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In this excerpt, the two Tlicho children,Yaot’l and Sascho, return from a happy afternoon of fishing, only to find the bustling village they are visiting now seems strangely subdued.
They walked back to łık'àdèè k'è, proudly holding their string of fine fish, only to discover an unusual silence. Yaot’l wondered what made the place so strange.
An answer did not take long in coming. There were no children, romping with their dogs—no little ones—no ‘tweens like themselves—‑not anywhere! There were only a few old women and men, slowly going about the usual chores of food or hide preparation. A woman oddly indoors on this fine afternoon, peered out her cabin window and then, when she saw them, quickly turned away. In the distance, some very old men with battered hats sat under a tree where they played cards.
They felt as if they’d come to a different campground. When they’d left, just a few hours ago, it had been bustling with autumn visitors. People were meeting and greeting relatives and some late arrivals were still pitching tents in open spaces. The feeling of uneasiness grew as they hurried along toward their camping area.
Ordinarily, they’d take the shortest way. That meant passing the church, crossing the road and then tramping down toward the widening arm of the river. All at once that did not seem such a good idea.
Sascho put a restraining hand on her arm and they turned as one to see who was running after them. Here came a young pretty Métis woman, apparently the one from the cabin they’d just passed. As soon as they’d seen her, she stopped and began to beckon, urgently signing that they should follow her.
“Come! Follow! The truck is right over there!”
Catching fear was easy. They followed, breaking into a trot. . A man now stood in the open door and held it wide. When they entered, though, they could see no welcome in his eyes.
They startled as the door closed. Breathless, holding the dripping fish and gear, they looked around at these strangers and the inside of the cabin. It was one room with a single window. A bed on one side was over-hung by a baby in a hammock. An oil-can stove occupied the other.
“Didn’t you hear the warning?” The woman spoke.
Her husband crossed her arms and regarded them steadily. At last he said:
“You shouldn’t have brought them in, Donna, and you know it. Don’t we have enough trouble already?”
These strangers were kin of a kind, part Dene, perhaps, and they were also married people who would have assumed labor on behalf of their kin group. Younger people now owed them a good measure of respect, so Sascho did not like to speak first.
“We—we do not understand what is happening.”
“The call—the goose call! All the others heard it and are gone into the bush.” The man was impatient.
“Can’t you see? They are visitors; they didn’t know.”
“Everyone knows the Métis agents come at this time of year, even visitors.” He glowered at Sascho. “Didn’t your family explain it?”
“We—we’ve not been here for a long time,” Yaot’l said.
“Métis agents?” Sascho spoke. “Like the man with the scarred face we saw this morning?”
“Yes. They’re here to take our children to school. Mountie and the priest both say that’s the law—all our children must go. People who hide their children are punished. They lose their government money.”
He turned an angry face toward his wife and added, “I’m leaving. If those kids bring the Mountie here, expect trouble.”
“Don’t go my husband.” The woman caught at his checked shirt, but he pulled his arm away. The door swung and he passed through, never looking back. Sascho noted how carefully he closed it. Obviously, he didn’t want neighbors to notice his departure.
Now there were tears in the woman’s eyes. She covered her mouth with her hand.
“We—are sorry to bring trouble! We will go away.”
“You can’t.” She returned to peer through the window. “There’s an agent and a big Mountie too.”
Yaot’l leaned forward again, in order to see. She scanned what she could see of the street, and sure enough, there in the distance, by the idling truck, was a red uniformed man. He appeared to be speaking to someone through the vehicle’s window.
After a few moments, the woman touched Yaot’l’s hand, gazing at her with wonder.
“Haven’t you two ever been to school, grown as you are?”
Sascho shook his head. “Our parents needed us.”
“Yes, we must go find our family at once. They will know what to do.”
They edged toward the door again, but the woman stood in the way, extending her arms.
“No! You can’t! It’s not safe. Sit and wait.”
“We—we have made your husband angry,” Yaot’l replied. “We should leave.”
“He won’t return until he’s sure the Mountie has gone.” Her expression signaled anxiety about the mood of the departed husband. For some reason, though, she’d chosen to risk his displeasure and bring them inside.
“My husband has come from working on the road. It is difficult for him to be away.”
Sascho had heard stories of the misunderstandings that arose between his people and the kwet’ı̨ı̨̀. These tales were told in the evenings around the fire. The elders often had ideas about how to resolve such disputes, especially if they might resume next summer.
Just as Yaot’l’s father did, more and more men went to work in the mines or on the roads or in timber for half the year. They only hunted now during winter. It was a change in how the people lived, a change Uncle John sometimes illustrated with stories of the old days, when they’d been free of interference and had simply followed the footsteps of Yamǫǫ̀zha on his yearly travels throughout Tłı̨chǫ dèè.
In the end, they accepted her invitation and cross-legged on her floor—she gave them sweet tea and bannock—and they offered her the Inconnu. She refused those, saying they should take those to their own families. She did take the dripping string outside and hang it up on a drying rack right behind the house. Up high, they would be out of any roaming dog’s ambitious reach.
“Wait a little more. Then it will be a good time to run back to your folks.” She went on to warn that the agents and the Mountie would next scour the campsites of the visitors.
Yaot’l spied toys piled in corner basket and asked about her children. Donna said they were hid with older cousins, all of whom had run off into the bush at the first alarm.
“Still, if we are threatened with losing our government script by that Indian Agent, we will send them. They are so young! One is five and the other is seven. Sometimes I think to leave this house and runaway into the bush beside them. I remember that school.”
“Was it very bad?” Yaot’l’s heart raced waiting for the answer. The response left her even more frightened than before.
“I was seven. It was hard to be away from my family in a place where they do not like Indians.”
Sascho felt he should acknowledge only with nod, but instead he asked another question:
“Did—did you learn English?” Kele’s words still rankled.
“Yes, at Fort Providence, where you will be sent if they catch you.” Above her gray eyes, Donna’s smooth brow furrowed. Her memories were not good. “But mostly what they teach is prayers and songs and proper ways to speak to their god. Now we all follow Him, for He is very strong. We shall never die but instead go to live in his big house in the sky.”
Her eyes turned toward a wooden cross hung upon the wall, with the carving of the suffering man. The sight of his torment did nothing to reassure Yaot’l.
“Since we live here, so close to the church, we must follow their ways. If you attend their ceremonies, the priest and their women will sometimes help with food if winter is hard and the men are away for too long and supplies run out.” She sighed and then turned her eyes back to that lone window.
“At that school I was frightened without my family, and kwet’ı̨ı̨̀ ways are not like ours. I swore I would never let the school take away my children …but, my new husband…well, this is his house and he says school is the law.”
Donna’s voice trailed away. Then, as Yaot’l watched, she straightened and squared her shoulders, a woman resigned to all hardships, both the past and those to come.
* * *
The street stayed quiet as the neighborhood made supper. When she peeped out the window, Yaot’l saw men here and there, seated outside their cabins checking over fish nets. Women prepared food. The only children present were babies, the newest walkers, and infants back-packed inside shawls.
It seemed a good time to go. After studying the street, Donna agreed. Together, she and Sascho gathered up their gear. The Inconnu were not mentioned, so they remained behind, hanging where they had been placed.
They had planned to go back the way they’d come in, and then walk a long arc through the brush outside the town. Perhaps if they did this, it would bring them, unnoticed, to the Lynx campsite by the water.
After skirting the last cabin, they entered an area they’d seen before, a place where old birch bark canoes, now rotting down to the frame, had been discarded. There was an open pit too, where junk was eventually buried—broken household items like furniture and dishes as well as bits of engines, metal, sawdust, and, naturally, rotting food stuff.
It seemed a place more likely to encounter an old half-blind bear than a Mountie, but there he was, a big man, who knew all the good hunting spots for runaways. Shoulders bright beneath that red coat, he stepped onto the path. Gloved hands rushed at them.
Yaot’l took off as fast as she could. She dropped her fish spear; it was far too cumbersome. Even worse, she did not know where she was running to, not exactly—away, she hoped—further into the bush.
She did not get very far, for almost immediately she was grabbed by the Métis Agent, the one with the scarred face. Once he had caught her arm, she couldn’t shake him off. Instead, he seized both her wrists and twisted them behind her. It was the same man they’d noticed when they’d left the family shelter earlier this morning.
Before he started to push her ahead of him, Yaot’l had a close up look at his hollow lean face. It crossed her mind to plead with the man to let her go, but she could see from his righteous expression that he would never do that. Her heart sank into a fearful—— unimaginable— future.
The Métis shouted something cheerful while he pushed her along, although no one, at first, was visible. As they rounded a large shaggy spruce, she saw that the Mountie walked ahead. He was dragging a tall Tłı̨chǫ boy.
* * *
“Here’s two more for Father McCarthy. He’ll be pleased with the numbers this year.”
“He should be! The government pays by the head, don't it?