River 9 - Reunions and Crafts

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River

By Dawn Natelle

CHAPTER 9

So far: River is back in the park after a long ride to Sault Ste. Marie, where she met, and collected two of the river's people who had been trapped in a cycle of prostitution and drug addiction. She will take them to the river as soon as they arrive at the campsite.


They pulled into the campsite at about 10:30, after letting Gail and Gina off at the JR camp. The tired boys immediately went to their tent, and Alison told River that she would look after unloading the van should the native girls need some attention. River immediately walked the girls back down to the river. Both were starting to show some reactions that they needed a fix.

"We can't go in there," Marilyn exclaimed at the river bank. "The river is too cold. When we were kids we couldn't even wade in it for more than a few minutes."

"Trust me," River said, and walked into the water. She held out a hand to the sisters. Shelly reacted first, and stepped in, letting out a small shriek at first.

"It's not bad," Shelly told her sister. "Real cold for a second, but then it is okay."

Marilyn then followed her in, again squealing a bit as she first touched the water, then feeling a warmth as the river flowed around her. The three girls walked out into the middle of the river, until the water was up to their chests. River started to sing in Ojibwe, singing her familiar song of the history of the people.

The sisters listened to the sounds, which reminded them of the days of their youth when elders would sing in the language at pow-wows and celebrations. Sooner than they would have thought, they realized that they were understanding some of the words, then sentences, and finally all of the song. They even understood the early verses that River had sung. As they listened to the history of their people, they began to feel pride. Pride in being Ojibwe, and pride in themselves. On the streets in the Sault, they had been abused, called 'dirty Indians', and treated like lesser beings by the men who used their services. Now they again felt pride in their heritage and realized that they were every bit as good as anyone else.

Soon they were singing the chorus of the song with River, and the three part harmony made a joyful sound as it rang up and down the river. The night was full when they had entered the river and now close to midnight they could only see by the stars. As they continued to sing, the river healed them, and the awfulness of what they had done in the city started to fade. It would never disappear, but now was pushed back in their memories.

Marilyn hugged River in the moonlight. "Thank you so much. We feel blessed now. But what are we to do? We can't go back to our lives in Sault Ste. Marie. And we can't face our families."

River put an arm around each of the two sisters, and led them carefully to the shore. "Are you certain you can't meet your family?" She pointed to the riverbank. Standing there were seven people, three adults, and four children, ranging from a babe in arms up to the 10-year-old girl holding the baby. Marilyn stopped, still in the water as she recognized who they were, and a second later Shelly saw too. She leaped out of the water and embraced one of the adults.

"Mama," she cried, as the older woman embraced her in her arms. "Oh Mama, I have been so bad. How will you ever forgive me?"

"Baby, I never gave up hope that you would come back to me, and now I find you coming out of our river. You know that nothing bad ever comes out of this river. And now I get the gift of my daughters coming out." She put forth her other arm, and Marilyn finally edged out of the river and slowly came up to it, not certain she could accept it. But when she did, and the arm of her mother was once again hugging her tightly, she melted into it and felt safer than she had felt in years.

Shelly moved over to hug her father, and Marilyn got full attention from her mother. Both adults and both sisters were sobbing freely in joy, when River finally took a hand from the other adult to get out of the river. It was only when the third adult moved from behind the others and she saw that it was her friend Wayne.

"Wayne," she said in surprise.

"Thank you for bringing my sisters back to us," he said. He was fighting tears himself. "We have missed them dearly for so long."

"I didn't know they were your sisters. I just saw that they were people of the river, and had to bring them back."

"We felt the river calling us a half hour or so ago. We got the young ones out of bed and came down. The river told us to turn off our flashlights when we were getting close, so we walked the last bit in the moonlight. We could hear you all singing."

"It was beautiful," the mother said. "I thought at first that the song was why the river had called us. Then when you were all coming out we discovered that it was my own babies making that heavenly music. I didn't know you could sing."

"We couldn't," Shelly said. "I sounded like a lake freighter's fog horn, and Marilyn was worse. But singing the song of our people ... it just felt so right."

"Sometimes the river gives a gift to those it helps," River said, breaking out of Wayne's strong grasp. "Your beautiful singing voices may be your gift from the river."

Soon the girls had moved from their parents, and Wayne now had his oldest sisters hugging him. "How can you forgive us," Shelly said. "You are the college boy, and we were just ..."

"You were just my sisters, and I love you," Wayne interrupted. "You must never run away again. Things are better here now, and River will make sure that you are all right."

Just then the shy little 10-year-old stepped forward. "Liesl?" Marilyn gasped. "You have grown so big. And who is that you are holding."

"It is Mark. He's 10 months old now. Do you want to hold him?"

Marilyn just stared at the tiny baby, and said nothing, although the joy disappeared from her face. Shelly jumped in, and took the little one from her younger sister and started cooing and making baby talk to the child. She didn't even notice Marilyn turn away and walk away from the rest.

Helen, the mother, and River did notice, and immediately ran after the girl, who was now sobbing hysterically. "What is wrong?" Helen asked enveloping the girl in her arms again. "Nothing bad can happen to you here. This is your home."

"I'm horrible," Marilyn wailed hysterically. "I killed him!" By now the rest had noticed her distress and Ben, the father, and Wayne had moved over to be with her, while gesturing for Shelly to keep the small ones a distance away.

"Who did you kill?" Wayne asked.

"My ... my ... my baby," the girl wailed. "I guess a condom broke or something, and then I missed a couple periods, so Pierre made me go to the clinic. He said he wasn't going to have me not working, and didn't want a kid messing around. It was just before Shelly came down, so I was all alone. And I killed him."

River moved in on the other side from Helen to hug Marilyn. "No my dear," she crooned. "It wasn't you that killed him. It was Pierre. He sounds like a real piece of work." Then she started singing in Ojibwe, The Funeral Song. After a few seconds Helen joined in, then Ben and Wayne added their deeper voices to the song that the people traditionally sang to send a loved one to the next world.

As they sang, Marilyn's sobs slowly diminished, and near the end of the song she joined in singing as well. Finally the song faded off across the river, and she smiled tentatively. "I feel better now. That was tearing me up inside for a long time. I didn't even tell Shelly," she said, looking at her sister, who had moved closer while the song was being sung. She had even joined in at the end, when Marilyn had started singing.

"Who were we singing for?" Shelly asked.

"I got pregnant a couple years ago. Pierre made me have an abortion. I never told you."

"Is that why you were always on my case about making sure I had good condoms?" Shelly said. She passed the baby over to River, and then embraced her older sister. "You should have told me."

"I was embarrassed," Marilyn said. Now it was Liesl who was on the other side, hugging her eldest sister. A moment later, Marilyn said: "Now let me meet my brother Mark."

River reluctantly handed the baby to his sister. River had never thought about being a mother; until a few days ago, she had never even thought about being a girl. But holding the tiny baby for those few minutes awakened a maternal feeling in her that she didn't know existed. It was a small itch now, but she knew it would grow over time. And she would never be able to scratch the itch, if she wanted to remain true to the river.

The family headed back to their home. They had a pickup truck parked at the campsite, and Ben and the returning daughters were in the cab while the rest sat in the back. River found herself nestled in Wayne's arms, while Liesl sat on her lap, holding Mark. Helen and her two boys took positions on the other side of the truck bed as they rode the bumpy road to the Stormcloud house.

It was well after midnight when they came to the Stormcloud home, which was one of the older ones on the reservation, near the western edge. It was surrounded by several acres of land, and there were no cut lawns around it, but wild and untamed bush. Two abandoned pickups and an abandoned car were off to one side, like many of the native homes River had seen.

The house itself had a "shack-like" appearance, or to be more accurate, it looked like several shacks joined together. Marilyn explained that the central portion had been the original home when Helen and Ben married, and new additions had been added with the birth of almost every child. Behind the house was a large barn-like structure.

"It is pretty crappy," she said, and Shelly nodded her head.

"I don't think so," River objected. "It certainly doesn't look like a city house, and if it were in the city I'm sure the neighbors would object. But it was built by your father with his own hands. There is a certain beauty in that. If you don't look at it like a sterile building, but instead of as a token of your dad's love for you, then it is actually quite beautiful."

Neither girl spoke for a minute, then Shelly let out a gasp: "I see it. It really is beautiful. It is just so ... Papa." A second later Marilyn made the connection, and also gasped with the realization that her home was so much more beautiful that she had ever seen.

"We should let you go to bed. It is so late," Marilyn said.

"Are you tired?" River asked.

"No, I am not, but I should be," Marilyn said. "We were up early, and it was a long and tiring day. I would have fallen asleep on the way up here if ... if I hadn't needed ..."

"You will never need that again," River said firmly. "And you don't need to sleep either. Or eat, I bet. The river sustains us, and we were in there for quite some time. That's why I had your dad bring me here, rather than to the JR camp. I won't need sleep for hours."

"Me either," Shelly said. "Maybe we should go out to Papa's workshop. We don't want to wake the ones who are sleepy."

The three girls walked out to the big barn behind the house, and River gasped when Marilyn turned on the lights. The room was filled with canoes, snowshoes, and other woodcrafts.

"This. Is. Amazing." she said. "Your Dad did all this? It is beautiful." She brushed by one cedar strip canoe that nearly shone in the lights in the workshop. Next to it was a birch bark canoe that had a fanciful design of a moose on the front.

"Dad does the construction. Mom does the painting, and weaves the webs for the snowshoes," Shelly said proudly. "Over there are some drum bodies. John Lonewolf puts the heads on them, but he says that Papa's frames are much better than anything he can do."

"Oh look," Marilyn noted, pointing at some circular design pieces hanging by the door. "Those must be Liesl's. She is starting to make Dreamcatchers. The webs are a bit immature, not like Momma's"

"I don't know," Shelly said, pointing to one higher up. "That one is the last one I made before I went to the Sault. Liesl's looks just as good as it."

"What is a dreamcatcher?" River asked.

"It is a spider's web. In the olden days, we believed that the Spider Woman made them to protect the people. Now other tribes make them, and feel that they catch bad dreams. They do have something to do with dreams, although they definitely do not prevent nightmares."

"I can't believe how talented you all are," River said. "Do you ever sell any of this stuff?"

"Dad sells a canoe every year or so, and the odd pair of snowshoes. You will need a pair for this winter, and probably your Dad too, if he is going to work up here," Marilyn said.

"Yeah, I guess the snow gets pretty deep around here. When does it start?"

"The first blast will come in November. If we are lucky, that will melt away a bit before the first storms in December. But the snow from that will be still there until late March or early April. With a storm every week or so, the drifts can be 10 feet or more deep where there haven't been any plows," Marilyn said. "You need snowshoes to walk on top of it. For you, one of these smaller Bearpaw models will hold your weight. But your Dad will need a traditional Ojibwe model."

"What do they cost?" River asked.

"I doubt Dad will charge you, but normally he sells the Bearpaw for $100 and the traditional for $200. More if it is to someone outside the tribe. It takes about a week to make and web a Bearpaw, and about two weeks for a traditional."

"Is that all he charges? What does he charge for a canoe? How long do they take to make?"

"Both cedar and birch bark take over a month to make. He charges $1000 for the cedar, and $1200 or so for the birch, because of the time it takes Momma to paint them," Marilyn said.

"That isn't enough money," River protested. "Even making canoes that is only $12,000 a year, and a lot less than that for snowshoes. What about dreamcatchers?"

"Liesl probably spent like a week on that one," Shelly said. "But she is a beginner. Mom can do one in a morning. I don't know of anyone ever selling one though. You usually make them for yourself, or as a gift for a friend."

"I've seen some for sale at pow-wows," Marilyn said. "They can go for $20 to $50, usually."

"Fifty dollars?" River was incredulous. "Even if you could make 10 in a week that is pretty small money for such beautiful art."

"Yeah, but there are not so many ways for our people to make cash," Marilyn said. "That is why it was so tempting to go to the Sault and make money ... the way we did. It seemed pretty good at first, until Pierre started taking half, and then got us on drugs to take the other half. We were pretty much slaves at the end." She ended with a sob, and River and Shelly rushed over to hug her.

The girls talked through the early morning, and into the early dawn. Around 6 a.m., they moved into the kitchen, and started making a breakfast. River was surprised to see that the inside of the house was neat and tidy. There weren't all the modern appliances of a Toronto house, but there was a homey, welcoming feel to the home. Helen, the mother, was the first of the sleepers to rise, and had a miles-wide smile on her face when she saw that coffee had been made and bacon, eggs, toast, and pancakes were in various stages of completion, without her needing to do any work.

"My wonderful girls are back," she said gladly, gathering Shelly and Marilyn into her arms in a hug. "Does this mean I am no longer chief cook and bottle-washer for this battalion?"

"Nope. It means you are promoted to supervising cook and bottle-washer," River said with a giggle. "Dig in. I'm sure that the rest of your troop will be out shortly."

"Immediately," Ben said, coming out to hug his wife, and then his girls. Wayne was not far behind. As they started to chow down, the younger girls, Liesl, Marta and Gretl came out smiling at the sight of their family happily eating. During the night Marilyn had told River that Helen had seen the Sound of Music shortly after Shelly's birth, and had named her later children after the children in the movie.

"So why isn't this little one's name Kurt, or Friedrich?" Marilyn asked as she brought out tiny Mark to complete the family. He had been born after even Shelly had left the house.

Helen giggled, and Ben answered: "It was discussed, but I decided that she would probably want a Brigitta and Louisa to complete the set, along with another boy. I was NOT in favor of that many more kids around here. I think what we have is a perfect number."

"Awww," River said as Marilyn passed the baby off to his mother, who started feeding him in the traditional way. The older girls and River managed to eat a bit once the others had finished, but none of them were very hungry after the nourishment from the river the night before. They then cleaned up, and did the dishes; there are not dishwashing machines in most reserve homes, River learned.

For the next few hours the family sat around and visited. Some of the people of the River were church-going, and normally would have headed off to services in the little Anglican church in St. Mary's, including the Stormclouds. But after the ceremonies of the week before, few left the reserve that morning. In fact, between eight and nine that morning, most of the people came to the Stormcloud home, and wandered about the yard.

"Do so many usually come and visit?" River asked Wayne at one point.

"No this is special," he said. "I think they came because of you."

"Me? How did they even know I was here?"

"Well, I can't speak for all of them, but I know where you are at all times," he said. "It is like a directional thing. I think because you are the rivertalker. And I think that is why they are here. Last week you told them about the traditional ways of the people. I think they are here instead of going to the white man's church."

River's eyes widened: "Do you mean they want me to give a church service? A sermon? I wouldn't know what to say."

Wayne smiled. "Won't the river tell you what is needed? Our house is only a few dozen yards from the river. You can go in, and the people will stand on the banks."

"Yes. I guess I can do that. I want your sisters: Marilyn and Shelly. If we are going to do this, we should do it right, with songs of the people."

Wayne went to get the girls, and they arrived a few minutes later, wearing their pow-wow finery. River led them into the river, and soon they started to sing songs of the people. They started with a paean to Manitou, the creator, and soon the three voices were clearly carrying across the waters and all the people in the area moved to the riverbank. The song lasted for about 10 minutes, and near the end the people on the bank were singing along with the girls in the parts they recognized.

"How are we even doing this?" Shelly asked her sister. "I've never heard this song before, but the words are right there as we need them."

"The river is giving them to us," River explained. "It knows what we need to sing. I just hope it will know what I need to say when the singing is done."

Next they sang a song of thanksgiving, blessing the deer and moose that were traditional food of the Ojibwe. The song also blessed the crops: wild rice, corn, and other crops that they managed to grow on the few fertile areas of the rocky Canadian Shield.

When that song was finished, the sisters started to hum a low tribal chant, while River's voice lifted so that all the people on the bank could hear her clearly. She told them of their history, although not in the detail she had last week. She called on the people to be proud of their heritage: to remember the old ways and to celebrate them through song and action. She didn't call for a complete return to the old ways, but blending the new ways and the old. It would be silly for a canoe-builder to fail to use power tools to create his craft. But at the same time, changing to aluminium or fibreglass canoes would be a loss of the heritage of the people. She praised those people who had given up on idleness and welfare, and were seeking better ways to make a living. She noted how hard it was to stop drinking alcohol to excess, even though it was a cancer on the people.

She only talked for about 20 minutes, and then the girls sang two more songs, so that the entire time of the ceremony had been just over an hour. The three girls waded to the riverbank, and were greeted by the entire band welcoming them. Shelly and Marilyn were amazed to find that they were honoured by the elders and others, in spite of their recent history. And River again was center of attention, with many of the people congratulating her on a moving speech. She deflected the praise, noting that the words were from the river, and she was merely the rivertalker.

"I can deny that claim," Edith said as she congratulated her. "I was a rivertalker myself, and never was that eloquent."

Edith remained nearby as others greeted her, and then moved away to their homes or other duties. It was nearly noon, and Edith was asked to stay for lunch with the Stormclouds. She accepted, as did River, after one of the people living on the far side of the reservation promised to let her parents know what she was doing.

Over lunch River noted her surprise at the fine work that Ben did on his canoes and snowshoes.

"I think you need to find another junior ranger, Wayne," Edith said. "There are other more important things that River needs to be doing. I think it is important that she meet more of the people and see how they live, and what skills they can do. There are many skills in the band, and you need to know who is who and what they can do."

River reluctantly agreed. She enjoyed the few days she had been a JR, but what Edith said made so much sense. Eve Sunflower had promised to teach her the native dances many days ago, and she still hadn't found time to visit her. Edith and she worked out a schedule of people she should visit over the coming week. Wayne wanted to be her driver and companion, but it was pointed out that he had duties with the JRs. Another driver would be found, Edith decided.

They were in the front yard of the Stormcloud home, preparing to leave when a shot rang out towards the highway. A second later there was another shot, and the yelp of a wounded wolf.

"Moonie," Wayne said, almost as a curse as he started running towards the sound. A second later River followed, running as fast as she could towards the source of the sound.


[One reader has wondered about the pronunciation of Ojibwe. As a former teacher I know that if one asks, then ten others also don't know, and 20 more are unsure. There are other common spellings of Ojibwe, such as Ojibwa and Ojibway, but I have chosen the one more often used on sites by members of the tribe. The pronunciation, however, is O-jib-way. Incidentally, the word Chippewa is another name for the same tribe. If you listen closely, you can see how similar the words are.]


I have striven to keep this story appearing at a weekly interval, but I have to warn that there will be at least a one week haitus while I deal with some health problems. Don't despair -- I have many chapters rolling around in my head, and will come back to this, hopefully after only a one or two week gap: Dawn



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