River 3 - Learning Ojibwe

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River - Chapter 3

By Dawn Natelle

So far: River is nearly all girl now, and is anxiously awaiting the events of the morning, where she will attempt to stem the flood of teen suicides that are happening in First Nations settlements across Canada, including the River Reservation. At least she hopes to solve the problem locally.

It was another moonlit night when River left the campsite. It was still early ... the dawn birds had yet to herald in a new day. It would be several hours before 4 a.m., when she had asked the people to come to the river. As she walked there, River realized that this was the first tribal gathering that she had called. She wondered if special ceremonies were required. She would have to ask Edith or Harold, if they came. Would anyone come, she wondered? She went into the water, and drew energy from the river for over an hour, feeling her insecurities flow away. She only came out when she saw the first truck.

It was Harold Redbear, and he had his cleansing sweetgrass rope with him. He built a small ceremonial fire, with the assistance of his two sons, who had arrived in the bed of the pickup. River walked over towards his wife and daughter, who looked to be River's age. As she approached they both bowed to her.

"None of that, you hear," River said with a smile. "I'm not a goddess or something. I put on my bra one cup at a time, you know."

"You do?" said the daughter. "I put mine on both at the same time."

River reddened. "It was a joke, like men who say they put their pants on one leg at a time. I really haven't been wearing a bra very long, but I guess you are right. I'm River Waters." She reached out to shake hands, first with the mother, and then the daughter, who still seemed in awe of her, and barely touched her hand before pulling back."

"I am Elizabeth Redbear," the woman said. "This is Lisa, and the boys are Charles and Jason. You know my husband Harold, I think."

Lisa didn't speak, but made a small wave of her hand. River was about to speak to her when a second truck appeared, and this one contained Edith Freedove in the passenger side, with a younger man driving, and at least eight people in the back. River nodded to the Redbears, and moved on to greet Edith, who introduced her son, his wife, another son and wife, and six children aged 10 to a babe in arms. The others left the two tribal leaders alone, and River and Edith walked to the banks of the river alone, with River explaining her plan to Edith.

"This idea comes from the river?" Edith asked.

"Yes. It came while I was sitting in the water."

"The water in the river is very cold. I don't know if all the young people will be able to stand in it, as you want," Edith said.

"It will warm for them," River said.

Edith got a distant look on her face. "Oh yes, I remember now. Standing in the river, feeling its warmth," she said wistfully.

River remembered that she had been able to talk to the river at one time. "This might be prying, but you mentioned ‘betraying' the river. Can you tell me how?"

"Oh yes. I must," she said. "You see, the river will only speak to a virgin girl."

"But I wasn't a girl, when I first met the river. I'm not sure that I am one even now," River protested.

"No, you were a girl. Your body just didn't match your soul. In olden times you would have been called two-spirited. But here, the river cures people of that."

River frowned, thinking it through. Had she really been a female? She didn't think she was girlish before. She certainly hadn't been the prototypical boy: into sports and roughness and crudity. And boys had bullied and plagued Ricky for years. Then a thought hit her: "You mean ... you stopped being a virgin ... and ...?"

"The river stopped talking. If I stand in it now, it is as cold as ice. I can't say I made the wrong decision. Bill was my first, and only lover, and he stuck by me after. We had 14 children ... these two boys ... well, men now ... are two of the eight boys who survived, two boys and a girl died young. Another four boys and their families will be here. Two others have moved on to the city. All three of my girls will be here, with their families. I have 24 grandchildren, and each one is a treasure to me."

"Thank you for telling me this," River said thoughtfully. "I'm still a boy, in my head so I really haven't thought much about this. I'm probably safe for a few years. I wonder why it has taken so long for the river to choose someone new?"

"The river will only choose certain maidens. No one knows when the next one will appear. I mean next week it might find another girl who it can accept."

"And then it will stop talking to me?" River said fearfully.

"No, my dear," Edith said. "If you don't betray it, the river will remain with you. It remains with me, a little bit. I think that this has been the longest time that we have gone without a rivertalker. It is more common to have two rivertalkers, which would be the case if another appears. Deep in our history there is talk of the time of The Three Maidens, when there were three. That was a bit of a disaster, and soon all three betrayed the river, with a span of several years. The last was like me, a leader who no longer spoke to the river, for over 20 years."

"And don't be so sure, that you won't be tempted by men as you mature," Edith added. "When the river has finished curing you, you will start to be attracted to men. And they are already attracted to you. You are so very beautiful, and with your golden hair, so appealing to the men. My grandson Wayne can't stop talking about you."

"Wayne Beartalker?" River said with a gasp, feeling her face redden. Edith seemed to notice.

"Ah, so there are some feelings starting already? You need to be aware that remaining a virgin does not mean living without love. You can kiss, hold one another, and even do some sexual acts, so long as you do not do the one that can produce babies. You will be able to satisfy yourself like that, but it will take a special man who is willing to not go all the way."

"I can imagine," River said.

"I feel that my Wayne might be one like that," Edith said. "He is a bit different. He is one of only a few who have gone to university and all. So many of the people don't even finish high school. But he is a bit old for you. He is 19, and you are what, 12?"

"No, 14 actually," River said. "Is five years so much?"

"Oh, my mistake. You wouldn't be in junior rangers if you weren't going into high school next year. I forget that the river hasn't finished curing you yet. Five years is a lot, for one so young. But as I say, if Wayne is the special boy you need, he will wait for you to catch up. When you are out of high school, then five years will not be too much."

"Oh my," River said. She had just glanced back and found that in the time that she had been talking to Edith, a crowd of several hundred people had amassed on the road back to the campsite, and more were coming each minute. She looked at the early dawn light, and knew from the lore the river had taught her, that it would be near four o'clock.

She walked over to Harold, and asked if he was ready to do the cleansing. He nodded, and then lit the braided sweetgrass and started walking in and around the crowd. River watched more closely this time, and noticed that he was using a large eagle's feather to push the smoke from the sweetgrass around the people. He circled River first, and then Edith, and then walked through the crowd. Because there were so many, he had to light a new braid twice, and spent nearly an hour in the cleansing. As the people patiently waited for the cleansing to end, Edith mentioned that there were no drums or dancers this time, because this was a rite, not a celebration.

Finally Harold was finished, and came back to River and told her they were ready for her to explain her rite.

River took a deep breath, and started to speak. "Peoples of the river," she said as loudly as she could. She noticed that once she opened her mouth, the wind stopped blowing through the trees, and all the birds stopped singing, allowing her voice to carry to the back of the huge crowd. "This ceremony is a gift of the river. The river and I have spoken long about the problem of our young people ending their lives too soon, and what can be done with it. The river will take us in, and show us what we have, and how much we lose if we do something stupid.

"I want all the youth of the people, from babies up to ... say Wayne Beartalker's age: those who went to school with him. All of you will follow me into the river. Those with toddlers and infants can give them to one of the older children to carry, but all must enter the river after me. It will feel cold for a second, perhaps bitterly cold. But wait for a second or two and the river will warm for you. When we are all in the water, I will lead you."

Parents with infants came forward, and three approached River almost as if it was a race. One she recognized as one of Edith's daughters or daughters-in-law. Each wanted to hand their little one to River. She took the first child, and put it on her left hip, and then reached out with her free arm to take Edith's grandchild. The third woman paused, seeing there was no way River could carry three. Then Lisa stepped forward and took the third child.

"Thank you," River said to Lisa. "I didn't want to disappoint her, but two is all I can handle."

"They all wanted the honor of having you hold their child," Lisa said.

"Will you walk beside me into the water?" River asked.

"Oh my," Lisa stammered. "Yes, I guess I can."

In all, there were more than three hundred youth, children, and infants that waded into the river. Most paused after a first chilly step into the water, and then continued in amazement as the water around their feet warmed. Soon all were standing in the river, with the water level only a few inches below their necks. Thus smaller children were closer to shore, and older ones deeper, with Wayne and other tall youths his height near the middle of the river.

River began to sing. Few of the children recognized the words, since they were in Ojibwe, although some of the elders and adults still on the banks did. Then, slowly the children began to understand the words, and they were soon singing the chorus that came up every minute or so. The song was a history: not of the people, but of the river itself. It started with the years before the people came, when the river flowed on, lonely and alone, with only the moose and the bear as companions. Later the first peoples came, but they disappointed the river, and it let them go. Then the people of the river came from the east, travelling away from the great Turtle Island where they had been before. Finally the song talked about the heroes of the river's people. The bulk of the tribe had been to the big battles against the Americans in 1812 and 1814 at Mackinac and Michilimackinac. Two of those men went on to fight with the great Tecumseh and died in the lonely lands to the south of the great lake. There were the men who had fought in the Great War in Europe, including Edward Snow, who had led a charge through no man's land, and tossed a grenade into an enemy machine gun position, enabling his company to take the trench even as his body was riddled with bullets. Then there was the Second World War, where 18 men of the river answered the call, and served with valour in India, Africa, Italy, and Europe, with only five returning unharmed, and three others badly wounded.

As well as warriors, the song sung of peacekeepers and builders, and women of the river people who have been nurses in war and in peace. Of Doc Greenbird, who was one of the first natives in all of Canada to get a medical license, and then came back to the river reservation to practice for over 50 years. Most of the people on the banks had been delivered by the old doctor before he died as well as many of the older youths in the water.

The singing concluded nearly an hour after it had started, with a final rendition of the chorus sung lustily by every voice in the water. River was amazed that even the babies she held, and the ones near her, were singing in a wordless way, joining in with the older children, even if in baby talk. River wondered, and the river confirmed to her, that they knew the meaning of what they said, and would remember it when they learned to talk.

We are the children of the mighty river people
Our people serve the river and its world
We are the children of the mighty river people
We will never stop protecting our lands
We are the children of the mighty river people
Our land, our tribe, our country, our world

As the last notes drifted away in the winds, River spoke: "This is your song. Your tribe. Your history. Never forget the place that you have in the world. You are the children of the mighty river people, and no one can ever take that from you. Only you can end it. Drugs, alcohol, despair, and loathing should never again touch our people. Go forth from the river and be proud of your heritage."

River walked up to two young girls of about 10 and handed the babies to them. Each took an infant, glowing with pride at being selected by the young leader they were all growing to revere. River went back deeper in the river, and turned to watch the children and youths move onto the riverbank.

"The river is powerful," River called out, immediately stilling the crowd. Many of the young people were jabbering to their friends and parents in fluent Ojibwe, and the parents who didn't know the language, more than half of them, were confused. "The river tells me that it wishes to join with the rest of its people. Please, those who did not come in before, enter the river now. Assist the elders who have need."

Soon, there was another crowd in the water, slightly smaller, but all adult, including a few who could barely walk without assistance. This time River started singing a version of the chant/song that she had used before to calm the animals. She was surprised when she heard the voices in the river pick up on the chant. The river told her that it was also teaching Ojibwe to these people, as well as healing them. It then announced that it had finished healing River, to her surprise. She felt a wave of femininity waft over her, and warm her soul in a way she had never felt before.

Then River noticed that the chant/song was coming from the banks, as the youth and children, most still dripping in their wet clothes, joined in. Then there was a wolf howl from not far away, and some of the voices faltered, but River smiled as she sang on, and her people continued to sing.

Suddenly, a pack of about 50 wolves burst onto the scene from just up the river. They stopped, and took a drink from the river, completely at ease with the several hundred people in both the water and on the shore. The pack had full grown wolves, half grown, and just-weaned cubs. Wayne, standing on the shore, walked over to one of the largest wolves, and stroked the fur on its head. The animal suddenly leapt up at his throat, which it promptly licked. Wayne had caught the wolf, and once the flash of fear dissipated, started to laugh as the rough tongue of the animal washed his face.

Other boys from the tribe walked over and picked up half grown wolves and the cubs, until soon there were about 20 of the wolves in all in the arms of the people. Suddenly, there was a howling from a wolf still a few hundred yards away from the river, and all the other wolves bolted away to join him, and the remaining pack ran away.

That was the alpha male, the river told River. The pack heard your singing, and was drawn to you. The old male tried to keep them away, but couldn't. His pack was too large, and the old wolf was worried that he was losing control. The young wolf your boyfriend took was the main contender to take over the pack when the dominance battles of the fall take place. The old wolf has had its way: his competitor is gone, along with enough young wolves to return the pack to a manageable size.

"He is not my boyfriend," River protested, as she watched the pack bounding away. Not one of the wolves held by the youth of the people left, even those which were put back onto the ground. The big wolf that Wayne had befriended stood next to his leg, and moved as he did.

"The healing song is over," River announced, as the older people started to leave the river. "Please meet us back on the shore."

When they were all assembled again, River could pick up both Ojibwe and English conversations going on amongst families and groups, sometimes switching from one language to the other seamlessly. River spoke, and again the winds and the birds quieted so all could here: "This ceremony was a success, thanks to the river. It has taught the young what a blessing they have in being a part of the people, and the massive history we share to be proud of. The wolves have joined us. Those who have one should not think of it as a pet, but as a partner. They are not puppies or dogs. They are residents of the river lands, just as we are. We must treat them well, and honor them, and they will be faithful friends and companions.

"We have also cured many of our elders. I saw many limp into the water, or be assisted with great difficulty. And I saw those same elders seemed to walk out of the river far easier than they had entered. The river told me that it was curing diabetes, arthritis, osteoporosis, skin blotches, and many other ailments. Your aches and pains should be lessened now, and you may feel younger. And I am proud to announce that the river has declared me cured of my maleness." There was a brief murmur of surprise and some clapping, but River stopped that by continuing.

"Finally, all the people now share a common language. It is a gift from our forefathers that we have squandered in the years past. Let us remember and use it amongst ourselves and teach it to our young. However, when around the people of the town, use our language sparingly, as we know it will upset them and leave them feeling excluded."

The people didn't cheer or applaud as the whites do. It was not the way of the people. Instead, they smiled, nodded, and touched their forehead to signify that a message has been received. As she looked out on the smiling faces looking at her, River was gladdened to see huge smiles, many gentle nods, and every hand, other than the infants, touching a forehead. Then, with that silent applause given, most of the people turned and walked back to their trucks and vehicles. River walked back to the campsite with Edith, while her family followed slowly in their truck.

"Hello, mother," River said with a smile, as she greeted her parents who then stared curiously at her. River then realized that she had spoken in Ojibwe, the language she had been speaking since she walked out of the river. "Sorry," she said in English. "Sometimes I forget who I am talking with." She turned with a smile and a nod to Edith as the elder got into her sons' truck. Once inside, Edith turned to look at River, and gently touched her forehead. Seconds later, everyone in the truck, those in the cab, and the crowded group in the box, touched foreheads as well, giving River a warm feeling of contentment.

"What is all that?" Dale asked.

"We had a good meeting," River said understatedly. "The river taught the young people of their heritage, and their importance to the world. I think the teen suicide problem will be over here. Now I just have to figure out how to get the word out to the other reservations. Also, all seem to have learned Ojibwe, and I think the drug and alcohol problems in the community will go way down."

"Sounds like a busy morning," Alison said. "And you seem to have grown some more."

River looked down at her chest, which was now probably a B cup. Her blonde braid was much longer now, nearly a foot below her waist. "I hope that is all I am going to change for a while," she said. "The river said I am cured now, so I must be a real girl. Before I went into the water Edith thought I was only 12 ... I think I could pass for 16 or 17 now."

"Welcome, my daughter," Alison said, sweeping River into a tight hug. If you really are a girl, then we will need to have a talk ... several talks ... sometime during the next month. And tomorrow, we go shopping! You need new clothes."

"Mom," River whined. "I have lots of clothes. All I have to do is wear my boy clothes to the river, and it will change them to fit me. I go in with no bra on, and it will make me one."

"Jeans and t-shirts? That isn't enough for a girl. You need skirts and dresses sometime."

"Remember all the buckskins I got from the elders on Saturday? They were all skirts and fancy shirts. I thought it was weird at the time, getting that kind of present from the elders, but I guess they knew what was happening. I don't really need any clothes."

"Man, you are a real spoilsport," Alison said.

"Sorry mom. Maybe later. I mean, I definitely will need back to school things in a few weeks, won't I?"

Just after lunch Wayne pulled into the campsite in the Junior Ranger pickup. He smiled at River, then headed over to Dale.

"Honey, there is a phone call for me at the park office. I have to go with Wayne." He hopped into the cab and they headed off. River wondered why it bothered her that she hadn't gotten a chance to talk to Wayne, and why it had pleased her when he had smiled at her. She didn't have long to think, as her Mom pulled her into the big tent and sat her down for what was the first of what was going to be many girl-talks.

They were just getting into what River considered the icky-bits that she would be facing monthly now, when the pickup returned. Dale looked worried, and popped into the tent. "Ricky, can I talk to your mother ... sorry, River. And on second thought, you can stay. You have matured a lot over the last few days. You should hear this.

"My call was from the construction company. Something fishy has been happening down there, and I'm going to have to go down and clear it up. I'm going down tonight."

"Aww, Dad," River whined, "this is your holiday, too. They can't make you end it, can they?"

"I need to go," Dale said. "Your Mom will stay up here. I hope I can get back before the end of our vacation, and I will definitely have to get back in time to bring you all home ... except for you, River. You get until the end of the summer to keep your contract with the junior rangers."

"Come on now, let's get everything out of the van. Hopefully I'll be back tomorrow or the next day, and I can restock our supplies when I am in the city."

River helped empty the van, and soon she was watching her father leave for the long drive back to Toronto.

That afternoon River went down to the river with a huge stack of her boy clothes. She had told her mother that the river would transform them, but really wasn't sure. Walking down river for a few hundred yards to an area where she didn't expect other campers to disturb her, she sat down on a rock and put on a pair of the now too big jeans over a pair of jockeys. They were too long, and too tight around her hips, making it impossible to button them up, even though her waist was much smaller. She looked around, making sure there were no peepers about, and then took off her t-shirt, then her bra. She quickly pulled on a boy shirt, and then waded out into the river.

"I hope this isn't demeaning you, or something," she said to the river, and got a warm feeling from it in return, basically saying it was fine with the idea.

River spent about 15 minutes in the water. It took about five minutes before she was able to button the jeans under the water, but the river made her wait another 10 minutes before she felt it was good to go. She got out of the water, again amazed that her clothes were completely dry as she climbed up the bank. And the jeans now felt tight around her now shapely rear, with the button snug around her small waist. The t-shirt now had a deeper neckline, showing off her cleavage, and a finger pulling the neckline showed a bra that hadn't been there before.

River changed again, and then went into the river another five times, each time coming out with another set of female jeans, panties, bra and t-shirt. The last time, she risked going in with her boy's dress shoes, which were now five sizes too big and were hard to keep on her feet as she waded into the water. Getting out was no treat either ... the shoes now fit perfectly, but they had a three inch heel, not the ideal thing for wading in sentient river beds.

It was nearly dinner time, so River picked up her now larger pile of clothes and headed back to the campsite. Her mother was in a tizzy, worried about Dale, so River took over making the dinner, which was wieners and beans again. After feeding the boys, and forcing Alison to eat a dog, River cleaned up and set up a marshmallow roast for the boys before bed. She wasn't sure how they managed to eat so many Smores after three hotdogs each, but when it was their bedtime, she hustled them into their tent and went and put out the fire safely.

She went over to her Mom and put an arm around her. "He's all right, mom," she said. "He won't even be home yet. At least he will be driving into Toronto well after rush hour. He'll be home tonight and I'm sure he will phone in the morning and tell us that everything is all right."

"Yes. I just miss him so much," Alison said, hugging River tightly. "Thanks for looking after the boys. I feel such a mess. I just know that something is wrong. I should have gone with him."

"You are fine here," River said. "Do you want me to stay here in Dad's cot tonight?"

"Would you?" Alison said, voice aquiver. It seemed to River that she was the child, and not the parent anymore. River just led her into the tent, and tucked her into her sleeping bag.

As normal, River didn't sleep long. She rose to another cloudy, dark night. Her night vision allowed her to see her mother tossing fitfully in the other bunk. River reached out and touched her mother's forehead, and then over the next minute the woman stopped tossing and fell into a deep sleep. Satisfied, River got dressed and left the cabin, headed for the river in the pitch black of night.

River was in the water for several hours, feeling the energy and learning flowing from the river into her. She saw dawn come, and the animals coming to feed and play in the water. Normally wildlife come to a river and drink quickly and then flee. The watering spots are prime areas for predators to find prey. But somehow the animals seemed to know that while River was there, nothing bad would happen to them. Thus River was able to see such antics as otters playing tag with wolf cubs, and foxes drinking beside chipmunks that would normally be a part of their diet.

River felt, rather than heard, the two girls approach. "There he is," Gina said as they walked down the bank. Then they paused as they saw River waist deep in the water.

"Sorry," Gina said. "I thought you were ... a boy ... I know ... River?"

"Yes," River said as she waded to the bank. "I know. I've changed."

"Changed? You are a girl? How ... ?"

"The river changed me, mostly over the weekend. I'm all girl now."

"You are beautiful," Gail said. "Just my luck. First I get bunked with the prettiest girl in town, and now even a boy is even prettier than me."

"You are pretty, Gail," River promised. "I know. I used to be a boy. Gina is hot, but some boys ... a lot of boys ... would be intimidated by her. You are cute, and I know you are going to be really popular in high school."

"You think so?" Gail asked hesitantly. "I'm so tall though."

"That could be a good thing. Tall boys will be all over you, but if a shorter one asks you out, then you will know that he cares about what is in your heart, and not the shell around it."

"That's what I've been telling you," Gina confirmed. "And if boys are going to be intimidated by me, what will they be like with you, River? God, you are so gorgeous. I thought your hair was hot before, but now ... past your bum. Oh wow. I think maybe I'll have to become a lesbian."

"Enough of that," River said with a laugh. The three girls sat on the river bank, admiring the animals playing as they recounted what had happened over the weekend for each of them. Gina and Gail had been delivered to the JR camp early by Gail's mom, and they immediately headed out to find River. River's tale was unbelievable to the girls, but with living proof in front of them they had to admit that all was true.

"What time is it," Gail finally asked. Gina looked at her watch, while River glanced at the sun, saying: "About a quarter to nine." Gina confirmed with "16 minutes to nine. How did you do that?"

"It is the sun, it never lies," River said as they all got up and started walking back to the camp. They needed to start at nine, although they knew from experience that some of the kids would be back a few minutes late, so the trucks wouldn't head out until 10 this morning.

As they approached the Waters campsite, they saw Wayne's truck was there. He was holding a sobbing Alison, who looked up when River approached at a run. "It's your Dad, River," she blurted out. "He's in jail!"

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