24 December 2009

Day 27: The Inept Hunter

IIII ) llllll Day 27: The Inept Hunter (24Dec09)

To a non-Christian like myself, today marks the conclusion of the four-day winter solstice. When Naato’si comes into view at dawn tomorrow, he will begin his northward movement to bring the return of our summer. This solstice event was, of course, also recognized by the tribal authors of biblical mythology, and has been very significant to all people of the northern hemisphere who live/lived off the land. It is why the Sun of God is said to have been born to the Virgin Mary (the constellation Virgo, also known as the “House of Bread,” i.e. Bethlehem), under a bright star to the east (Sirius), and visited by the Three Kings (or belt-stars of the constellation Orion which, together with Sirius, point directly to sunrise on December 25th).

For several years now, we have been hoping to visit the a’kihtakssin known to archaeologists as “Sundial” during the winter solstice. This womb-like cairn has a very unique entry corridor that curves and opens to the south. Typically, in kitawahsinnoon, all lodge entrances face the sunrise, so it was hypothesized that perhaps the Sundial a’kihtakssin was connected to the winter solstice. I never put much faith in that proposition myself, because I didn’t see it reflected anywhere in songs or akaitapiitsinikssiistsi, the classic stories. My own hypothesis is that most if not all of the important a’kihtakssiistsi are positioned at the origin sites of bundles or ceremonies. But last year, while reviewing some written accounts of akaitapiitsinikssiistsi, I came across something very interesting in what Naato’siyinnipi told Walter McClintock during the late-1800s.

The old man was sharing the story of Sooa’tsaakii, Tailfeathers-Woman, who married a Starman, Ka’kato’siinaa. This was the origin of the Okaan, the culminating ceremony in Aako’kaatssin, and as Naato’siyinnipi relates, it was also the birth of Pawaksskii, or Scarface. If that’s the case, it means that Ksisskstaki Amopistaan, the Beaver Bundle, is older than Pawaksskii, because when Sooa’tsaakii came back to Earth with her infant son, root-digging stick, and instructions for putting up the Okaan, she wore a wreath of creeping juniper on her head. When she told the people that her baby was fathered by Ka’kato’siinaa, that her digging stick was transferred to her by Ko’komiki’somm (Moon), and that her juniper wreath came from Naato’si (Sun), the people just laughed at her. Nobody believed this crazy story, and they weren’t going to participate in the Okaan ceremony which she’d been instructed to host. Nobody, that is, except the Iiyaohkiimiksi. Those taking care of Beaver Bundles recognized Sooa’tsaakii’s experience as real and sacred. In typical Iiyaohkiimi fashion, they decided to help her gain the support of the public by transferring her something straight out of their Bundle, and thereby bringing her Okaan ceremony into the orthodox tradition. What they chose to give her was an elk headdress to replace her juniper wreath. The juniper circle would remain a part of the ceremony, but hidden within her private lodge, the okooyis, as a ring of sharp bedding along the inner perimeter. The headdress the Iiyaohkiimiksi gave had originally come from Ponokaakii, the virtuous Elk Woman, and was normally worn during the tobacco planting ceremonies. After the transfer, the tale of its elk origin became integrated with Sooa’tsaakii’s marriage story and all of it was played-out and renewed within Okaan. The headdress itself became widely known as Naatoa’s, the Sacred-Root, which Sooa’tsaakii had dug from the sky world. This root, also referred to as omahka’s (big-root), or fern-leaf desert parsley, is the principal smudge for the Naatoa’s, and the winter smudge for the Beaver Bundle. Although I’ve never heard it said, my thinking is that omahka’s was given to the Iiyaohkiimiksi to use as our winter smudge by Sooa’tsaakii herself, in exchange for supporting her with the transfer of the elk headdress.

Anyway, what really got me thinking was that in Naato’siyinnipi’s telling of the Sooa’tsaakii story, when she was let down from the sky, it was via a spider’s silk. Naato’si had instructed his son, the Starman who was husband to Soa’tsaakii, to bring her to the Spiderman’s house. From there, she was let down on a strand of web that the Spider held from its hand. Naato’siyinnipi said that the Spiderman’s house and hand were both represented by constellations in the sky, and that in order to truly understand them one had to pay attention to a’kihtakssiistsi, the stone cairns that had been built on the ground. The only constellation I’m aware of that is referred to as mo’tsis (hand) is Orion, and this is what most got my wheels spinning, because the wrist-stars of this constellation point to Sirius, the brightest star in the sky, and potentially the embodiment of Ka’kato’siinaa himself. Like in the Jesus mythology, the four stars together point to the winter solstice sunrise. Although I’d heard from nitakka Kiitokiiaapii that Sundial a’kihtakssin has something to do with Katoyiss, when we brought Stella Tallman to this site, she recognized it immediately as associated with the Okaan that she hosts today. Several others have noted parallels between the design of the cairn and both the Okaan and the womb. On top of this, just outside the entryway, there is a line of four satellites that could very well be representative of the wrist stars of mo’tsis and the Starman. When taking into consideration that omahka’s is our winter smudge, that the original headdress given by the Moon was a wreath of creeping juniper, and that such evergreens are associated with winter solstice ceremonies throughout much of the northern hemisphere, the evidence that Sundial has something to do with the solstice event seemed to be compounding.

That is why this morning, rather than procrastinating another year, Mahoney and I woke up before sunrise, braved snow drifts and cold temperatures, and made our way out to Sundial to greet the dawn. We climbed to the top of the hill where the cairn is situated just minutes before the first sliver of Naato’si could be seen above the horizon. From that moment until the Sun was in full view, we walked around the Sundial taking pictures, expecting to find some kind of alignments. There were none. The south-facing door of this a’kihtakssin does not open to the winter solstice, and neither do any of the satellites point to it. Naato’si and the Sundial spoke for themselves this morning, and let us know with no uncertainty that these much-visited hypotheses are off the mark. If we want to understand this place, we do indeed need to revisit aikaitapiitsinikssiistsi, the ceremonies and, as Naato’siyinnipi said, to relate these to the constellations. Could Sundial a’kihtakssin be the lodge of a funnel-weaving spider? Does it have anything to do with the Soa’tsaakii story at all? We are left, as usual, with more great questions, the answers to which, we’re sure, are right in front of our eyes.

Before leaving the hilltop to plow our way back through the snow, Mahoney and I fed the cairn some dry-meat I had in my pocket and spoke to Naato’si, that we and our friends and family might grow from our efforts, and that we’d continue to have a good winter. Then we went home.

For the rest of the day, Mahoney busied herself cooking our solstice dinner of turkey, cranberries, yams, cheese and broccoli. It’s the same delicious fare we have annually, but through Project Niitaowahsin it will have to change for next year. Though we’ll still be able to get local turkey, or perhaps a goose or pheasant, the other dishes will need to be reformulated to reflect an Oldman Watershed derivation.

While Mahoney cooked, I went to walk Akaiinikawaahkoyi. Over the last two weeks, I’d passed many of the daylight hours (and some of the night) in this coulee, attempting to hunt and trap, to feed our project, and to journal the whole experience. Unfortunately though, the MobileWord file I was accruing on my BlackBerry went corrupt and, for the most part, I’d been unsuccessful at my mission anyway. The only meat I’d come home with thus far was a porcupine, and in the process of chasing deer I’d only managed to lose a few of my expensive arrows in the snow.

Killing the porcupine had bothered me somewhat. It was high up in the forest canopy when I shot it, and the first arrow did not bring it down. Instead, the animal flicked its tail in agony, trying to dislodge the projectile. I then shot again and put the next arrow straight through its chest. The porcupine stood, grasped the shaft with its fore-paws, and plummeted to the snow below. There, blood spilling from its chest, it continued to struggle in pain until I caved-in its skull with several whacks of a heavy branch. In my mind’s eye, such a direct shot from my bow would have ended this animal’s life instantly. But that was not the case. As I hit it with the branch, I looked into its eyes… the same kind of warm kai’skaahp eyes Mahoney and I had exchanged familiar gazes with so many times in our learning at the pond. Now these eyes registered panic, disbelief, resistance. The first whack from my branch swelled and closed these terrible eyes, the next couple ended its life.

I gutted the surprisingly heavy porcupine on the spot, then brought it home and completed the butchering in our basement. I kept the hide, full of quills that we will now be able to contribute toward a refashioning of the amazingly crafted scalplock shirts that are soon to be brought on loan from the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. In that sense, the porcupine’s death will serve more than just the early fulfillment of our personal project. But in respect to the latter, we have since cooked and eaten porcupine stew and shanks. The meat is delicious and red, much like lamb. And when it came to eating, the moral struggle I’d gone through to bring this animal into our bodies seemed to lose some of its edge. Clearly, it takes life to feed life, and I remain confident in my resolve that feeding only from the Oldman Watershed is, in the larger picture, a very important endeavor. It is only through such a turn in consumptive practices that we will truly come to know, embody, and appreciate the non-human residents of this place, and learn how to live with them again in a sustainable way.

Some Niitsitapi claim there is an ancient taboo against eating the pawed, clawed, and feathered animals of kitawahsinnoon. My understanding is that such beliefs can be traced back to very specific protocols that are to be followed by caretakers of certain bundles. For instance, a taboo against eating swans in one instance has now been extended to include all waterfowl, and to be abided by all members of the community. This kind of generalization has built to the point where people would rather eat chicken eggs than the duck and goose eggs served at our ksisskstaki passkaan. A similar phenomenon has occurred with an extension of a rabbit-eating taboo associated with a certain bundle, to now encompass all small mammals and, again, all members of the community. Yet when I explore the interviews and recordings of elders from earlier generations, I find that even the most respected caretakers of the bundles describe hunting, trapping, and eating porcupine, rabbit, muskrat, ground squirrels, fish, all manner of waterfowl, even blackbirds. To me it seems foolish to believe that people of the past fed only on hoofed animals, berries, and one or two kinds of tuber, as many today would insist. The diet of those who really knew kitawahsinnoon was incredibly diverse. I’m glad that at least some of the elders of the past were recorded, so that we have a better sense today of their relationships to this place and its inhabitants. But there is still so much we must relearn from scratch.

And so it is that Mahoney and I continue to visit the pond and river-coulees near our home, that we have used this experience to renew aspects of the Beaver Bundle ceremonies, as well as to inform the phenology curriculum being shared with students of Kainai Studies, and that we are now taking on this challenge to strengthen our relationship to our sources of sustenance or food. My fear, however, is that in the process of learning to accept the food kitawahsinnoon offers, we might lose the sense of inquiry that has kept us engaged in the lives and dramas of so many non-humans over the past years. During the last two weeks, for instance, as I traveled to the coulees to practice hunting and trapping, I found I no longer had time to pay attention to some of the activities going on around me, to engage in the dialog with all the plants and animals that I so enjoy and learn from. So far this winter, we’ve only twice went to the open-water crags on the river to watch the geese assemble at twilight. I’ve not bothered to try to track coyotes in the snow, to learn the locations of their dens, as I’d intended. Nor have we kept much a watch on the beaver and muskrat lodges. We need to cultivate a better balance. So this afternoon, when I went to the coulee, it was with just such an intention in mind. Could I carry out my activities from Project Niitaowahsin while still responding to the learning opportunities around me? The following are the notes I wrote during the visit:

1130 Akaiinikawaahkoyi - After returning from our dawn visit to Sundial, Mahoney set to work preparing our solstice dinner while I made my way down into the coulee to check the snares and take more photographs for the opening phenology lectures next semester

1213 On arrival, just as I started down the slope, a skinny coyote (almost mistaken for a fox) passed by just below me. I suspect it is the same one who howled its way to the top a few mornings ago, following the movement of the geese from their night roost at the open water crags, up to the stubble-fields to feed on what little green shoots are exposed. The coyote looked at me, then stopped to defecate before moving along the same trail the earlier one had taken. I would like to pursue it, to watch how it hunts the geese, or to learn where it keeps its den. But I've got other work to do

1219 There are a few mule deer grazing out on the sagebrush flats, kai'skaahp is feeding on a cottonwood branch at the forest edge, and I can see and hear magpies soaring here and there between the trees. I climb into the chokecherry brush on the flats to find my sling-snare has not been tripped. In fact, it’s covered over with fresh snow, and rabbit tracks show they've gone by it unmolested. There are few signs of visits by the pheasants or partridge who I originally set this trap for. But I retrieve it from the snow and lay it out anew anyway. I also set a regular drag-snare along one of the heavily used rabbit runs. I'm getting fast at making these drag snares, though not a one has produced anything all week

1230 Before leaving the sage flats, I take pictures of yarrow, gumweed, and of course big sagebrush. Then I move to the forest to look at the porcupine. The tree it's in is growing on the slope of the first cutbank dropping into the floodplain proper. Below the tree, I can see by its tracks in the snow that the porcupine travels directly along the line of this cutbank slope, at its base, where it passes mostly under protection of clumps of large, scraggly willows and young trees. Curiously, these willow clumps (possibly diamond?) seem to grow along just the slope of this cutbank, while ten meters away, where the land rises again into the next echelon of forest, that slope (less steep) is populated largely by bulberry. The deer travel the open channel or dip between the two

1237 The sound of a freezing, snapping limb in the forest draws my attention, and in that direction I see a second kai'skaahp. The two are within view of one another. This second one is on a much lower branch, and it is a smaller animal. I suspect it is one of this-year's young, and I delight in being able to photograph it with what is probably its parent in the background

1253 I leave the young one and move back beneath the larger animal. There is a bit of temptation to knock this older one down for more delicious porcupine shanks. But seeing the two here together, I haven't the heart to cause such trauma. Instead, I satisfy myself taking pictures of the tracks, scats, and a dropped cottonwood cutting, the latter of which I also collect the buds from, having in mind the notion of attempting to make the famed heal-all balm later in the season

1258 I follow the cutbank below the porcupine downriver, toward the dense rabbit-willow thickets where I have other snares. I notice that as I get toward the end of this oxbow, where there is sometimes standing-water after intense flood years, the bulberry brush disappears, and the large willow clumps grow throughout. Further along still, they too disappear, leaving the banks empty of all but the trees, and rabbit-willow takes-over in the channel between

1314 A deer trail leads me up from the end of this channel onto a grassy flat low on the coulee slope. It is the location of my make-shift drop-box trap with which I've hoped to capture pheasants or partridge. What I find instead is that it has been visited by a long-tailed mouse of some sort, possibly a deer mouse. All of the grain and raisins I'd set as bait are gone, with just a few little rodent turds left in their place. So I pile on more of this feed mix. If it is only to fatten the mice and voles, so be it. That's part of giving back

1335 From there I moved down into the rabbit-willow thickets, where I'd set two drag-snares for mountain cottontails. Not much meat to sikaaatsisttaa, I know, but I need to learn the skill. And this fact is all the more apparent when I find the tracks of one such small rabbit passing unharmed right through my first snare. I couldn't believe it. I'd set them too large. Right away I tightened things up, then placed a third drag-snare for good measure

1344 While setting this new snare, I could hear the geese in agitation somewhere upstream. So I walked to the river, and then out onto the ice, where I could move swiftly in their direction. The same open crag of last winter, by the old ksisskstakioyis under the cliff swallow steeps, is here again. Once on the river, I see three awatoyi feeding, it seems, right off the top of the new ksisskstakioyis. The goose noise has let-off, and they are somewhere around the bend upriver. I continue in that direction none-the-less, intent on learning what the awatoyi were up to

1354 Arriving at the ksisskstakioyis, I find the deer had been eating scouring rush. Also, there is a highway of long-tailed mouse tracks running to and from the lodge. I follow one of these trails, hoping to find out what they've been coming out to feed on. It leads perhaps fifty meters from the ksisskstakioyis. Along that route, I see no evidence of them clipping plants or gathering seeds. What I do find, however are access ports to several means into the subnivian zone

1421 I decide then to follow a deer trail back toward the forest, through thick sweetclover. I'm trying to get at an area of flotsom, perfect sikaaatsisttaa habitat, where I've placed a couple more snares. These, I have no confidence, will have worked. I now know that I've been setting them too large. But I need to adjust them. Off I trek through the sweetclover and sometimes substantial drifts. It's a workout, and I'm hot enough that I have to open my jacket for fear of growing too damp from sweat. When I get to the flotsom, just as predicted, neither of my snares have worked, though the rabbits have passed in and around them. I tighten them and, just as before, set a third one up for good measure

1433 I then continue moving upriver, but now I walk within the first line of trees in the forest. From here I can see both the river, with its absence of geese at the next open crag, and the inter-forest meadow where I have my little survival shelter. This is the home of the mule deer, and seeing me enter they rise and walk slowly away. Where before they would allow me to come surprisingly near, they now recognize me as a potential predator and keep their distance. There is also, on the next higher eschelon of the floodplain, amidst the buckbrush, a lone whitetail doe. She too moves away, but not as quickly as I'd expect. I haven't seen any bucks of either species down here all week

1441 The last thing I check before leaving the forest is a stump that's held an active mouse nest in a cavity during previous years. This winter, though there is what appears to be fresh canary grass and deer hair in the hollow, it's not as packed as before. In addition, there are no mouse trails leading to and from the stump. My suspicion is that this dorm has been abandoned

1456 I then began making my way up the slow incline that would take me back to the truck. I stopped briefly toward the bottom of the slope, in the hawthorn brambles, to tighten up the snares I'd situated there for omahkaaatsisttaa. There's evidence of a lot of rabbit activity there, but none have taken the routes that would lead them through my traps

1514 It's hard work climbing the coulee slopes any time of year, but especially in the snow. I see very little of note on my way up - coyote, rabbit, vole, mouse and pheasant tracks, the same three mule deer still grazing on the sagebrush flats below. I love the look of the sumac in winter, leafless and scraggly. Or the occasional rosebud at the tip of its stem, just above the snow. By the time I reach the top, I've worked up an appetite for Mahoney's dinner, and am very ready to be home for the evening