See this stuffed prairie dog? Apparently, it has a name: “Matthew”. I just received photos of this mascot all along the route of the Humboldt-Fort Carleton Trail Walk in 2019. Each of them with cute little captions. In 2015, Hugh Henry and I began this tradition by trekking the 350-km Traders’ Road, or North-West Mounted Police Patrol Trail (NWMPT) in Treaty 4 Territory, SW Sask. It was likely the first time the trail had been walked in over a century.
In 2017 we walked the Swift Current to Battleford Trail, another 350 km; near Battleford there were lots of issues with access and trespassing (see above). In 2018 we walked the Frenchman’s Trail, from Mortlach to Gravelbourg. I was surprised that there was a Welsh couple serving Fish’n’Chips in Mortlach (see photo below).
This year, Hugh and the Saskatchewan History and Folklore Society (SHFS) planned a journey from Humboldt to Fort Carleton. I’m still in England; this was the first year I just couldn’t make it. No country bars and pool-tables for me this August. But apparently I was there in spirit.
The photo I found the funniest is just above. I had quite a bit of foot trouble on the way to Battleford in 2017, culminating in a full-on leg infection. I was using duct-tape for my blisters, in the vain hope it can fix EVERY problem! Live and learn! Mostly, I’m thankful for good friends and for being remembered on a pilgrimage I couldn’t walk. They knew I was thinking about them. And how wonderful, to be thought of in return.
For years I dreamt of walking Treaty Four territories, what is now south-west Saskatchewan. Only in 2013-2014 did I find a trail (the Traders’ Road, or North-West Mounted Police Patrol Trail), a guide and fellow walker (Hugh Henry, of the SK History and Folklore Society), and feel in my bones a reason (un-settling Settler narratives) to make it finally happen. Ken Wilson is also interested in Settler preparation for reconciliation; he and I walked together from Swift Current to Battleford in 2017 and from Mortlach to Gravelbourg in 2018. Ken recently set his scholarly lens on an article I wrote for a volume in pilgrimage back in 2013, just before that first 350-km journey across the prairies. A serious academic, Ken has highlighted the article’s best parts. In case you’re interested, I’m posting his post, here:
For five days we walked across the prairie. Thirteen miles was our “short day.” We watched for badger holes in the grass, spots where you could drop in to your knee and break a leg. We rolled under and climbed through barbed wire, not always successfully (I have a ‘pic’ in my left palm from grabbing a strand carelessly). Sometimes we walked silently. More often, in spurts, we chatted. During the day we baked in over-thirty temps and at night we shivered in our tents as it dropped to single digits. I was amazed at the wonderfully talented, eclectic group walking south with me. When they found out what I teach, I was challenged: “is this a pilgrimage?” That depends. We ended at a cathedral. We talked a lot about reconciliation, and tried to live it, at least a bit. We sang and laughed and formed a community that blessed each other. It was a holy time. For me, at least, that made it a pilgrimage.
Heritage Saskatchewan sponsored film-maker Kristin Catherwood, who made this short film for the Canada 150 year. It features me and Hugh Henry, talking about the importance of the Swift Current – Battleford Trail, the 350 km trek we finished in August 2017. Thanks Kristin!
(the following is the impact statement that I wrote for the SK History and Folklore Society, who requested it to forward to their funding agencies. Those of you who have followed the walk in some way may find it worthwhile)
The Swift Current – Battlefords Trail walk certainly affected me personally. In addition I was witness to a number of ways in which it had an impact on communities and individuals we encountered. Firstly, although the historical connection between the Métis community and the Trail is well known, I believe that the linking of our first day’s walk with the Métis celebration in Swift Current solidified that connection. I was touched by the accompanying Red River cart and the members of the Métis community who walked the first steps of the Trail with us. Another community – or set of communities – that now have a greater knowledge of the Trail are the Hutterite colonies that we passed through. Our very positive interactions, especially with the Swift Current Colony meant that the members of the Colony learned something of the history of the Trail that passes through their land. We got the fresh cinnamon buns – they got a history lesson, and some local human geography! Thanks to our Trek organizer and guide Hugh Henry for laying the groundwork here, as he did in every other way.
When we met individual farmers as we walked, the reaction, almost without fail, was the same: interest in what we were doing, and most often, some positive but nostalgic comment about the Trail, almost as if it was a thing that had belonged to a past (perhaps their parents or grandparents’ generation) that they were surprised might still be considered important, but very quickly agreed should be important. In other cases, farmers who hosted us joined the walk briefly, for a day or part of a day, and told us of their own family histories and how they intersected with the histories of the Trail. In most cases their recollections were of the important early settlement history. In a very natural way, those of us who were walkers were able to include the First Nations and Métis aspects of the Trail’s history without in any way belittling the important personal and family histories they were recounting, bringing (I hope) the first steps toward some kind of integration of those histories. In a few cases local farmers joined us in the daily smudges led by one of our Métis walkers, Richard Kotowich.
An important result of such a marathon effort as this trek – and one of my reasons for walking personally – is to reinforce in the public mind, quietly and with respect for landowners, the idea that there do exist, on private land, trails of public importance, which need to be preserved and to which the public should have some limited rights of access. There is no fear, in Saskatchewan, of hordes of trekkers taking to the Battleford Trail! At the same time, the Trail is part of the commonwealth of history, and importantly, for three very different communities: the First Nations, the Métis, and the Settler. I have great respect for the occasional farmer or rancher who decides not to break some of the land that still bears the marks of the carts, for the public good. Our walk was, in a very small way, a call to such civic-mindedness.
We did not plan it this way, but our walk through the Biggar and Battlefords regions coincided with some breaking news about the trial process in the manslaughter charge connected to the death of Coulton Boushie. Whether it was in our minds, or in the air, it did feel as if the tensions increased, both when we stayed on the Mosquito First Nation, and when we passed by farms in the area, many of which were plastered with “No Trespassing” signs we had not seen further south. Perhaps our stay on the Mosquito FN helped those who were there realize that there are many Settlers who are trying to reach out and to learn from them; I hope so. Perhaps, at the same time, the fact that a group that was primarily of Euro-Canadian background sought to be guests on the Reserve helped some of the non-Indigenous folks we encountered in that area realize that the two solitudes can perhaps be bridged by folks of good-will on both sides. The matter, of course, is more complex than a single group of walkers might influence, but I hope that we were, if nothing else, a living sign of what the very first steps in seeking reconciliation might look like.
Finally, the Trail walk was important to me personally. When I grew up in the Swift Current and Simmie regions of the south-west corner of Saskatchewan, we learned about the “Indians”, as we called them then. If we thought of them at all, it was as important people who no longer lived anywhere close to us. No one – including me – ever seemed to wonder why the First Nations no longer ranged over those areas. I only learned much later, as an adult, that many, including Big Bear’s Plains Cree, sought Treaty lands exactly where I grew up, but were pushed north, often starving and in poor clothing, during the winter, by the policies of the Dominion government and the railroad. Walking this Battleford Trail, generally in comfort with more than enough food and a good tent or occasionally a hotel room, we were walking the Trail that they once walked, starving, not much more than a century and a quarter ago.
Thanks to Hugh Henry, Harold Steppuhn, Ken Wilson and local farmers, the trek taught me the geography of the land where I was raised. I learned about the “Eagle Hills”, the “Bear Hills” and the “Bad Hills”, about NWMP outposts and glacial moraines and ancient inland seas, about soil formations and water drainage, about poplar trees and prairie grasses. Such learnings, added to my first visits to communities like Sanctuary, Greenan and Herschel, and made in the company of other pilgrims who became like family, made it a very rich three weeks. I blogged about the Trail and had hundreds of reads of my blog posts, both in Canada and internationally. Thanks to the Saskatchewan Historical and Folklore Society, and especially to my friend and co-walker Hugh Henry, for making this walk possible.
Yesterday was the last day of the Battleford Trail walk. 350 kilometres in total, Hugh Henry tells us. Along the way we read journal excerpts from one of Colonel Otter’s troops as they marched north along the same path in 1885. The writer was a young, green recruit from central Canada who’d probably never seen either a First Nations person or the plains. He wrote: “We saw our first Indian today. He was within rifle distance.” Richard Kotowich, who is Métis, gave a short and powerful talk as he smudged us. “How do we measure the distance? Do we still measure it like that unnamed soldier? Close enough to harm? Close enough to be defensive? Or have we learned to say: ‘the Indian’ we meet is close enough to greet, to get to know, to invite to eat, to sit together and learn from and with?”
This pilgrimage, for me, has been about things old AND things new. The Trail is as old as the Plains Cree that went south to hunt bison, the burial grounds that go back millennia, the Bear Hills that now seem so empty. But the Trail is also as new as the ‘no trespassing’ signs and the farm dogs we met as we approached Battleford, a town which, as a local citizen told us, has “13 reservations around it.” He didn’t add that it was our own government that put them there, often against their will and miles away from their traditional lands, for the convenience of railway and Settler. This trek has been about remembering that Métis, First Nations and Settler all used this trail. It has been about smudging with farm families who in some cases perhaps have never participated before in such a ceremony, and making them welcome. It has been about including First Nations concerns in our conversations naturally, neither preaching nor apologizing, just quietly and consistently recognizing the facts of the Treaties, the expulsions, and the injustices. It has also been about listening to the older farm folks who talk about the coulees and valleys, the rivers and the land and the wildlife with such love and longing that you know the land has taught them, over years. So how DO we measure the distance between Settler and First Nation? We danced with the First Nations dancers in Fort Battleford, but it was just a beginning. For those of us who are non-Indigenous, even after a 350 km Battleford Trek, we have a ways still to travel.
Bit by bit, as you walk slowly across the land, senses you don’t use normally come to life. For me the most surprising is smell. You can smell canola fields from quite far away, if you’re downwind. The smell of fresh hay is a smell of my youth…it makes me happy. Sage is everywhere – that beautiful prairie perfume that fills your nostrils with such a welcome. I have some sprigs of it drying in my hat.
Buffalo berries (above) don’t smell that much, but the green patch they’re in did. The green, or dry, smell of prairie grasses, as you walk through in the early evening especially, is a treat. Even the smell of cow manure, or bull manure (two days ago they fetched a young bull out of our camping yard just hours before we got there apparently, is a dark spice – just don’t step in it! I’ve learned, in the smudges, to appreciate the good smell of moist, clean and unchemicaled tobacco…so different from the cigarette addictions I grew up witnessing. Caragana bushes smell like shade. Alkali water stinks as you walk by, tickling your nose with the falseness of water that you can’t drink. And here and there, the best: the smell of green things, of dark earth and poplar shadow under an unblinking sun.
There’s a certain forlornness to Saskatchewan’s countryside, despite the vitality of so many of its cities, towns, and First Nations. When you’re walking 20-25 km through the countryside, you see a lot of abandoned farmsteads. The rural areas have emptied out. Today we passed a cemetery for a town that no longer exists, and the community centre that sheltered us two nights ago was once a local schoolhouse. Today it’s managed by enthusiastic locals – who fed us supper! Many of the smallest towns no longer exist, others are struggling to find purpose. Three nights ago, we camped in Sanctuary, where only an abandoned elevator remains of what was once a thriving community. As you walk, everywhere you look there are old buildings falling into the earth, rusted implements dark red against the grain.
To walk the Battleford Trail is to remember one very important fact: the economic forces that forced the First Nations north to Battleford (and off the land that would stop being feeding ground for bison and soon become a vast factory landscape for wheat, barley and other grains) is still going on. In the late 1800s, those market forces forced out the Indigenous peoples. In the mid to late 1900s, they forced out the small towns and villages of pioneers who settled the prairies.
So, what happens now? Can the children of those settlers, and the children of those First Nations, now live together, both subject to the market forces that have done so much to change the prairies?
(thanks to Ken Wilson for coming up with the phrase ‘Saskatchewan Melancholy’. The photo below shows one of dozens and dozens of abandoned farmyards we’ve passed or stayed at, sometimes only evident by depressions in the earth. Last night we stayed at an old farmyard and looked at the remains of a very solid house foundation, overlooking a slough, protected by a caragana hedge, no longer inhabited. Life changes, especially on the prairies)
In August we’re walking an incredibly important trail from Swift Current to Fort Battleford – a trail used by First Nations, Métis overland freighters, and Colonel Otter’s Canadian militia. Big Bear, after signing Treaty Four, came overland near here. We need to remember our important historical paths, and in the spirit of the TRC, to point out to non-Indigenous peoples how Canadian history has been shaped and formed by the removal of the First Peoples from the land. Are you interested in walking or helping sponsor a walker? You can!