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