The idea of a “border wall” is not a new one – Americans might be surprised to hear that Indigenous peoples thought of it first, and it was to keep Americans out! In July 1874, one of the British-Canadian border surveyors along the 49th parallel named Albany Featherstonhaugh encountered a group of Assiniboine and Sioux south of Wood Mountain. They queried him closely about the purpose of the survey. When he told them (somewhat disingenuously) it was NOT to prepare for a railway, Featherstonhaugh reported that they were relieved. But they were disappointed, he went on, that some sort of wall or continuous embankment was not to be set up across the plains, since they’d been led to believe that was what was coming. (David McCrady, Living with Strangers. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006, 56). Given history, they’d probably have asked for a wall on the east, too.
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.
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.
This is day two without electricity so I will keep it short. We’re camped right now beside a graveyard, at a small Greek Orthodox church on the NWMP trail. When he could see us far off, struggling through the heat on the final stretch of our 15 miles or so today, a man at the church rang the bell to call us home. Now it’s dark. The graveyard beside our tents overlooks the vast open prairie. There are little solar lights beside the graves, which is perhaps nice, but a touch freaky for us in the tents.
Today was also the day that we were sent off by two RCMP officers, one in serge, and then smudged at the Lakota First Nation as we walked through. Not only that, but we happened to arrive at lunch and were given a wonderful hot meal by them.
So much to say, but not now. After all those miles, many of them through thigh-high grasses and rough pasture (fell into a badger hole once), it’s time for sleep.
My North West Mounted Police Trail walk (AKA Sitting Bull Trail Walk, Lakota Trail pilgrimage, Metis Trail pilgrimage) begins very shortly, on July 17th! Our small group of pilgrims will be greeted at Wood Mountain (Lakota) First Nation with a smudging ceremony and a blessing to send us off. As well, there will be a Royal Canadian Mounted Police ceremony to send us off, as we begin our three week walk. If you would like to donate to help create the documentary of the walk, please see https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/walking-the-medicine-line#/story. We have already met our initial goal, but additional funds raised will go toward hiring a sound person and camera-person to make the documentary even better. Thank-you!
(see the 3-minute video clip here) https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/walking-the-medicine-line#/story
With news of a recent tornado in south-west Manitoba, it seems even more important to ensure that we have an emergency vehicle along for our pilgrimage (most nights we’ll be tenting). It will also serve as our cookshack and toilet. We’ve raised $595 on Indiegogo….one third of the way there!
While I plan conferences and teach pilgrimage classes here in Montreal, my colleague Hugh Henry has been doing the heavy lifting of contacting folks along our planned walking route in Saskatchewan. Some of the on-the-ground details remain to be determined. But the route is set, and those who would like to walk with us for a day, a few days, or longer, are encouraged to contact the SK Historical and Folklore Society, at http://shfs.ca/contact/ for more information and to register their names for the walk.
Today I met with two young film-makers who would like to be part of the project. Some of you may hear from them soon, as they are setting up a crowd-funding site.
In the meantime, here is the tentative itinerary:
NWMP Trail – Walk Schedule
July 17 arrive at Wood Mountain Post Prov. Historic Site Accommodation: camp at Wood Mountain Regional Park (adjacent to Post – pool, showers, food service) Activities: tour Wood Mountain Post; Rodeo and Ranch Museum; NWMP cemetery
July 18 trek ‘commissioning’ event in morning at Wood Mountain Post; walk through W. M. First Nation to Orthodox church south of Glentworth distance: est 13 miles/21 km Accommodation: tenting at church yard; hotel in Glentworth (food service) Bike Hwy 18 – 19 mi./29 km to Glentworth
July 19 from church to McCord distance: est. 12 mi /19 km Accommodation: tenting at campground next to McCord museum (store and service station in town) Bike Hwy 18 – 8 mi./13 km to McCord
July 20 from McCord to Mankota distance: est. 11 mi /17.5 km Accommodation: hotel in Mankota. or tenting in town; showersOther events: public presentation about history of NWMP Trail markers; reconsidering the history Bike Hwy 18 – 11 mi. to Mankota
July 21 from Mankota to Walker farmyard distance: est. 13 mi / 21 k Accommodation: tenting in Walker farmyard Bike Hwy 18 – 41mi. to Val Marie
July 22 from Walker farm to farm at corner of Hwy 18, E of Val Marie. distance: est. 14 mi / 22.5 km Accommodation: tenting in farmyard
July 23 from farm to Val Marie. distance: est. 9 mi / 14 km Accommodation: Val Marie hotel / convent / The Crossing, campground in town
July 24 rest day in Val Marie Activities – visit Grasslands N.P. interpretive centre; Prairie Wind and Silver Sage; etc. Program in evening – presentations at Prairie Wind & Silver Sage (Museum); campfire sing-along Note: `Sleep under the Stars` event at Grasslands National Park on July 25.
July 25 from Val Marie to Range 15/16 road. distance: est. 13 mi /21 km Accommodation: tenting in abandoned farmyard
July 26 from Range 15/16 road to Jensen family ranch. distance: est. 13 mi /21 km Accommodation: tenting in Jensen Ranch yard
July 27 from Jensen Ranch along Frenchman; detour to Bible Camp. distance: est. 8 mi / 13 km Accommodation: Riverview Bible Camp on Hwy #37, south of Frenchman (toilets, showers, campfire)
July 28 from Bible Camp to Gronhovd farm. distance: est. 13 mi / 21 k Accommodation: tenting in Gronhovd yard
July 29 Gronhovd farm to Wig farm (?) along Frenchman river. distance: est. 13 mi / 21 kmAccommodation: tenting at farmyard
July 30 Wig farm (?) to Chimney Coulee. distance: est. 14 mi / 22.5 km Accommodation: tenting at Chimney Coulee
July 31 Chimney Coulee to Eastend. distance: est. 3.5 mi / 5 km Accommodation: Cypress Hotel, Riverview Motel, B&Bs, camp at Pine Cree Reg. Park
August 1 Rest day in Eastend SHFS-sponsored field trips and presentations (archaeology, geology, paleontology, local history, etc.). Communal supper (café or catered) Accommodations: hotel, motel, B&B, Park
Aug. 2 from Eastend to Ravenscrag corner, Hwy 13. distance: est. 13 mi /21 km Accommodation: tenting in Arnal farmyard
Aug. 3 from Ravenscrag corner to farm near Robsart. distance: est. 11 mi /18 km Accommodation: tenting in farmyard near Robsart
Aug. 4 from Robsart to Cypress Lake. distance: est. 15 mi / 24 km Accommodation: tenting at Cypress Lake (no facilities)
Aug. 5 morning at Lake; Cypress Lake to Brost Ranch distance: est. 6 mi / 9.5 km Accommodation: tenting at Clint Brost ranch. NWMP patrol station (Cottonwood Coulee ?)
Aug. 6 Brost ranch to Parsonage Ranch. distance: est. 14 mi / 22.5 km Accommodation: tent at Parsonage Ranch
Aug. 7 Parsonage Ranch to Ft. Walsh distance: est. 5 mi / 8 km Event: welcoming celebration
- Walkers are responsible for providing all of their personal needs. A support vehicle will follow walkers to carry food, bedding and other supplies. Note the towns passed along the route and the possibility of booking motel or related accommodations. (On your own for this.)
- Suggested bike route at beginning of trek is on paved Hwy and parallels the NWMP Trail. There is the opportunity to join walkers during stops at Wood Mountain, McCord, Mankota or Val Marie. Daily travel distances and pace to be determined by individual bikers.
- There may be opportunities to trace the Trail on horseback, along dirt roads or through pastures. Details on dates and locations will be determined after landowners have been consulted, and may be affected by weather events.
- The daily walk schedule may be affected by weather, so distances and stops are approximate. Also, the number of walkers able to access cultivated fields may be restricted by landowners.
Today we scouted the beginning of the North-West Mounted Police Trail. It meant piling five of us into a big Dodge Ram and pounding over the Wood Mountain hills. Thelma, a renowned poet and historian from the area, called it the “Boundary Commission Trail” several times, since the original NWMP trek was further north. Or it might be the “Metis Trail”, or the “Major Walsh” trail (although she doesn’t have kind words for him).
Anyway, we scouted it. Today we pulled out maps. Come summer we will walk.
Between then and now dreams and visions.
I have in my jacket pocket two smooth stones – river pebbles, worn by years of exposure first to running water, and then to wind, snow, rain and sun. When I picked them up they were still so warm from the late autumn Saskatchewan sun that I could put my hand in my pocket and feel the warmth lingering there.
The stones come from the foot of the first concrete marker in the North West Mounted Police Trail. It was at the Wood Mountain historical site, site of the Wood Mountain trading post, and of the original boundary survey camp. It’s a three-hour drive south and east of Regina, on increasingly small roads, where I met local historian and NWMPT curator Hugh Henry.
Technically, the young, untested recruits from Ontario started further east. In their second-hand gear and with their quick training , they were so poorly-equipped for the harsh environment facing them that by the time they reached Wood Mountain they’d already see a number of their horses die and had been beaten down by storm, swamp, and pest. Jim Daschuk, author of Clearing the Plains, told me how the SK First Nations still recount how the NWMP recruits contracted lice and fleas so badly that they had to teach them how to take off their clothes and put them onto ant hills where the ants could eat the lice and thus relieve the young military force. The thought of the future red-coated pride of Canada buck-naked on the open prairie on their first expedition west to “save” the Indians says a lot about how our history needs to be revisited.
Between Hugh Henry, Jim Daschuk, Kathy Grant, Brenda Peterson and others I learned a lot about the NWMP trail this visit. I’m hoping that some of us will walk the trail in the next year or two, not just to commemorate the brave and young Ontario men who came west, but also the Metis, and First Nations peoples who were there already to meet them, who had walked the trail, and who would soon be pushed off the very land they then called their own.