Sunday, February 26, 2017

Juliet Waldron and John Wisdomkeeper, Northwest Territories and Nunavut

Our Canadian Brides story, Nıts'ı̀t'ah Golika Xah (Fly Away Snow Goose) is set in an area which bridges The NWT and Nunavut. The nomadic Dene, Tlicho band, migrate through this vastness every year in order to follow the caribou. By the 1950’s this 10,000 year relationship between land, animals and men is under severe pressure from the outside world. This Bride story is not about immigrating to, or "taming" a wild land, it’s about already being a part of that land and trying to find a way in which to continue, caught between traditional ways and the ways of the European colonizers.  

 Yaotl (warrior) is our heroine’s name, and Golika Xah is the Snow Goose, as well as her family name. She’s not a particularly feminine girl, as her name declares, but her mother, grandmother and aunts are all part of a strong maternal group who have taught her the things a Tłįchǫ woman must know. She can tan a hide, make snares and nets, and she knows all about hunting the smaller creatures, like rabbits and birds. She can sew, embroider and make moccasins, too. She can also throw with accuracy, net and spear fish, is good with a bow. This last skill, although not traditional for her sex, will help her family survive as they travel between spruce forest and the tundra, following the seasonal migration.

The 1950s is a time of change. The kwet'ı̨ı̨̀ (whites) are moving into the area in greater numbers, opening mines and building roads. The government has made it obligatory for 1st Nation’s children to attend residential schools in order to “kill the Indian” in the hearts of the next generation. It was a settled matter of public policy to make citizens in the European mould out of the First Nations People.   Yaotl’s elders are worried by this, although they would like to understand the kwet'ı̨ı̨̀ better, particularly because they have to live with their laws. However, the idea of forgetting who they are, or of abandoning their ancient traditions --songs, stories, beliefs, and, most of all, their land craft—they hope to resist.
Yaotl and Sascho (Grizzly Bear) are picked up by Indian agents and sent off to the Roman Catholic Indian residential school in Fort Providence on the Mackenzie. Yaotl is strong and sure of herself, and so far in her life these traits have served her well. The restrictive, cold, punishing atmosphere of the residential school, with it's very real physical and emotional dangers, almost overcome her. However, like the snow geese whose name she carries, she is irresistibly drawn to seek her land and people even when deep in despair. This spiritual strength will support her resolve to make a daring escape along with her friend Sascho and two of his cousins. That same spirit will help her endure the hardships and threats which abound during their 300 kilometer walk home.

The oldest boy, Sascho, is a boy friend who will, in the course of the journey, become a boyfriend, which is a horse of another color, as all readers of romantic fiction know.  Sascho too hears the magnetic call of Tłįchǫ land, but he also hears the voices of gokeecho (ancestors). His feet, already firmly placed on the path to adulthood, will, during this difficult journey, lead him there.

And from my kwet'ı̨ı̨̀ American self, I’d like to add that I’m honored to have been given this trust, and to have John Wisdomkeeper’s counsel and guidance to help me portray 1st Nation characters with dignity and without candy-coating. While describing and venturing into Dene beliefs and lifeways for the purposes of the story, I also have to view my own family backstory in a harsh, new light. With John's help, I hope to speak some truths in the midst of what is, on the face, plain historical fiction.

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