28 July 2008

The Lost Ruins Of Ninaistako

llll ) lllllllllllllllllllllllll The Lost Ruins Of Ninaistako…

Akainaa lives on the hilltop above One Spot ki Dipping Vat Coulees. From his kitchen window, we look out over most of kainaissksaahoyi, eating our boiled eggs with bacon, ki sipping on strong niita’paisiksikimi. The dawn light is just settling upon omiistsi miistakiistsi, ki from our vantage point we can see hundreds of miles of their expanse. Ninaistako seems just a stone’s throw away. High up the valley of its southern flank there is said to be a small compound, the ruins of a misplaced pueblo constructed a few hundred years ago by people from far to the south. They came here to escape Spanish conquest. Akainaa remembers hearing the story from his grandfather, of the strange intruders who rode ponokaomitaiksi, elk-dogs, the first horses any niitsitapii had ever seen, ki of how their small settlement was easily routed both by exposure to the unexpectedly harsh winters ki by the raids of those more familiar with this land, who wanted ponokaomitaiksi for themselves.

It’s hard to say how many generations may have passed since these ruins were last visited. No one alive today has seen them, ki many would dismiss the story outright, having never heard it from their own grandparents. This history may have been forgotten altogether were it not for the technology of satellite imagery, which I first encountered almost twenty years ago in Army intelligence, now available to any household with an internet connection. The ruins were one of the first things akainaa searched for when Google Earth came online. Scanning high up in the valley south of ninaistako, an image came forth of a clearing in the forest, surrounding a pool of spring water. In the northeast quadrant of this clearing, lines suggestive of man-made structures were clearly visible. One of our elders, Makoyiipokaa, noticed something more. “It’s omahkitapii,” he told us, “Bigfoot. That water is his mouth. That dark spot is his eyes. You go up there, you be sure to leave an offering.” Planning for an expedition began.

We finish our eggs ki bacon, akainaa ki niisto, ki load up in my little truck for the drive across the border ki up to the base camp east of ninaistako. Each of us would carry the minimal gear necessary for our overnight hike. In my pack there is a sleeping bag, self-inflating mat, small tarp, parachute line, two canteens, a mess kit, freeze-dried food ki Power Bars, a little fishing kit, waterproof matches, a flashlight, change of clothes, light parka, machete, ki my camera. It didn’t seem like much, but as we sling our packs over our shoulders at base camp ki begin the ascent toward ninaistako ki the long ridge beyond, I realize the extra weight will take some getting used to. It’s been years since I’ve undertaken a hike like this.

The first half of our day is invigorating. The mountain foliage is so vivid, gorged with life, ki there is a spectacular view from our alpine heights. Just below us is the wooded rise where Charcoal hid-out from the mounted police, ki far off in the distance the porcupine hills that he would ride to on horseback during overnight flights that our best riders today would be hard-pressed to duplicate. We can see akainaa’s winter camp in the timber limits, ki the reservoirs for both the Waterton ki St. Mary’s Rivers, Duck Lake, ki all of kainaissksaahkoyi.

A cool breeze whisks away our sweat when we stop to rest, which we do frequently, having all day to trek the twenty or so miles up the valley to our site. Each break allows us an opportunity for reflection, noting the grandeur of the land we inhabit, our gratitude for having gained employment that allows us opportunities to stay connected to such places, ki regret that so few of our friends ki relatives take similar advantage of the unique opportunities available to us. Already, we are planning future expeditions for our students, tossing around curriculum ideas about stories ki practices we might be able to share with them in week-long sojourns along this route. Akainaa diligently photographs of some of the plants that could be introduced as part of an ethnobotanic component of these sessions. At one point, just on the north side of ninaistako, we walk up on a small number bighorn sheep. They are young bucks, feeding, ki don’t seem to mind our presence among them. Other than this, the only wildlife we encounter are small birds, ki the occasional marmot basking in the rocks.

There are lessons all around us… stories of ninaistako itself, from the ancient time when naapii ki the animals gathered on its peak to escape the floods, to its history as iitaitsiiyiiso’p, a site for vision questing. Indeed, as we round the north side of the mountain, we pass dozens of colourful offerings tied in the trees, ki numerous stone beds where people have fasted ki slept in search of spiritual guidance. Away on the south face of ninaistako, we know, is the cave-home of ksiistsikomiipi’kssi, the thunderbird who once stole a human woman ki hid her in boughs of katoyiss. Ki it was to this location that aapai’stoo, the white raven, from his home on Crowsnest Mountain, sent two mai’stoiksi to battle ksiistsikomm in an event that would define the seasons of kitawahsinnoon ki bring about the first transfer of ninnaimsskaahkoyinnimaan.

Rarely do we have a defined trail to follow. These miistakiistsi, as beautiful as they may be, are unforgiving. Navigating through them, one is at all times either balancing over boulders, trudging along shifting slopes of shale scree, or pushing through stabbing forests of deadwood undergrowth. By the time we near our destination, the miles of precarious footwork have taken their toll. My legs are fairly played-out, ki I continue to stagger forward by momentum alone… like a toddler learning to take its first steps, or a boxer near to collapse. The willpower is there to continue, but the muscles are barely keeping me upright. I figure akainaa is feeling similarly fatigued, because he stumbles more ki more often as we push along. Still, he seems to be doing better than me.

When finally we reach the tree-line above our destination, we split-up to enter the forest in search of the clearing. After a couple of false identifications of smaller clearnings, is akainaa who finds the one we’ve sought, an alpine lakebed, dried with exception of a small spring pool. The clearing is full of grey ki white shale, but no rock walls, no ruins remain where they appeared to be on the satellite imagery. For a moment, we wonder whether it is the right clearing at all. Maybe we needed to search further in. We decide to ditch our packs at this likely location, ki split-up once more, trekking out in opposite directions to confirm that there are no similar clearings in the vicinity. Akainaa heads further up the valley, knowing from our Google map that there is a creek not too far away, ki that if he reaches it he’s gone too far. I move down toward the valley floor, following the dry route of the run-off that would drain away from the lakebed to feed the headwaters of a niitahtaa. Both of us go as far as our respective water sources, finding nothing that would suggest our identification of the clearing was off-base. Reuniting at the lakebed, we compare what we are seeing with the images we’d downloaded from Google Earth. The shape ki dimensions of the clearing are a match in every respect, but for the absence of the walls. Had they been toppled to create the shale rubble that remained? Had it been simply a glitch in the imagery, an odd pixilation causing us to see structure where there was none?

We didn’t have any more time to worry about it. Naato’si had already descended from visibility in the west, ki we would not have light available much longer. We set up our camp on a grassy bank beside the spring, where there is a mud-flat wide enough that we could make a sizeable fire without concern for the integrity of the surrounding forests. We gather wood ki water, start our fire, ki cook a pot of mixed bison chilli ki beef stew. By nightfall, we lay our sleeping-bags out on the grass. I use my inflatable mat, ki akainaa the green boughs of katoyiss. All around our camp are game trails leading to the spring… deer, ponokaiksi, kiaayoiksi. We drink a couple pots of tea ki mark our territory in a circle around the camp. Akainaa sets out dry branches on the trails leading to our sleeping area, so that we will be alerted in the night by anything coming our way. In our final hour by the firelight, akainaa beats time with a stick ki sings some of the old-time songs he knows, commenting between each round about how few young people bother to learn to sing these days. Knowing only the naatoyinihkssiistsi for nitomopistaan, I regret that I don’t have anything to contribute.

Neither of us sleeps well. We’re warm enough, to be sure. But the tea we’d drunk in the evening keeps us hopping in ki out of bed all night, ki the nearly-full face of ko’komiki’somm casts our clearing in a dim, wakeful light. I’m first out of the sack at dawn, but find myself in considerable pain. The stress on my lower back after my legs had played out the day before caused my muscles to seize-up overnight. It takes a while before I’m able to stand up straight ki begin moving around, gathering more wood to feed the morning fire. The way my back feels, I would like to make the decision then ki there to stay put another night in that clearing, let my muscles settle down, ki trek out when I feel better again. But the plan had been just to overnight it, ki I know that if I don’t report in by evening, piipiiaakii will likely have search ki rescue coming up the valley for us by next morning. No rest for the crippled. We’ll have to march out right away.

It isn’t long before akainaa crawls out of the sack, grinning from ear to ear when he sees how stiff I am, seventeen years his junior. We cook up a can of corned-beef for breakfast, ki wash it down with instant coffee. All the while, I’m hoping my back will loosen up before we finish eating, but it doesn’t. Just before hitting the trail, we decide to take one last scan around the surrounding forest, to see if we can find any signs of the ruins we’ve come so far in search of. We figure the best place to look will be in the highlands just east of the clearing. It’s an area that would be relatively safe from flooding, as well as clear from rock falls coming off the surrounding miistakiistsi. Sure enough, we only just breach the treeline when we come upon a wall of rock about four feet high, grown over with moss, grass, ki katoyiistsi. Akainaa pulls back some moss ki earth to expose a wall made partially with bedrock, raised higher by tightly fitted stones. This wall runs about ten yards eastward, then takes a ninety-degree turn to the south, where it seems to form a chamber of roughly ten by fifteen meters that’s clear of trees. From this position, similar walls can be seen in the immediate area.

We may have found what we came looking for after all. Unfortunately, I’m in too much pain to really enjoy it, ki maintain instead a concern that we’ll need to start walking soon in order to make it back out of the valley before nightfall. We take a number of pictures of the chamber we’ve found, ki of the one rock wall akainaa exposed, then set off downhill, following the dry gully that I’d walked the previous evening. Where this gully meets with the narrow niitahtaa that courses down the valley, we encounter an odd stone cairn, about three feet high ki eight meters long, constructed with round cobbles rather than the jagged mountain rock that’s so much more prolific in the area. This will be another site we’ll have to return to in a future visit. Perhaps, we speculate, it holds the remains of those who lived in the ruined settlement.

Our plan for the day is to follow game trails alongside anni niitahtaa as it moves down the valley, ki to either cut up the south slope under ninaistako to base camp, or just continue following the valley out to the highway, where we can catch a ride back to our vehicle. We’re tired of stumbling along rocky slopes, ki believe the riverside route might be more forgiving. We’re wrong.

From morning to mid-day, we push ki shove ki crawl our way through the dense deadwood underbrush. Each time we think we’ve found a good trail, it leads us only to more obstacles. At one point, we come to a cliff that stretches from one side of the valley to the other. Our only option is to find a smaller drop from which to lower first our packs ki then ourselves down with ropes. It’s a brutal journey, punctuated by the beauty of waterfalls ki alpine meadows that simply can’t be enjoyed any other way.

What began as an intellectual mission only a day before quickly transforms today into a kind of passage through the re-discovery of our own bodies, both their strengths ki limitations. Ki we begin to discuss how this encounter with koistominnoonistsi comprises another form of “learning from place” that our students desperately need exposure to. Had akainaa ki niisto not carried with us each a background of prior experience in successfully negotiating various outdoor ordeals, it is likely we would underestimate our true abilities. In other words, we would not have the confidence to know that, despite whatever barriers we might encounter, we could walk out of there.

We’d both seen it before. In fact, just a couple years ago I’d brought three students out to climb ninaistako, young men, two of whom were in far better physical shape than myself. All three gave up at various points of the ascent, leaving only myself to place the offering we’d brought on top of the mountain. These students quit not out of respect for ninaistako itself, as aitapissko, a place with a strong spiritual presence… which I might have appreciated. Rather, they seemed to succumb to a mixture of fatigue ki its associated fear. Now, it’s true that there are real dangers in climbing miistakiistsi, in hiking ki camping the backcountry, in negotiating along or across certain waters, etc. A wrong move in any of these contexts might bring swift ki traumatic injury, or worse. Ki some would argue, for instance, that my students, in turning back, perceived their personal limitations ki wisely elected to quit prematurely rather than subject themselves to potential bodily harm. But on the other hand, there are situations we all encounter in life, often at unexpected or inopportune moments, where our survivability is tested. It is at these moments when a habit of retreat or avoidance can prove every bit as deadly. Ironically, the only way to ensure that one will be meet a life or death challenge with composure ki confidence is to occasionally hazard this darkness in training.

Akainaa ki niisto both agree that our students would benefit from the cultivation self-assured knowledge that comes through time spent in the isolation of our local backcountry. Here, a day or two of walking can carry one far beyond the range of cell phone towers, into a region so vast ki unpopulated that the possibility of swift rescue is very slim indeed. Here, the sublime beauty of nature can – as quick as a heartbeat – be morphed psychologically into a nightmarish landscape of predators ki impossible obstacles. In the past, our young men were all ritually compelled to face this darkness through the practice of aitsiiyiiso’p, a minimal four-night isolation of fasting ki thirsting in places far removed from other human beings… sites known, rather, to be frequented by both wildlife ki ghosts. Ki it was through their experiences in these places that they would acquire the gifts that might help them successfully negotiate the kinds of life ki death trials that can befall any of us in the perceived safety of our everyday lives. Moreover, the self-assured confidence gained through passage of these ritualized ordeals is beneficial for the whole of our community in a variety of mundane ways. We always need the leadership of those for whom phrases like “I can’t” or “we have to be realistic” are less familiar. While the compulsive exercise of aitsiiyiiso’p itself might not be popularly received in the context of our formal education system – it being retained today in the community as a “personal choice”, i.e. matter of religious preference – we could conceivably put it out there as an option, ki otherwise skirt nearer the experience by hosting week-long sojourns into the backcountry with a minimal number of students in various seasons.

Conversing about these ideas as we fight our way down the valley, akainaa ki niisto eventually reach the upper lake, ki there find a trail maintained by Glacier Park that makes our hike for the remainder of the day considerably less treacherous. Still, my back muscles are seizing. My feet are damp with sweat, swollen, ki aching. My eyes sting from sweat. For some hours as we move along the upper lake, then the lower lake, then along the trail beyond, we’re in what akainaa aptly calls “survival mode”. All we know is that we have to keep moving, despite what our bodies desire. Each time we sit down for a breather, there’s a real danger that we’ll pass-out on the trailside ki not wake up again until late in the evening. It’s a lucky thing that we’re both in decent shape, ki well-accustomed to pushing through such exhaustion. It’s hard to imagine anyone else we work with being able to withstand such an ordeal. Ki if we had gone out in a party of three or four, instead of just the two of us, it’s unlikely we would have been able to make it in ki out in two days.

It had been a mistake not to plan for a longer excursion. We could have used an extra day at the site of the ruins. Ki there were other things we’d hoped to accomplish along the route, in terms of collecting plant photographs ki samples for our ethnobotany curriculum, as well as roots ki other items useful to ceremony. We do take some photographs… but there is a lot more we could achieve if we had just a day or two more to work with. All the same, the expedition has not in any sense been a failure. We’ve located the ruins that were the primary objective of this exercise. Moreover, though, we’re able to renew a knowledge about ourselves that neither of us has visited for awhile. We realize that the hardships of simple movement through rugged territory brings about its own lessons ki rewards, extremely beneficial for personal ki community development. Ki as we hike along the final stretch, a dirt road that winds out of the forest ki through a cattle pasture, we’re already envisioning our return… the possibility of spending more time at the ruins, ki of testing a curriculum of hunting, fishing, gathering, construction of survival shelters, ki other traditional practices. This, we figure, we must ensure to accomplish before the fall weather sets in.

It’s a tremendous relief when we finally catch site of the highway, ki its slow but steady tourist traffic running between Babb ki Waterton. Akainaa catches a signal with his cell phone ki calls opiitaam, Tamara, to come pick us up at roadside. We lay there, in the shadows of trees, dozing off ki gazing at passing cars, until she arrives. Then, after picking up my little truck again, the three of us travel down to St. Mary’s for dinner. The food is good, but I don’t enjoy it. Something about the log cabin we’re sitting in makes me feel claustrophobic. I think it’s the stale air. Already, I miss being outside ki exposed. Driving home, I put all my windows down to invite the wind.

14 July 2008

Of Memory Repression

llll ( lllllllllll Of Memory Repression…

A strange thing happened while we were visiting niksisst in the Valley Willamma. We were sitting out on her front deck one evening, sipping siksikimi with brandy, just chatting. Somehow we began discussing sta’aoiksi, a topic that is not at all unusual in conversation with niksisst, who has encountered many in her lifetime. Most recently, she had been hearing the pitter-patter of ferret feet on her wood floors, visitations from her friend pookaa who passed-on during misamsootaa. In fact, the first evening we arrived at ookoowa, I heard them too, ki knew exactly what the sound was, but decided to keep it to myself so as not to remind niksisst of her loss.

In any case, we’re talking about sta’aoiksi, ki piipiiaakii pitches me a lead by saying, “Ryan had an experience recently….” I smiled, trying to recall what she might be referring to, hoping that she’d continue in my stead. She did, but merely with another clue meant to trigger my memory. Aaniiwa, “It almost caused us to drive off the road.” Yes, I thought, there was something like this that happened recently. Only I couldn’t quite remember what it was. There was an awkward silence, as the aakiiksi waited for me to tell the story. When it became clear that I wasn’t going to speak, that I’d perhaps somehow forgotten, piipiiaakii pushed onward. “We were driving down University Boulevard at night, just over by our house. All the sudden Ryan jerked the wheel to one side. He said he’d seen a man run angrily from the sidewalk toward the driver-side window, then disappear.”

It was true. I remembered. There had been a night when we’d driven down University Boulevard, although for what purpose I haven’t a clue. And there had been a man who ran at my window. Once he disappeared, I recall having considered to myself that the man might be the sta’ao of someone who had died on that ridge in the famous battle between niitsitapikoaiksi ki sinaikoaiksi in 1870. Although his exact appearance was vague to me then ki now, I sensed that he was akaitapiwa. The whole incident happened very quickly, we moved on down the road, ki apparently I brushed it off.

Now, one would think that something like this – seeing a sta’ao - would leave a lasting impression. But that’s what I find so odd. Why had I forgotten about the incident? Why is it that I still can’t recall what we were doing, where we were going down University Boulevard that evening. It wasn’t very long ago, just a matter of weeks. In a way, this whole thing reminds me of experiences typical of many paapao’kaanistsi. I wake up, often not remembering what I’ve just dreamed. I go on with my morning ki something might trigger me to recall certain aspects. Yet there are always other aspects of the same paapao’kaanistsi I can never retrieve. Although I do use some memory techniques to capture what I can, there’s an extent to which I’ve become accustomed to this amnesia with my sleep life. Sometimes even the most interesting paapao’kaanistsi can lose clarity or evaporate completely upon waking. But I’ve never had this happen to me in just such a way when I was conscious. What does this mean? Ki the fact that I could gain recall again, but only once someone else relayed the experience back to me. Would this suggest that our paapao’kaanistsi are similarly retained, but that we just can’t access them because there’s nobody else, no witnesses, to offer us the keys?

09 July 2008

Willamma Niitahtaa

llll ) llllll Willamma Niitahtaa…

Tsitapoohpinnaan saatoohtsi. Piipiiaakii, ohkomaakii, ki niisto. Traveling the familiar mohsokoyi in a rental car. Past the white blooming beargrass of miistakiistsi. Along the west shores of kootainai omahksikimi. Down through hills ki valleys, following the silver niitahtaa where we once saw a bald eagle catch an enormous trout. Past earthy, desert whirlwinds to the gorge of the Columbia, ever more green as we approach its spillway. Ki finally, up the Valley Willamma to niksisst ookoowa, her modest little place beneath the Chemawa water-tower.

It has become ritualistic, my visits here, returning in sequence to certain sites of youth’s memory. Surveying transformations that found shape in my absence. Absorbing all of the familiar ki comforting textures of sound ki smell. The air is thicker here than I remember, the wooded hillsides dim beneath a mask of blue haze. All is much damper. The sidewalks feel almost spongy beneath my bare feet.

In the dawn, I drive past the home that my parents lost in their recent separation. It bears new paint, mocha. The rocks ki ferns that line the drive are still in their old order, as is the lawn I used to tread. Last summer, my return to this place was painful, throat-tightening, grieving. Now this sensation is gone altogether. Whatever part of me was connected there is no longer.

I move on, across the trestle, over the ancient lakebed toward omahksiistsisa, the elderly pacific madrone that captivated so much of my attention. Around its base are the fields I walked, in the shade of old-growth forests now so thinned. This is where I used to speak to ayinnimaa, pleading for guidance, following her call ki flight to locate my own understandings, my own spirituality. Here I’m reminded of how all things change. Omahksiistsisa is dead, standing but shrivelled as a corpse. The ayinnimaa I’d known is gone, succeeded by her off-spring, who greet me soundly. I follow this child of ayinnimaa to the old fir tree, to the same tunnel through the forest that I was shown last year, emerging in a meadow beside the single okonoki bush, its berries just ripened. This brief journey is a mirror of my life path, a reflection of where it has taken me today. It’s magical. Ki when I taste of the berries, I’m assured once more that the presence of omahksiistsisa ki ayinnimaa remain with me, as shadows who have merged into a new form on my trail. Their present shape, I’m soon to appreciate, has been realized in paahtsiiksistsikomm.

The connection, the linkage, the union of omahksiistsisa ki ayinnimaa in the body of paahtsiiksistsikomm becomes conscious for me the following morning, as I sit in a clump of short but pungent mint, beside an oxbow of the Willamma niitahtaa. Bullfrogs groan their throatys songs all around me, orange-colored deer retreat quietly into the brush. The fish I used to catch here splash on the surface of otherwise still waters, one after another. But I am not the only one who watches them. Above, circling in wide arches that encompass both the slough ki mi niitahtaa, are paahtsiiksistsikommiksi. I count at least three, perhaps four of them, gliding silently on the wind. My presence does not bother them. They dive repeatedly into the waters before me, each time coming up with talons empty. Why are they missing their mark, such stealthy birds? What are they trying to tell me?

There is something happening between nottaka ki paahtsiiksistsikomm. This was apparent from nimaanipaapao’kaan, the aggrieved young man leaving me to become allied to this powerful bird, its brilliant white paint across its forehead. Ki its identification as paahtsiiksistsikomm was something clarified in my recent visit to omahkaatoyiikimi, as it soared back ki forth past my position on the shore. But annohk, on the banks of the Willamma, further possibilities begin to dance in my thoughts, drawing an association to a much earlier paapao’kaan, from the first years of my marriage to piipiiaakii… when I encountered ayinnimaa sitting on a low, bowed branch of omahksiistsisa. She was silver, metallic, looking over her shoulder, her back to me. She spread her tailfeathers in a fan ki told me, not with words but with telepathic clarity, that I should pluck one ki give it to nitana. When I took the tailfeather out, it transformed in my hand, becoming again the familiar orange ki red-striped feather she’d given me years before, in my youth, ki which I still carried. After waking from this paapao’kaan, I had sought interpretation from mi’ksskimm, who read it as a gift offered by ksiistsikommiipi’kssii, the transference of misamipaitapiiyssin to ohkomaakii, that she might live similarly long as that ancient tree. Ki so I gave her my feather, ki she carries it still today. Mi’ksskimm may have been right about the gift being offered, but perhaps not so much the benefactor. Even the name paahtsiiksistsikomm speaks to this, the one who is mistaken for thunder.

It’s a mystery why some things are not better understood until years later or, in this case, nearly a decade. But unlike so many past coalescence experiences of this sort, the sudden recognition of nipaapao’kaan having foretold a mergence of omahksiistsisa ki ayinnimaa in the form of paahtsiiksistsikomm did not at all bring clarification to my understanding. Rather, it left me even more scattered, full of unresolved questions. Ki foremost of these, what was it that - like paahtsiiksistsikomm with the fish - I was failing to catch?

Normally, I might be bothered by such loose ends, dangling out of reach. But this occasion feels different. There’s potential here, promise. Renewal. Throughout the remainder of my visit in the Valley Willamma, ki at all of the places where I sought remembrance – from the cascading waterfalls deep in the rainforests, to the tide pool shores of the Pacific, along the stream overhung with exposed roots where my grandfathers’ remains were laid to rest, ki at every stage of our return route to kitawahsinnoon – paahtsiiksistsikomm was there. For me, these encounters indicate that I have successfully passed through an era of spiritual growth, ki have now emerged from the dark mouth of this tunnel, into the meadow. Okonokiistsi growing from the earth beside me. Paahtsiiksistsikomm soaring above. That I do not know what this really means or where the journey will take me next is only natural, but I’ve developed the patience ki awareness now to thoroughly enjoy whatever may be in store.