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“IKWESENS, GEEYAWAAN! I KWESENS GEEYAWAAN! It’s a little girl! It’s a little girl!”
As the midwife held up the newborn baby for the happy mother, Mary Whiteduck, to see, the infant began to howl. That was the signal for Isaac, Mary’s husband, who had been nervously waiting outside the family cabin throughout the night, to push open the door and enter.
“A strong and healthy child,” the midwife told him. The beloved Anishinabe elder had been delivering babies at Cat Lake Indian Reserve in northern Ontario for as long as anyone could remember. “Someone to take care of you and Mary when you reach my age.”
The news travelled fast in the tiny settlement that spring morning in 1956 on the shore of Cat Lake, some one hundred and fifty miles upstream from the Albany river. Within minutes, relatives, friends and neighbours came to offer their congratulations, the men standing around outside the cabin to smoke their pipes and gossip and the women going in to drop off small gifts and admire the baby.
That evening, in honour of the addition to their community, everyone gathered around a campfire to laugh, tell stories, drink tea and eat country food—fish, game and berries harvested from the land. Several days later, a respected elder and long-standing friend of the family came to their home and, in a ceremony involving much meditation and prayer, named the baby Martha.
Four months later, the sky was filled with the cries of geese departing for the south, and Mary and Isaac prepared to join the annual fall exodus of families leaving for their traplines. Isaac finetuned the ancient, temperamental Johnson outboard motor, made some last-minute repairs to the family’s eighteen-foot square-stern freighter canoe, and loaded it with guns, axes, saws, traps, clothing and provisions. The couple closed the cabin where they spent their summers and said goodbye to the handful of people remaining behind, mainly the sick and elderly who would not be able to survive a hard winter on the land. They tucked their infant daughter into the beaded deerskin cradle bag of her tikinagan, the cradleboard that would serve her as baby carriage and crib for the first two years of her life, and took her on her first trip across Cat Lake and downstream to the small lake and trapping cabin that had been in Isaac’s family for generations.
Martha’s earliest years passed in a blur. Her first distinct memory was of playing on the shore in front of the family’s cabin in the bush when she was five. The wind changed direction, the sky grew black and great cracking sounds blasted out of the clouds followed by stunning flashes of light. She burst into tears and her laughing mother ran to pick her up and carry her inside just as the storm burst over their heads and giant raindrops swept across the water to soak them.
“Don’t be afraid, my daughter,” her mother said, as she removed her wet clothes and dried her off. “That was just the Thunderbird flapping his wings and shooting lightning bolts from his eyes. He does that when he is fighting his enemy, the giant water snake. Never forget that he’s a friend of the Anishinabe people, for he provides the rain for Mother Earth and all her creatures to drink.”
To cheer up her up, she added, “Now I’m going to tell you a story about Nanabush.”
Martha immediately stopped crying, for her mother had told her tales before about the exploits of this part-human, part-spirit son of the West Wind and grandson of Gitche Manitou, and she loved them. Some of them were serious, about how he helped the Anishinabe people by creating animals and plants for them to eat, and others made her laugh. Martha preferred the comical ones and her mother launched into a long, involved tale about the time he once invited the animals to a feast, and didn’t tell them until they arrived that they were the feast!
The little girl wasn’t sure the story was all that funny, especially if you were an animal, but she laughed just the same. In a visit some months later that would remain forever etched in her memory, friends of her parents came to their cabin at the time of the Great Moon, when the fiercest and coldest winter winds blow upon the land. After snowshoeing through the bush and across the frozen lakes from their home on a nearby trapline, they pushed open the door and entered, smiling broadly.
“Bojo! Bojo! Hello! Hello! We’ve come to visit. We were going crazy over at our place, with our kids away at residential school and never seeing anyone from one moon to another, and we decided to come see you!”
“Ahaaw! Ahaaw! Welcome! Welcome! What a pleasant surprise!” said Mary. “Take off your things and make yourselves comfortable. I’ll have some hot tea ready for you in a minute.”
The guests took off their parkas, unlaced and removed their moosehide boots, and settled down to relax on the bed. Isaac dug out his can of Old Chum pipe tobacco, and soon the two couples were sipping hot tea, smoking their pipes and gossiping.
As soon as she could, Mary excused herself and set about making supper.
“You’re in luck. I’ve got a rabbit stew already warming up on the back of the stove. We’ll have that with some bannock and fried fish.” With her kerchief holding her hair in place, she cheerfully mixed Robin Hood flour, Maple Leaf Tenderflake lard, Royal baking powder, Sifto salt and ice-cold lake water in a tin bowl to make fried bannock in a heavy, fire-blackened, cast iron frying pan. The first course prepared, she handed it around, encouraging everyone to eat it while it was still hot and greasy, and started work preparing a large, fresh pickerel she had caught that morning while ice-fishing.
“Let me help you,” the visiting wife said. “You shouldn’t have to do all that work yourself.”
“No, no, please sit down, you’re my guest,” Mary told her. “I can’t tell you how happy I am you’re here. The winter is so long and we never see anyone.”
Mary scaled, gutted and cleaned the fish, cut it into fillets and used the same pan to fry them in bubbling lard. When it was golden brown and crispy, she called everyone to the rough, handmade table and served a meal that Martha would never forget: rabbit stew, fried fish and more bannock on tin plates with mugs of sweetened tea and Carnation evaporated milk in a room lit by the soft yellow light of a coal oil lamp and smelling of freshly scraped and curing hides, wood smoke and pipe tobacco.
It was time to get down to some serious visiting and Martha climbed up on the always welcoming and comfortable lap of her father and listened attentively and quietly as the grown-ups talked. Beginning with the subject that interested them the most, the men engaged in some low-key bragging about how many beaver, marten, mink and muskrat they had trapped that winter. They moved on to talk about blizzards that had blown up when they were far from home, about shelters they had thrown together to ride out storms, about waking up in the mornings to dig themselves out into brilliant sunshine, and about fierce wolverines, pound for pound the most powerful animals in the bush, raiding their traplines, stealing bait, springing traps and never being caught.
“But no matter how tough things are for us now,” Isaac said, “things were worse for the ancestors before the arrival of the Hudson’s Bay Company. They had no market for their furs and no guns and axes and all the things we take for granted today. The summers when everyone got together would have been the best time of the year since there was fish to eat for the entire community at Cat Lake. But I don’t know how the families made it through the winters out in the bush all by themselves. Up here in the north, the people didn’t have any wild rice or maple sugar to store away like our cousins, the Anishinabe to the south. It would have been hard for the hunters to bring down enough moose and deer with their spears and bows and arrows in the deep snow to feed their families and they would have had to rely on rabbits, beaver, squirrels and any small game they could get their hands on. No wonder not many people lived more than thirty winters in those days.”
The women said nothing for a while and then asked the men whether they thought they would get enough money from the trader for their furs to pay their debts and outfit themselves for the next year. The men did not know and changed the subject to hunting. “I got two deer last fall,” said Isaac. “They were pretty skinny and we don’t have much meat left in our cache. I guess we’ll have to live on rabbits and fish. We could have a tough time feeding ourselves before we make it back home.”
“I’m okay this year,” said the visiting trapper. “Shot a big bull moose some time ago and have plenty of meat stored away. Last year it was a different story. Couldn’t get any big animals and it was a bad year for rabbits. When the thaw came, we had no meat left. I couldn’t even go fishing, the ice was so soft and dangerous. Thankfully, I stumbled across a bear that was still hibernating and it was easy to kill him. Sure saved the family from going hungry or even worse. I offered a sacrifice of tobacco and a prayer to its spirit master to be sure he wasn’t offended.”
Isaac reflected for some time on what had been said, and puffing studiously on his pipe, told an old story about someone from the reserve who had not paid proper attention to the rituals he was supposed to follow when he killed an animal for food. The spirit of the animal had become angry, he said, and had placed a curse on the hunter making it impossible for him to bring down other game and his family had starved.
“The old folks were right,” the visitor said, “when they said there were two worlds, the one we live in, and the Skyworld—the one we can’t see, where Nanabush lives with the spirits of the dead.
“I know some Anishinabe people today don’t agree with the old wisdom. But they’re mainly people who spend too much time mixing with whites and believe everything the missionaries tell them.”
“Those of us who live on the land know better,” said Isaac. “There are things out here that the people on the outside will never understand. I never feel alone because Gitche Manitou is present everywhere— in Mother Earth, Father Sky, Grandfather Sun, Grandmother Moon, the stars, the trees, the plants, the rain, the snow, the streams, the lakes, the trees and the rocks.”
“There’s something else. I’ve always thought the elders were right when they said the Anishinabe people were related to the animals.”
“I wonder what it’d be like to visit the Skyworld,” said the visitor.
“You’ll know soon enough when you die.”
“I mean, now, when I’m still alive.”
After several more puffs on his pipe, Isaac said, “Only the shamans had the power to travel to the Skyworld and come back alive. And the missionaries drove them away long ago. That’s too bad, because they helped people. If you were sick in your body or in your head, they could travel to the other world and find ways to cure you.”
“I’ve heard that,” said the visitor. “Did you know that the shamans were the people who painted those Thunderbirds, fish and animals on that rock wall on the other side of Cat Lake back home? Nobody wants to talk about it, but some of those pictures have great power. There’s one place, I bet you know it, where there’s a reddishbrown image of the ancestors paddling a canoe. It’s really spooky.”
“I know it,” said Isaac. “I believe you. I’ve been over there at night when I could’ve sworn I heard drumming coming from inside that rock wall. Gives you a strange feeling. I deal with it by putting tobacco in a crack in the wall under the canoe and by praying to Gitche Manitou whenever I pass by. Also helps with the fishing.” Several long months later, the lake in front of the cabin was black with rotten ice and the sky was filled with formations of honking Canada geese flying north. One night as she lay between her parents in bed, Martha heard the sound of the south wind in the black spruce trees, and her father murmuring to her mother, “It won’t be long now. It won’t be long now.”
When she got up in the morning, the ice was gone from the lake, and grey, cold waves were beating on the shore. It was time to return to the reserve. With Martha helping the best she could, her parents pushed the canoe into the water, loaded it with furs, utensils and other things they would need back at Cat Lake, and attached the old outboard motor to the stern. Martha took her place in the bow, her favourite spot, her mother settled down in the centre and her father took a seat beside the motor, his loaded gun beside him in case he came across game. As they always did when departing for the reserve in the spring, they left their cabin unlocked and stocked with supplies to help any lost hunter in need of shelter who happened by.
Two days later, after forcing their way upstream to Cat Lake, they saw the reserve off in the distance. As they neared the shore, friends and relatives who had already made it home from their winter homes in the bush came out of their cabins to greet them.
“How was the trapping?” “There are still a few families who haven’t made it back yet.”
“Martha, how big you’ve become!”
“Come and see us when you get settled.”
After unloading the canoe and moving into their summer cabin, Martha’s parents, their daughter in tow, visited the Hudson’s Bay Company store to sell their furs. Martha looked on as the trader, a white man, graded the winter’s take. He entered a figure in a big black book and winked at the little girl.
“Looks like your daddy did really well this year,” he said in broken Anishinaabemowin. “Maybe he’ll buy you a treat!”
Martha nodded her head solemnly, acknowledging the attention the trader was giving her. She knew him well for he had lived in the small community for as long as she could remember and had married a local woman. Although he could be gruff at times, he was well liked by everyone because he had made an effort to learn Anishinaabemowin and was good to his wife and children.
“Another season like that,” he said, turning to her father, “and you’ll be out of debt. Now have a good look around. I got lots of new stock. All the usual traps, guns, ammunition, fishing gear, axes, clothing and food. I’ve also got something else that should interest you. Some new Johnson outboard motors have come in. You could use one. That old piece of junk you’ve been using could break down completely and leave you stranded some day. Or worse. It could conk out when you’re in the rapids. You could get yourself killed! Whatdyasay?”
“Maybe another year,” said Isaac. “When I’ve paid off all my bills.”
“Look at these sultana raisins and dried fruit,” the man continued, ignoring Isaac’s comment. “My wife tells me they go really good mixed in bannock. Better get some now before I run out. Take anything you want. Your credit’s good here.”
Isaac poked around for a while in the tiny building that smelled of furs, coal oil and chewing tobacco, and picked out a small bag of hard candy.
“These are for you,” he said to his daughter. “We’ll come back later to stock up on food and other supplies for the winter.”
Spring turned into Martha’s last summer of innocence before she was sent off to residential school, and she experienced to the full the uninhibited joy of shouting and laughing with children she had not seen since the preceding fall. Every day, she ran, played tag and spent endless hours in the water swimming and splashing. At times, she joined her friends on canoe rides. Occasionally, an adult would take her with him when he went fishing. She was never home until after dark but her parents never worried.