Thursday, October 20, 2016

paskwâwaskî in October--a book launch

pronghorn, courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood
Sitting on a hilltop last Saturday, watching spiders ballooning through the sky, and above them layers of birds on the move—snow geese in the depths of the blue, with a half dozen canvasback below them moving faster, and then a scattered flock of Lapland Longspurs, like sparks shooting out of a fire and across the whole scene—I thought of all the movement that happens in fall, even in our fragmented prairie world.

There are pronghorn right now slowly moving toward winter range across the medicine line. The Sage Grouse on private ranches near Grasslands National Park will soon do the same, if they haven’t left yet. Montana sage brush, high enough to stay exposed even when snows come deep, will help them survive to breed next spring. And overhead the great flocks of Sandhill Cranes are leaving the northern plains, following their ancient and venerable sky trails to river flats in Nebraska where they will linger as they have for millions of years before continuing south.
sandhill cranes on the move
These are the long truths of the prairie, not the wealth, fuel and roads that let me drive to hilltops and write about it, instead of cleaning out the barn or sorting potatoes the way my grandparents would have in October.

Prairie people once moved in fall too--sometimes by choice, sometimes by force. My mother remembers Metis families travelling down the Qu’Appelle valley at this time of year, stopping to rest at their farm at the mouth of the Kaposvar Creek. Her grandmother called them “gypsies,” after the caravans of Roma people she saw as a child in Scotland. Scottish and English immigrants arriving in the Eastern Qu’Appelle district in the 1880s were welcomed by the resident Metis, who knew well how to winter on the prairie. That first generation of settlers would not have survived without the aid and knowledge of the valley’s Indigenous settlers. What I would give to have been there and heard them talk to one another, across the barriers of language and culture.

Most of the Metis would have spoken Michif, their language blending Cree and French into a unique Indigenous tongue. For the Michif people, and perhaps for the people my mother saw passing by in the late 1930s, the valley was “îwâyatinâk,” the grassland was “paskwâwaskî,” the trail they traveled on by pony and ox-cart was “mîskanâs,” and the stream they rested at was “sîpîsis.”

There is something good about trying to say these words out loud (you can listen to audio samples here of the proper pronunciation), even if we mess up. Why? Because this language is old in the land and has its roots right here where the prairie meets the forests of the northern Plains. 
Norman Fleury teaching in Kamloops

As Michif elder, teacher, and language expert Norman Fleury says, “the Michif were Michif before Canada was Canada.” Norman, who traces his Michif lineage back six generations to this land, is featured in my latest book, Towards a Prairie Atonement (University of Regina Press--Regina launch info here), telling the story of his ancestors who lived, farmed, and hunted in a community of 250 Michif people on the Sand Plains near the confluence of the Qu’Appelle and Assiniboine Rivers, until they were told they had to leave in 1938.

Gypsies? No. People of the prairie, and proud survivors of every attempt to remove them from the land. 

If you are able, please join Norman and me and our host CBC's Stefani Langenegger on the evening of October 27th (Royal Saskatchewan Museum, 7 pm; admission free), when we will talk about the new book and the fierce bonds of the Michif to this part of the prairie.



    We must all stand with Standing Rock
    Special to The Globe and Mail
    Published Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2016 5:00AM EST


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