The International Writers Magazine: Once Upon a Time in Canada
Sturgeon Landing in Indian Country
Fred C. Wilson III
It was July when I volunteered to join our parish’s Legion of Mary for our annual mission trip abroad. I was assigned to Canada; for a month I was to minister to the Cree Indians. My group was one of several representing the Midwest. All groups were to meet in Minneapolis, Minnesota our rendezvous point before heading off to our various assignments.
Image from: Western Cree Tribal Council
The bus ride from Chicago to Manitowoc, Wisconsin was slow. It stopped in nearly every tiny town along the route. Hours later we pulled into Manitowoc, a small lake front city north of Milwaukee. Two nuns met me at the bus station then drove me to their St. Paul the Apostle Parish. I spent the night in a large Victorian house adjacent to their convent in the country. Being a big city boy the quiet, pitch black night sky, combined with noises made by a very loud assortment of God’s creatures of the night took a bit of getting used to but somehow I managed to get a few hours of shut-eye.
The next day was Sunday. After Liturgy and a hearty all-you-can-eat lumberjack breakfast, I helped the nuns load our stuff in their car. Once loaded we started the long drive to the Twin Cities to link-up with the rest of the groups. The drive through Northern Wisconsin was breathtakingly beautiful. The scenery the rolling green hills of the countryside was indescribable. Reflecting on nature’s beauty you can easily understand why some of the world’s premier writers, artists, and thinkers were inspired to greatness after sending time in the country away from the madness of city life. Hours later we arrived in the Twin Cities.
Our first stop was Winnipeg, Canada. The song ‘America the Beautiful’ became alive as we drove through the length of majestic Minnesota; across the Mississippi at its beginnings as a tiny river wide as two small streams joined together. I looked out over the countryside its grandeur further enhanced by the Handel concert played over the radio made our trip all the more memorable.
It was sometime later when we drove through Fargo. The North Dakota landscape was scenic but flat. I only wished we could have spent a night under the panoramic big night sky of the Dakotas.
Our caravan of cars crossed the Canadian border without much ado. We arrived in Winnipeg early that evening. We bedded down for the night at some small motel near the heart of the city. At first glance this city appears ordinary like other cities. Winnipeg is located near the geographic center of North America. Though small by big city standards ‘Winnipeggers’ have lots to keep them busy besides work, ice hockey, and other outdoor activities. Home to the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and various cultural centers it was the only city to have hosted the Pan-American Games twice once in 1967 and again in 1999.
Canada is very large. The logistics are staggering. It took us many hours to drive from our initial border crossing point to Winnipeg. At a restaurant on the outskirts of Portage La Praire I foolishly let my stomach overrule my brain. In a fit of hunger for pancakes and bacon like a moron I accidentally left the car keys in the ignition then locked the door. Only a minor miracle enabled me to use a coat hanger to unlock the door through the small crack in the upper part of the window. We sped past Riding Mountain National Park past mighty Lake Winnipeg finally arriving in early evening in The Pas, a small city half way through Manitoba.
Driving through The Pas to St. Mary’s Cathedral we parked our cars then unloaded our luggage at the rectory building. The staff welcomed us, showed us around the place and escorted us our rooms. An hour later we had dinner. After we ate we had a meeting the purpose of which to choose our assignments. Using the ‘Eene-Meanie-Mighty-Mo’ method I picked Sturgeon Landing, a small Indian village on the Saskatchewan border. I couldn’t sleep; I was anxious to get started.
Early next morning after breakfast we had Morning Prayer. Two women volunteers one a nun the other the daughter of a very well-to-do entertainment executive who were to join me in Sturgeon Landing. We did some shopping to stock up on a month supply of food and other necessities. When we entered a grocery store an odd feeling came over me. At the time I couldn’t identify it. A strange sadness overwhelmed me. I didn’t tell the two women about my sudden mood swing and pretended nothing happened. We bought what we needed and quickly left.
Years after I left The Pas I discovered the source of my sadness. Hatred for the Native Peoples was intense. Being half-native myself explains the chilly reception I received in the store. Less than two months after departure Helen Betty Osborne a young Native girl an aspiring teacher, was abducted, drove to the outskirts of The Pas where she was beaten, raped, then murdered by a car load of white teenagers. The more the poor girl screamed and pleaded for mercy the more her killers savaged her. They left her to slowly die in agony from her wounds alone in the freezing snow. The good citizens of The Pas knew the girls killers but did nothing.
The city hid the perpetrators from the law under a veil of silence that lasted 16 years after the killing. Thanks to the dogged persistence by Canada’s finest the Royal Canadian Mounted Police the murders were brought to trial. Ms. Osborne’s killers received light sentences and more than likely walking the streets as you read this article. The dead girl’s case is but a single incident of native women being violated in Canada. The book Conspiracy of Silence that later became a TV mini-series written by Lisa Priest is about the murder of Helen Osborne. I didn’t mingle much with the people of that city.
We left The Pas by the lone road that led to the village; a red clay dirt ‘road’ that zigzagged through a forest so dense that even light would have had a tough time penetrating. Our destination was the almost inaccessible Native village of Sturgeon Landing. The trip was rough enough but was made more arduous when it suddenly started to rain. Our vehicle became stuck in a river of thick, brown, mud. We got out and pushed. Huge other worldly looking bubbles formed then burst around us. They gave the land a gooey red clay look as though we were pushing a broken down land rover on Mars. As we sloshed our way large bubbles some measuring 24 plus/minus inches in diameter that burst around us, we didn’t know how close we were to being sucked under and drowned. Fortunate for us the thick, gooey red clay was only waist high, or so we thought. With each footfall it was as though we were being sucked into a liquefied ground that sunk five feet from where we stood. It acted like quicksand but it felt rather therapeutic swishing around in the thick, warn, wet, red clay that lay beneath our exposed toes and soles. People who regularly pay exorbitant prices for medicinal mud baths would have given their ‘eye teeth’ to have been in our situation. The deep thick red liquid had a calming effect that worked like clay magic.
The rain stopped suddenly as it started. It didn’t take long for the clay to harden. We freed our vehicle from the chocolaty goo. We continued to inch our way over the logging trail closer towards the village. When we arrived we parked our station wagon next to a log cabin church whose construction would have made old Abe Lincoln proud. Our assignment: to reclaim the people of this supposedly violent and lawless Native village back into the church of Christ. I was told that the previous pastor a priest had run off with a young Native woman and was never seen nor heard from again.
What happened after we stored our stuff and toured the village was right out of Hemingway. As I walked along the dirt road that lead to the main part of the village some Indian children ran up alongside me and started to pull my hair. They had never seen a tri-racial person before and wanted to see if my hair was real. When we were briefed we were told that under no circumstances were we play with the village children. To Native peoples we were told to comport ourselves with the utmost dignity at all times since discipline and strictness elicit respect. I pretended to ignore their barbs and pulls I introduced myself to the people who were gathered around me as I walked through their village. First impressions do count and I wanted to make mine good.
The local whites, some French Canadian, others English, were glad to see us. They bombarded us with requests to pass out birth control pills to the Indians since ‘they multiply like rabbits.’ I realized I wasn’t on holiday but the front lines. We bandaged minor wounds plus distributed penicillin pills from our medical kit to the sick. The village was divided in half by a raging river that flowed between halves. The tourists lived in a separate compound below the Indian village on the lakeshore and stayed to themselves.
Saskatchewan is God’s Country! One pretty place and the fishin’s good. If you are an avid fisher and would like to go there I advise you to contact: Sturgeon Landing Outfitters-Mr. Jim Metz-Box 24 End of Namew Lake Road-Sturgeon Landing, SK-SOP OHO-Canada or better yet send him an email at: firstname.lastname@example.org. He also rent cabins, motor boats, has a taxi service, and a candy store; don't forget your camera.
My work went smoothly. Problems aside, the place was a virtual Utopia. The people would gladly give you the shirt off their backs without blanking an eye. Everybody was friendly, generous to a fault and nobody locked their doors at night. I wonder if they still do. The locals invited us into their homes and offered us food, soft drinks and lively conversation. The two American women and I parted company a few days after our arrival for professional reasons. We divided the mission duties in half. I worked with the young adults and children; they were comfortable with the seniors.
Sturgeon Landing was accessible during warm months but reachable only by air in winter. Our bush pilot was a mild-mannered French Canadian named Pierre. During our off hours I would listen to him tell stories of his daring aerial exploits during inclement weather when he risked his life to fly ‘his Indians’ to hospitals during medical emergencies. His courageousness was one of many examples of heroism in this isolated village.
I saw more practical Christianity in that village during my brief time there then in my many years living in Chicago. Loving thy neighbor in Sturgeon Landing was more than a metaphor. It was a living reality; speaking about loving thy neighbor as thyself well the good folks at Sturgeon Landing had the habit of taking that a bit too literal. What we would call normal sexual morality was non-existent there. I met a woman who like her Biblical counterpart actually had seven husbands! I met men who had more than one wife and the village teens, nor the local whites didn’t see anything wrong with taking sex breaks in between drinking bouts, fishing, or other activities. To them sex was meant to be enjoyed anytime, anywhere, and for any reason. Whites and Natives intermingled sexually on a regular basis. In my entire time there I rarely ever saw depressed people in any significant numbers.
A favorite ‘game’ among some white men was ‘Squaw Jumping’ but I’ll leave that to your imagination to how that one was played. I thought that places like that only existed in novels about 18th Century British sailors stranded on South Sea Islands or portrayed in novels by James A. Michener. I don’t know how Sturgeon Landing is now, but back then it was a sexual heaven with traditional morality taking the low road. The place was wild; it was our job to bring them back into the warm embraces of Holy Mother Church; yeah—right.
Nearly everybody drank heavily and was damn proud of it. They developed chronic alcoholism into a fine art. These good folks could drink anybody I know under a bus. As a former resident of Chicago’s rough and tumble Robert R. Taylor Housing Projects I was no prude. In the manner of many a minister I would proclaim the Gospel during by day but would party-hardy at night all within the realms of reason of course. I was there to reconvert them and not act in judgment on them, that is unless the situation warranted it; they reminded me of the old neighborhood where I chugalugged [drank to excess] with the best of ‘em.
But a strange thing happened to me as I was walking home one night from one of my late night Catechism classes, I spotted a black heap of something on my doorstep; like an idiot I kicked it. A second later the ‘thing’ suddenly stood up! It was black bear about as tall as me! The beast reared up on its hind legs and bared its claws! I ran! It ran! The bear fled to one direction and I the other. I don’t know who out ran who but I do know this I didn’t return home for hours.
That next morning I told some folks what had happened. About an hour later a jeep load of some very drunken ‘hunters’ with faces as red as beets pulled up alongside the mission house. They were going to hunt the bear and invited me to join in. Seeing their smiling red faces I politely declined. These guys were all totting shotguns and in their thoroughly inebriated state I didn’t want them to mistake me for a bear and accidentally fill me fulla’ holes, skin me, then hang my head over a fireplace. They returned later that evening. I was thankful that nobody got shot; they never did catch that bear.
Another occupational hazard was the angry wasps who attached their hive above our chapel door. We had two doors. I avoided using the one next their nest, but no matter, they dive bombed me every time I passed. I was stung so many times I think I’m immune to bee and wasp venom. After a while I just pulled the barbs from my arms and went about my business.
A bit of history; the Cree Indians migrated to the area thousands of years ago. French fur traders and other adventurers arrived in the area 300 years ago. Both peoples were involved in a lucrative trade in beaver pelts, metal implements, Native women, and liquor. Within a generation the Natives quickly became hooked on hooch the start of many of their problems. Before we arrived we were told about some high school kids who were drowned in a boating accident while liquored up. I remember one time after I had just finished teaching at the local community school, one of my students angrily confronted me outside the mission house with the intention of bashing my brains in with an empty wine bottle. It got ugly. He called me out. I confronted him. After he called me a bunch of not-so-nice-names the guy took a swing at me! I ducked. Too drunk to actually hit me he hit the deck. When he came to his senses he fell to his knees and bawled like a baby. He begged my forgiveness. The next day when he sobered up I gave him the Freddy’s Short Course on Ethnic Pride with a lesson or two tossed on temperance. It worked. I had no more problems from him. Both he and his shy girlfriend became my best students.
Far too many Native Americans on both sides of the border suffer from low self-esteem which spawns chronic alcoholism. Self-hate leads to a sundry of other ills such as spousal abuse and other crimes of violence. One of the many people I counseled was an attractive young woman who was married to an abusive husband. Her eyes swelled with tears as she sobbed how her husband would regularly beat her after heaping torrents of verbal abuse at the poor woman. I did my best to persuade her to leave this guy not knowing at the time that she had no place to go since all her people lived in the same house. Not having sufficient funds to leave or an appreciable amount of education to get a job outside the village she felt trapped and alone. In a sense she was.
Many young attractive Native women leave their reservations for the city and become prostitutes. All are abused; many murdered. During her impassioned plea for help I was so angry I suggested the next time her husband beat that she would try my mother’s cure all method for abusive mates: the ASAHGM [Anti-Spousal Abuse Hot Grits Method] a favorite among many African-American women when dealing with wife beating spouses and abusive boyfriends. R & B singer-turned-minister the Reverend Al Green aka Al Grits was a recipient. ‘Moms Method’ has never known failure. Historically Indians don’t view spousal abuse as individual problems but as indications of failed communities. Spousal abuse and excessive drinking are but two of the many problems confronting Native Americans in Sturgeon Landing and at reserves [reservations] throughout Canada and the U.S.
The nefarious drug trade has reached the reserves. Motorcycle gangs including the Hell’s Angels make regular stops at reservations. Though extremely dedicated the RCMP’S [Royal Canadian Mounted Police] are severely understaffed. When I was in Sturgeon Landing we had the services of a single officer who not only covered our village but villages in an area that comprised an entire county; somehow they manage to get the job done despite the limited resources allotted them.
Namew Lake is Nature’s perfect drinking fountain. The crystal clear lake water brims over with cool, clear, fresh water provided me with an abundance of free samples. I remember one occasion when I together with some of my students took a row boat and headed to the middle of this lake. We stopped, I took the glass I brought, dunked my glass in the water then drank. It tasted good! Naturally I would never drink water near the shore for fear of contamination. Though the water near the center of the lake was so pure you could clearly see the rocks at bottom of the lake and spot schools of fish of varying sizes swim by. The fish appeared close enough to touch. When it came to drinking water we would pour what we needed into a pot, boil it for 30 minutes, let it cool, and repeat the process two more times; only then did we consider it potable.
But it was the scenery that really awed me most. At night I would go outside and lie on the ground and look up at the big sky above. The sky was awash with countless ‘dots’ of varying sizes and colors. It was a sight I never seen in my life until then as now. Think of a sky so bright with stars of every size and description that defied counting. Since we were so far North the Aurora Borealis [Northern Lights] could be seen in all its glory. It was as though God had taken a huge white and gray blanket then drape it across the sky with the stars and planets serving as a backdrop to a drama of light and life that was unfolding.
During the day we were blessed with dandelions; billions of em’ that blanketed the ground outside our mission. Acres upon acres of yellow topped green stemmed flowers could be seen for miles in every direction. It was as though the entire province wore a butter yellow coat so thick as to hide the ground. Before going north I read in a book that described how farmers made an excellent wine from dandelions. I never broached the subject with my Native friends.
Barring the occasional violent act, somebody was stabbed to death a week before we arrived; life on the Reserve was pretty quiet. We did have our share of manic moments. A week into my stay some of my students tipped me off as to where and when a gang of bootleggers who would make there next run near our village. I told the Mountie policing the area who alerted others. As these thugs were unloading boxes of illegal liquor to poison our people, swarms of RCMP’S charged down the hill and busted every one of those bums! It was a scene from Prohibition times. That raid brought their illegal operation to a halt; and who said the practice of religion was dull and irrelevant?
Reader the only thing I just couldn’t get used to was outdoor lavatories. It was the smell. Now I know why they call those stinky structures out houses. Thank goodness for Mr. Crapper the guy who invented the flush toilet.
River bathing is fun! You never have to worry about bathtub rings. Every morning I would go down to the fast flowing river that divided our village and bathe. When I finished I would roll over on my back and for the fun of it let the fast flowing current carry me down river like a log then swim back to where I started. That’s my idea of having fun; great exercise too!
Most people are somewhat aware of the socialist ‘Cradle to the Grave’ mentality prevalent within the Canadian welfare system. I don’t know much about it, but the Canadian government prides itself in taking good care of its Native peoples. They provide reserves with free schools, housing materials, health services and many other amenities available to its citizens.
During the day we would make home visitations, listen to any problems or complaints our clients presented, help with their chores, perhaps pray with them, and try to provide them with workable solutions to getting around life’s many mine fields. Nights were our time off. During those years I was an avid party goer. During the night I would party with the young people though carefully avoiding any of the vices associated with them in efforts to teach by giving good example since Jesus Christ attended social events on a regular basis; besides that’s where the action [souls] were. At other times I’d stay in the mission house reading or conversing with campers who’d show up at our door.
Manual dexterity isn’t my ‘thing.’ The entire Industrial Revolution could have passed me by. Point—one night after we made a large tub of cherry Kool Aide [and no not the Jimmy Jones variety!] for the kid’s lunches I accidentally knocked over a kerosene lamp. Within seconds the wall of the former priest’s house was in flames! Thinking fast I lifted the tub of Kool Aid and doused out the flames. Immediately the fire abated. The next day we made another batch. To our surprise the wall wasn’t stained.
Sunday was our big day. Usually a priest from The Pas would come for Confession and Mass both of which were celebrated in the Cree language. Not having a head for languages I followed the services as best I could. Whenever we held services our little church was packed with people who walked miles to attend. One afternoon during a rain storm as I was standing in a shelter near the mission house waiting for the water to subside, I saw two small boys and two men carry on their backs the church organ they stored in their homes for safe keeping after the resident priest jumped ship. They carried the thing for three miles over the foot bridge in the pouring rain. That’s faith in action.
One of the highlights of the trip was the wild spin we received when our bush pilot offered us rides in his biplane. The guy performed loop-de-loops and other acrobatic stunts with his plane. For fun he would buzz homes and boats on the lake from the air; that guy performed more stunts than professional stunt persons did in Flyboys the movie about combat flying during the First World War!
The day before departure I persuaded my students to throw a party for the entire village. We were missing one key person the drummer for our band. We waited for the guy. After an hour I decided to go and get him. I wasn’t too thrilled about hiking across that wobbly foot bridge over a river in the middle of night to fetch him. When I arrived at his cabin the guy was so inebriated I had to carry him. We made the crossing but I had to lug him the remaining half mile to the Community Center. The two other missionaries didn’t attend. Luckily for us the Mountie who chaperoned the dance nobody got rowdy. The dance was a success and everybody had a good time. We didn’t serve alcoholic beverages only soft drinks with plenty of food for all.
In retrospect our efforts at re-Christianizing the village was a resounding success. We gained a great deal of respect and admiration from our Cree brothers/sisters. We made provisions for a priest to follow through with what we started. When it was departure time the same Indian children who had earlier pulled my hair were running after us as we drove off. They beseeched us to stay with them forever. The good people of Sturgeon Landing didn’t want us to go but we had our own lives elsewhere. I flew back to Chicago from The Pas. I wrote some of my former students but they never returned my letters. I still miss them. For additional information here’s some suggested sources:
© Fred C Wilson 111 October 2014
· Lisa Priest’s ‘Conspiracy of Silence’
· Cree Nation
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