By Dawn Natelle
So far: Everyone on the reserve had spent a busy week preparing for the Sunday services, when the Prophet and the Singers would leave on their expedition.
Sunday morning River was up in the early darkness as usual, standing in the river. She remembered a story from one of her helpers in the store on Friday. This was Small John George, a cousin of the Tall John who had returned safely with her brother the night before. Small John was one of the idlers on the reserve who subsisted on welfare and a bit of hunting and fishing. He found that it was nice to have money that he normally would have spent on liquor within hours of cashing his cheque, but the money was burning a hole in his pocket. He said how hard it was to not go back to the liquor agency and get a few days worth of drunk.
The river had a solution, and told River a story she would relate to the people at the service at dawn. The service would be different from last week’s. Liesl and Carla were to be the singers in the water with her, since Ria, Shelly and Marilyn were expected to be too busy preparing for their trip upriver with Rod at the end of the ceremony.
Just then Carla appeared on the bank. “Come in, the water’s fine,” River joked. “Couldn’t sleep?”
“No. I am super nervous and couldn’t sleep. I thought you might be here,” the young girl admitted. “I’ve never sung for so many people before. I mean, I’ve never sung at all before. Will many be here?”
“I think everybody in the band will be here,” River admitted. “Last week a few missed, and I understand that they felt quite left out. Plus we have the Prophet and Singers going out. It is a pretty important day.”
“Nothing this cool ever happened at my old reserve,” Carla said. “It was just boring same old same old. I am so glad Nick brought me here. I love my new family, and now I have a best friend. I never really had a friend at the old place. The other boys there used to tease me, or beat me up for being girly, and the people that I thought were my parents there didn’t care. They thought it would toughen me up. Now I have real parents that love me, and a brother that loves me, and a big sister who is doing great things. Life is so much better here.”
“I’m so glad you like it here,” River said. “The river usually is pretty smart about the people it accepts into the band. Do you want to sing for a bit? To practice your songs?”
“Yes I do. At my old reserve only the men would sing, with the women in the background mostly. I love it here that girls get to take part in things.”
“Well, we really are half of the people,” River noted. “We should have equal rights to the men. So far we have managed to get a lot of the singing, and we always have had dancing. Someday we might even get a chance to do the drums. Of course, if you wanted to go back to being a boy, you could be a drummer one day.”
“No way,” Carla said with a look of shock on her face. “Please don’t do that. Don’t let the river make me a boy again. I am a girl. Please.”
“I’m sorry,” River said, not realizing how her little quip would affect the girl. “I was just joking. I can tell how much you are really a girl, and I think the river knows it too. Let’s sing.”
The two sang for several hours, going over all the songs that Carla would sing at the service several times, until she was confident that she would sing them perfectly, and also a few other songs that River felt she should know. Finally, just as the skies were starting to lighten, people started to show up at the river bank, including the Stormclouds. Carla climbed out of the river with a hand from her new brother Nick, and immediately ran over to hug Liesl, her singing partner and new best friend.
“Carla,” Liesl shrieked. “You’re bigger! And look, you have boobies!”
Carla noticed the same thing at the same time: she was now a bit taller than Liesl instead of a half inch shorter. And looking down she saw that she really did have breasts. Small A cups at best, but they were real breasts instead of the nubbins she had before. She dearly wanted to check to see if she was really all girl down below, but could not think of a way to do so politely in front of all these people.
“No, you are the same in that area,” River said quietly after she got out of the river. “The river has said it would change you, and has. It will make one more change, just before high school starts, and then you will change at the same rate as all other women, with the exception of when you change down below. And only the river knows when that will happen.”
“You are going to be a grown-up,” Liesl said sadly. When you go to high school I will have to take the bus to Terrace Bay to attend the middle school. We won’t be friends any more.”
“Yes we will,” Carla said, taking her friend in her arms, and hugging her tightly. “You were my first friend, my best friend, and will be my friend forever. I might be older, but you have been a girl longer, and I still need your help. Plus you are a lot of fun. BFF?”
“BFF,” Liesl said, and then giggled.
“What’s so funny,” Carla asked.
“Look. My sister and your big brother,” Liesl said, nodding towards Nick and Marilyn, who were holding hands up the river a bit, and talking softly. Carla’s eyes went wide. “We may be sisters-in-law, or whatever?”
“Now don’t go rushing things,” River said. She had been listening to the girls chat. “They have just met, and Marilyn is going away for three weeks or so. Anything could happen during that time. She could even come back from her trip with a boyfriend.”
“No way,” Liesl said. “I’ve heard her talking to Shelly. She is crazy over Nick, and not because he is rich. She says he is the kindest man she ever met: bringing you here, giving everyone rides in his car, being so nice to the elders. She really loves him. She just hopes he loves her too. Do you know, River?”
“No I don’t,” River said. “I see the way he looks at her, but I really don’t know how deep it is. Come on, we have a service to start, and you two have the opening songs to call all the people to the river.”
Liesl and Carla sang, and while they didn’t have the adult voices of the older girls, their efforts were well beyond the expectations of the band. When their song ended River spoke.
“This is a day of departure,” she said solemnly, her voice amplified as it flowed along the river so that all of the several hundred on shore could hear clearly. “The Prophet and the Singers will leave right after this ceremony, and I hope all of you will stay to celebrate their departure. Shortly after that much of my family will return to Toronto. My father will be back tomorrow, but my mother and brother will be gone for months, and I will miss them dearly. Tomorrow two of our members are leaving for a short while to deliver product to people across the west, showing that the influence of the river is spreading. Finally, all of you will depart from the river soon and go back to your homes, hopefully to come back again next Sunday so that we can again honor Manitou and the river and all the land.”
“But I have heard that some of you have been wondering about the vow of abstinence or at least temperance that most of you made at our first ceremony. Why should the people not partake of alcohol the way they want? It makes life easier, they say, or bearable. I spoke to the river about this, and it gave me a story that you should all hear.”
“This story goes back two hundred years. Back to the time of Tecumseh and the first Prophet, his brother Tenskwatawa. The Prophet had been given great powers by Manitou, and had brought together many of the peoples into one new nation, dedicated to holding their land from the whites, who always wanted more, and more, and more, leaving only small bits of bad land for the people. The Prophet preached that this must stop.”
“His brother, Tecumseh was the greatest warrior of his people, the Shawnee, and he managed to bring together warriors from all tribes. At this time the whites, in their blue jackets, and the British, in their red coats, were fighting a big war, and Tecumseh sided with the redcoats, who had treated the natives better. He formed a great army, and as our history says, many Ojibwe warriors joined the other peoples to form a great army of over 5,000 warriors. The prophet came before this army, and blessed them with a spell that made it so that the enemy would not be able to see them in battle, so their deadly rifles could not harm them. This made the army joyous, and they promised to obey the rules of the Prophet, which included a prohibition from drinking the firewater of the white people.”
“The army then headed out towards Moravian, in Canada, where the Prophet said the great battle was to take place. They did not travel as one great army the way the whites do, but split up into small bands of one or two hundred, and went towards the meeting place by different routes. One of the larger groups went through the western lands to the mouth of the great lake, and crossed over the great river there in many canoes. Once they landed, they found a small group of several dozen bluejackets, and attacked them. The bluejackets saw them, and ran, leaving their wagons behind.”
“It turns out that the wagons contained firewater, enough that all the warriors had a huge share, drinking themselves silly, and then still having a bottle or two to go into their pockets for the march to the meeting place the next day.”
“When they arrived at the meeting place, hung over, some still drinking, and completely useless as warriors, Tecumseh was irate. He slew the chieftain leading the men on the spot, and went amongst the warriors, breaking bottles and slapping the men, who were suddenly ashamed at what they had done. Then Tecumseh made what was his big mistake. He ordered that the men who had been drunk would stand at the front of his great army, and try to atone for their sins with bravery.”
“The battle happened the next day. The redcoats did not want to fight there, but to retreat back to York, but Tecumseh knew that he could not keep such a large army together for so long, nor raise another as large again the next season. He knew it was time to fight where his brother had prophesied, and managed to convince the redcoats to join him. They did, unwillingly.”
“The bluejackets came up and saw the shamed warriors at the front of the army. They had failed the prophet by drinking firewater, so his magic did not keep them hidden. They were picked off easily by the bluejacket rifles. What is more, the warriors behind saw that the magic did not work for those in the front, and lost faith in the Prophet. They also became visible and were shot, causing more and more warriors to lose faith and become visible. Soon warriors were falling left and right as the deadly bullets flew through the woods of Moravian. One stray bullet hit Tecumseh, as he stood directing the shambles of a battle with his personal guard of twenty warriors. Ten of these warriors were Shawnee, with others from the other tribes, including two Ojibwe. Those men never lost faith, and so remained invisible as the bluejackets killed almost all the rest. The redcoats ran away as they saw the warriors were losing.”
“These men gathered up the body of Tecumseh, and took it away so that the bluejackets could not claim it. They went up the river to near what was later to become the town of London, and buried Tecumseh there. He was buried on a hill overlooking the river Thames, and the warriors planted an acorn over the grave, which later grew into a mighty oak. Ojibwe people kept the tree, and the grave, safe and secret for 200 years. When the tree aged, and eventually died, another was planted in its place, and was known to the people there as the Warrior Tree, commemorating the death of the warriors at Moravian. People there no longer know that Tecumseh was buried there.”
“The result of this sad tale is that the great army of Tecumseh was destroyed because a few warriors could not resist firewater. Had they not gotten drunk, then the First Nations would have destroyed the bluejackets. The war was settled a few years later, but the voice of the First Nations was not at the bargaining tables. Had Tecumseh won, he would have been there, and a nation for the people would have been carved out of the lands that the whites stole over the next fifty years. A few cases of whiskey destroyed the chances of a homeland for the people.”
“If you know all that, and you want to still drink firewater, feel free to do so. Just don’t complain if your neighbors shun you, as the drunken warriors would have been shunned: had any of them lived through the battle. The firewater has been the bane of our people for 200 years. Do not fall for it again. Instead, let us all work together to make our nation strong again.”
River stopped talking and turned her back on the people to face her singers. She smiled faintly at them, wondering what the reaction to her longest speech ever would be. She noticed the eyes of the two girls widen, and then she heard the reaction. It was a roar. There were war chants not heard in 100 years, and other whoops and calls. There was thunderous applause as well. The wolves of the band were scattered through the crowd, and they too howled. River slowly turned back and looked on in amazement. These were her people, and they loved her. And she loved them. Initially it was the river that she loved, but now she realized that she loved every man, woman, and child in the band, as well as every tree, rock and blade of grass, every wolf, deer, otter, rabbit and bear. She loved the land, and its people. She was the rivertalker.
Finally she lifted her hand, and within seconds the crowd quieted, and soon after the wolves. “Do not cheer for me,” she said. “That story came from the river, and it is Manitou and the river that you must honor. I am merely the vessel that delivers their word to you.”
“However, there is one more departure coming up soon, and I ask Wayne Beartalker to enter the river to join me. In less than two weeks Wayne will return to his second year of studies as Western University, which happens to be close to where the Warrior Tree – Tecumseh’s grave – is located. As I speak the river is showing Wayne where to go. He will hike and canoe from the university to where the tree is, a trip of two days, and his task is to honor the tree, and the grave, and if possible to bring back three acorns from that tree. Two of these will honor the two Ojibwe who remained with Tecumseh to the end, and never lost faith. The other will be our own Tecumseh Tree, and all three will be planted on the banks of the river, here, where we have our ceremonies.”
Again the cheers rang out. “Thanks, River,” Wayne said sarcastically in a voice only River could hear. “I really needed a campout during school. Nothing better to do.”
“Has the river shown you where the tree is?” River asked.
“Yes, I can see the picture clearly in my mind,” Wayne said with a smile. “Thanks for choosing me for this. It really is a great honor.”
“I know of no one who could do it better,” River said.
The applause had started to die down, but suddenly jumped again. River turned and looked to see that two loaded canoes were being lowered into the water. Ben Stormcloud was at one end, while Rod and Nick held the other as the canoes were launched one at a time. Ria and Rod got into the front one, while Shelly and Marilyn got into the rear one. They each paddled up the river, as Silver the wolf loped alongside on the other side of the river from the people watching. Finally the canoes reached River, standing in the water. River shook Rod’s hand, and then kissed and hugged each of the three girls. Her young singers, Carla and Liesl also hugged and kissed their counterparts in the canoes, and then broke into the departure song. River joined in, and a few seconds later, every voice on the shore was singing.
Then the most amazing thing happened. The canoeists had had to work hard to paddle against the current to get up to River, but from that point on, the canoes shot forward. Everyone could see that for five or six feet around each boat, the river was flowing backwards. The current they thought they had to fight was now with them, and they continued to gain speed as they shot off up the river and around a bend that obscured them from sight. The people kept singing though, until it was clear that they would be out of earshot.
Liesl and Carla then sang their final two songs, and the ceremony was over. The three girls left the river and headed through the crowd, all of whom wanted to congratulate them: the girls on their fine singing, and River on her moving story.
River, however, wanted to get back to the campsite and finally Edith realized what she was doing and began running interference for her. They made it to the campsite just in time. Dale was itching to get going on the long drive to Toronto, while Alison was holding him back, wanting to see River again. She managed to hug each of the members of her family one last time before watching the van head out on the long trip.
(Those eager people who like to look things up might find the Battle of Moravian on their computers and learn that Wikipedia has a few different facts. It will claim that there were only 500-1000 warriors at the battle, not 5,000. And they may learn that the Prophet lost his leadership position two years before that battle. The story River told her was given to her by the river. So you need to decide whether the memories of Manitou are more accurate than a computer in Florida (or wherever). It is not disputed that the body of Tecumseh was never found, nor that there is an Ojibwe band reservation on the banks of the Thames near London. There is no named “Warrior Tree” there, although there are several old oaks in the area and one might be the one that protects the grave of Tecumseh.)
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