above&beyond, Canada’s Arctic Journal is proud to bring to our readers the two stories chosen as this year’s (2014) winners of the annual NorthWords Great Northern Canada Writing Contest. Both are from writers living in the Northwest Territories.
This year, Beatrice Lepine of Hay River receives the First Prize for her engaging tale titled, Fire and Fish: a poignant short story that relates the impact of wildfire on a favourite family fishing spot on Great Slave Lake.
Jim Martin of Fort McPherson has been awarded the Emerging Writer Prize for his very brave and honest account titled, Tough Times of the Past, in which he pays homage to an earlier time in the history of the Gwich’in territory of the Northwest Territories.
We invite you to read and enjoy these heartfelt and very worthy submissions to the contest.
Fire and fish
By Beatrice Lepine, Hay River, Northwest Territories
“It’s almost all burned,” my brother Frank said on the phone that evening. I was staring at a digital map on my computer, as we spoke of the Birch complex forest fire, which was moving rapidly toward the shoreline between Moraine Point and Windy Bay. In his role overseeing forest fire management he had been busy this summer, but he also knew the connection the place had for us, so he called to let me know. We had spent much of our childhood commercial fishing with our family along that shore, so familiar to us and soon to be overrun by the forest fire.
Our family had fished along this shoreline since 1949 when Solomon and Vera Cardinal brought my mother Alvina there from Fort Chipewyan, Alberta, to work in the Great Slave Lake fishery. They started their first season at Moraine Point. They were Neyihaw, Cree from Alberta who had fished for McGinnis Fisheries on Lake Athabasca and moved with the company north to the big lake. The Fisheries Research Board had sampled Great Slave Lake in the late 1940s and set quotas that allowed the commercial exploitation of the fish stocks for the first time.
There were other families there from Fort Chipewyan too: Lepines, Cardinals, Villebruns, Powders, Ladouceurs, and many more. All of them part of an exodus from Fort Chipewyan when fishing on Lake Athabasca declined and leaving home was the only prospect for them at the time. I had some disbelief as I enlarged the map to see where the fire boundaries were.
I said to him, “I know fire is a natural thing, but it is Windy Bay and I am just finding it hard to believe”. In my mind I was telling myself it was not important, one could never go back to what was, but I knew somehow the acceptance of that natural act would be hard. In my western trained mind, I knew that fire was important to our forests. Without its annual cycling of decadent forests that had reached the limit of growth and life, we can have no renewal, no new forests. But I still felt like I had a heavy blanket around my heart.
“I wonder if dad’s camp burnt yet?” I said. He replied, “no, not yet but it probably will soon”. There had not been much left of the fishing and trapping camp after he had retired from trapping in 1981 — just an old converted fishing caboose that over time had lost its windows and door, looking like life had leached out of the place. I often felt a deep sadness when I thought about it.
The fishing industry on Great Slave Lake dominated our family’s lives for a long time and equally our memories of the life we lived on the lake each summer. I remember the places where we set up our summer camps, always near shallow waters where dad felt it was safe for us to swim, knowing we couldn’t stay out of the water.
One place that stays strong in my memory is the South Cranberry Island in Windy Bay. It had a long spit jutting out into the sheltered bay where the gulls and terns would nest and we would come back to camp with baby birds in our hands and pockets; attacked by the birds as we ran to camp to show our mom. She would chase us back to the spit, giving us hell for robbing the nests. We would then try to remember where we found the young hatchlings and try to return them to the nests while overhead the terns would whirl and dive at us, pecking us with their sharp beaks. You only did that kind of thing once a season.
The place was bedlam during the day with the drama going on in the air over the sand spit and below along the rocky shores. Bird cries and the excited voices of many children at play could be heard all day; at nightfall when the water calmed and the sun sank low into the misty green forests west of us, stillness crept in and you went to sleep with only the sounds of the gentle wind that rustled the tent canvas overhead.
There were other special places there like Caribou Bay where blueberries grew in abundance and we harvested them for the sweet pies my mother made in her tiny camp stove oven. On the rocky pebbled shore of John Point my brother James constructed little houses out of driftwood and we played for hours on the sun beaten shores.
I remember we viewed a total eclipse of the sun in 1963 on the spit. My dad had cautioned us not to look at the sun as we sat outside. He herded the younger kids into the tent and they were warned not to peek out. The air became cool and the sky darkened as the sunlight was blocked out. The birds quieted like it was nightfall and we sat and waited. When the sunlight returned, the kids came out of the tent and told my dad what happened to the sun. He was amazed at what they saw and they told him they peeked through tiny pinholes that years of wear and tear had created in the canvas. The holes were tiny, so no damage occurred to their eyes. But they saw the whole thing. I don’t think he knew whether to be mad at them or be amazed at what they described.
Now, looking back again to the map on my computer, I contemplate the fire boundaries. I don’t know if I ever will accept it, but I know that the flames of this past summer may have scorched the land but they can never diminish the power of memory; the remembrance of our lives there along that shoreline.
Tough times of the past
By Jim Martin, Fort MacPherson, Northwest Territories
I am a Gwich’in descendant from Tetlit Zheh (Fort McPherson) in the Northwest Territories.
I did not come from a proud nation as claimed by my aboriginal political organization. Life is a challenge in two different worlds up here in the North. As far as I am concerned, politics is another emotional distraction in a vicious cycle. It’s about greed, money, power, and control. A famous Chief once said, “My white brother is more intelligent for he knows that you have little to offer.”
I was born in 1946. It was during tough economic times. I learned about the Great Depression in early grades. It’s not easy talking about difficult life experiences of the past because it brings back unpleasant memories. Nobody likes to be reminded of tough times.
We have long winters and short summer seasons. The favourite times are during warmer temperatures. It’s wonderful to see beautiful flowers blooming after a long frozen icy winter. It’s wonderful to hear songbirds singing. These are Gods’ little creatures that could boost your self-esteem on a bad day.
Mother Nature can be beautiful and wicked. I had no alternative in finding out the tough way that I suffered from indigenous depression. I am not alone. It is a heredity issue.
I received professional help for many years. I was told that my drinking is a symptom of deeper troubles. It took 43 years of living hell before I hit rock bottom. I almost died from this horror. I didn’t like it so I had to do something to get my life back. But it’s easier said than done. It became boring after a brief abstinence. No matter how hard I tried to heal broken spirits, there was always on-going distractions.
A traditional healer told me it is not alcohol that is the problem; it’s coming from inside. So I left the alcohol alone then began dealing with my emotional problems. But there were no qualified resource people in my community who could help me. We have the blind leading the blind.
I thank two wonderful RCMP members in Inuvik for saving my life in 2001. I thank Health Canada in Whitehorse for supporting me to get help outside my community. This is the best thing that happened in my life.
It is never easy going through a so-called healing process because it takes a lot of pain to change. The first step I had to do was develop coping strategies to deal with my emotional issues. Old habits die hard.
I bought a computer so I can learn to research from the Internet. I had five years of college experience before relocating back to my home community. I made a decision to upgrade my education at the local Adult Education Centre. I read books on the Gwich’in history. It was about difficult times of my ancestors. I established empathy in identifying with similar consequences in the 1940s.
In my research I discovered that Fort McPherson was originally known as The Peel River House when the Hudson’s Bay Company established a trading post in 1840. It had to be relocated to high ground due to flood risk. The new Post was renamed in honour of HBC’s Chief Trader Murdoch McPherson.
Before the 1880s the Peel River Post was actually a meatprovisioning post for the rest of the HBC Forts in the Mackenzie District. Meat was traded with the Gwich’in in exchange for their products.
One of my paternal grandmothers lived to be 106 years old before she passed on. She told a story about life in 1893. She said in the old days the Gwich’in travelled long distances from their hunting grounds in the Yukon to the Peel River Post. They travelled on the rivers in skin boats. The most difficult was going through “The Rapids of the Drowned” and “The Devil’s Portage”. Former Gwich’in men drowned here. Only the men handled the boats through the swift rapids. Women and children had to walk through portage trails. Once the men succeeded going through this dangerous channel, it was celebrated with joy. Then they continued on until they reached the Peel River Post. She said for one bale of dry meat she received two cups of tea, two cups of flour, and one cup of sugar.
It was not until after the 1880s that fine furs became an important part of the trade at the Peel River Post. The Muzzle Loader was the first gun introduced to the Gwich’in. If a hunter wanted to buy this gun, he had to pile furs on the HBC Fur Press. Then it was pressed down hard until the pressed furs reached the top end of the gun. A young Gwich’in told me by word of mouth that it was around 145 beaver skins.
At the same period, the Siglit (Inuvialuit) tribes travelled from the coast to the Post in their qajait and umiat. It was a long trip paddling upstream against strong river currents of the mighty Mackenzie River. Despite the consequences, they were still capable of reaching the Peel River Post. I viewed an Inuvialuit program aired on the APTN TV Channel. I quote from this program that the Siglit traded ‘five white fox pelts for 10 pounds of flour.”
Before the arrival of Europeans, the Tetlit Gwich’in lived in the upper area of the Peel River in the Yukon. They did not stay in one place. They moved around in groups hunting and depended on edible resources for survival. It was around this period when a bunch of Gwich’in hunters came upon a camp where they found everybody dead. They all starved to death except for this one little baby who was still suckling to its dead mother’s shrivelled breast. That was my great great maternal grandfather.