Wood Ducks

There are birds on the water. There are red wing blackbirds, and bluish swallows that dart and wheel crazily in the hard slice of the sun between mountains. Against the treed rim of the far shore, loons offer their wobbly cries. In the reeds there’s a thin gray poke of heron, mute and patient, and a pair of Canada Geese behind him.

It’s spring now, the turn of it out of winter slow and lazy, like the land is a bear, sluggish from sleep and unconvinced about motion. There’s a peacefulness to it that fills me. There’s something in this ballet of motion that kindles in me a fire that first burned a long, long time ago. A tribal fire, even though at first, I didn’t recognize it as that.

I was 11. I’d moved three times in the two years I’d been with my adopted family. I’d been in three schools, lived in three houses, learned to form friendships and lose them three separate times. We were settled in a rented farmhouse on three hundred acres in Bruce County in southwestern Ontario. I ached for permanence.

That first fall and winter I discovered the maple bush in the back forty. I went there to watch the colors change, to sit in the high branches of a big, old maple and see the gold, scarlet and orange emerge against the hard punch of blue through the branches.

When spring came the land was sogged with mud. I waited eagerly so I could get away and wander. I’d found a peacefulness there that filled me and I craved the solitude and the feel of the land around me. Being on the land had eased my fears and it was only there that I felt truly alive and free.

Finally, I was out. I saw woodchuck and fox kits, fawns, calves, and in the trees, the nesting activities of birds. I extended my range to the marsh that reached back from the old dam near the highway and flooded a low lying section of bush.

The water was about a foot and a half deep. With my gumboots on I could wander anywhere in that bayou-like stillness. There were muskrats there, water snakes and swimming creatures of all varieties crossing the marsh on their rounds. I learned to walk without disturbing the water, to sneak through the shadow silently, and that’s how I discovered the wood ducks.

They were the most beautiful creatures I had ever seen. The male was all green and purple, deep red, yellow and black. The female was a demure gray with white at her throat and bluish wings. When I first saw them they were sitting on a half submerged log and I stopped and stood stock still in the water. They swam within feet of me and I marveled at them.

They had a nest in the crotch of a rotted tree stump three feet off the water. I climbed a tree about ten yards away and looked down into it. There were eight eggs there and they were as beautiful as the parents, all tan and cream and quiet, and as I stood in that tree watching them I almost felt I could see them move, breathe in that opaque stillness.

I went back to that tree every day to watch those eggs and wait for them to hatch. They knew I was there but I was quiet and non-threatening and they came to accept me. I sat in that neighboring tree and kept vigil over those eggs.

Something happened to me there. Braced in a tree above a flooded bush, peering through shadow and hardly breathing, I came to fully occupy the space I was in for the very first time in my life. There was no need for things and stuff, no need of other people, no need for anything but that nest of eggs, the boggy smell of that place and the feeling that I only know today as perfection.

I watched those eight wood duck chicks hatch. They emerged one day in the late afternoon and I saw all of it. Days later I saw them drop the three feet to the water and begin to swim with their parents, as pure and natural as breathing. When I left them for the last time I didn’t feel the sense of departure I’d learned so well in my life. Instead, I felt joined to them.

Some things in life remain. Some things transcend the losses and leavings of our living. I found the essence of my tribal self in that tree above the nest and it never left me. When the time was right and I was ready, I emerged as a tribal person, as pure and natural as breathing.


Making Bannock

In the Ojibway world there’s two ways of doing things. One is the slow methodical Ojibway method and the other is the slow non-methodical Ojibway method. Either way works, it all boils down to the amount of anxiety you want to build into the process.

I learned this elemental science soon after I reconnected with my native family in 1978. I was gone for over 20 years. I had disappeared into the vortex of the foster care/adoption system and when I emerged I was citified, broken down some by the subtle racism of Canada and unprepared for life as an Ojibway man of 24. But Ojibway science reached out to save me.

See, my mother is the best bannock baker going. When her bread comes out of the oven every Indian in the bush comes running. It rises elegantly and the texture of it is spongy and soft and tastes golden like the colour of the crust. With jam or a thick smear of lard even and washed down with strong black tea, there’s nothing like it in the world.

She gave me some on my first visit home and I fell in love with it.

Anyway, I wanted to learn to bake it just like she did. She laughed when I told her. To my mother’s thinking, the thinking of a bush-raised woman, men didn’t bake but I was insistent and she undertook to teach me.

I’d been raised with the western science that called for precise measurements and a decisive experimental process. But what my mother taught me that day had nothing to do with grams and ounces, teaspoons or cups.

Instead she told me to take a couple handfuls of flour, a splat of lard, a splotch of baking powder, and a nip of salt. Then, swash it with milk or water, pat it about until it felt all warm and soft and bake it until it looks good. Then, once it was out of the oven you gave it an earnest slap to settle it all and left it on the counter to cool.

The whole splotch, splat, nip, slap process was odd — but it worked.

That first bannock was glorious. I watched it rise like a little boy with my face pressed to the glass. When it cooled enough to cut I sheared off enough for the two of us and sat down at the table and stared at it on my plate. It was the first Indian thing I’d ever done. It was the first event in my life that I could consciously remember that involved actual Indian teaching to get done.

It was the first time I had physically expressed myself as an Indian person and it was unforgettable.

When I tasted it I smiled. With marmalade and butter melted into it, my bannock was a rip roaring success and we shared it with my step-father and uncles who waited patiently in the living room. Standing there, watching the men of my lost family enjoy a tribal thing that I had created was as poignant a moment as I’ve ever had.

I still bake my bannock the same way after all these years. Friends marvel at my apparent non-methodical manner at the stove. I laugh and tell them its native science — and it is. My mother told me.

When I bake bannock these days I feel Ojibway. There’s something about the science of it, its apparent randomness, that evokes images of a bush life and an open fire and a lump of dough on a stick and a circle of people gathered about in community to share the fresh bread. There’s something about knowing that I hold an Ojibway skill, a part of our science, and that I can pass it on, that instills pride in me.

The process of baking bannock, whether it’s on the open fire or in the oven, is a reconnection experience every time. It’s a vital thing because it shows me that our culture is vital and alive. It’s enormous in its significance. And when the plate is passed around and there’s the usual lip-smacking-finger-licking compliments from non-native friends, I smile to think that our Indian science is still being shared. Unawares perhaps like it always has been, but shared nonetheless.

Oh sure, it’s an easy thing, something a child could do, but if it’s all you’ve got its huge. That’s what matters in the end. Passing it forward. Our cultural survival depends on passing on what we know no matter how small or how huge that might be. There’s always going to be someone, somewhere seeking to know themselves, seeking their identity in the sure small ways we do things.

That’s true for everybody, Indian or not. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure that out.

Stripping It Down

In the corner of our yard nearest the gravel road is an old wringer washer. It sits beneath a fir tree with its barrel filled with earth and dirt and sprouting flowers over the rim. Further back, near the front door, an old wagon wheel leans against a pine tree. Both of them hearken back to a simpler time. Rustic, some might say, but for me merely elegant and uncomplicated.

 When we came here we had to disassemble everything, strip away the clutter of life. A painting that seemed relevant in a city context suddenly became unnecessary here. Books that marked the footsteps in a cosmopolitan journey were rendered irrelevant by the presence of bears.

 It surprised us both, this abrupt introduction to the nature of stuff. It sits on our shelves, rests in our closets, nestles in our corners singing it histories. We come to need that voice. We come to believe that it defines us, gives us definition, offers scope to our living, our being here. But in the end, when you strip it away, it’s just stuff.

 Oh, there’s the usual accepted arrangement of things still. Along with the woodstove in the living room is a television, stereo, computers, furniture and we’ve held on to the art that retains its original frankness.

 It reminds me of my journey back to reclaiming my culture. In the beginning I thought that I needed a conglomeration of stuff to make me an Indian. I thought I had to live my life within an Indian motif, with native art, native books, native music and native fashion. So I collected roomfuls of stuff.

 But when I began to attend ceremony and was introduced to genuine traditional teachers I confronted a simplicity that astounded me. Everything in my world needed to be reflective of my identity. The teachers I found were nothing like that. Sometimes it was only the braids in their hair that bore any sense of the stamp of Indian-ness.

 I wondered about that. I wondered how you could be authentic without the signature. I wondered how you could be at peace with who you are without the trappings, the statements of being. So I asked.

 What I was told changed the way I live my life. I was told to gather a yard of cotton cloth, some ribbon, scissors and a can of tobacco. I was told to make this gathering my mission for one day. Then I was to find a quiet place, somewhere, perhaps, where I felt safe, secure, at peace. I was to go there with my gathered articles and sit.

 I was to ask myself why my question was important, why it was necessary that I move to knowledge, and more importantly, how it felt to not carry the answer. Once I’d discerned that, I was to cut a small square of cloth with the scissors, then take a pinch of the tobacco, place it in the cloth and tie it with ribbon.

 This small tobacco tie would symbolize my question and my emotional and spiritual need. With it I was to return to my teacher and offer the tobacco and ask for a teaching. Once the tobacco was accepted I could ask my question. It seemed odd, quaint, charming in a folksy kind of way. But I did it.

 All true learning requires sacrifice. That’s what the tobacco offering taught me in the end. That was the intent of the ritual. That’s why elders ask that you make that tobacco offering.

 In order to accomplish my quest for understanding I had to sacrifice my time and my money. I had to sacrifice my pride by confronting the truth of my unknowing. In the end I had to sacrifice my humility by asking.

 That ceremony stripped away all of the stuff that blocked me from myself. In the end it didn’t matter how I looked or what I wore. All that mattered was the nature of my question. All that mattered was how I felt about the answer. All that mattered was that I learned that it’s the stuff you carry within you that gives you definition, not what you own, collect or cling to.

 There is stuff that sings its histories in our lives. It sits in the corners of our being adding resonance to our living. It’s the stuff of our passages, our time here, the assembled chorus of our spirit. It’s the important stuff, the life altering, life affirming stuff.

 You have to learn to strip it down in order to hear it, to sacrifice. When you do you come to learn that what you need is far less than what you have, even what you desire and it frees you. I wouldn’t be less Indian by not knowing that – only less human.

The River Pike

 Rivers fascinate me. When I was a boy I loved nothing better than solitary wandering along their serpentine lengths, studying the water, searching the places where fish would lie, watching the creatures that lived there and laying on their banks lost in thought under the seemingly endless blue skies of boyhood.

Back then a river was an opportunity. Within it lay the fish of my dreams or the magic passage away from the world that had me snared. I was an unhappy kid. Only in solitude did I feel safe and only in the aloneness that the land and rivers represented could I find the freedom to dream and create.

In my adopted home there were no fishermen. There were no outdoorsmen. Camping for them was a travel trailer parked on a cultured lot with a convenience store a walk away, laundry facilities and public showers. So I fished alone. What I learned on those solitary jaunts I kept to myself. No one was interested anyway so they never knew how much of life and nature and the universe I learned on the banks of the rivers of my youth.

We camped beside a river once outside a southwestern Ontario town called Tara. There was an iron bridge over the river and I stood there reading the water. It was shallow and weedy and warm. There wasn’t much current. It didn’t look hopeful except for the clumps of lily pads dotting the surface whenever it got deep enough.

They laughed when I said I would fish it. But it didn’t matter. It was a river. I remember casting to different parts of it. I wandered about a mile and reeled in a few small bass. It excited me. Even as a kid I understood that the presence of small predator fish meant the presence of huge predator fish. Then I rounded a wide curve in the river where the current carved a long deep trench that was dark and promising.

There was fallen timber that was submerged and angled into the depths. I chose a bobber and a long leader that would allow me to drift my bait along the entire length of that trench about three feet deep just over the top of those fallen trees. My first casts came up empty.

But on the fourth cast I watched a long shadow glide out of the darkness and aim for my bait. It was enormous. When it took the hook it simply gulped it and swam off almost casually. But the weight of it arched my rod and when it felt that pressure the fish exploded. It felt like it would tear the rod right out of my hands and I back-pedaled to get a more secure footing.

That fish gave me the fight of a lifetime. It breached the water four or five times, jumping clear and rattling the bobber in the air. The splash it made when it landed was awesome. When it sounded, as it did a half dozen times, I could feel the weight of it like a truck pulling away. Reeling it in took forever and whenever it got close enough to the shore to see me it took off again.

I had to step into the river finally. I couldn’t lift it over the edge without snapping the line. Standing there, thigh deep in the water, lifting a fish far longer than my arm I felt totally alive. It was a pike. It was huge and as I removed the hook and it rested its weight against my other palm I knew I’d landed a monster. I shook with excitement.

But something happened to me there, something that’s taken years to fully understand. That fish was the biggest fish I ever caught but seeing it gulping at the water, straining for life, the power of it ebbing, the beauty of it already beginning to fade, I lowered it, let it rest in my hands and watched it swim away.

I never spoke of it even though they laughed when I came back empty handed. Instead, I ate supper silently and when I went to bed that night I thanked that fish for the challenge. They would have never understood. They would have never appreciated the enormity of that encounter or how sitting on the river bank, after it was over, I could cry and feel incredible joy all at the same time.

For me, that river pike was freedom in my hands. To keep it would have been to remove the possibility of magic from the world. When I chose to let it go I chose life and for the Indian that still lived in me then, it was honour and respect and love. They never would have gotten that either.

Finding Arcturus

Sometimes at night, I’ll stand outside our cabin in the mountains and lean my head back to look at the stars. Some nights the sky is so clear that looking upward across the heavens you could swear that you were suspended on a bed of stars just beyond your fingertips.

 I’ve always been a star gazer. I was always entranced by them. In the north where I spent the early part of my boyhood, the summer skies were clear and the northern lights often set the horizon ablaze in crackles and snaps of colour.

 It was the sheer size of it that awed me. I hadn’t read of light years or the rate of expansion of the universe or galactic clouds or even the Milky Way. Instead I was transfixed by the magnitude of something that far exceeded the scope of my one small life. Magic existed in the holes between stars. I could feel it.

 When I moved south after I was adopted at nine the sky was lessened by the harsh city lights and the stars seemed further away. It was a curious feeling – being lonely for the sky.

 There was a field down the street from where I lived. It was marked with orange plastic flags on wooden stakes for the development to come. But at night, it was wide and open and perfect for looking at stars. I’d sneak out and stand under that magnificent canopy and even though the light of them was dim and there were far fewer than I was used to, the stars eased me some, lightened my burden. It became my favourite place.

 One night a man showed me how to find Arcturus. He was a fellow star gazer. He lived down the street from us and even though we didn’t know each other’s name we knew each other from the field. We always just stood silently in that patch of open and looked at the sky.

 The night he showed me how to find Arcturus, the sky was as clear as I’d seen it there. He stood a few feet away with his face pointed up at the sky and asked me if I’d heard of it. When I said I hadn’t, he began to talk.

 Arcturus is called the Bear Watcher, he said, because it follows the Great Bear constellation around the poles. Arctis is Greek for bear and it’s where the word Arctic comes from. As a star Arcturus is 37 light years away from us and the third brightest star in the sky. He told me all that while looking up and away from me and I felt the awe in his words.

 He told me to look at the Big Dipper and when I found the star at the end of the handle to hold my arm up in front of my face, bend the three middle fingers of my hand in and put my little finger on that star. Where my thumb sat was Arcturus.

 When I did it I smiled. It was the first time the universe became reachable and the idea that the stars were indeed within reach was implanted in me forever. All through the years of my boyhood, whenever I felt particularly lonely I would hold out my arm, fold my fingers, find Arcturus and feel comforted.

 What that nameless man gave me that night was wonder. There were secrets everywhere but I could reveal them for myself if I had the desire to search. Soon I was reading everything I could about the universe. I learned about planets and nebulae, quarks and quasars, red giants, blue dwarfs and black holes and I learned Einsteins’s assertion that ‘my sense of god is my sense of wonder at the universe’.

 Years later when I sat in traditional circles and heard the elders and the storytellers talk about the sky and its wonders, they weren’t foreign ideas. Everyone shares that sense of mystery at the heavens. We just frame it in different ways. Magic exists in the holes between stars. We can feel it.

 We all need someone to offer us wonder. We all need someone to share the Great Mystery of the universe, to open it up for us and allow us to see into it, even a fraction. Then, when we discover it for ourselves, we need to offer it to others, no matter how simple or seemingly odd it might be. It’s how the world opens up for us. It’s how we learn to see possibility in a universe of change.

 Finding Arcturus is a simple thing to do. I still do it at 56 and each and every time it’s like that first time because, well, how often do you get to say you just discovered a star?

Small Ceremonies

I stand at the sink washing dishes. It’s one of the things that I do around our home that always feels like a ceremony. I can get meditative staring out the window at the lake and the mountain behind it and feeling the pull of the land all around me.

It’s a centering thing really, and something that’s come to be important to me. Right after we eat I get to it, putting things away, squaring things and washing everything up. It’s a pleasure that I like to do alone.

There’s something special about taking care of things. I wipe the counters and the stove, clean the floor, get the morning’s coffee ready and make sure the dog has food and water. They’re all very small acts but they mean something big. It’s the man taking care of his home.

Sure, it doesn’t sound very manly or very warrior-like but it is to me. I can stand and look out the window at the land around me and feel very good. I can feel very productive and engaged in the process of my home. Plus, it spares my wife the effort and there’s a satisfaction in turning away from a chore well done and knowing that things are set. It’s as essential an act in our scheme of things as chopping wood.

Sometimes, when there are friends around and the house is filled with talk and laughter and energy, I still retreat to the sink to take care of the duty. Oh sure, they volunteer to help and the talk is always good when they do and I enjoy the shared work but a part of me really loves the solitary feel of taking care of things.

There’s a tactile pleasure in the feel of soapy water on the wrists and forearms and small joys to be found in the clink of glasses, the clunk of pots and the rattle of utensils.

And it’s not just the dishes. I take care of the flower beds, saw and chop and stack the wood, tend to the fire, shovel snow, clean the gutters, vacuum, dust, mop and make sure the trash gets taken to the dump.

Manly? Maybe, maybe not, but I never really think about it. Instead, I go about the process of taking care of my home without gender issues or the feeling of being emasculated or being cast into male slavery. They’ve just become the things I do and I enjoy them.

Someone said to me once when I described some of the things I do around my home, “That’s not a very Native thing to do?” I wondered about that. I wondered whether when they laid out the plan for Native people whether they thought about life in 2012 and beyond. Here in our mountain community there’s not a lot of call for trapping, gill netting, hide scraping or even rock painting.

Instead, I took up photography a few years back. Compared to skinning a moose that’s not very Indian either. I’m capturing scenes and objects and shadow and light instead of game. I’m developing prints instead of following them. I press a shutter instead of a trigger and the shots I take leave everything I encounter alive and energized. But the act of taking pictures makes me feel empowered, creative and engaged with my life and my world.

Oh, and I learned to play a little piano too. Whoever said that there’s nothing black and white about First Nations reality never spent much time learning to play scales on a keyboard. For most Native people a key signature is what you have to do to get into the washroom at the Indian Affairs office. I worked at collage too for a while and loved the feel of working in visual art. Neither of those are very hunter-gatherer kinds of things but it doesn’t matter a whit to me.

See, what I’ve discovered is that when I do something that moves my spirit, when I feel alive when I do it, when it makes me feel good — it becomes an Indian thing to do by virtue of the Indian doing it. I feel creative, productive and human. I feel engaged in the process of discovering my own unique identity and when I do that I become a better man, a better person and better Ojibway in the process.                                  

So I’ll keep on doing dishes and cleaning house. I’ll keep on doing the things that move my spirit because that’s the real working definition of being spiritual. Doing what moves your spirit. When you find those things and do them you discover that you make everything a ceremony replete with all the small joyous rituals that are a part of it. A ceremony isn’t necessarily something you go to — it’s what you carry in you.

Nine Volt Heart

 I was given a radio when I was ten. It was an old General Electric transistor. It was brown with a vintage Fifties look and it was about the size of a pencil-case. The radio was a reward for doing the chores that were assigned to me in my adopted home. I’d been there about a year and the radio was the first thing I recall ever being able to call my own.

I took it everywhere with me. It sat beside me while I trimmed the hedges and weeded the flower beds. When I did my homework it sat within reach in case a favourite song came up and I even arranged a way to carry it in the handlebar basket of my bicycle. Every week, at allowance time, I ran to the corner store for the nine volt battery that kept it going.

I heard the Rolling Stones for the first time on that radio. I heard Curt Gowdy call the 1966 World Series between the Baltimore Orioles and the Los Angeles Dodgers.Chinadeveloped the H-bomb in 1967, the first heart transplant was performed in South Africa, the U.S began bombing Hanoi, Jayne Mansfield was killed in a car crash and Muhammad Ali lost the heavyweight title because he wouldn’t fight inVietnam. I heard all of that in that first year or so with that radio.

It was like the world came within my reach. I was a ten-year-old boy in a small Canadian city and there often didn’t feel like much going on. But that radio brought me the world and I came to see it as larger, more brilliant, complex and fuller.

But what I remember most were the nights. I would sit huddled beneath my sheets with a penlight and that old radio, turning the dial and searching out sounds from what seemed like an endless universe of sounds and writing down the frequencies so I would never lose them.

I discovered the blues out of Chicago, B.B. King, Ruth Brown, Big Joe Turner and the raspy, old-time sound of Robert Johnson. Another night I heard Lefty Frizzell, Bob Wills and The Texas Playboys and the high lonesome sound of traditional country music on a station out of Tennessee. It was the 1960s and I heard the great developing thunder of rock’n roll from Detroit and Cleveland, and deep in the purple midnight of my youth I heard jazz from Buffalo and Toronto and I learned the sound of jubilation, melancholy and a visceral, aching solemnity.

I heard Mahalia Jackson sing gospel late one night when the rain spattered against my window and my life was altered forever. Another night when the moon was full and the air didn’t seem to move at all, I heard Billie Holiday sing about the strange fruit hanging from trees in the southernU.S.A.and the loneliness and loss in that voice touched something inside me and I cried. And there is never a time when I hear Frank Sinatra sing In The Wee Small Hours of the Morning that I don’t return to my cave beneath the sheets and the awe I sat in that first time.

Everywhere I traveled on the dial of that little radio I encountered something that entered me. There were sounds and ideas, stories and images, people and places that my heart and ears had never experienced and because my life was sad then, I allowed the voice of that tiny General Electric radio to fill me and transport me. The nine volt heart that beat in me then was a heart clamoring for understanding, for inspiration and for a genuine connection to things.

That radio changed my world. It made it bigger. I was ten years old and my world had shrunk from the wilds of the north to a city in the south. There was nothing of the Indian world I remembered. There was nothing to give me a sense of myself except the nine volt heart that beat in me.

That old radio taught me that there’s more to the world than what I can see and that I owe it to myself to seek it out. It taught me that there’s an answer for every question and that salvation most often comes through the asking and the seeking rather than in the answers themselves. It taught me that I find myself in times of solitude, to seek that and make use of it.

But most importantly it taught me that there is more to me than I can see and that it’s only through allowing myself to explore, experience, taste, touch, hear and feel that I encounter myself — and that makes me a better man, a better person and in the end, a better Indian.