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!
on the subject of – what else? – western Christian pilgrimage (clink on the following link) https://vimeo.com/183303404
“Well, you know, it’s just across the Line,” my aunt said to me, about a town in North Dakota that my cousins were visiting. I haven’t heard that word for a while. In Montreal they don’t use it. But I grew up in Saskatchewan hearing it. “The Line”. Do you know where that word for the US border comes from, I asked my aunt? “No idea,” she answered.
Today is national aboriginal day. The 20th such day, and the first since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission issued its recommendations. Though it’s a small thing, one of the things we who are Settlers can do to mark this day is to remember where some of our words come from. They’re signs of a history willfully forgotten.
I grew up in Treaty Four land – except there were no “Indians”. The First Nations were, for me, like the ancient Egyptians: important people no longer around. What I DIDN’T know, because it wasn’t in my schoolbooks or taught in my classes, or talked about by my parents or grandparents, was that the original inhabitants had only been gone 85 years or so when I was born. The big secret I learned only years later was that they had been pushed off the land they had just signed title to, to make way for people like my grandparents and me.
Using the word “The Line” for the border is a relic of the days not so long ago when the 49th parallel was called “The Medicine Line” by the First Nations, especially the Lakota. They could cross it and the American Army, who were fighting a vicious battle with them south of the border, would not follow. This was good medicine, and at the time, the Canadian government was generally respected for such protection. Soon enough, our government starved the Lakota back south, and pushed the so-called ‘Canadian Indians’ north by starvation, an intentional policy to make an “Indian-free” land-belt for the railroad and its Settlers.
When we say “the Line” for the border, we echo those days. Even better, then: let us actually remember them – with honesty, apology, and intent to make good what was wrongly done.
For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still, sad music of humanity,
Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue. And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man
(William Wordsworth, Tintern Abbey, July 13, 1798)
My dilemma: I know from my own experience that being a pilgrim on a certain bit of the planet helps a person identify better with that bit of the planet. I’m not Norwegian. But I feel more of a connection to Norway having walked several hundred kilometres of the mountains and streams my ancestors knew. I AM a prairie person – sort of, still – even after thirty years in Quebec. Remembering my appartenance (belonging) to the prairie was hard-won with every gust of wind, every blade of speargrass burrowing into my foot, every sunburn, every call of the coyotes at night and every Pils beer consumed in a prairie tavern. If you haven’t tried it, do. It’s great. Not just the Pils. The whole pilgrim experience.
So my thesis for the conference to be held at the College of William and Mary, in Virginia, is simple: walking pilgrimage helps ‘ground’ people like me as Canadians, in our land, so long as we are mindful of the land’s history and of its First Peoples (in other words, so long as we walk honestly).
Then I remembered that “pilgrim” actually comes from the word ‘foreigner’ or ‘alien’. How can a foreigner gain more of a sense of belonging by practicing their pilgrimage (ie foreignness)? I thought my paper was ruined. I stewed on this for several days before it occurred to me. For Newcomers like me, being a pilgrim describes my status EXACTLY. The foreigner (pilgrim) doesn’t own land. Pilgrims only go on by humbly accepting generosity from the land and its inhabitants. The pilgrim needs to be in relationship with others, or they perish. Belongingness (if there is such a word) is reversed. Not the land to me, but me to the land. For a non-First Nations person like me, it means seeing that my belonging to this land in Canada has always been by hospitality. It ONLY comes through recognizing my foreign-ness and the ways in which I have been invited to share in belonging TO the land, by those – ie First Nations – who have belonged to it for so long already.
That makes a whole lot more sense. I think I can present that at the conference.
Clink on the link below for the article that will appear tomorrow (Aug 28 2015) in the Prairie Post. Thanks to Matthew Liebenberg for his questions and writing!
You can find here the radio broadcast of my interview with Radio-Canada, in French, as well as a photo essay by William Burr, also in French, about the trail and our pilgrimage.