Saskatchewan

Between a Good Story & Hard Facts

fullsizeoutput_657d

from R.B. Nevitt’s A Winter at Fort Macleod

While I’m writing my book about our long western walks, sometimes I find myself caught between a good story and a set of hard facts. I’m writing about our treks through ranches on the edge of Cypress Hills in 2015. Remembering the cattle, the horses, and the land there, I’d like to tell the story I found in Peter Erasmus’s Buffalo Days and Nights. Erasmus was a Métis interpreter, guide (for the Palliser expedition, among others), hunter, trader, and diplomat (his account of the Treaty Six signing is invaluable, since he was actually hired by the Indigenous parties to the Treaty). He could speak four or five prairie languages, as well as English and French, and could read ancient Greek. Discussing the extinction of the bison/buffalo, and the problem of poaching, Erasmus notes: “True, I ate buffalo meat at Big Bear’s camp in the Cypress Hills…but it tasted a great deal like beef – so much so that I didn’t consider it polite to inquire too closely as to its source.”[i] The problem is, the story makes it sound as if the Cree were habitually enjoying food at the expense of white settlers – but the opposite was the case. 1881-82 was the time of the “hunger winter” (see Candace Savage’s A Geography of Blood). Cree, Saulteaux and Assiniboine, facing a brutal Saskatchewan cold in tents made only of thin cotton (the hides being sold or converted to food), dressed in rags, were dying, by the hundreds, of starvation and starvation-linked diseases. Meanwhile, the government in Ottawa kept cutting its relief budget. Dewdney, closer, used the famine as a tactic to try to empty the Hills of its Indigenous population. The first ranchers in the area offered their animals at cost to relieve the famine. Dewdney refused. No one knows why, but it remains a fact that he had financial links to the American company that provided meat to the Canadian government, and accepting the offer would have undercut their – and his – profits. [ii] Plus ça change…the more things change…  There’s no simple story in remembering Settlement.

[i] Peter Erasmus, Buffalo Days and Nights. Ed. Henry Thompson. Calgary: Fifth House Ltd, reprint 1999, 301.

[ii] James Daschuk, Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life. Regina: University of Regina Press, 2013, 115.

Advertisements

Really Seeing Harold

1507_1611harold_matthew_white_valley

This last summer on my pilgrimage across Saskatchewan, we walked an average of about 20 kilometres a day. The journey took place the end of July and the beginning of August. The days were boiling hot, 10 hours a day under a beating sun. The nights could actually get quite cool, in the hills down to four or five degrees. You had to be ready for anything. We faced heatstroke, cold, lightning, constant wind, limited water supplies, poorly-marked trails, and sore feet. So the last week when a senior citizen named Harold asked if he could join in, I was a bit skeptical.

It wasn’t so much that Harold didn’t look fit. He just looked OLD. I couldn’t tell how old, exactly. But old.

Are you sure this is going to be okay? I asked my friend Hugh. Hugh was walking the whole trail with me. Hugh was in top shape, had done most of the planning and had a good sense of what we were facing, better than I did. Don’t forget, I thought: any group is only as fast as its slowest walker.

It should be okay, Hugh responded. I’ve known Harold a long time. He might surprise you.

The first day Harold showed up, he came with an ancient orange back pack, the kind I had back in the 1970s. Oh no, I thought. Here we go. And he was slow – a bit. He lagged behind, a tad. But he never once complained. And when the rest of us stopped for a break, Harold kept going, so that he never actually slowed anyone down that first day.

The second day, Harold’s backpack looked different. What did you do to it, I asked him? I’m carrying more weight today, he said. And I’ll carry more tomorrow. My intent is to build up the weight until I can carry everything I need on my own back.

Now. None of us were doing that. We were ALL getting our tents and supplies ferried from one spot to another, just carrying our needs for the day. But Harold was determined to carry everything. And he did. Over the next five days he kept adding stuff to his pack until he was carrying his tent, his food, and all his gear.

And he got faster. By the end of the third day, I noticed that Harold was fairly consistently ahead of me. On the fourth day, we came to a set of hills. Where the rest of us took the lower route around, Harold looked up. “I’m a hydrologist,” he said. “As a scientist I’m really interested in rock formations. I’ll just go up these hills to have a look and meet you at camp.” And he did. We went around, he walked UP. And up. I could see him striding off into the distance.

On the fifth day, I was up early. Unlike the rest of us who had real tents, Harold slept in a sort of plastic sheet. As I watched, he came out it, and stretched, then sat on the ground and made himself tea. He didn’t seem to be half as sore, or as krinked up from sleeping, as I was, and the ground in that spot was NOT warm. He and I had become friends over the walk, so I walked over to where he was, and asked a question I’d been wondering for some time: “if you don’t mind my asking Harold, exactly how old ARE you?”

This man who had transformed, in those few days, into a master backpacker looked back at me and smiled. “How old do you think I am?”

Jesus, it says, was CHANGED in a wild and crazy X-files moment when Moses and Elijah suddenly appeared and the lights of heaven all came on. Transfiguration means changing. But instead of Jesus changing, maybe what really happened that day, what really changed, were the eyes of the disciples.

It’s like Harold. In the space of a few short days, a quiet, struggling elderly man had changed before my eyes. But my question is: did he change? Or was it really me?

In the Sustainability and Diversity class I teach at Concordia one of our readings is by a scientist by the name of Marten Scheffer. Scheffer describes a mechanism of perception that is almost universal in nature. It has a technical name, but we can call it “locking in perceptions”. It’s a way of quickly assessing sensory inputs. What happens – whether you’re a human being or a frog, apparently – is that if you see something that LOOKS like something you’re familiar with, your brain jumps to “lock in” that image or perception quickly, so you can react. We see what looks like a bear and our adrenaline kicks in, before we necessarily get all the information to fill in our initial sensory impressions.

That’s a good mechanism for survival. But not necessarily for judgment.

Often we just don’t see others for who they are. Most of the time, we don’t even see OURSELVES for who we are. When we do, it’s so shocking and so rare we call those moments “revelations”.

Does anyone see in you evidence of the little girl you once were in the old country? The little boy who used to shine his father’s shoes? Is there anyone in this world who can look at you and see the time you travelled, or the books that changed your life, or the time you won the swim meet, or that evening you skated in a magic winter landscape when the trees were frosted, or the key shaking in your hand when you bought your first house, or when you went through that terrible winter, or you shared that wonderful love, or whatever it was that has happened to you to make you the person you are? It’s not a mistake that that’s one of the lines of “Amazing Grace” is exactly that. “I once was blind, but now I see”. Enlightenment means starting to see each other and our world, in an Amazingly Graceful way. Seeing this way means seeing not necessarily the way things are but the way things REALLY are. Behind and through failure, and brokenness, and death, and suffering, and decay. Seeing the life that God is calling up, that we can’t even guess at. The parts of us still hidden in the cross.

So how old do you think Harold is?

I’m 79, he said to me, slowly. I was a rock climber, for years. I was a field scientist for decades. And now, he said, as he shouldered that heavy backpack, and started off ahead of me: I guess I’m a pilgrim, too.

Our Creator promises to see us the way we really are. NOT with the limits and prejudices and preconceptions we normally exercise. How wonderful is that. And what a great and graceful Transfiguration.

1507_1563pilgrimage_white_valley_sk

photos by James R. Page