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.