As the priest stood in the wind, struggling to nail that bit of paper to his church door, Spirit-in-Stone thought he looked more than ever like a flightless crow.
“What are you nailing up there, No-Fly-Crow?” she called in Cree.
His other name was Father Gerald but no one ever called him that. “A notice, from the government. Any half-bloods assembled at Poplar Lake on June 26 are to be given a substantial gift.”
“What do they say they’ll give?”
“Two hundred and forty acres of land for each half-breed child, 160 for…” the wind caught the end of his sentence and blew it across the prairie.
Spirit-in-Stone snorted. Poplar Lake was too far to trudge with children for some white man’s promise.
But that evening, the men decided the women should go north with No-Fly-Crow to get the scrip, while the men themselves went south for the hunt. The women would have the dogs to pull the travois, and when they reached the lake there’d be duck eggs and fish in abundance to feed the children. Dupuis and the other men hitched their two-wheeled wagons to their horses and strapped their buffalo rifles to their backs, promising they’d return burdened with meat. The women frowned and the cart wheels squeaked as the men disappeared into the prairie dust.
“What good is meat without hands to make the pemmican?” Minette Lavallee wanted to know.
Spirit-in-Stone shrugged. “What good are women’s hands without meat to cut?”
All the way to Poplar Lake, Spirit-in-Stone and the other mothers kept their eyes sharp for edibles. When Spirit-in-Stone spotted a grasshopper, she veered to meet him, deftly crushing his head and popping him into her berry bag for future roasting. A glimpse of the blue flower of the prairie potato pulled her to her knees. She bent to loosen its root, thwacked off the excess clods, then tucked it into her bag—still not enough, but maybe some freshwater mussels at the creek tonight, she hoped.
The priest suddenly stood, flustered, red-faced. Was he afraid of a breast now? Spirit-in-Stone shut her eyes and shook her head in disbelief.
Near sunset the dogs smelled their destination. They strained at their burdens, eager to run the last little way over the ridge. Spirit-in-Stone and the other women shouted, unharnessed them, freed them to race ahead and splash into the shallow creek with the faster children and puppies. No-Fly-Crow slid down the crumbling ridge and settled on the bank, drawing attention to his suffering as he wiped his face with that big white cloth he always used to save his snot. Spirit-in-Stone kept her disapproval to herself, pulled off her dusty moccasins and moved towards the water. For a long moment she stood in the shallows, at the edge of the splashing of children and dogs, noticing sadly the smallness of their numbers, the thinness of their naked bodies and the lines of their ribs. With cupped hands she pulled water to her mouth, then she shifted the carrying board so she could unlace the baby to give him his turn. He squawked at the insult of cold water on his tender bottom parts, but when she settled on the sand and pulled out her breast, pushing the nipple into his mouth, all was bliss with him.
Not so with the priest who suddenly stood, flustered, red-faced. Was he afraid of a breast now? Spirit-in-Stone shut her eyes and shook her head in disbelief. So many months he’d spent with her people, yet he remained unfledged, a chirping chick.
Three-and-a-half days later their little expedition arrived at Poplar Lake to find it crowded already with other Métis families, all as scrawny, hungry and ragged as Spirit-in-Stone’s band. There were white men too, government men with gold buttons and hair like millipedes above their lips, who sat at tables and chairs as the poplar fluff dropped onto their impractical hats, ledgers and papers. And a third type of man: fierce-eyed, who watched Spirit-in-Stone as a wolf watches a hare. If these were predators, she and her children must surely be prey, Spirit-in-Stone knew. When her turn finally arrived and she stepped to the head of the line she pushed her voice deeper and louder than usual. “My man is Alain Dupuis. He wants land scrip.”
“Where is he, then? Only those present qualify. We made that abundantly clear.”
The translator gave her a sympathetic look. (Of course her man had gone to look for buffalo, what else could he do?)
She pulled her children around her, Wapoose and Marie-Louise. “These are his children, Métis same as him, and the baby Jean-Paul on my back. Give them land scrip.”
The government man asked for places and dates and more names. He had to make marks on paper, lots of them. But he did eventually hand over the scrip, three rectangles decorated with flowing lines which he said were each good for 240 acres. All she had to do, he told Spirit-in-Stone, was “go to the Land Titles Office. In any town.”
He must know how far the closest was: at least three days’ trek for a healthy man; for women with children the walk could take more than twice that. Appalled by the distance, Spirit-in-Stone stood looking at the government man numbly. The sweep of his dismissive arm drew her eyes and attention to the pack of predators she had noticed earlier, fierce-eyed white men mostly, jostling, smiling and waving paper money to get her attention. “Or you can sell them right now to one of these gentlemen, save the journey, save yourself the walk.”
By this time most of the Métis had done just that. Even the ones travelling with No-Fly-Crow had traded their scrip for food and cash and knives and blankets. Spirit-in-Stone and Minette Lavallee were the only holdouts. They wanted food and knives, too, but they yielded to the priest’s urgings. “You must get the land!” he kept repeating. “It’s your children’s and grandchildren’s best chance for survival.”
Land lay in every direction: north, south, east, west. No piece of paper could change the land’s willingness to hold its children. Or could it? The way the predators pushed and jostled for that scrip, they must think so themselves. Maybe take the priest’s advice?
Men, fierce-eyed, watched Spirit-in-Stone as a wolf watches a hare. if these were predators, she and her children must surely be prey.
So they travelled on, Minette and Spirit-in-Stone and their children, following the unfledged priest. Through the flicking and clicking of insects, through the heat and the trail’s dust and the clinging burrs, through the scratching prairie grasses, they followed him. Another hot and hungry day, and then another. The terrain changed from open prairie to patches of bush, a slow-flowing river they stumbled across, a rocky place where Spirit-in-Stone counted the number of moccasins she’d have to make or mend at the end of the trek. She weighed the berry bag, still not enough. A day that rained continuously, a day of mosquitoes and flies, a hot and hungry week they spent, subsisting on roasted grasshoppers, bulrush marrow and tubers augmented by the still-edible portion of a badger they found drowned in a creek.
And on the morning of the eighth day they reached the shiny steel lines of the railway track, which No-Fly-Crow said was the surest path to the white-man’s town, and from there proceeded along this strange raised route until a rumbling thunder accompanied by the trembling of the earth caused Spirit-in-Stone to scan the horizon for buffalo.
“Here it comes!” shouted No-Fly-Crow. “Stay off that track!” The children leapt and shouted at the clacking racket, the clouds of white steam and black smoke. The cars swayed and the passengers stared through the glass as they whizzed past, coal and wood and white things like stones or bones whipping along in the open wagons behind. The children sprinted to keep up, catch up, run after, but it was half a day before the straggling group came within sight of the town. Then Spirit-in-Stone’s heart sank and she felt the deep dread of bad medicine even before her eyes discerned the meaning of the gleaming white heaps.
Bones stacked as high as a teepee and extending as far as its poles laid end to end—animal bones, too many to count, too many to comprehend, antlers of deer and elk, even some moose, but mostly the bones of the buffalo picked clean and bleaching white, lay piled in the sun. Men wearing jackets and trousers and boulder-shaped hats shouted as they tossed more bones from a wagon, stacking the piles still higher. By squeezing her eyes Spirit-in-Stone tried to diminish her dread, but when she opened them again the piles remained, stretching grimly along the rail line, farther than an arrow’s flight. “Too many dead,” she said as the priest wiped his pink face with his white cloth and moved his fingers up and down from his head to his chest to his shoulders.
Now full of dread, Spirit-in-Stone pushed herself to keep up with the others, past a scatter of houses, then east onto a busy street. All eyes darted to follow the sounds: the squeaking of wagons and rattling of carriages, a clank, clank, clank, clank of hammering. A honey-like, moist aroma pulled them first to the door of what No-Fly-Crow called a bakery, but they’d scarcely begun to inhale the dewy sweetness and imagine the joy in their mouths when a woman scolded them away. No-Fly-Crow only sighed, then led them to the window of the next building, which he called a General Store. Here the children pressed their noses and foreheads against the glass, their little fingers moving over the surface trying to discover its secrets. They chattered and questioned and marvelled until a man with pelts down the sides of his face drove them away with two slashes of his gold-topped stick.
Then No-Fly-Crow steered the whole expedition towards the plainest, smallest building on the street, their destination. Inside was a soap-smelling government man like the ones they’d seen at Poplar Lake. He stayed behind his barricade while he showed them a map and helped No-Fly-Crow name the shapes: “Here’s Whitefish Lake. Here’s the town. Here’s the railway line.”
When Minette nodded and pointed to a place with good fishing, lots of deer and saskatoons, the government man said, “That whole area is homesteaded,” pulling the map a little away from the women. “Tell your half-breeds to choose somewhere else.”
So then No-Fly-Crow pointed to a place with a line like a snake untangling itself: Minnow Creek, where they’d found the drowned badger on their trip out. “Maybe choose that for your children?”
“Yes,” said Spirit-in-Stone quickly. “Sweet water; good medicine.”
But the government man said everything along that creek was already taken too. “Pick again.”
Finally Spirit-in-Stone settled on land near Duck Marsh. It was farther north than the other places they’d considered, but good for trapping in winter, plenty of bears, moose in the fall.
“Done,” said the government man when they had made their marks. “You’re all set. Come back in a few weeks and we’ll have the titles for you.”
“What did he say?”
“The papers that prove you own the land.”
Spirit-in-Stone scowled. She had carried, coaxed and cajoled her little ones to Poplar Lake on the promise of land, only to acquire scraps of paper. Now she had dragged them farther still, eight days on this longer, hotter, thirstier journey to the town, yet this ridiculous man was telling her to march her children away and return a third time for another batch of silly papers? A weaker woman would have shouted or spat in the man’s face, but Spirit-in-Stone only picked up the scraps, called her children to her, and headed for the outside air.
She stepped into a shoving and struggling crowd. “If you’ve got scrip there…” “Top price over here!” From the mouths of a dozen white faces came Cree and Michif words, oddly pronounced. Here was the man with the gold-capped cane who had slashed at her children, now tugging at No-Fly-Crow’s sleeve and whispering in urgent French.
No-Fly-Crow reached to protect the group from behind as he ushered them through the tumult. “Don’t trade. Don’t trade.” Back onto the trail beside the rail line he steered them, past the yards they had seen on the way in, never slowing their pace until the scrip traders had given up. Then they came to a wood-frame house where a woman squeaking and squealing a pump handle up and down splashed water into a wooden bucket. The white woman spoke to No-Fly-Crow in French and soon engaged Spirit-in-Stone’s boy, Wapoose, in the same language, inviting everyone to drink. Then, while all were quenching their thirst, the clap of the house door pulled their attention to a second gift. “Mangez! Bon appétit!” and she held forth a marmot-sized bannock, which she sliced and passed around to everyone’s delight.
In a clever rocking bed, near the white woman’s chair on the porch, lay a pale baby with hair the color of a thrush’s breast. Spirit-in-Stone stared at the orange curls, then, remembering her own infant, became aware that her breasts leaked milk. The white woman patted a place on the steps for Spirit-in-Stone to sit, then helped to lift off the carrying board, after which she sat fingering and admiring it, asking questions of No-Fly-Crow.
Spirit-in-Stone teased her baby with nuzzles of face and nose, but before exposing her tit to plug his mouth she couldn’t resist exchanging amused glances with Minette, just a smirk ahead of time at how the priest was sure to bolt at the first sight of her “terrifying” breast. Sure enough, he jumped to his feet, skittered down the steps, moved away across the yard, clasped his hands behind his back, and spoke while strolling and searching the sky as if engrossed by clouds. “I believe… I shall pay… a visit to Father Antoine, half an hour at most.”
Once the priest was gone, Wapoose and Minette’s eldest took over the translations from French to Cree and Cree to French. First they traded names, then they traded information. The white woman inquired how far they had come and how far they had yet to go and whether they still had their scrip. Wapoose wanted to know how the pump pulled the water out of the earth, and how a white woman’s body could squeeze so narrow at her waist while her rear stuck out so far behind.
The white woman attempted explanations before disappearing into the dark of her house then returning a moment later with a jar of sweet cooked fruit and a spoon. From this she doled out heavenly samples to the mothers first and then to the children, sharing squeals of delight over the raptures of each taster.
Did they intend to camp here waiting for the news from the Land Titles Office? Did they trust the government to honour the papers even? The white woman doubted it would, not for Métis, sad but true. Why not trade their scrip for food and gear? How much scrip did they have?
Over the threshold she dragged by its burlap ear a bag of potatoes. With that now perched nicely on the top step she pointed to a black cow grazing near a shed. “Take that cow. I’ll add a box of bullets and my husband’s rifle and more jars of preserves.” She disappeared again into the house and reappeared, arms loaded. “Cow, potatoes, two more jars of jam, rifle, half a large and one small box of ammunition, one three-stripe blanket—what do you say?”
Spirit-in-Stone considered the pile. She looked to Minette who nodded and said she was tired of traipsing her children over the prairie for nothing. “Okay,” they said together. They handed over their seven paper scraps. Then they packed the newly acquired provisions onto the dog travois and the back of the cow.
When all was ready, No-Fly-Crow came hurrying around the corner. His eyes darted first to the rifle strapped to the travois. He stopped short, sized up the blanket and the sack of potatoes and the cow. “You traded this?” His arms flapped up, then down.
Spirit-in-Stone shrugged acknowledgment.
“For 1,600 acres!” Now lathering like a sick dog, he untangled the ropes to free the potatoes, the blanket, the rifle and ammunition, then, grabbing up what he could, marched to confront the woman. “The trade is off. Give back the scrip.” He dumped the goods onto the steps at her feet as she sat rocking her infant.
She only rearranged the child’s wraps.
His voice grew larger, angrier. He jabbed his finger close to her face.
Watching, Spirit-in-Stone knew what would happen next as if she herself were rocking in that chair. The white woman blinked at the priest, leaned back, opened her clothing by manipulating some buttons, pulled out her pale breast, then squeezed it sideways towards her child’s mouth.
And Spirit-in-Stone knew also what the priest would do. She knew the fight would drain instantly from his face, and that he would turn, flustered, before descending the steps heavily. And when he did just that, wiping his face with that big white cloth of his, she marvelled at the oddness of these white people, at their love of paper, his fear of breasts, and their unanimous belief that land can belong to a person, when obviously people can only belong to the land.
Lorie White, born and raised in Edmonton, studied English and language history at the University of Alberta.