(Lent and Easter Reflection 2024, by the Rev. Mary Fontaine, Moderator, 2024 General Assembly)
Chanis, a girl of twelve summers, lay on the grass looking up at the clouds, pondering things as she waited for her mother and grandmother to call when they were ready to go. She had wrapped her baby brother in his waspsoon (moss bag cradle), and now he was fast asleep. Her people, the Nehiyawak, were leaving their summer camp for a journey to the Miyowasin (beautiful) Lake, where they would winter. The men were delayed from their hunting trip up north, and it was getting too late to wait for them. There was much to do to prepare for winter at Miyowasin Lake – the mudding of the log cabins, cutting the wood and preparing food for winter, so the elders had decided the night before to move camp without the protection of their warriors.
Chanis sensed that something was wrong. Why had her father and the hunters not returned last week? The elders didn’t tell the young ones that the other reason they decided to leave camp without the men was an underlying fear that the men might not return. Ever since their lands started being taken, farmers were putting up no trespassing signs. Some of their men who went on these lands to hunt had been shot. Some were put in jails, which were cabins, out on the prairies, where some of the men were locked up and left to starve and freeze to death.
The decision to leave without the men had not been easy for the elders. They knew the dangers of meeting unfriendly settlers or their relatives, the Kaskihtowak, who took every opportunity to do harm to them. At one time, the Kaskihtowak people and the Nehiyawak had been very close, hunting together and helping each other, but they had some serious disagreements and went their separate ways. Chanis wished it wasn’t like that. Even though the little battles for hunting territories with their relatives had pretty much stopped now, some continued to hunt wherever there were no farms. And this included the Kaskihtowak.
The men would know where to find them, the elders had said to Chanis and the other children. They would catch up on horseback with the wagons they left at the camp. Their warriors would catch up to help and protect them the rest of the way. It was late September, and the leaves had already been changing their colours to red and yellow, and the nights were getting colder.
They were going to the Miyowasin Lake because last year, the men had built log cabins there. The Indian agent had said the settlers wanted them to stay in one place now instead of travelling with the seasons. Chanis knew her people didn’t like this at all. They wanted to be free and live the way they always did, moving with nature and respecting Kitaskinow (our land). She wondered if the new people knew what it meant for people to live in one place for too long.
As she lay looking up at the sky, watching the clouds move along, she heard her mother call her. “Nitanis, sipwehtetan ekwa.” (My girl, let’s go now.) She lay motionless, taking in the sun’s rays and feeling its’ warmth on her face, for just another minute. She dreaded the nights along the way when they would set up camp each night and move on the next day. They had about seven days of walking ahead of them. She was glad for the three horses who would carry the heavy supplies, and if the elders and children got too tired or sick, the horses would pull them along in a travois.
She had prayed a silent prayer when Mosoom (grandpa) prayed with his peace pipe at dawn. She looked around at the vulnerable group of fifty-five women, children, elders and a few young men as they started out on their journey. She had been taught to have hope and to never give up. And as she turned to join the others ahead of her, she took her first step with hope for a good journey. As they walked, Chanis kept wondering about things even though she had been taught not to worry or think too much.
She planned to carry her little brother most of the way for her mother. She was proud of her mother and grandmother; they were such strong women. But some of the mosooms (grandfathers) and kokoms (grandmothers) were not well, and she wondered if they could make the journey.
She thought of the Miyowasin Lake and how they spent last winter there. It was close to the Mispiton (Elbow) River, so they could travel from there by canoe in the spring. There were lots of fish, moose, deer, and bush for firewood in that beautiful place. But it was kind of lonely without the ceremonies that used to bring them together with their other relatives. She had packed her few personal belongings, including her pow-wow dress, even though her mother told her she had to hide it from the Indian agent. She suddenly longed to be at that place by the Miyowasin Lake because she hoped that lots of relatives would come and live with them there. They could continue to have their pow-wows and sun dances. And her people and their relatives could live together and share everything as they did long ago.
“Chanis, ekosi nitanis, sipwetinan!” (Chanis, that’s enough, my girl, let’s go now.) Her mother’s voice had broken through her thoughts for a second time.
She quickly jumped up and hoisted her baby brother up on her back in his baby carrier. She looked at her people, those ahead of her and those behind her; the children still had lots of energy, and their laughter boosted her spirit of hope. She looked back, half expecting her father and the men to ride up behind them.
As they approached the hill, she was perspiring and already a bit tired. It was hard to sleep that night and the baby woke them up early. She fell to the back of the line for a way, then caught up again with her grandmother and her mother who each had packs on their backs. Talking with her mother and grandmother always gave her courage. That night they set up camp on the other side of the hill. She could hear the coyotes howling as she drifted off to sleep.
They had walked for three days and had started out for the next day when they came across some trouble. Riders from their Kaskihtowak relatives were spotted down the trail. To stay out of sight, they headed for the bushes, and that night, they found a dug-out cave on the side of the hill where the women and children stayed. There was no warm tent and no fire that night. There would be no warm tea or cooked food until they were safe again. They were fortunate that the Kaskihtowak riders had continued going in the other direction.
They found a place in the bush again the next night, with no fire to keep them warm. They had to eat the dry meat and the pimihkan (ground moose meat with fat and berries). The next day would be a challenge because they had to walk through the prairie with no trees to hide them.
At dawn, they heard a rider approaching their camp. It was their Chief all by himself! When he had found out they left the camp, he left immediately to check on them leaving the rest of the men to pack up and bring the moose meat, the wagons and the rest of the supplies. The people were relieved to hear that the men were okay. A few minutes later, they heard the distant thundering of hooves as the Kaskihtowak rode towards them. In a moment, their chief was on his horse, telling them to continue across the prairie, and he would meet them the next day across the river. Just as quickly, he rode off in full view of the Kaskihtowak relatives, who immediately turned to chase him.
Chanis cried out, “Mama, our chief – they are chasing him. He will never make it by himself. Nohkom (grandma), they will kill him. What can we do?” She wanted so desperately to get on a horse and ride out to help him. She would fight to the death for her chief! An elder reminded her, “If it’s his time, the Creator and the Spirit will take care of him, and if it’s not his time, the Creator and the Spirits will still take care of him.” We must wait, be strong and believe that it is not his time. The adults quickly and quietly prepared to leave, urging and encouraging the children to hurry.
They made it through the meadow and across the river to the other side that day, and at last, they stopped to camp for the night. There was no warm campfire again that night. They ate their trail food and sipped some cold muskeg tea and water. They built a lean-to to keep themselves camouflaged for the night. And finally, they huddled together in the cold to rest for the night. They waited in the darkness, anxious and hoping that they would see their chief riding up to their camp at dawn.
The elders took turns keeping watch. Most of the people couldn’t sleep as they waited, listening, hoping and praying that their chief and the men would arrive soon. They would dose off to sleep and be awakened by the slightest noise throughout the night. At dawn, there was no sign of their great chief. And no sign of the men with the wagons, horses and supplies. So, once again, they packed up and continued their journey.
That next night, people started to get cranky with each other and argued about lighting the campfire. Chanis and the other children were hungry and anxious, and some of the smaller children cried from being hungry for good food and from being tired. Chanis cried herself to sleep as she remembered her chief being chased to what seemed to her certain death. She tried to remain hopeful and expect her chief to come at dawn like the elders said, but it was hard to believe that. “He must really love his people to be willing to die for us like that.” With this encouraging thought, she finally fell asleep.
At dawn, she woke up to the wonderful sound of the words, “Takohtew! Wanskaak!” (He has arrived. Wake up!) What a beautiful sight to see their great Chief riding towards them with the men following behind him. They ran to greet him with tears of great joy and relief. The men told them how the Chief had let the Kaskihtowak relatives chase him for miles. He took them far away from his people. He had finally stopped his horse and walked into a little bush in the prairies. The Kaskihtowak had laughed at him, made fun of him for being so stupid for thinking he could hide in a little clump of bushes. Instead of going after him, they got off their horses and waited for him to come out. But, to their amazement, the only thing that finally emerged from the bush was a white buffalo. The Creator had transformed him. The Kaskihtowak were so afraid they got on their ponies and rode away as fast as they could.
Whatever would happen from now on, Chanis and her people did not know. But for now, they rested in the joy of knowing that their great Chief had arrived, and it was him and not the warriors who had saved them. They had walked for days and waited in hope and expectation for several cold, dark, thirsty and hungry nights. And finally, on this beautiful sunny morning, they celebrated their Chief’s arrival with great joy!
“We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another” (1 John 3:16).
We are all related. It is good to know and to love our relatives in the heavenly way. All my Relatives! Amen.