Yaotl and Sascho splashed along the shores of the behcha?, spears hefted, watching for the flash of fin to rise to the surface and sparkle in the sunlight. Tender feelings, barely discovered, flushed their faces. Waving their spears they laughed and teased one another with sprays of newly melted ice water. In the distance, the warning about the kw'aht?? sounds, but on this fatal day it goes unheard; Yaotl and Sascho fall into the hands of the Indian Agents. Transport to Fort Providence residential school is only the beginning of their ordeal, for the teachers believe it is their sworn duty to 'kill the Indian inside.' All attempts at escape are severely punished, but Yaotl and Sascho, along with two others, will try, beginning a journey of 900 Kilometers along the Mackenzie River. Like wild geese, brave hearts together, they are homeward bound.
I was taken from my Native mother at birth and adopted by a white family. I wasn't told about my ancestry until I was in my teens and was able to see a copy of my birth and adoption papers. It was then that I learned my birth mother was Native and French and my unknown father was listed as North American Native. I also learned that my birth mother was from the north country of British Columbia, descended from the Sekani Nation (which means 'mountain people'.) The Sekani are medicine healers. Along the Red Road is dedicated to all the travelers I met as I traveled the pathways of both the dark and the red road. This book is from my heart to the many elders who shared their spiritual experiences and who embrace their cultures in the ways they live. My Indian name Sus' naqua ootsin' (Wisdomkeeper) was given to me by a 100 year old lady who looked deep into my eyes and pulled the name from my soul. It was on one of the darkest days of my life, when I struggled with the desire to end it all, that I put on a pair of red running shoes and began to follow the road.
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. Mama'cho 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 lık'a'de'e' k'e' (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.
Mama'cho 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, Baba'cho Gregorie had told them all about it in one of his "Gawoo-long ago" stories.
Mama'cho 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 mama'cho 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 lık'a'de'e' k'e', 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 lık'a'de'e' k'e' 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."