Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication
Waldron, Juliet, author
Fly away snow goose = Nits’it’ah golika xah / by Juliet Waldron and John
(Canadian historical brides ; book 8)
Issued in print and electronic formats.
ISBN 978-1-77299-458-2 (softcover).—ISBN 978-1-77299-455-1 (EPUB).—
ISBN 978-1-77299-456-8 (Kindle).—ISBN 978-1-77299-457-5 (PDF)
I. Wisdomkeeper, John, author II. Title.
III. Series: Canadian historical
brides ; bk. 8
BWL Publishing Inc. (“Books We Love”) dedicates the Canadian Historical Brides series to the immigrants, male and female who left their homes and families, crossed oceans and endured unimaginable hardships in order to settle the Canadian wilderness and build new lives in a rough and untamed country.
Books We Love acknowledges the Government of Canada and the Canada Book Fund for its financial support in creating the Canadian Historical Brides series.
Tłı̨chǫ Yahtı̨ı̨̀ Multimedia Dictionary
bebı̀ – baby
behchà - riverbank
chekaa – teachers
dahba – wild roses
dèè – land
Dene - Tłı̨chǫ tribes
dehcho – big river
detsı̨kǫ̀ – log house, cabin
dı̀ga – wolf
dı̀gatsoa - coyote
Tłı̨chǫ got’ı̨ı̨̀ – Dogrib people
ewòhɂeh – hide jacket
Ehtsèe – grandfather spirit
Fly away - nıts’ı̀t’ah
Gam`e`t`i – Village in NWT where children are from
gochı – younger brother
gòet’ı̨ı̨̀ – cousins
gòı̀chı – chosen one
gots’èke – wife
gots’ı̨ı̨̀ – human spirit
gahkwǫ̀ – rabbit meat
ink’on – spirit power
ı̨k’ǫǫ̀ – medicine power
Ka’owae – Trading Chief
k’i – birch
kinnickkinnick – grouse berry
kw’ahtıı – government agent – indian agent
kwet’ı̨ı̨̀ - white persons
łık’àdèè k’è – fish camp
Lac la Martre River Nàı̨lı̨ı̨
Métis a person of mixed American Indian and Euro-American ancestry,
Nààka – Northern Lights
Nàı̨lı̨ı̨ - Lac la Martre River
N’asi – Feast (Christmas)
Nıts’ı̀t’ah Golika Xah (Fly Away Snow Goose)
Sahti – Great Bear Lake
snow - golika or zhah
Tłı̨chǫ dèè – Dogrib land
Tındeè – Great Slave Lake
ts’et’ı̀ı tł’ehwò – tobacco pouch
ts’ı̨ı̨ta – spirit world
whagweè – sandy places for camping
Wha’t’i – Dogrib camp
xah – goose or geese
Yahbahti - Shaman
yatı – prayer
The Dog Rib Rae Band which is located on the west side of the Mackenzie River Delta (Peel Channel), about 110 km upstream from the Arctic coast
The Tłı̨chǫ (IPA: [tɬʰĩtʃʰõ], English pronunciation: /təˈlɪtʃoʊ/) people, sometimes spelled Tłı̨chǫ and also known as the Dogrib, are a Dene First Nations people of the Athabaskan-speaking ethnolinguistic group living in the Northwest Territories, Canada. The name Dogrib is an English adaptation of their own name, Tłı̨chǫ Done (or Thlingchadinne) - “Dog-Flank People”
Tlicho, also known as Dogrib, fall within the broader designation of Dene, Aboriginal people of the widespread Athapaskan language family. Their name for themselves is Doné, meaning “the People.” To distinguish themselves from their Dene neighbours - Denesuline, Slavey, Sahtu Got’ine and K’asho Got’ine - they have come to identify themselves as Tlicho, meaning “dog’s rib,” although the epithet is derived from a Cree term. Tlicho lands lie east of the Mackenzie River between Great Slave Lake and Great Bear Lake in the NWT.
The Canadian Encyclopedia, article by June Helm, Thomas G. Andrews
“It’s the land that keeps things for us. Being our home it’s important for us to take good care of the dwelling, the land, for wherever you go is home”. (Rosalie Tailbones PHP-98/08/05)
Yaot’l and Sascho splashed along the shores of the behchà, spears hefted, watching for the flash of fin to rise to the surface and sparkle in the sunlight. Tender feelings flushed their faces, so they laughed and teased one another with sprays of icy water. In the distance, the warning about the kw’ahtıı sounded, but went unheard.
Transport to the Fort Providence residential school is only the beginning of their trial, for the teachers intend “to kill the Indian” inside their pupils. Attempts to escape end mostly in failure and punishment, but Yaot’l and Sascho, along with two others, will try. Wild geese, brave hearts together, it is do or die—homeward bound.
Yaot’l grew tired of scraping moose hide. She and her aunts had, off and on, been at it for a day and a half. Her thin arms ached, upward from the wrist and somehow, from there, straight into the back of her neck. It took a long time to scrape such a vast expanse of hide clear of bits of flesh and fine silver skin. Mamàcho Josette had set her to work as soon as she and her aunts, assisted by two cousins, had the hide stretched onto a frame. Building the frame, too, had been a project, but one completed yesterday.
With spring thaw underway, the Snow Goose band travelled to summer łık’àdèè k’è (fish camp,) a long traverse through bush. They hauled their few possessions, the precious metal kettles and iron spikes, on their backs and on dog skids.
The young moose had been an unexpected bonus; he had jammed a back leg in a tangle of wood in the shallow water near the island. In his struggles to get free the leg had broken. Fortunately the band came upon him before the wolves did. His quick dispatch by the men had been mercy, and they’d made an offering of tobacco to thank the animal for giving up his spirit.
The strips of flesh now smoked in an enclosure of peat and sticks prepared for the purpose. They’d made camp, near the little island of willows, taking time to prepare and preserve their bounty. The thaw had come, as it always did, with days bringing an ever longer sun, with creeks and ponds spilling over, full of water and silver fish. There was work to do at every season, but especially now in the fishing time.
Spring melt meant water everywhere, trickling through the bogs and rushing in the fullness of the streams, pooling in the pothole lakes. On the willow-covered islands where the moose had wintered, water locked inside snow and ice turned liquid again. It was still cold enough, Yaot’l thought, to shatter her bones when her hands were in it. Today, though, the sun burned hot on her back and it seemed she’d been scraping hide forever.
Pausing to stretch her arms over her head, she shook her hands to remove the sticky silver skin from her fingers. Knowing the older women would tease, she glanced around, in her head she heard their voices—Ah Yaot’l! How will you ever get a good husband if you can’t prepare a fine big hide? You’re almost grown now, and no hunter wants a weak woman.
Ah, but the sun beat down on her head and the water all around her sang. It would be such a welcome relief to take her spear and go take a stand in one of the creeks at a place where it tumbled from one level to the next, a place where the fish would jump. She could hear the sound of voices—her cousins, all down fishing already. Some kids playing, she guessed, and not working at all.
She liked being older, but at the same time she didn’t. Not enough fun and a lot more work…not that she didn’t like having a full belly during winter. It was up to the women, she knew, to make sure that food was carefully stored.
Mamàcho Josette and Aunt Katie were nearby, busy preparing fish. With favorite knives in hand, they gutted and sliced the Uldai, heading them first then splitting length-wise, the inner flesh scored to assist the drying process. The skin and tail remained so that the fish could be easily hung. During the long winters, dry whitefish was an invaluable staple.
Katie sent a glance her way. “Ah, Yaot’l, that’s not finished, you know. There are lots more scraping needed and it must be washed again before we start curing.”
Yaot’l knew the weight of the wet hide, when they pulled it from the creek again, would be great. It would take several women and children to get it back on the hanger. Then the curing would start. The brains they’d use were already rendered, the pot set aside where it wouldn’t be accidentally tipped over.
“I know, Auntie.” Yaot’l cleaned her blade against a flat topped rock, and returned to the task at hand. It was said that there’d been a big river here and a bad flood, very long ago in dreamtime…Round the evening campfire, Babàcho Gregorie had told them all about it in one of his “Gawoo-long ago” stories.
Mamàcho looked up from her task and smiled. “I’ve about got this basket emptied. I’ll scrape for a while. You go down to the creek and see what you can catch. There’s plenty of time before dark.”
Flashing her mamàcho a smile of gratitude, Yaot’l laid her scraper on the ground beside the frame.
“You bring back some fish, you hear? No playing.” Aunt Katie said, but when Yaot’l looked anxiously up at her, she caught a wink from one merry brown eye.
At the lean-to where her family sheltered, Yaot’l grabbed her fish spear. She glanced at a woven willow basket attached to a pole, but she decided not to take it. It was clumsy, and snagged on rocks and branches in the shallows.
She’d need to hurry if she wanted to enjoy the fishing. The band would keep moving until they reached the confluence of two rivers. Where they emptied into a clear, deep lake was their traditional łık’àdèè k’è, Gam`e`t`i.
Other bands—more relatives—were also on the move, into canoes and then out again, making a portage through the networks of water.
The discovery of the moose had caused a small but productive delay in the band’s journey, but they would not stay long. Most of the men had already gone ahead with canoes and dogs, in order to prepare camp at the place where the fish, after a long journey, returned to spawn. The Snow Goose band would return to the home that had been theirs from time immemorial.
Since the white men had come, bringing their new and deadly sicknesses, taking land away for their diggings and towns, there had come many changes. Fewer made the trek to the fishing grounds. Some no longer looked to the land for their living, but to the white man’s jobs. Even the furred and finned brothers and sisters of the people had changed their habits. Caribou no longer came so far south; mink and otter moved away from their old grounds. Every year the tribe had to travel farther into the open lands to find food and fur.
Yaot’l headed into the brush with spear in hand and a length of line for her catch looped into her belt. At the bend in the creek, water briefly slowed and sloughed. Small children played there, but the play had a purpose—to learn to fish. Already three small ones were laid out along the bank. Now, however, the children kicked water and laughed. A pair of barking puppies ran alongside.
Yaot’l waved. They waved back, but these small cousins were too involved in their play to break off. She went on a little further, looking for quiet. Here, she washed the stickiness of the silver skin from her hands and forearms before she walked into the bush.
The sun high and bright warmed her black hair. The ache in her shoulders diminished. A little breeze blew as she walked along, lifting tendrils that had escaped from her braids. The creek sparkled and danced nearby, whispering over a bottom of rock. Carried on the breeze were bird calls — the bright sounds of courtship. The birds were singing to set territories, calling from scrub and bush that marked their home range.
Yaot’l held her arms above her head, allowing the warmth from Father Sun to seep into her hands and down her arms. It was one of those blessing moments, when the light flowed through her body and joined with her spirit making all one.
* * *
The bank grew steeper. She followed a deer path as it looped higher, moving, briefly, out of sight of the water. Soon, though, the path would come down again, to a low, level sandy area where animals came to drink. Clear round about because of the intrusive rock, it was a vantage point where even a creature with its head down could see a hunter—of whatever kind—and still have a chance of escape.
Finally she spotted the small cataract she’d been seeking. Here, the fish had to jump in order to continue their journey home. It was an excellent fishing place. As she emerged slowly from the last bit of spruce shade, Yaot’l heard a noisy rattle.
She froze. Gripping her spear, she waited for her eyes to adjust to the light. Cautiously she sniffed the air. This time of year, you might come upon a bear, a very hungry one just awakened from a long winter of sleep, hungry enough to eat even a skinny human.
No. No rank smell of bear.
The rattling came again, and this time she got a fix on it. It emanated from among the rocks. Slowly, carefully, Yaot’l crept closer to the sound. It came again, and this time, she recognized it as a snore.
It was all she could do not to laugh when she spotted the boy lying there, fast asleep, propped into a stony groove. She recognized him. Sascho, they called him, from a band that often spent time in company with hers. Yaot’l knew him from other łık’àdèè k’è summers, but oh, over the winter, he’d lengthened out considerable. She knew those strong cheekbones and his rough, bushy black hair. He had, it seemed, found this bowl of rocks to be a perfect fit for a nap.
Smiling to herself, she crept away from the boy, down towards the water. If she could collect some in the palm of her hand, she’d give him a surprise.
He really was sleeping much too soundly! She had to tease him! With an ice cold handful, barely breathing, she edged back to where he lay.
Quick! Before it all leaked away she emptied her hand over his head.
“Yah!” He shouted, leaping to his feet and reaching for his belt knife,
Laughing, Yaot’l jumped backwards. “Time to wake up, Grizzly Bear, or I’ll have your claws.”
* * *
Sascho sheathed his knife. Yaot’l! That tall clever girl from the Snow Goose band with her merry dark eyes...
Warriors did NOT get caught sleeping! He hoped no one else would ever hear about this. He’d been tired, and the afternoon so warm, but that was no excuse.
Uncle John had told him not to return until he’d caught something—”not fish”—to put in the pot. He’d followed a small herd of deer since before dawn, but that had come to nothing when he’d missed his shot. He’d even tried snagging ducks. On the way here, he’d set a snare for rabbits. He’d dug after ground squirrel, but catching that sort of prey was something any woman or old man could do.
And now this humiliation, knowing he had been found sleeping! Sascho was a tall boy and people took him for older than he was, so he felt as if he was always catching up with what he should have learned yesterday. He’d gone as a helper to the winter trap lines with his uncles for the last few years, but his uncles never seemed to be quite satisfied with him.
Anxiously, Sascho’s gaze moved to where he’d stashed the precious item—
The rifle was still there, tucked among the rocks just where he’d placed it. He was lucky that it was Yaot’l instead of someone else who’d come along and caught him sleeping—Although, he thought back in the days his grandparents talked about, he probably wouldn’t have woken up at all. Cree or Yellowknife or kwet’ı̨ı̨̀—someone would have killed him for the rifle.
“Don’t be mad, Sascho.” Yaot’l crouched a little distance away. She stroked a braid, squinting against the sun.
He frowned and didn’t reply. Sascho had liked her a lot last summer! He had a sudden notion that the same feeling would return this summer.
“I won’t tell anyone.” Now there was concern in her merry eyes.
He nodded, hoping the gesture was enough.
“Are your people already south of here?”
“Yes—ah, half day’s walk, at the pond with the drowned pines. I followed deer back up this way.”
“No luck?” She nodded toward the rifle. She had noticed his rifle, after all.
He nodded, feeling even more embarrassed than before.
“I—ah—was going to fish here,” she said. “Looks like a pretty good spot.”
“Go on.” He bent to collect the rifle. “I’ve got to get back.” Before she could say anything else, he’d shouldered his gun and started back the way he’d come.
“See you in a few days!” He called the words back over his shoulder, hoping she’d think these were just an afterthought.
Sascho descended the rocks and moved into the scrub, determined to put the girl and the place as far behind him as possible. He tried to stay calm and make his way through the low bushes with care and quiet, even though he felt like shouting and stamping and kicking things like an angry white man. After all, the sun was beginning to wester and he still had nothing to bring back.
And that girl—she’d grown since last year. Now she was just as tall as he was, although she still had no shape. Sascho had begun to notice the softening and rounding that overtook the active little girl cousins he played with in childhood. Although he knew that was what happened next in growing up, and that boys continued packing on muscle as they grew, her new height was dispiriting. He wondered if her aim was as good as it had been, or if it was even better. Last summer at the lake camp, she’d sometimes played knife throwing games with him and his friends. They’d soon learned that she could throw hard and accurately, far better, in fact, than a lot of his cousins.
Of course, on that occasion, she’d soon been called away by one of her Auntie’s, back to her woman’s work, but not before Sascho and the others had also been impressed by her skill with that small bow someone had given her.
One evening last summer, he’d seen her stun a duck with a well-thrown stone. While it was dazed, flopping in the shallows, she’d splashed in, seized it, and wrung its neck in an instant. It was not her only hunting skill, either, for he’d seen her spear fish, too, as expert as anyone.
She was exactly the kind of girl a man should get for a wife. Just thinking of her bright white smile and warm brown cheeks made his pulse run a little faster. He was, all in all, happy that her family would be camping with his again this summer. It had been good to see her again, even if he had been shamed that she’d caught him sleeping.
After a trek through some scrub, a place where he’d hoped to spot more deer, he found himself facing a steeply rising slope of jumbled rocks and grass. The landform lay like a huge snake blocking his path. At the base, he paused to orient himself by the sun. He’d have to move along if he hoped to make the Blackwater camp by dark. He leaned forward, carbine over his shoulder and began to climb. It would be easier to travel along the flattened crest. Where it terminated—in a mound of gravel—was the place where he’d turn his back on the sun and head east, in the direction of the small lake beside which his band camped.
Atop the esker, he paused to catch his breath. A few low clouds traveled briskly overhead, borne upon a crisp, sharp wind which made him shiver. He was glad it was in his face, for this meant his scent was going upwind. Distantly he heard ravens calling, probably in the spruce he’d just left behind. His gaze scanned the open land below in search of movement.
It was mostly flat, with patches of gray stone and greenish brush, occasionally brightened by the golden blush of lichen. Nothing stirred. Heaving a sigh he set off again, this time at a fast trot. It was clear and easy this way, but it was also a place where he could easily be seen.
It was not a road the old timers would have traveled, back in the days when First Nation people warred with one another, but now he would cover territory between here and camp faster by walking along the flattened crest. When he reached the final mound, he would descend easily into the soggy, brushy flatland. There still might be a final chance to flush another deer. He could also check the little trap line he’d made early this morning, too, the one along the rabbit path, to see if that had yielded anything he could carry back.
As he reached the terminus, the old grave appeared. Four stones arranged to sit at the four sacred directions, with a single rock set carefully at the heart, marked the place. He’d passed below it this morning through the scrub on the trail of those elusive deer. On a visit a few years back, his uncle had taken him and his cousins to the place. Uncle John had told them the names of those who were buried here, people from his grandparents’ generation, a family—two women, three children, and their husband, all of whom had died of one of the white man’s terrible plagues.
The earth, when their bones were found, was still frozen and impossible to dig. So, those family members had gathered the remains and placed them within the loose stones and gravel of the esker, where digging was always possible.
The night he and John had come here, they’d gathered brush, built a small fire, sung some prayer songs, and his uncle had told a story from the old days, when the white men had just begun to change everything. It was important, Uncle John said, for them to remember the elders, for they were still here, lying in the land that had borne them. Afterwards, they had sat in the fire light and kept the spirits company for a time.
Evening had come down. Overhead, just as the sun set, they’d seen the lights of nààka streaking across the sky. The billowing sheets of color shimmered and danced like tent curtains. “The elders are showing their thanks, maybe not just the family who lie at this place, but all the others, back to the deep time, the time of Yamǫǫ̀zha and his dark brother.”
Sascho remembered from Uncle John that the stones had been brought up from somewhere else, for they sported little caps of rock tripe, which didn’t ordinarily grow on the stones at the top of eskers. For a moment, he remembered what he knew of this grave, and of how the people had died, sheltering in the scrub at the foot of this place. Perhaps they’d come to hunt snow foxes, who often used the eskers for their dens, when the terrible new sickness had taken them.
Standing here now, alone, Sascho knew the presence of the ts’ı̨ı̨ta. He felt their voices calling to him, and forgot all about his rush to return home. There was something he needed to do before he left here.
I must build a campfire and honor the gots’ı̨ı̨̀.
He gathered twigs, dried branches, and pieces of bark and stacked them into the same indent in the ground where Uncle John had built his fire. Satisfied, Sascho took two matches from his ts’et’ı̀ı tł’ehwò and crouched in front of the twigs, holding the match and blowing gently until the flames caught and smoke rose.
Satisfied, Sascho raised his hands and offered prayers to the ts’ı̨ı̨ta, thanking them for welcoming him and entreating them to share their wisdom. Next, he reached into his ts’et’ı̀ı tł’ehwò took out a small handful of his mixture which he held loosely in his hands, letting it spill from his fingers as he turned in a circle scattering tobacco to the four sacred directions.
Completing the circle and standing in the West towards the setting sun, Sascho let out a grunt of surprise. Seated on a log beside his fire was a very old man with long gray hair and piercing black eyes that searched the young man’s face and then nodded, as if in silent approval.
“Beware the kwet’ji,” the old man said in a low, whispery voice. “They will cross your pathway and take you to a place where your spirit will be forbidden.”
Sascho, stunned by the old man’s words, rose as if to come nearer, but the old man put out his hand and indicated that Sascho should stay where he was.
“Be wise my son,” the old man said. “Bide your time. Be brave and wait for a messenger from ts’ı̨ı̨ta. Do not be tricked or fooled by kwet’ji lies for he is like dı̀gatsoa, full of trickery and lies. Trust Nǫ̀htsı̨, and wait until you are called.”
While Sascho stood there trying to understand, the old man rose, walked towards a growth of bushes and disappeared into the twilight.
Sascho, mindful of the darkening skies and confused by all he had seen, reached for his ts’et’ı̀ı tł’ehwò, placed it inside his ewòhɂeh and started to leave. A strange sensation set the hair on the back of his neck to tingling and Sascho turned to stare at the log where the old man had sat when he gave his warnings. There stood a large grey wolf. His fur, bathed in the last of the twilight, shone silver and his eyes glittered like those of det’ǫtsı̨.
“Thank you Ehtsèe,” Sascho acknowledged grandfather spirit, “I will keep your words close.”
The vision gave Sascho much to ponder. The wolf in spirit form shook his core, and even the place where he stood held a chill, a warning—clearly about the kwet’ı̨ı̨̀, who, more and more, intruded into their lives.
What would life be at the łık’àdèè k’è this summer? Would there be more kwet’ı̨ı̨̀ about than there had been the year before? Kwet’ı̨ı̨̀ were scornful of Tłı̨chǫ and not respectful to the creatures they took from the land.
Sascho had seen the northern mines when he’d gone with his Uncles two winters ago on a journey to Sahtı̀, The Great Bear Lake, which lay at the border of Tłı̨chǫ land. His elders had shown him disturbed and ruined earth from which the spirits had fled. They’d explained how the water too, and the fish in these places, had been poisoned by kwet’ı̨ı̨̀ diggings. The creatures that had once made Sahtı̀ a rich hunting ground had grown few and wary. Even the caribou had changed their ancient paths in order to avoid these places.
Would his people succumb to kwet’ı̨ı̨̀ ways? Some already had. These men disrespected and ignored their elders, abused their wives and neglected their children, drank and stole, and brought shame—and the Ekw’ahtı (Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP))—into their camps. Others, like his family, had tried to stay as far away from the kwet’ı̨ı̨̀ as possible. They, like the caribou, sought new paths. They learned to avoid the fouled ponds where the poor beaver lost his hair and the fish were filled with horrible ulcers.
But where could we go, if we are forced to leave?
His Uncles sometimes spoke of this. Now, Sascho tried to push this unhappy future away. To leave the Tłı̨chǫ Dèè was unimaginable.
We are part of this place, woven into the land like quills ornamenting a pair of moccasins. We are like the moose, the lynx, the beaver, the muskrat, the wolf and the raven, and all our brothers and sisters who live here.
Linked to the earth through the soles of his feet, Sascho’s spirit rose up and poured out into the blue immensity of heaven..
* * *
“A whole day with my rifle, and you bring me two less bullets and only a squirrel and two skinny rabbits.” His uncle sat beside a small fire, one of many now burning because of supper time. He was thin, and apparently ageless, strong and spry. Thoughtfully, he reached into a pouch for his pipe. Once it was between his teeth, his brown hands began to busy themselves, preparing for a smoke.
Sascho knew it was the plain truth, his day of hunting summed. Uncle John’s calm never wavered. He rarely displayed anger, which made his criticism easier to hear. Sascho wanted nothing more than to do better when he went out hunting tomorrow.
Sascho nodded, “Yes, my Uncle.”
“Well, well. Go clean ‘em up.” A nod let him know they were done talking.
Sascho double checked the safety and then leaned the rifle against a tree. He got down, and once on his knees, reached for the knife at his belt. The two rabbits, his catch for the day, lay before him. Nearby younger cousins were fooling around—partly work and partly play—that was what you did at their age. They were making a game of tossing fish skin and heads and other bits of offal to the dogs straining at the end of their ropes. Two big wolfish looking ones snapped the first bits, while the losers growled and whined and nipped at one another.
Sascho put his head down and began. Cleaning rabbits was like peeling off a glove; the ground squirrel would take a little more time and care. There was plenty of food to eat tonight despite his failure, plenty of fish, and the like. Still, he’d been sent for a deer and he hadn’t brought one home. It hadn’t been the day he’d hoped for.
“You and I will go out together tomorrow,” Uncle John spoke, as he leaned into the fire to pull a stick from the edge of the pit to light his pipe. He drew gently and smoke rose, the first puff clouding the sharp angles of his face, obscuring his black almond eyes.
Uncle John—his mother’s brother—had been teaching Sascho how to understand the world around him for as long as he could remember. He knew he was fortunate to have such a fine hunter show him how things were on the Tłı̨chǫ dèè, how to track, and how to watch and listen, how to avoid being detected by the prey.
This morning he’d caught up with those deer, but had, plain and simple, missed the shot. By the time he’d reloaded again, they had run too far. Sascho had sprinted after; he’d tracked—of course he had—but the deer had lost him near some spruce. Afterward, he had circled, hoping to happen upon other game. He’d sighted a beaver, busy pushing sticks into his dam, but he’d half-way known that would be another wasted shot, so he hadn’t bothered. The beaver, after a warning smack of his tail, had vanished.
While he worked, Sascho’s thoughts turned back to something pleasanter—Yaot’l.
She was still almost like a boy, so lean and her face thin, just like his, after the long winter. How bright her dark sloe eyes had been, and how much fun she’d had at his expense! He couldn’t really be angry, because she was right. He’d been a fool to fall asleep, and lucky it had been her, a friend, and not a bad spirit or—maybe even worse than something supernatural—Dedìì, his older cousin who would have had no end of fun at his expense.
Sascho sighed and picked up the second rabbit. His mother passed by, smiling a greeting. She lugged a pot of water, one so large he wondered why she didn’t topple over. Tiny as she was, his little mother, she was astonishingly strong. He made as if to get up to help her, but she shook her head.
“No, no, finish the gahkwǫ̀. I can do it.”
She went on by, both hands on the kettle, a few splashes left behind here and there. Mother and his Aunt Elise would prepare bannock tonight, a treat. Two tins, one of flour and the other of lard had been found in the final autumn-stocked cache they’d passed. It would be a treat to have bread, for they had run out of the makings a long time ago.
Despite the expected annual hardships, the Lynx family had returned from the northlands with a good supply of furs. These, it was hoped, would be sufficient to bring in enough supplies to start confidently into another winter.
The last season had been hard, with more snow than usual and wild winds. It had made the trap lines hard to reach. There had been a time, near the thaw, when Sascho felt his belly shrink toward his backbone, but, in the worst of it, his uncles had found a young denning bear and dragged the carcass back through a wind storm to their camp. Here, in a few dug-in turf shelters, floored with spruce and covered with branches and hides, the Lynx clan, husbands, wives, children, and grandparents, had survived another winter.
* * *
Yaot’l watched Sascho disappear into the scrub. He was taller than he’d been last year, but, her own growth spurt had kept her ahead of him. The thought brought a smile to her lips. She probably shouldn’t have teased him, but it really had been irresistible, finding him snoring, so sound asleep.
In another week or so, all the families would probably arrive at Rabbit-Net Lake. Like last year, they’d pitch tents there beside those of the Tailbones, the Lafferty’s, the Crooked Hands, the Gons and the Lynxes, and work the summer harvest of fish, waterfowl, and berries.
Yaot’l was happy, thinking of the coming good weather, the time of plenty, where there would be play as well as work, and where there would also be celebrations and dancing. There would be at least one visit to the trading post where they would see the kwet’ı̨ı̨̀, see their stone buildings and their ceremonies, and hear of their god. These things happened every summer.
The kwet’ı̨ı̨̀ would want to see any new children and to perform one of their naming rites over the new little ones. In these, they marked the child’s brow with water and gave it a kwet’ı̨ı̨̀ name—always the name of one of their holy men or women, of whom they seemed to have countless numbers. Yaot’l, however, like the children of other close kin, had not received this naming.
Her band came to the church and the people were polite to the black robes and their gray clad women. They listened to the Métis men who spoke to them in their language, telling them every time they came, the story of their wise dying god, the one person who had ever returned from death. Uncle John Lynx always said, “We will join in their ceremonies and make a pledge of peace. It cannot hurt to learn other tribe’s stories. Those help us to understand their ways. But we will not do everything like them. If we did, we wouldn’t be Tłı̨chǫ anymore... Our stories, the paths we travel, our way of seeing, would be lost. We would forget how to hunt. Therefore, when we go, we visit their church building, and then go on our way as we have always done. It is the Tłı̨chǫ way to get along with all the kinds of people they may meet, even kwet’ı̨ı̨̀.”
Yaot’l kicked off her moccasins and entered the stream. She was glad of the warm sun on her back, especially when she waded deeper into the freezing water. She’d seen a rock which would make a good perch right in the middle of the stream, a perfect place to hunt her silver-sided quarry. From there, she could spy the larger fish ascending the rapids. Now she’d try her skill at spearing the biggest, the best for drying.
As soon as she’d settled, there was flurry of activity, a school pushing upstream. There was no more time for reflection, only for action.
To secure her catch, she had to plunge deep into the water, hoping to keep the big fish, bleeding and fighting to their last, on the spear. The icy cold bit into her flesh and soon made her arms, feet and hands ache. Finally, Yaot’l could no longer will herself to continue. Instead, she waded back and sat down, her back against a large boulder
Then—although the breeze was growing cold—she strung her catch. She already had plenty.
The water splashed cheerfully on, the sound capturing all her senses. Reflections rose around her, patterning the scrub and causing the rocky shore to quiver with light.
Heat radiated from the rocks. Next—even better—the breeze dropped. Over her head was nothing but blue. In her ears, water sang. She allowed her thoughts to drift.
I will close my eyes. Just for a moment…
* * *
The harsh call of a raven awoke her. Yaot’l started. The sun was lower now, blazing into her eyes, casting long shadows. Quickly, she got up. When she did, a fox, a flash of red, went bounding across the rocks. Though it was early for him to be out, he’d apparently come from the scrub and snatched one of her fish. The tail jiggled and flopped as he disappeared. She shouted, grabbed her fish spear and threw, but it landed short with a harmless clatter. The fox and his prize were gone.
Grumbling, angry with herself, she went to check the rest of her catch. Two ravens, sitting up in the bones of a dead spruce, made noisy commentary. If she hadn’t been so anxious about her fish—she had no idea how long she’d been sleeping—she would have thrown something at them too, for they seemed to be laughing.
A stringer she’d left in the water still drifted in a back eddy, safely carrying its load. The largest ones – all except for the one the fox had stolen—lay rolled up on the shore. As she counted her catch, she noticed a mess of fishy bits and scales.
“Oh,” she called to the ravens. “Did you steal my fish too?”
“Ha-ha-ha-ha! Steal? Steal? Steal?” At least that’s what their cries seemed to say. The two bobbed back and forth upon the ghostly branch and fixed her with their shiny eyes.
Yaot’l shivered and cast a furtive look about her. There was something odd in the way they just sat and watched. Perhaps they were not ordinary ravens? Ravens had power; their form was sometimes used by bad Shaman. After all, had the raven not greedily hidden food from the wolf in a time of famine and then been condemned by Yamǫǫ̀zha never again to eat fresh meat, only garbage and rotten flesh, from that day forth?
She wondered why she had fallen asleep in this place, exactly as Sascho had.
Was there some kind of magic here? The lengthening shadows had changed things. It had been so bright and welcoming at noon, but now long low shadows and low sun-glare could hide danger, like the dreadful Nakan.
She made sure to leave a pair of fish behind. After all, nothing had happened to either her or Sascho, although they’d both, carelessly, fallen asleep here. She shot one last glance toward the tree, where the ravens still gurgled and chuffed and lifted their feathers, as if in confirmation. As fast as her feet would carry her, bent under the dripping load, Yaot’l hurried away.
Heading back to camp, she threaded her way along a deer track, winding among boulders, around pools of dark water and stands of scrub. At one place, she first smelled and then saw a thin trail of smoke from a fire. She knew she was passing her mother’s camp, where she, and whichever of her female relatives—in this case, Aunt Susie and Aunt Grace—who were also in the menarche stayed. It was not permitted for women to be around men during that time, and so they were sent out of camp to live by themselves. This was not a great hardship in summer, but in spring and winter it could be tough—and dangerous, too—for in the spring, hungry bears, and in the winter, wolves—could smell blood and take advantage of their isolation.
Still, this was the way it always had been. Yaot’l knew women’s bodies carried a potent magic that men must, at times, avoid. Her mother had told her that this exile was not all bad, especially if you went with other women, which was mostly the case. They took their embroidery projects, or worked beading or quill decorations. At this time, they actually had the opportunity to sit, drink tea, and talk, or fall asleep whenever they felt like it, without the constant demands of either children or men folk.
Yaot’l knew as well as anyone how to make a shelter, how to cut and bend the young spruce or willow boughs, how to make use of a boulder or depression for a windbreak. She knew how to set snares, and she was better than some of the boys with a rock or with the little bow made by her babàcho.
She knew her mamàcho and old Mrs. Tailbone went to visit the exiles daily, bringing treats, like fresh cooked bannock, or old time herb mixtures to soothe. Yaot’l stopped moving, and, for a moment, gazed up into the bright sky, only a little marred by the faint line of smoke.
She found herself hoping Aunt Katie might have gone out there as well while she had been off fishing. Aunt Katie had been so set on her finishing that hide by herself…
* * *
Yaot’l hoped to enter camp quietly because she really didn’t want to return to scraping. She’d already seen the hide as she walked in, still stretched out between the willows.
The dogs, however, scotched a secret entrance. As soon as they saw her, they began barking and spinning around their tether pegs. One black dog she particularly liked, leaned against his rope, stood up on his back legs and yapped a cheery greeting.
“Hello, Happy!” That’s what everyone called him because he was so good tempered, always smiling, his pink tongue lolling. He was safe for children to pet, unlike some of the other dogs, who were wilder and less trustworthy. He got along well with the others of his kind, too, which made him popular for use in a team.
Tłı̨chǫ hitched dogs in a long line. Happy could be hitched between two who were inclined to fight, and there wouldn’t be any trouble at all. It was as if Happy’s presence calmed the others.
Yaot’l set down the string. After a head down minute of seeking, her hand searching among the sticky bodies, she found one of the smaller ones. Showing it to Happy first so he could see his treat coming, she tossed it. He easily caught it midair. Another dog that was tied nearby growled and strained at his rope, but he couldn’t reach his neighbor’s prize.
“Never mind, Spot. I’ll find you one, too.” She’d just bent down to look for another when a shadow fell over her.
“You weren’t supposed to be away all afternoon.” Aunt Katie already had her hands on her hips. She didn’t look any more pleased than she had this morning.
“Look at these shadows—why so late? And what have you been doing? It’s easy enough to catch fish at this time of year and there’s still plenty more scraping to be done, you know.”
“But shouldn’t I prepare these, Auntie?”
“Never mind the fish—Mamàcho and I will tend to those. You get back to work on that hide. It’ll be dark soon. When you finish up, we’ll put it into the stream overnight for a good soak.”
As Yaot’l passed where Mamàcho Josette was seated, the old lady reached out a hand to catch hers. “Nice lot of fish, my girl. We’ll have a tasty supper tonight, and those big ones should dry perfect.”
Mamàcho always made her feel better, and, sure enough, when Yaot’l returned to the hide, she was pleased to see there was not really so much more that needed to be done. She suddenly felt a lot more confident about finishing.
Later, when Auntie Kate was busy somewhere else, she’d tell mamàcho about the fishing place, about meeting Sascho Lynx, and about the fox and the two ravens. The more she thought about it, the more it seemed she’d done right to leave the fish. For all she knew, those birds had changed into people as soon as she’d left them behind.
* * *