Friday, October 30, 2009

Our History is our History. . . but it is never too late to set things right

North Saskatchewan River valley, near Ruddell, Saskatchewan

I received a letter the day before yesterday from a friend. He enclosed an article he wrote a couple of years ago for a Saskatchewan magazine in which he does a fine job of outlining the environmental catastrophe we have wrought upon our grasslands. A lawyer and a clear thinker, he suggests that the die was cast by the early 1900s. The Dominion Lands Acts and federal policy at the time handed over virtually the entire ecoregion to private interests, principally farmers. Why did we not hold a small percentage back, even a few hundred square miles, to be protected as natural landscape or wildlife habitat?

Things would be much better if we had, he says, and of course he is right. He recognizes that ranching has allowed some of the land to be kept under native cover, but that acreage is declining in quality where the land is managed poorly and over the long run some of it is vulnerable to cultivation, depending on the inverse pricing between grain and cattle markets. As much as 2 million acres of native prairie in Saskatchewan that no one thought would ever be ploughed was destroyed and turned into cropland between 1976 and 1981.

As I read the letter I thought about some things I had seen and heard both in Edmonton and in North Battleford in the past week. In Edmonton, where I was participating in a literary festival (the only all non-fiction festival in Canada), I got to attend the launch of a new book by my friend and mentor, Myrna Kostash. In The Frog Lake Reader, Myrna gathers together historic documents, fragments of private journals, excerpts of fiction, and first hand reports of the events around the only mass hanging on Canadian soil. In 1885, a band of young Cree warriors went to demand food from an obstinate Indian agent at Frog Lake settlement and ended up killing nine settlers. Later that year, Wandering Spirit, Big Bear’s son, Imasees, and six others were tried and hung for what has come to be known as the “Frog Lake Massacre.”

At the reading, Myrna gave a vivid account of what it was like to come upon the monument and mass grave of the hung men tucked behind some bushes on the shores of the North Saskatchewan River, near Battleford. I was heading to Battlefords myself in the next few days to participate in “Inspired by the Land,” a multi-disciplinary show being launched at the Chapel Gallery. Along with other writers, artists, and First Nations elders, I was interviewed for its centrepiece, a video production (a sample here) with a prairie soundscape created by Charlie Fox. I performed a brief reading at the reception along with Sharon Butala. We all visited and delighted in the images, voices, and sounds that curator Dean Bauche and his staff had brilliantly assembled for the show, which is going to travel to other galleries after its run at home in North Battleford. At the end of the evening, I asked Dean if he could direct me to the grave site Myrna had described.

The next morning, I got up in the dark and with Dean’s map in hand, managed to find the grave just before sunrise. Both Myrna and Dean had said to scan around for the tipi that rests over the site. In the barest glimmer of pre-dawn, I swept my binoculars over the valley and there it was, 100 yards downhill from where I stood, just downstream from historic Fort Battleford, the silhouette of the naked tipi poles poking up from the willows and poplars on a broad shelf above the river.

Walking through the bush and standing before the granite monument, I thought of that moment in our history: the bison gone for a decade, Big Bear refusing to sign Treaty 6, his people hungry and desperate, the Indian Agent refusing to give them any food, and then Wandering Spirit and the others killing the agent and settlers when showing their guns was not enough to get him to change his mind.

Food. It was about food. Next year it will be the 125th anniversary of the events at Batoche and Frog Lake, and food is still an important way for the land to speak to us, ask us questions of what we will allow, and how we will live here. Still the great teacher and mediator in our engagement with the prairie.

The show at the gallery was sponsored by the Office of the Treaty Commissioner, and they paid for the chicken wings, vegetables and dip, sausage and other appetizers that we ate at the reception. We sat at round tables, indigenous and settler people together, some distance from those days when treaties were signed as a way of “extinguishing Indian title.” Today there is a growing awareness that, like it or not, we are all treaty people (see Roger Epp's new book of essays) and our treaties are about sharing title not transferring it from the first peoples to colonizers.

Unlike the legislation that gave the prairie over to my ancestors and thousands of other farmers, however, the full promise of the treaties has not yet been fulfilled. Can we go forward and feed ourselves from the bounty of this land without destroying the birds and other creatures who had co-existed with the bison hunters for millennia , and who have been suffering ever since we took title in abrogation of the spirit of those treaties? What would it take for us to begin to live in the spirit of the treaties, with reverence and respect guiding our every relationship, nation to nation, and people to land.

Miracles? Perhaps, but nature specializes in miracles when we let it lead the way. In this part of the world, that means taking our lead from the grass that has always known how to feed the prairie and its dwellers.

From a grave site overlooking the northern plains’ greatest river, with the bones of hungry warriors at my feet, I could not help thinking, “too late, 125 years too late”. Then came the words of an epitaph on another gravestone, resting above the remains of one of the prairie’s great souls: “Courage my friends. It is never too late to make a better world.”


  1. I found this post interesting since I am currently working on a project dealing with Big Bear and I have been thinking about this topic.

    I have always seen Big Bear as the last guardian of the grasslands. I find his story disturbing for not only what it meant to his people but also for what it meant for the environment. He fought for the traditional way of life and by extension he also fought for the traditional environment. Unfortunately from his initial refusal to sign Treaty Six through the events of 1885 the future was set in stone. It is kind of similar to the story of Sitting Bull, both choose to fight and try to hold on even though the there was no chance of long term success. At least in Big Bear's case he was aware the futility of the struggle, especially after he relented and signed Treaty Six in 1881. I guess that precisely why I personally admire him.

    Brett Q

  2. Thanks Brett--I would love to see your paper on Big Bear once it is done. I think you are right, he was a guardian of the grasslands, though he refused to take up arms to do it.

    Trevor H

  3. Places have power.


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