"The River People"

by Don Lewis Lee Cardinal




A River will have what it wants and, in the same way, gives back when it takes. It is the River that makes our blood wet. In through the mouth and then through out: the River runs. Changing course on its way, it wriggles to find an easier path, even through us. Always changing, like young ones tossing in their sleep, trying to find the better side for rest and dreams. The River flows always and in one direction. If it takes you here and now, one day, it will give you back, somewhere further down its path.

Somewhere in Northern Canada, 1917

River moves slowly and quietly below a churning bank of smokey-white fog. Golden trees and dark green spruce cast shadows across the sleeping camp of northern Cree. The sun becomes an orange disk behind a morning cloud. Wisps of smoke rise through the racks as an old grandmother hangs fish to dry. Yellow and orange rays poke through and slowly starts to cure the milky white meat of the fish. A hungry old dog bows before the woman, rolls on its back, and then puts its head to earth. The old woman cuts off a piece of the fat glistening fish and gives it to the dog.

She breathes her work with the fresh fall air; closing her eyes, she and the dog enjoy a morsel. A smile stretches across her softly creased face releasing her happiness to the creator. The sun eats the thick morning fog clinging to the River's surface.

The dog growls low. The fur on his back rises; he barks once toward the water and growls again. "Let's not wake the babies," the old woman smiles as she reaches down to rub the dog's head. Then she, too, becomes anxiously ridged and stares at the River. Slowly, she puts her hands around the dog's snout as the animal arches and tries to sound.

The Sun swallows the last of the fog, and in its place emerges a long, wooden, flat-bottomed barge that slowly grinds itself to a stop on the sandy pebble shore.

The barge's wooden ramps fall and crash on the bank of the hunting camp's landing. As the dull echo tumbles across the water and into the trees, men rush onto the beach, throw themselves to the ground, and survey the camp through the scopes of their rifles. A squad of over-dressed Mounted Police lumber off the barge. They split into two groups and run quickly to encircle the camp.

A small-wheeled artillery gun is rolled off the barge by two officers. The gun is pointed at the camp, loaded quickly and the officers stand for orders. One policeman carries an axe to the over-turned canoes and small fishing boats, smashing holes through their birch bottoms.

The old woman scans the beachhead and running lines of RCMP. She looks to her canvas tent and moves as fast as she can. She disappears inside and finds her husband already half dressed. She quickly whispers, out of breath, "Musk-wa. Men are here with guns." The old woman bundles her sleeping grandchild and cuts a slit in the back of the tent. "I'll take the little one to the place where we camped last summer." She looks at Muskwa; he nods his head, and looks out the flap of the tent.

A crackling boom, like little thunder, splits the morning air and a voice orders in mixed English and Cree, "In the name of your great mother, Queen Victoria, bring your guns here. No one will be hurt," The old woman and the baby slip into the golden grove of poplars behind the tent. Muskwa picks up the large silver medallion given to him by the Queen's Treaty commissioners and hangs it around his neck, as he steps out.

"Quickly!" the voice orders the old man called Musk-wa: "Quickly." A few dozen men, women, and old people emerge from their tents with their rifles held high, moving slowly to the camp's center. Muskwa reaches the center first and yells out to his people, "I'll find out what's going on. Bring your guns here and wait." The few dozen adults walk over to Muskwa and place their rifles on the ground, arms crossed.

"Some of you Elders come with me," Muskwa says.

Just as he and the Elders begin toward the beachhead, a dozen armed police rush to circle the already disarmed people, pointing rifles at their chests. An officer quickly picks up as many of the people's fallen guns as possible. He drops them outside the armed ring of police and rushes back in for the rest. The people are ordered to sit. One by one they crouch on the cold wet morning grass and look away into the trees, into the sky.

One officer fires his revolver to signal the encircling force to converge into the camp. Two by two, policemen enter tents of the startled Cree and begin to tug out the half-dressed, frightened children, the screams of their mothers following. The camp erupts with the noises of these women, the shouting policemen, crying children, and the braying of dogs.

Not far away, two large wooden fishing boats carrying a few police make their way from the River's center and beach themselves on either side of the barge. A black-robed priest lifts his skirts as he considers which side of the boat he should use. A policeman jumps from the boat into the knee-high water and offers his back to the bearded missionary. The priest wraps his arms and legs around the back of the young officer, and they wade the little way to the shore.

Delivered to the shore, the priest adjusts his cassock and looks at the head officer. "I want all the children." He points to the camp, "Look under every bush, every tree; tear down their tents if you must! No smaller than this," he adds, tapping his hand on his rounded black belly.

"Father," the officer hesitates, "my men know what to do."

The priest looks to the camp, where shouts and screeches cut across the chilled morning. He narrows his eyes at the officer. "You are dealing with savages, not town Indians, Lieutenant," he admonishes.

The littlest children try to hide themselves behind the older ones, resisting the push into a makeshift pen. The camp is divided in two: children and adults. Children cry out for their mothers and fathers as the police continue to ransack tents and look through the nearby trees. They do not see the crouched grandmother holding her hand over the mouth of a small child as these two blend under the golden wriggling leaves of the small poplar and birch sapplings.

Muskwa and three other Elders walk with raised hands toward the priest and officer. The four men show their empty palms to the police riflemen on the beach. As they near, the priest and captain, Muskwa carefully moves his hands in a gesture for permission to speak. The young policeman stands between the two parties and raises his rifle.


"Chief Muskwa," the priest smiles through crooked teeth, stroking the black beads of his rosary. "Let them pass," he barks to the young officer. The officer steps to the side, his baby blue eyes trained on the backs of the heads of these Indians; his fingers gently rub the curve of his rifle's black trigger.

In mock disbelief, the priest shakes his head and shouts toward Muskwa, "You and your council were told last summer to have all your children at our Mission by the last week of August, this year. It's late into September, Chief!"

Muskwa begins, "We said we would bring them when we were finished with the hunt and fish..." The priest spits on the ground and interrupts, "Where are the rest of your men?"

Muskwa's answer is quiet. "This is the time for the Wood Buffalo."

"Why can't you keep your word, Muskwa?" The priest's face reddens and shakes into a sneer. "You all should be ashamed of yourselves."

Again, little thunder splits the exchange. In its wake, sobbing children are quieted by the murmurs of their mothers, for just a few moments. Then, another young policeman lifts his revolver into the air, aiming a compacted group of children and women down to the shore. The makeshift pen begins to awkwardly move toward the boats; the stilled children shriek as they are ripped from the hands of their mothers and placed on the barge one by one. The older children are forced at gun point into the mouth of the long wooden barge. Muskwa and the councilors shout in disbelief and outrage, as the children are hastily loaded. Ignoring the Elders, the officer in charge shouts, "Count them."





 Cardinal, continued

 "The River People" © 1996 by Don Lewis Lee Cardinal




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