In my childhood church we walked a short loop, some evenings, along the Stations of the Cross. They were 14 bas-relief renditions of ordeals suffered on the day Jesus was crucified, arrayed along the outside walls. Walk, contemplate, pray; walk to the next one.
My great-great uncle Victor put great stock in such trappings of his faith. In the late 1800s he served as a lay missionary brother on the Piikani reserve at Brocket. His letters home were full of requests for icons, vestments and other symbols of his European religion. He felt he needed them to introduce the Indigenous people to the sacred.
Victor’s journey to Brocket began after he arrived in Calgary in 1886 on the brand new Canadian Pacific Railway. His route south from there followed the Macleod Trail, which incorporated parts of the old North Trail, an ancient route lying just east of the foothills. Used by countless generations of Indigenous people, it crossed dry, windy plains along a way that offered reliably good water and abundant food in the form of berries, medicine plants and wintering bison herds.
The places had their own songs, ceremonies and sagas; travel on these trails was as much a spiritual practice as a practical journey.
That trail didn’t, however, follow the easiest and most efficient route from north to south. It veered west and then east along a line that connected sacred and storied landforms, glacial erratics and cottonwood groves. The Siksikaitsitapi (Blackfoot) and other peoples who created the trail didn’t make it just for travel; it was a way of living their culture. That landscape was full of spiritual meaning. The places it connected had (and still have) their own songs, ceremonies and sagas; for Indigenous people, travel on such trails was as much a spiritual practice as a practical journey, if not more.
The Macleod Trail, rutted deep with the marks of Indigenous travois and more recent carts and wagons, followed a braided way across vast plains of ripening bunchgrass, dipping in and out of valleys full of cottonwoods, wolf willow and wild roses. To the west the Rockies etched the horizon until the long line of the Porcupine Hills obscured the view to what the Siksikaitsitapi still know as the Miistakis, the backbone of the world.
“We travel for eight days,” Victor wrote in his journal, “always through meadows, mountain up and mountain down, one after the other… We have to ford seven or eight rivers, no bridges. Sometimes we have to unload the carts and work half a day to get across. At night we sleep in tents and make a good fire to keep us warm and to cook our food and drinks.”
Each of those river crossings today hosts a town that grew from campsites where travellers on that ancient trail once stopped. Most occupants of those towns, like my family, are descended from European roots. To them the modern version of that trail is just a highway.
For Victor the trail cut across a savage, godless land, taking him to find new souls for his Catholic god. Steeped since birth in the unquestioned rightness of his Christianity, he never doubted that these were primitive people awaiting revelation of the sacred. His disdain, recorded in his journals, is painful reading today: “On Saturday we see the first tents of the savages… what poor dwellings! The savages… grubby and dirty… have brown skins, long hairs and are wrapped in a blanket or piece of rug. Unhappy in body and soul!”
Victor spent many years as a missionary to the Blackfoot people. Eventually he became friends with some who accepted his faith. Most didn’t, and he frequently expressed exasperation with what he considered their laziness and lack of interest. As a European, his idea of productive and righteous life had no room for their lifeways and strange ceremonies. He never recognized the deep, abiding trauma that afflicted so many now that the bison were gone, their freedom lost and a growing flood of aggressive Europeans arriving to kill the prairie sod. He couldn’t see how he himself, in his efforts at conversion, contributed to that trauma. It irked him right up until his final departure back to Europe.
Victor never saw the irony of his having arrived in the Siksikaitsitapi homeland by way of their North Trail. For the Indigenous people the surrounding landscape was not mere scenery. Simply to be on that land was profoundly spiritual. Travel, on a trail connecting sacred places, was liturgy. In a sadly ironic way, he blindly stumbled past their Stations of the Cross on that original journey from Calgary to his new mission at Brocket.
Victor and his missionary colleagues didn’t bring the sacred to southwestern Alberta. It was already here. The Siksikaitsitapi knew that. They still do. And their trails remain for those who seek to see more clearly and humbly a land whose spirits Victor and those who came after him never, fortunately, succeeded in erasing.
Kevin Van Tighem’s Wild Roses Are Worth It: Reimagining the Alberta Advantage will be released in April 2021 by RMB.