métis student (nicknamed “Chief”, of course) but he didn’t seem like a real Indian. I do recall learning about the importance of bison for the Plains Peoples, but there hadn’t been buffalo herds on the prairies for nearly a century, and they seemed to me no more than fantastical beasts.

The Pioneers were the heroes of our prairie mythology. What we didn’t see — or were discouraged from seeing — was that the beginning of our history was, in fact, the end of history for those who came before us in this land.

“Nothing happened after that. We just lived. There were no more war parties, no capturing of horses from the Peigan and Sioux. There is nothing more to tell.” ~Two Leggings, a Crow Warrior, Montana, after 1888

Can you read those lines without feeling the pain in them? Peoples, their cultures, their ways of life destroyed, violently cut at the root. Yet I am descended from people who willingly cut themselves off from their roots. Or at least believed it possible to transplant them. They likely felt a close connection to where they were from, but for those of us born in the West, we were truly Wallace Stegner’s question marks in the wide circle of the horizon.

Saskatchewan’s story did not begin with the pioneers. It did not begin with Louis Riel, the N.W.M.P. or even with the fur trade. Saskatchewan’s past is Indian. Indigenous. Cree, Assiniboine, Blackfoot, Gros Ventres. Nēhiyawēwin, Nakota, Niitsitapi, A’aninin. This past does not only have to do with First Nations or Métis peoples. It also has to do with me. Me and you. You and me. And “them”. Yes, them too. The past cannot be changed but it lives on. We, the descendants of settlers, have to confront our past and how it continues to benefit us and not others. They’re not “over it”. And neither are we. We need to take seriously the promises made by our ancestors (or their proxies or representatives) to First Peoples. We need to be strong enough to listen. Open enough to change.

We needn’t demonize our ancestors or hold them to today’s standards. But how can we truly honour our ancestors if we put them on a pedestal and mythologize them? As Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in a recent issue of The Atlantic concerning the need for white Americans to come to terms with the history of slavery,

“One cannot escape the question by hand-waving at the past, disavowing the acts of one’s ancestors, nor by citing a recent date of ancestral immigration. The last slaveholder has been dead for a very long time. The last soldier to endure Valley Forge has been dead much longer. To proudly claim the veteran and disown the slaveholder is patriotism à la carte. A nation outlives its generations. We were not there when Washington crossed the Delaware, but Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze’s rendering has meaning to us. We were not there when Woodrow Wilson took us into World War I, but we are still paying out the pensions. If Thomas Jefferson’s genius matters, then so does his taking of Sally Hemings’s body. If George Washington crossing the Delaware matters, so must his ruthless pursuit of the runagate Oney Judge.” ~Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic, May 21, 2014.

Whether we are settler or indigenous, we are all children of Empire. That Empire disintegrated some generations ago. But we, its children, live among its monuments —and its ruins — still.

“You might feel you have roots somewhere else, but in reality you are right here with us.” ~Grand Chief John Kelly of the Onegaming First Nation, 1970

To be continued…


 

Note: the inspiration for this blog post’s title came from Zoe S.C. Todd’s essay On Scottish Independence: A Métis Perspective.

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Historical Siksika (Blackfoot) Lantern Slides, 1890s

Life and work have gotten in the way of blogging for a while. I do have some new posts in the works though, and in the meantime, I wanted to share some amazing early photographs with you. Writer and journalist Paul Seesequasis has been sharing historical photographs of Northern Great Plains peoples via Twitter. Among the most stunning of these are colored lantern slides of Siksika (Blackfoot) camps in what must be southern Alberta and Montana. Another Blackfoot people, the Kainai (or Bloods) may once have hunted on the open plains between the North and South Saskatchewan Rivers. From the 1700s to the 1850s, mid- to south-west Saskatchewan was part of what is known as The Blackfoot Confederacy. Map (Blackfoot territory, ca. 1750-1850) Blackfoot territory, ca. 1750-1850. (Source: http://www.blackfootcrossing.ca/pretreaty.html)   In the 19th century, the lands north of the Great Sand Hills and the river, south of the Eagle Hills and west of the Bad Hills were disputed territory. Great battles were fought between the Blackfoot and the Plains Cree, ending at the Battle of the Belly River (near today’s Lethbridge) in 1870. More on this in a future post. For now, enjoy these beautiful scenes of prairie life before colonization. Click on images to view larger. Credit to Paul Seeseequasis.

Otter tipi

 

Sunset. ‘Otter tipi.’ Siksika camp Walter McClintock photo. Colored Lantern slide. 1892Sisiska woman, star tipi‘Young Siksika woman and star tipi.’ Alberta.1898 Photo: Walter McClintock. Lantern slide: Pancoast

tipi painting Siksika woman painting tipi hide. Charlotte M Pinkerton Blazer Studio. Colored Lantern slide. 1892

'Cloudy night' ~ Siksika camp. 1892 ‘Cloudy night’ ~ Siksika camp. 1892 Annette Karge Studio. Painted lantern slide. McClintock photo.

Siksika camp with horses  Siksika camp & horses. Charlotte M Pinkerton Blazer Studio. Colored Lantern slide. 1892

Siksika camp, night Blackfoot camp under night sky. Charlotte M Pinkerton Blazer Studio. Colored Lantern slide. 1892

Siksika camp at dusk Blackfoot camp at dusk. Charlotte M Pinkerton Blazer Studio. Colored Lantern slide. 1892

Siksika camp from distance Blackfoot camp under night sky. Charlotte M Pinkerton Blazer. Colored Lantern slide. 1892

 

Siksika camp, sunset Siksika camp. Sunset. Charlotte M Pinkerton Blazer Studio. Colored Lantern slide. 1892

Further reading: Joseph Boyden: Stories of war, told in a Robe, National Post, May 27, 2014 The Story of the Blackfoot People: Niitsitapiisinni, Glenbow Museum (Firefly Books: 2013)    

Edited: July 4, 2014

 

The Age of Discovery

The cowboy was headed straight for the empty seat beside me. Inwardly, I groaned. I had been looking forward to staring out the bus window – thinking (well, daydreaming, really), reading – for the duration. It was the Friday before Thanksgiving* and I was heading home for the holiday after my first month at university. Bespectacled, nose in book, serious as only the young can be, I didn’t want my trip disturbed by conversation with a stranger. Especially not with a man wearing a cowboy hat.

As the bus pulled out of Regina, I couldn’t escape the reality that university student in the city or not, dreams of Montreal and Toronto or not, fantasies of Europe and other exotic places or not, I was still here. And “here” was as far from “real” culture and civilization as you could get. Just look at the cowboy next to me.

Don’t get me wrong. There was nothing of the redneck about the man sitting next to me. And certainly nothing threatening. He was middle-aged, avuncular, polite, well-groomed. Still, there was his hat. Why, I wondered, did some people refuse to let go of this whole frontier cowboy myth? It’s 1987. It wasn’t the hat, though, that really made me uncomfortable. It was the kind of cowboy who had sat himself down next to me. For he was no ordinary cowboy. He was an Indian.

A real Indian. As in: not the kind from India.

In common with my post-1960s generation, I abhorred racism and prejudice and applauded multiculturalism and diversity. I was young, serious and well-intentioned. I was also naive, flighty and ignorant.

Now, as the bus descended into the Qu’Appelle Valley before Lumsden, I had given up on my book, my daydreams, my quiet. My book, however, was what caught the cowboy’s attention. “What are you reading?” he wanted to know. It was an assigned text from a first-year History course on the Reformation. I can no longer remember how I described the book to him or why I (then) thought it was important, but the cowboy indulged my self-important answers about capital-H History. He asked me where I was going. Home. Where was home? Farm in the Rosetown-Kindersley-Eston area. Then things got interesting.

The cowboy (we never did introduce ourselves) explained that he was on his way to a First Nations convention at North Battleford. He was interested in land claims. He brought out a little red book, leather-bound, with gold-embossed letters that read “RED MAN’S BIBLE” and handed it to me. I was overcome with embarrassment. Quickly, I flipped the pages of the little book without taking in a single word, and handed it back. I did my best to engage in polite conversation but I felt unable to speak openly. Not that I had anything impolite, rude or offensive to say. Not at all. The problem was that I had nothing to say. Land claims? Another Bible? It was awkward. Looking back, I would say, I was stripped of all pretenses.

It was a relief to finally get off the bus.

Wallace Stegner, recalling his early schooling in Eastend, Saskatchewan (Wolf Willow, 1962), says this:

“What strikes me … is the fact that the information I was gaining from literature and from books on geography and history had not the slightest relevance to the geography, history, or life of the place I lived…. The world I knew was immediate, not comparative; seen flat without perspective. Knowledge of place, knowledge of the past, meant to me knowledge of the far and foreign.”

And this:

“We knew as little of our intense and recent past as if it had been a geological stratum hidden underground. On some frontiers such as Texas, local history and local pride were nurtured together. On ours there was uncrossable discontinuity.”

“Uncrossable discontinuity.” I’ve experienced that. I’ve lived that. Sharon Butala puts it another way: “Euro-Canadian ancestor worship”. Or, as Wallace Stegner puts it, we believe ourselves “heirs to swans and phoenixes”:

“In such a town as Whitemud, school superimposes five thousand years of Mediterranean culture and two thousand years of Europe upon the adapted or rediscovered simplicities of a new continent…. I have felt myself entitled to ask whether my needs and my education were not ludicrously out of phase. Not because I was educated for the past instead of the future – most education trains us for the past – but because I was educated for the wrong place. Education tried, inadequately and hopelessly, to make a European of me.”

I’ve spent much of my life in search of my roots. Where did I come from? Where did we come from?  As people. As a culture. How did things get to be this way? The quest has taken me far from home. Now, finally, it’s led me back to where I started. My 18-year-old self wouldn’t believe it.

“Where do you begin telling someone their world is not the only one?” ~Lee Maracle

 

*In Canada, Thanksgiving is in October.

Rock of Ages

The first and only time I was at Red Rock was a blustery fall day with the chill of winter in the air. Of course, during my childhood, Dad had spoken about his time at Red Rock, a one-room school a mile and a half from the farm. That would have been in the 1940s, after the War. No doubt he also mentioned the rock that inspired the school’s name, but I never thought much about it. The school building itself had been moved off-site and converted into a dwelling a few miles away. Red Rock was left standing solitary in the middle of the field where a glacier had deposited it millennia ago. Too far off the road to be seen from a passing vehicle in the hummocky, unflat land of the area. And, despite its near mythical status in stories told by my Dad or Grandparents, I didn’t lay eyes on it until I was more than twenty years old. I was unprepared.

Red Rock isn’t just a rock. It’s a massive, imposing boulder. Dad took a polaroid of me sitting on top of it, hair unfashionably wind blown and feet dangling several feet off the ground. It must stand at least six or seven feet high with an even greater circumference. Dad drove me out to see it after I caught the archaeology bug from a third-year Anthrolopogy course at university. The old buffalo wallow was just visible around the base of the rock. I tried to imagine it as it had been. Before.

Captain John Palliser had noted in 1859 that “these plains are plentifully strewn with erratic blocks of all sizes”, these plains being those lying inside what became known as Palliser’s Triangle — land he declared unfit for either settlement or the plough. Running along the northwest of this triangle, coming up from the arid American plains to the south, is a band  of prairie uplands that are a continuation of the Missouri Coteau. This geographical feature, which stretches from South Dakota to the North Saskatchewan River, includes the Bad Hills, the Eagle Hills and others. To the west of the Bad Hills, would sit our farm on the arid Eston Plain. And Red Rock.

Geologically speaking, Red Rock is a glacial erratic. The Cree word for it is mistasiniy, meaning “big stone”. The most famous erratic block in the province was the Buffalo Child Stone, a 400-ton rock near the elbow of the South Saskatchewan River and once an ancient pilgrimage site for the Plains Cree and other First Nations of the region. In 1966, amid the considerable controversy surrounding the construction of the dam that created Lake Diefenbaker, the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration dynamited the mistasiniy so that the soon-to-be submerged erratic would pose no danger to boats. All that remains above water of the sacred rock is a large fragment and cairn at Elbow Harbor, as well as some fragments the Cree took to place on Poundmaker’s grave on the Poundmaker Reserve near North Battleford. The tiny resort town of Mistusinne on Lake Diefenbaker is named for it.

Red Rock, though much smaller than the Buffalo Child Stone, would almost certainly have been a notable landmark. Would it also have been a sacred rock? Possibly. Representatives of the Saskatchewan Archaeological Society (cited here), say:

“The stories associated with a lot of these rocks — the first sightings by settlers and the offerings found, and the fact that we find archaeological remains around most of them that we’ve looked at — all of this suggests these big rocks were regarded as something very special.”

As one things leads to another, this got me thinking about rockpiles again and how they came to be. In his telling of the story of the Buffalo Child Stone, Cree elder Barry Ahenakew has this to say about stone piles and medicine wheels:

“There’s stones that have been placed…. they’ve been placed there for a long, long time. Our people, the old people long ago, as they travelled, out of respect for those places, they would pick up a stone and they’d add to those piles to honour those older generations of people that had made those, helped make those through time, so they’d do that and that’s how the piles, rock formations or medicine wheels began to get bigger and bigger. Our people always added to them out of respect for those original old people. Many a time in the centre of those places, many times was the burial ground for a great leader in the past and that’s why they would do that, to add to the pile, to honour that old great chief…” ~Barry Ahenakew, 2012

I asked my Dad about the rockpiles on our land. For readers unfamiliar with south-western Saskatchewan, man-made rockpiles dot the fields of this region. They are a geographical by-product of agriculture, mounds of rocks cleared off the land to make it ready for the plough. Over time, ongoing cultivation turns up more and more rocks from beneath the top layers of soil, and I myself (though few would ever suspect) have picked rocks in the field and heaved them into the back of a half-ton truck. But now, I wondered, how did the first generation of settlers and farmers decide where to place a rockpile? If I even thought of it at all, I guess I always assumed it was more or less random. Dad says the rockpiles were often placed “beside a huge rock that was too big to ever move or in a buffalo wallow around a big rock”.

So, Red Rock keeps its lonely vigil over the prairie because of the school that once stood near it, preserving it as a landmark. But what lies beneath the rockpiles? Does every pile conceal a boulder or erratic block, a buffalo wallow, or, possibly, a centuries old stone pile? The rockpile where one childhood summer I attempted to picnic was unlike the other piles on our land. It was more like a small outcrop of natural rock and grass, rocks sitting too deep in the soil to have been placed there recently, and with a few smaller piles of stones from the fields around its edges. If those rocks could speak, what stories would they tell?

Rocks have special or sacred qualities in many spiritual traditions. Moses struck the rock and the water flowed. Peter was the rock of the Church. The pilgrims at Mecca circle the Ka’aba, a great black stone. The Druids erected menirs and stone circles, like Stonehenge. Barry Ahenakew says that in the old days there used to be Seven Sundances going on at one time at Elbow, at the Buffalo Child Stone, and “five to six miles of nothing but tipis“.

On the Camino de Santiago, the great pilgrimage route aross the Pyrenees and northern Spain to Compostela, is a massive stone pile known as the Cruz de Ferro or Iron Cross. Every pilgrim adds his or her own stone to the pile. Each stone represents one pilgrim. The cross was placed atop the mound in the Middle Ages, but people have been leaving stones on the site since pre-Christian Roman times, when it was known as the Mount of Mercury. Even for the non-religious, it is humbling and awe-inspiring to consider the generations of individuals who have added their single stones, who have made their contribution. Imagine its destruction to make way for development. Then remember the mistasiniy, the big stones, and Red Rock, rock of ages.

Corrected February 9, 2014

Grizzly Country

In the trophy room of Kinnaird Castle in Scotland hangs the massive skull of a bison bull killed in the country northwest of the “elbow” of the South Saskatchewan River. The year was 1859. “No one, till he tries it, can fancy how hard it is to shoot a galloping buffalo from a galloping horse,” wrote James Carnegie, 9th Earl of Southesk in an account of his two-years in “the Saskatchewan country”. The bison bull, as it happened, was shot and killed together with two bison cows, not by Southesk but by his recently met Cree guide Napeskis.

At that time, the Saskatchewan country took in all the lands west of the Red River to the Rocky Mountains and from the North Saskatchewan River to the 49th parallel, which had been established in 1818 as the boundary between British-held Rupert’s Land and the United States. According to Appleton’s Journal, a weekly New York magazine that ran a three-part series on the Southesk expedition in May 1875, the country he described was still a “land lightly touched by time, so magical in its changes a few degrees farther south, and the picture of wild Nature remains with hardly a color dimmed or a line erased.” As Wallace Stegner writes in his memoir of a childhood in Eastend, Saskatchewan (Wolf Willow, 1955), “As late as 1868, when the American frontier was in its very last phase, it had hardly begun here.” Southesk had chosen it precisely for this reason. “Towards the close of 1858,” Southesk wrote, “while visiting at the house of a friend, I happened to mention my desire to travel in some part of the world where good sport could be met with among the larger animals, and where, at the same time, I might recruit my health by an active open-air life in a healthy climate. ‘Why not go to the Hudson’s Bay country?’ said one.” And so the Earl found himself hunting buffalo on the northern plains above the South Saskatchewan River. Here was a wild kingdom indeed.

Southesk hired Napeskis, described as a “very bold intelligent young man”, to guide him and his party “to hunt grizzly bears in the Bad Hills range west of camp”. The Bad Hills (also referred to collectively sometimes as simply “the Bad Hill”) are a range of hills running about 10 miles north to south from Herschel down through the D’Arcy, Fiske, McGee stretch of Highway 7 to Bad Lake, an alkaline body of water near the village of Totnes. Travelling southwest from Saskatoon towards the Alberta border and Calgary, just after you pass through Rosetown, the road begins to dip and curve. It winds down, up and out of wide ravines. Rolling hills spread to the horizons north and south. The land is distinguished as well by its wildness. Sectioned fields of grain give way to lone hills. Cattle graze. Turning south at D’Arcy and crossing the railway tracks, half a dozen bison stand peering sullenly from behind their enclosure. Not trusting my memory to take the short cut, I follow the lightly gravelled road that winds just out of sight of Bad Lake and the southern tip of the Hills to Totnes. Turning west from Totnes toward Penkill, our farm is maybe five miles further down the road. Without ever knowing it, I grew up in the wild and exotic country Southesk crossed the Atlantic from Scotland and came overland from New York across America past the 100th meridian and into the north country to see. Finch-Hatton and Hemingway on safari in East Africa, these names I eventually came to know. But James Carnegie, Earl of Southesk, stalking grizzly bear a few miles from my home, I did not.

There in the Bad Hills of the Saskatchewan country, near what is now the town of Herschel, Southesk got his grizzly bear. Grizzly bears in Saskatchewan? Believe it or not, yes. The grizzly once ranged over all of the Great Plains, including all of present-day Alberta, Saskatchewan and southern Manitoba. I didn’t know this growing up either. According to a 2009 Government of Canada report — which concludes, surprise, surprise, that “recovery of this species is considered not technically or biologically feasible at this time” (there’s our tax dollars hard at work) — the Bad Hills were once a favourite habitat of the prairie grizzly. The Hills might even have owed their “ominous name” to the grizzlies known to haunt their “many deep ravines, for the most part overgrown with poplars and thick brushwood”. According to Appleton’s Journal, the name “relates to some great misfortune that there befell the Cree or Assiniboine, but the tradition is lost, or at any rate was unknown to the guides”. The name itself was completely unknown to me until, middle-aged and thousands of miles away, I learned it from a book.

Canada’s (Non-)Recovery Strategy for the prairie grizzly bear maps 26 recorded observations of grizzlies between the years 1820 and 1869. Among these is listed Southesk’s 1859 Bad Hills hunt, as well as this incident also related by Appleton’s Journal:

“A fatal accident happened at this place about a year before Lord Southesk’s visit. Two Indians, while gathering berries on the hill, were attacked by a grizzly who was lying concealed among the bushes. One man he instantly knocked down, then seized the other and killed him — meanwhile the first succeeded in making his escape. The Indians are afraid to stop in one particular glen, which is very much frequented by these savage bears…” (“Adventures on the Saskatchewan“, Appleton’s Journal, Vol. XIII, No. 322, May 22, 1875)

In his own account of the hunt, Southesk wrote of how he and his companions, accompanied by Napeskis, caught sight of a mother grizzly and cub walking on the “high, bare ground not far from a dense thicket”. Mother bear and baby bear ran away, but Southesk shot the male after it made itself known “not less than one hundred yards off, reared itself on its hind legs, and swayed slowly from side to side, staring at us, and trying to get our wind”. Tourists can still see the skull and hide of this bear on display at Kinnaird Castle in Scotland, along with the skull of the bison bull shot by Napeskis.

One hundred and twenty years later, a mere blip in historical time, a slight young girl, still a child, could ride and walk through the nearby country unprotected and alone, listening out only for the odd pick-up truck that might come down the road.

“The decline of grizzly bear populations during the 19th century was mainly attributed to European exploration and settlement, and the associated introduction of firearms. The population decline on the Prairies was especially severe, aggravated by the eradication of wild bison and the advent of agriculture. Grizzly bears were rarely seen on the Canadian Prairies after 1900.” (Recovery Strategy for the Grizzly Bear, Prairie Population, Environment Canada, 2009)

Rarely seen after 1900. Saskatchewan became a province of Canada in 1905, as did neighbouring Alberta, also once a part of the greater “Saskatchewan country”. The Duncans and the McCrackens and other homesteaders by the thousand settled the province in the years before the First World War. In his 80s, my Grandpa Duncan reminisced about walking behind a plough pulled by a team of oxen and being eaten alive by mosquitoes. He remembered killing gophers to get a nickel for their tails. He remembered eating plump roasted squab caught by slingshot. He remembered his horse, “Bessie”. Oxen, mosquitoes, gophers, wild pigeons, a favourite horse. But one thing for certain he did not, could not, remember was a grizzly bear.

Except for the more famous Cypress Hills, where the Old West limped to its final and bitter end, the Bad Hills, virtually unknown even to locals, are at the highest elevation in all of Saskatchewan. Once upon a time they were home to the grizzly bear. Out on the plains to the south and west, Southesk scribbled on his map, “Immense herds of buffaloes”. Without ever knowing it, this is where I was from.

Living in the Cypress Hills, I did not even know I lived there, and hadn’t the faintest  notion of who had lived there before me…. Time reached back only a few years. …the world when I began to know it had neither location, nor time, nor geography, nor history…. We knew no history, no past, no tradition, no ghosts.” ~Wallace Stegner in Wolf Willow: A History, A Story, and a Memory of the Last Plains Frontier

 

Wild Kingdom

One morning Dad found big cat tracks behind the house. Were they made by a cougar? A bobcat? Were those the same species? We didn’t know, never having seen one except on television. We weren’t even sure if large felines, or even medium-sized ones, had ever roamed the prairies in the past let alone the present. Maybe it was lost, had wandered too far from its Mountain home and now survived in the margins, in tiny vestiges of wild prairie, never venturing out except under cover of darkness. We never did see the mysterious feline that had prowled through our yard overnight. Never, in fact, have I seen any big cat roaming wild in Saskatchewan. On one other occasion only did I see similar tracks when my brother happened on some in the mud near Webb’s Slough*. They were made by a cat, but no barn cat, we were sure.

Wild things fascinated me as they do all children. I was an avid viewer of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. Like other children of the 70s, the romantic vision of wildlife in the Serengeti or the Kalahari got my full attention. Regular people like us didn’t go on safari the way middle class tourists do nowadays, so it was a fantasy world of the first order. Especially because, as I perceived it, I lived in the most unromantic and least wild place on earth.

Despite living in the country, little in our environment could be considered natural. (Except, of course, the weather.) On the high arid plains between the forks of the North Saskatchewan and South Saskatchewan Rivers, agriculture is king. Wild prairie survives in interstitial gaps: in ditches and along railway allowances, around larger sloughs and along rivers, or on the rocky unbroken land of the rolling hills of a coulee. Little live things hide in those spaces in between. The flora and fauna of a mid-twentieth century prairie childhood were necessarily limited. What remained impressed itself on me with great clarity.

Flora. Brown-eyed Susans in ditches, foxtails between the tire tracks in the middle of the private “road” that ran behind our yard to the elevator at Penkill, cattails in slough shallows, saskatoons in dips and coulees, chokecherries along the path beside the river, wild strawberries underfoot or pink prairie roses in unexpected spots. Fauna. Besides run-of-the-mill gophers and skunk, magpies and meadowlarks, porcupine and fox, there were badgers, hawks, owls, coyotes, deer, antelope and, in the fall, vast flocks of geese. Few and far between and as a rule out of sight, but there if you listened and looked. No matter how small or insignificant, any wild thing wielded a special – at times dark – power over my imagination.

The rockpile incident wasn’t an isolated one. Looking back on it now, whenever I strayed into those marginal places away from the cultivated fields or out of sight of the grid roads, I got spooked. Like the time I drove my brother on our three-wheeler to visit a pet cat’s week-old grave. Dad had buried it on the other side of a row of trees that had been planted along the railway line amid an acre or two of untouched prairie. We found our cat dug up by a badger and coated in a thick layer of dirt, her eye sockets empty and accusing. (She had gotten under a tractor wheel.)  We leapt back on the ATV and roared away from there, never looking back. It wasn’t the dead cat that spooked me, it was the badger’s presence in absence.

What else made its presence felt in those places in between? The quotidian emptiness of the land had an unsettling quality. Unnatural, even. Because it wasn’t always so.

When the land no longer knows you, it won’t speak to you, won’t tell you its stories.” -Blackfoot elders, cited in Blackfoot Redemption: A Blood Indian’s Story of Murder, Confinement and Imperfect Justice by William E. Farr.

*In Saskatchewan, “slough” is pronounced slew.