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My name is Saul Indian Horse. I am the son of Mary Mandamin and John Indian Horse. My grandfather was called Solomon so my name is the diminutive of his. My people are from the Fish Clan of the northern Ojibway, the Anishinabeg, we call ourselves. We made our home in the territories along the Winnipeg River, where the river opens wide before crossing into Manitoba after it leaves Lake of the Woods and the rugged spine of northern Ontario. They say that our cheekbones are cut from those granite ridges that rise above our homeland. They say that the deep brown of our eyes seeped out of the fecund earth that surrounds the lakes and marshes. The Old Ones say that our long straight hair comes from the waving grasses that thatch the edges of bays. Our feet and hands are broad and flat and strong, like the paws of a bear. Our ancestors learned to travel easily through territories that the Zhaunagush, the white man, later feared and sought our help to navigate. Our talk rolls and tumbles like the rivers that served as our roads. Our legends tell of how we emerged from the womb of our Mother the Earth; Aki is the name we have for her. We sprang forth intact, with Aki’s heartbeat thrumming in our ears, prepared to become her stewards and protectors. When I was born our people still talked this way. We had not yet stepped beyond the influence of our legends. That was a border my generation crossed, and we pine for a return that has never come to be.
These people here want me to tell my story. They say I can’t understand where I’m going if I don’t understand where I’ve been. The answers are within me, according to them. By telling our stories, hardcore drunks like me can set ourselves free from the bottle and the life that took us there. I don’t give a shit about any of that. But if it means getting out of this place quicker, then telling my story is what I will do.
It was social workers at the hospital who sent me here. The New Dawn Centre. They call it a treatment facility. The counsellors here say Creator and the Grandmothers and the Grandfathers want me to live. They say a lot of things. In fact, they talk all the time, and they expect us to do the same. They sit there with their eyes all shiny and wet and hopeful, thinking we don’t see them waiting. Even with my eyes on my shoes I can feel them. They call it sharing. It’s one of our ancient tribal principles as Ojibway people, they claim. Many hearts beating together makes us stronger. That’s why they put us in the sharing circle.
There are at least thirty of us staying here. Everyone from kids in their late teens to a few in their thirties, like me, and one woman who’s so old she can’t talk much anymore. We sit in circles all day. I tire of talk. It wearies me. It makes me wish for a drink. But I endure it, and when my counsellor, Moses, ushers me into his office for one-on-one time, I endure that too. I’ve been here a month, after six weeks in the hospital, and that’s the longest I’ve been without a drink for years, so I guess there’s some use to it. My body feels stronger. My head is clear. I eat heartily. But now, they say, the time has come for the hardest work. “If we want to live at peace with ourselves, we need to tell our stories.”
I can’t tell mine in the circle. I know that. There’s too much to sort out and sift through. And I’ve noticed the younger ones getting all twitchy in their seats the few times I’ve tried to speak. Maybe they don’t believe me, or something about what I’m saying pisses them off. Either way, I can’t talk there. So Moses gave me permission to write things down. So I will. Then I’ll get on with life. Somewhere.
Our people have rituals and ceremonies meant to bring us vision. I have never participated in any of them, but I have seen things. I have been lifted up and out of this physical world into a place where time and space have a different rhythm. I always remained within the borders of this world, yet I had the eyes of one born to a different plane. Our medicine people would call me a seer. But I was in the thrall of a power I never understood. It left me years ago, and the loss of that gift has been my greatest sorrow. Sometimes it feels as though I have spent my entire life on a trek to rediscover it.
I wasn’t there the day the first Indian horse came to our people, but I heard the story so many times as a boy that it became real to me.
The Ojibway were not people of the horse. Our land existed as an untamed thing, lakes, rivers, bogs and marshes surrounded by citadels of bush and rock and the labyrinthine weave of country. We had no need of maps to understand it. We were people of the manitous. The beings that shared our time and place were lynx, wolf, wolverine, bear, crane, eagle, sturgeon, deer, moose. The horse was a spirit dog meant to run in open places. There was no word for it in the old talk until my great-grandfather brought one back from Manitoba.
When the sun was warm and the song of the wind could be heard in the rustle of the trees, our people said that the Maymaygwayseeuk, the water spirits, had come out to dance. That’s the kind of day it was. Sparkling. The eyes of the spirits winking off the water.
My great-grandfather had wandered off into the bite of the north wind one day near the end of winter, headed west to the land of our cousins, the Ojibway of the plains. His name was Shabogeesick. Slanting Sky. He was a shaman and a trapper, and because he spent so much time out on the land, it told him things, spoke to him of mysteries and teachings. They say he had the sending thought, the great gift of the original teachers. It was a powerful medicine, allowing vital teachings to be shared among people separated by tremendous distance. Shabogeesick was one of the last to claim its energy before history trampled it under foot. The land called to him one day and he walked off without a word to anyone. No one worried. It was something he did all the time.
But that late spring afternoon when he walked back out of the bush from the east, he was leading a strange black animal by a rope halter. Our people had never seen such a creature, and they were afraid. It was massive. Huge as a moose, but without antlers, and the sound of its hoofs on the ground was that of drums. It was like a great wind through a fissure in rock. People shrank from the sight of it.
“What manner of being is this?” they asked. “Do you eat it?” “How does it come to walk beside a man? Is it a dog? Is it a grandfather who lost his way?”
The people had many questions. None would approach the animal and when it lowered its head and began to graze on the grass, they gasped.
“It is like a deer.”
“Is it as gentle as Waywashkeezhee?”
“It is called a horse,” Shabogeesick told them. “In the land of our cousins it is used to travel long distances, to bear loads too heavy for men, to warn of Zhaunagush before he can be seen.”
“Horse,” the people said in unison. The big animal lifted its head and whinnied, and they were afraid. “Does it mock us?” they asked. “It announces itself,” Shabogeesick said. “It comes bearing great teachings.”
He’d brought the animal back on the train and walked it thirty miles from the station to our camp on the Winnipeg River. It was a Percheron. A draught horse. A working beast, and Shabogeesick showed the people how to halter it, to rig it with straps sewn from cedar roots and trading post rope so it could haul the carcasses of moose and bear many miles out of the bush. Children learned to ride on its broad back. The horse pulled elders on toboggans across the deep snows of winter and allowed men to cut trees and haul the logs to the river where they would float them to the mill for money. Horse was indeed a gift and the people called him Kitchi-Animoosh. Great Dog.
Then one day Shabogeesick called everyone together in a circle on the teaching rocks where the Old Ones drew stories on the stone. The people were only ever called to those sacred stones when something vital needed to be shared. No one knows where that place is today. Of all the things that would die in the change to come, the way to that sacred place was perhaps the most grievous loss. Shabogeesick had brought Kitchi-Animoosh, and Horse nibbled at the succulent leaves of the aspen while my great- grandfather spoke.
“When the horse first called to me, I did not understand the message,” Shabogeesick told them. “I had not heard that voice before. But our cousins on the plains spoke to me of the goodness of this Being, and I fasted and prayed in the sacred sweat lodge for many days to learn to speak with it.
“When I emerged from the sweat lodge this Horse was there. I walked with it upon the plains and the Horse offered me its teachings.
“A great change will come. It will come with the speed of lightning and it will scorch all our lives. This is what Horse said to me under that great bowl of sky. ‘The People will see many things they have never seen before, and I am but one of them.’ This is what he said to me.
“When the Zhaunagush came they brought the Horse with them. The People saw the Horse as special. They sought to learn its medicine. It became a sign of honour to ride these spirit beings, to race the wind with them. But the Zhaunagush could only see this act as thievery, as the behaviour of lesser people, so they called us horse thieves.
“The change that comes our way will come in many forms. In sights that are mysterious to our eyes, in sounds that are grating on our ears, in ways of thinking that will crash like thunder in our hearts and minds. But we must learn to ride each one of these horses of change. It is what the future asks of us and our survival depends on it. That is the spirit teaching of the Horse.”
The People did not know what to make of this talk. Shabogeesick’s words scared them. But they trusted him and they had come to love Kitchi-Animoosh. So they took good care of him, fed him choice grains and hay that they traded for at the rail line. The children rode him to keep him fit. When the treaty men found us in our isolated camp and made us sign our names to the register, they were surprised to see the horse. When they asked how he had come to be there, the People pointed at Shabogeesick, and it was the Zhaunagush who called him Indian Horse. It has been our family name ever since.
All that I knew of Indian died in the winter of 1961, when I was eight years old.
My grandmother, Naomi, was very old then. She was the matriarch of the small band of people I was born to. We still lived a bush life at that time. We had little contact with anyone besides the Zhaunagush at the Northern Store in Minaki, where we took our furs and berries, or the odd group of wandering Indians who stumbled across our camps. If there was ever a sign of an approaching stranger, our grandmother hurried my brother Benjamin and me off into the bush. We would stay there until the stranger departed, even if that took a day or so.
There was a spectre in our camp. We could see the shadow of this dark being in the lines of our mother’s face. She would sometimes sit huddled close to the fire, clenching and unclenching her fists, her eyes dark moons in the firelight. She never spoke at times like that, never could be comforted. I’d walk to her and take her hand but she didn’t notice me. It was as if she was under the influence of a potent medicine no shaman had the power to break. The spectre lived in the other adults too, my father and my aunt and uncle. But its most chilling presence was in my mother. “The school,” she would whisper then. “The school.”
It was the school that Naomi hid us from. It was the school that had turned my mother so far inward she sometimes ceased to exist in the outside world. Naomi had seen the adults of our camp taken away as children. She’d seen them return bearing a sorrow that could not be reached, and when my grandfather died, she took her family back to the land, hoping that an Ojibway life might heal them, ease their pain.
Besides my brother, I had a sister that I never met. Her name was Rachel, and the year before I was born she disappeared. She was six.
“The Zhaunagush came from across the water,” our grandmother told Benjamin and me one time when we were hidden in the trees. “It was the end of August and we were coming back to the river from the summer camp near One Man Lake. Our canoes were full of berries. We planned to go to Minaki to sell them and buy supplies for the winter. We were tired.
“I never thought they’d come in the dawn. Me, I always thought the Zhaunagush slept late like fat old bears. But they walked into our camp and I pulled my robe up over Benjamin who was so small and hid him from their view. But they found Rachel and they took her away in their boat.
“I stood on the rocks and watched them. Them, they had a boat with a motor, and when they rounded the bend in the river I thought how fast things can vanish from our view. Her screams hung in the air like smoke from a green fire. But even they finally vanished and all that was left was the wake from that boat slapping at the rocks at my feet.
“That’s all I carry of her nowthe wet slap of water on the rocks. Every time I hear it I remember the dawn the white men came and stole Rachel from us.”
So we hid from the white men. Benjamin and I developed the quick ears of bush people. When we detected the drone of an engine we knew to run. We’d grab the old lady’s hand and scuttle into the trees and find a place to secret ourselves away until we knew for certain that there was no danger.
I learned English at the same time I learned Ojibway. My father taught me to read from Zhaunagush books, taught me to form the sounds the letters built with the tip of his finger as my guide. They felt hard, those white man words; sharp and pointed on my tongue. Old Naomi fought against it, trying to throw the books in the fire.
“They come in different ways, them, the Zhaunagush,” she said. “Their talk and their stories can sneak you away as quick as their boats.”
So I grew up afraid of the white man. As it turned out, I had reason to be.
In 1957, when I was four, they got my brother, Benjamin. The old lady and I were gathering roots in a glade back of the trees that stood against the river. The men and my brother were at the foot of a rapids setting gill nets. The airplane came out of the west, and we did not hear it soon enough. Naomi and I made it to a cleft in the rocks, but the men and my brother had nowhere to go. The plane cut them off, and we crawled up out of our crevice in the rocks and watched as those men from the plane lowered a canoe and forced my family’s canoe to the opposite shore. They had guns, those Zhaunagush. I think that if they hadn’t, my father and my uncle would have fought them off and we would have run into the back country. But they took my brother at gunpoint and pushed him up into the plane.
My mother collapsed on the long, flat rock that reached out into the river at our camp. No one could move her. She lay there for days, and it was only the chill of the first autumn rains that got her up on her feet and back to the fire. She was lost to me then. I could see that. She was gaunt and drained from days of weeping, a tent of skin over her bones. When Benjamin disappeared he carried a part of her away with him, and there was nothing anyone could do to fill it. My father tried. He never left her side for weeks. But now that she had lost two children, she would not speak anything except “the school,” the words like a bruise in the air. So he left herand he and my uncle paddled off downriver to sell the berries. When they returned they brought the white man with them in brown bottles. Spirits, Naomi called them. Bad spirits. Those spirits made the grown-ups move in strange, jerky ways and their talk was twisted. I fell asleep to evil laughter. Sometimes my mother lurched to her feet and danced around the fire, and the shadow she threw against the skin of the tent was like the outline of a skeleton. I clutched my robe tight to my throat, lay across the space my brother once filled and waited for sleep to claim me.
On clear nights the old woman and I would sit on the rocks by the edge of the river. The stars pinwheeled above us and we would hear wolves calling to each other. Naomi told me stories of the old days. Told me about my grandfather and the medicine ways he carried. Good medicine. Powerful, Ojibway medicine. The river wound serpentine, radiant in the light of the northern moon. In its curling wash I sometimes thought I could hear songs sung in Ojibway. Honour songs, raising me above the hurt of my brother’s absence. That voice sustained me, as did the firm, warm hand of Naomi on the thin blade of my shoulder.