24 October 2008

Nitsitayo'kaa Paahtomahksikimi

llll ) llllllllllllllllllllll Nitsitayo’kaa Paahtomahksikimi

It’s been five sleeps since piipiiaakii and I closed our bundle in recognition of the migration of pi’kssiiksi that is underway, and therefore the arrival of sstoyii. For the past few seasons, we’ve hosted our ceremony at paahtomahksikimi, the origin site of amopistaan. Positioning this event in the mountains requires a bit more preparatory work than if we were to have it right at our house. Because of the travel involved, we do our sweat two days prior to the ceremony, and throw our tipi up at the same time, leaving piipiiaakii a day in between to do her cooking back at home while I continue preparing the camp. We also rely on those family and friends who have transfers from our bundle to help us make the move. Without their assistance, it would be impossible.

This time around, I slept alone at our lodge for two nights before the ceremony. I stayed pretty busy during the days, and then enjoyed the peacefulness of the nights for both sleep and contemplation. On both evenings, I didn’t get my fire started until well after dark, when the moon was already out. One thing I noticed both nights was that, as soon as I got a good flame going, the makoyiiksi would start to howl. Then I wouldn’t hear them again until much later. I’d been told different stories about these makoyiiksi. Some of the biologists at paahtomahksikimi informed ki’naksaapo’p and I that they were absent for many years, and only recently returned on their own accord from over the mountains. But I’d also heard there were a few hold-outs who stayed here all along, and in particular a black wolf that was sighted on occasion. One biologist confided to my friend kiitokiiaapii that there was a pack of makoyiiksi purposely reintroduced by the parks a few years back, and that this group had adopted the black wolf right away as one of their alpha members… which makes sense, because he was already familiar with the area. In any event, when I heard these wolves howl each night as my lodge started glowing, I began to wonder if maybe they somehow recognized what they were witnessing. Certainly I recognized their voices right away, so distinct from dogs and coyotes. Is it too difficult to believe that they, in turn, might have retained a memory of human presence here as it was in the past?

This thought prompted me to reflect also on my approach so far with a phenology project I’ve taken up as part of Kainai Studies curriculum development. In the interests of being able to more efficiently cull through data later on, I’ve been trying to keep just a simple record of observations, and perhaps questions that could be addressed to advance my knowledge of the patterns and behaviors I’ve been noting. In other words, I’ve been trying to keep things very objective and to the point. There’s nothing wrong with an approach like that. However, when someone merely records his or her observations as “data”, as I have been, in a detached manner, part of what they’re trying to do is conceal narrative aspects of their experience. Western science does this all the time, using objectification and quantification as a means to imply that they are dealing with THE facts of the matter in an unbiased and impersonal way, so that they can eventually arrive at THE true account of any given phenomena, as if there can be only one accurate explanation. I personally don’t believe that’s possible, and I don’t want to feed that agenda. Out among the howling makoyiiksi, I became determined to switch to a more familiar method of record-keeping that will hopefully allow for greater recognition of the specific narratives that I live by, and which inform my observations. Namely, the same kind of free-flow journal writing I’m using here.

Perhaps this change is just an issue of aesthetics, but I believe it goes deeper than that. After all, there’s a big difference between a perspective that views knowledge as something resulting solely from careful observation of THE facts, on one hand, and conceptions of knowledge as something gifted to human beings through exchanges and alliances with non-humans on the other. On occasion, both pursuits may arrive at similar (or at least equally valuable) understandings of the mechanics of a given phenomena. However, what is then done with the knowledge gained, how it becomes applied, is entirely different. I’ll give an example. During one of the days at paahtomahksikimi, having completed my chores for the morning, I decided to cross the water and explore the peninsula and wetlands. I brought along my video camera and did an impression of Survivorman, introducing a number of edible and medicinal plants I found in abundance out there – niistsiikopa’s, wild chives, parsley, licorice, maaniikapi, bulrush, buffalo grass. There was a lot. I also noted an absence of the large flocks of sa’aiksi that I’d been seeing down on the prairie lakes, as well as the presence of other animals, like ponokaiksi (a whole herd of which passed through eating buffalo grass) and kiaayoiksi. Anyway, walking around out there, and talking about these things on camera, I realized that while I may perceive that I know something about many of these others, and while I may even call on them in ceremony, I don’t really live by them. I don’t allow them to contribute significantly to sustaining my life. I don’t rely on them. Like so many others, I have separated my life into two different aspects, the spiritual and the mundane. As a result, maybe I don’t really know these others at all. All the plants and animals at paahtomahsikimi, as a human being what is my responsibility in relation to them?

Kainai phenology should be about aokakio’ssin, being aware. That’s crucial. If we’re unaware of the identities and ways-of-life of the others in our environment, then we will not notice when their behaviours become peculiar, i.e. when they are giving us warnings or insights into wider events unfolding around us. To this effect, being oblivious to those in our environment is dangerous. But that’s really only part of the picture. We also need to be thinking about ecology, which speaks to relationships between members of a shared environment. This too is an important aspect of our phenology. In order to truly understand the gifts that have been passed down to us in the form of naatowa’pii, for instance, we need to learn how the animals used them in their interactions with one another. Moreover, we need to appreciate the responsibilities inherent in their exchange of these gifts with us. Are they meant to be the garnish of our lives, the fancy things on the side of our plate that we rarely eat? Or were they given to us as principal forms of sustenance, in order that we would become adapted to this place? Are we living up to our end of these relationships? Its one thing to be oblivious and unaware, quite another to recognize certain obligations and yet go right on ignoring them.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that, while at paahtomahksikimi, I was reminded that recording daily observations of others in our environment is important, but that it’s also not enough. This winter, as I continue along with the phenology study, building both a practice and a curriculum, I hope to shift my approach, not only toward a style of record-keeping that better reflects the narratives guiding this project, but also in terms of ecological context, and particularly my own engagement in eco-relationships.

09 October 2008


llll ) lllllll Akainnaissko

I walk along the coulee rim above the confluence of isski’taiitahtaa and naapisisahtaa, not far from nookoowa, quietly observing an expanse of poplar forest in the flood plains below, gold and red in its fall colors. It’s easy to imagine what this place would have looked like in the past, with smoke-tinged lodges nestled into the forest meadows and kids playing at the river. Every time I come here, I think to myself about how nice it would be to do something down in the poplar flats, put up our tipi and camp here for a couple weeks, get to know the place as a resident instead of just an occasional visitor.

You couldn’t tell from the look of it, but this place holds a bit of dark history too. Its well within the bounds of an area referred to as akainnaissko, the place of many deaths. And from where I’m standing, I can almost see the neighboring flat, just over a ridge and across the river, where Healy and Hamilton set up their whisky trade post in the winter of 1870. It was the same winter as the Baker Massacre. Fort Hamilton, was what they first called it, but the post soon became known more widely as Whoop-Up. During the following summer, I’m sure a lot of people camped in the trees right below where I’m standing, just as they probably had forever. But that year, and for a few years after, this wasn’t such a happy place. The traders offered a single jug of whisky for every buffalo hide. And for some reason beyond my comprehension, the people went for it. Over a period of only four years, Hamilton and Healy were able to acquire nearly eighty-thousand Blackfoot-tanned buffalo robes. It’s a big number. Far greater than what was traded by the Crow, Gros Ventre, and Assiniboine combined. But still, not nearly as devastating as the three-million one-hundred and fifty-seven thousand buffalo hides taken by white hunters further downriver during the same years.

Although it’s important not to forget about the events of that era, and to keep telling the stories of akainnaissko, to me the history in this stretch of the river is far richer and more positive. Whenever I come here, I’m very conscious of how this place connects the north and south lodges of kitawahsinnoon, through the confluence of isski’taiitahtaa and naapisisahtaa. To me, it’s no wonder that factions from all of the confederacy came here to camp together after the Baker Massacre. Iitainnaihtsiiyo’p. This is a place where many relationships have been defined, and agreements made about how to co-exist. That’s why, in the winter of 1871, we made treaty with the Pend d’Oreilles and Kootenay at this site. The rivers connect lands that bind people together.

Another aspect of this place that’s important for me are the ones that live here. Omahksisttsiiksiinaiksi, ksisskstakiiksi, otsipiiistsi, miisinsskiiksi, issikotoyiiksi, mi’kaniki’soyiiksi, the list could go on. These are the ones I come to visit here.

Like the bears, omahksisttsiiksiinaiksi are getting forced into smaller and smaller bits of land each year. And when they stray out of these reserves, people kill them on sight. I don’t know how many snake stories I’ve heard people tell, but the ending’s almost always the same… “I ran it over” or “I hit it with the shovel” or “I picked it up by its tail and whipped it, cracking its back”. These are some of the oldest living species on earth we’re talking about, and people think it’s heroic to kill them. If they were meant to be eliminated, Naato’si wouldn’t have let them continue on, and Katoyiss wouldn’t have allowed the one pregnant female escape. There are very few beings alive today whose power is so obvious that we immediately tremble in their presence. We should respond to that power with respect, rather than blind fear.

I’ve never had any problem with pitsiiksiinaiksi, and maybe that’s why the ones who stay here showed me where they live. Now each spring and fall I take a walk down here, when they’re all gathered at their winter den. In a space not bigger than your average living room there are several abandoned gopher holes that the omahksisttsiiksiinaiksi have taken residence in. I’ve never got an accurate count of how many members there are in this particular family I visit, but I’d estimate at least two dozen. They range in age and size from little babies that aren’t even as big as a garter snake to the elders with rattles as big as my index finger. They’re always here in matsiyikkapisaiki’somm (frog moon), and then again in awakaasiiki’somm (deer moon).

Each time I visit omahksisttsiiksiinaiksi, there’s a new lesson, something to think about. Today, as I walk up to their main door – the largest of their den holes – I find three adults and two babies sunning themselves. When they see me approach, I make a tobacco offering. As I speak, they each in turn slip down into the hole, going in order from youngest to eldest. About three minutes later, one of the smaller adults emerges again, returning to her original position in the sun beside the den. I assume she is female, because as soon as she’s seated comfortably a larger snake comes out and lays on top of her. I think this is her husband, and that he takes this position in order to protect her. Both of them are comfortable with my presence, otherwise they wouldn’t come back out with me so close by. But they never leave caution entirely behind. He shields her with his body, and whenever I move around too much, they rattle their tales to remind me of where they’re sitting, so I don’t accidentally step on them. I know their rattling isn’t hostile, because I’ve witnessed other snakes in the past, and when they’re preparing to strike, you definitely know it. Their entire stance will change in one lightning-fast and audible snap, all their muscles tense, and they pull their head back, ready to launch forward and bite. These snakes aren’t doing that. They’re just casually coiled on their sunning site.

I slowly take a step to my right, and don’t even know that my foot is beside another small adult snake sitting under some sagebrush until it rattles and moves out of my way. This is how it is when I come here. I try move carefully, because they’re so camouflaged, and they extend equal caution by alerting me when I’ve come too close, or making themselves known if they intend to approach me. Neither myself nor the snakes are agitated. They can read my emotions very accurately, and I believe they can also send thoughts into my mind. But if I get scared, they’ll get scared. Last spring, I demonstrated this to Piipiiaakii. She wanted to come down with me to visit the omahksisttsiiksiinaiksi. When we got near their home, I told her to walk really slowly, stopping and looking with each step. I also warned her not to panic when we reached the den. I knew I couldn’t stop her from being afraid, but if she panicked and tried to get away quickly then it would get dangerous. I think Piipiiaakii had the impression that I was being a little too cautious, until we arrived at the main door, and she met my friends face to face. She was able to stand there with them for a few minutes, but she was pretty scared. The snakes could sense this, as I’d predicted, and when her fear didn’t subside after a few minutes they passed a message along amongst one another. First one began to rattle, then another, and within a few seconds the whole area around us was buzzing. This was enough for Piipiiaakii. She was starting to worry that she’d pass out and fall down on the ground amongst them. So before absolute panic set in, I led us slowly out of the den area, back to the trail up the coulee to our car. About an hour later, I returned to the den, just to make sure there were no hard feelings.

I make an effort not to be a nuisance to omahksisttsiiksiinaiksi. I stop in to see them at the den a couple times a year, but I don’t bother them for too long at any one visit. Usually, they have something to show me, a quick lesson, and then I’m on my way. I’ve considered sleeping out there on a couple occasions, to see if they’d transfer me something. It feels like I have an open invitation from them to do so. But I’m not sure that even I’d have the guts to stay overnight amongst them. On a few occasions, some of these snakes have tried to approach me, coming right up to my feet. I always start wondering, What will I do if they wrap themselves around my legs and then become agitated? I’m pretty sure, with the ones that have approached me, that I could pick them up and they wouldn’t mind. But I haven’t been willing to test that theory.

For me, part of why I come out here is that it’s just reassuring to find them back at the den as the seasons turn from hot to cold and back again. I like to see that there’s new generations being born, and that the old timers have made it through another season. I hope that one of these summers in the future, I’ll be able to take the time to follow one or two of them through their whole annual round. I know that in the past there were people like Calf Robe who had even closer affiliations with these snake families. I think if we were living in the coulees, as they did back then, and had our children there, then people might appreciate why it’s important to have someone who’s allied to omahksisttsiiksiinaiksi. It’s part of aokakio’ssin, to be aware of where these ones are bedding and hunting during the warm seasons, so that neither of us gets hurt.

After I visit omahksisttsiiksiinaiksi, and know where they’re at, then I can move more freely throughout the rest of the coulee. And this is what I do. I go to the snakes, and then I take my walk to visit with the others who live here. I like to see who’s around, and what they’re doing. On this particular occasion, I notice that while most of the plants have dried up, there’s still some that have remained green. Among them, saa’kssoyaa’tsis. A lot of people call this plant “poison ivy” and caution against ever touching it. But they’re mistaken. There is poison ivy down here, but it’s an entirely different plant (and it happens to still be green as well). Saa’kssoyaa’tsis is actually stinging nettle. It has little barbs all over its stem and under its leaves, and when they get in your skin, they sting and itch, but only briefly. That’s why people think its poison ivy. But really, saa’kssoyaa’tsis has a lot of uses, and if you know how to handle it, you can collect it with your bare hands and never get stung. This is one of the strongest forms of natural hemp in our region. If you take a bundle of these plants and hang them up to dry, the barbs shrivel right up and can’t penetrate your skin. Even wet, they won’t break through the tougher skin of your palm. When you have a dried bundle can strip of the leaves, which make a nice strong tea, and keep the stems. Those dry stems, you crunch them up and pull all the woody stuff off them. What remains is a really strong fiber that can be twisted up into twine and rope. Across the mountains, this is what people used for making nets, fishing lines, all kinds of things. It doesn’t wear-down easy.

Something else I notice, as I’m making my rounds in the poplar flat, is the absence of mi’kaniki’soyiiksi, red-shafted flickers. The last time I was here, there were lots of them around. They’re part of amopistaanistsi. When young guys were going into a dangerous situation, especially for war, they might have one of these birds transferred to them from an iiyaohkiimi, and they’d wear it tied to their hair. Mi’kaniki’soyiiksi are able to quickly hop from one side of a tree trunk to the other. So too a young warrior, wearing mi’kaniki’soyi, would be able to quickly dodge the enemy’s arrows.

After I walk among the poplar, I head down to the river. There I find a new ksisskstakioyis, one that wasn’t here last time I came. It’s built into the bank, but extends far out into a deep pool that I usually swim in on warm days. Coming across this new lodge, it really hits home how long I’ve been absent from this place. I hadn’t bothered to come down here since the omahksisttsiiksiinaiksi emerged last spring. I’d completely missed-out on all of the developments of summer, including the opportunity to watch this ksisskstaki family build their new house.

Why hadn’t I bothered to come down here? What had been so important that it kept me unaware of these events unfolding in one of my favourite places? All the way back up the coulee-side, I contemplated these questions and quietly critiqued the manner in which we schedule our lives. We spend so much time indoors, disconnected from the ecology of kitawahsinnoon. Wouldn’t it be better to conduct our indoor activities in the evenings, or during the seven moons of winter? Wouldn’t it be preferable to set aside our jobs and classrooms, at least during the daylight of our summer months, to engage in a renewal of our relationships with place? We work relentlessly on so many of the wrong things, and it’s hurting us. I’m reminded of these lyrics from a poem sung by John Trudell:

Drenched in possession,

What we take is hard to do,

What we do is hard to take