telling the story
Looking for Aiktow: Stories behind the History of the Elbow of the South Saskatchewan River.
Well, that title just rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it? That pretty good main title and clumsy subtitle illustrate my dilemma – trying to stick to the facts while (hopefully) holding the interest of a reader who may not be very interested in history.
Just ten months ago I picked up my boxes of books at Houghton Boston; but of course this skinny little volume of stories started a long time before that. Actually, it probably began when I was a kid growing up in the hills 13 miles west of Beechy.
I asked my Dad, “Who lived here before us?” (My Dad’s parents had homesteaded the land in 1913, when he was not quite two years old.)
He tried to answer my questions - “Well, Gowans homesteaded that quarter up in the big hills, where the spring is, but they couldn’t prove up their land and left. The Matador Ranch ran cattle here before our family filed on it. So no one farmed here before our family.”
“No, Dad, I mean, who LIVED here before there were any farms? Before the Matador Ranch?”
“Well, the Indians, of course. You know that.”
“But who were the Indians?”
And that was where the conversation always ended. It was not that my Dad was not interested. There was simply no way for him, growing up before 1930, or me, a child in the ‘40s and ‘50s, living in rural Saskatchewan, hundreds of miles from any First Nations community, to learn about the people long gone from land we called our own. It must have bothered my Dad, a man who respected the land and valued its history. When, in his later years, he wrote his memories, he did not just tell the story of his family, he told the story of the land as he knew it:
how and when each parcel was added to our farm,
about the prehistoric mammal skeleton he dug out of the gravel pit,
what year the well was dug,
the cowboy who died after being thrown by a wild horse, giving Stud Butte its name.
However, the story of the land before settlement, was, for my Dad as for me, a closed book.
Fast forward a few decades. University, marriage, children, a farm – life took over. My husband and I lived in the village of Elbow from 1964 to the present. We witnessed the changes wrought by the building of the dams, survived the ups and downs of farming, tried to make sense out of what is happening to our land and our way of life.
Like many other local residents, we had, back in 1965, visited on a Sunday afternoon the big buffalo rock, the Mistaseni, in the valley where my husband’s grandmother had homesteaded. We climbed on it, took pictures, and later, heard with shocked disbelief that the ancient rock had been blown up. In the drought of the 1970s, land that refused to grow durum yielded crops of projectile points, snapped up by collectors who rarely if ever asked permission to scavenge our farmland. I discovered that a few local farmers kept careful records and tried to make sense out of their finds. I heard about the Saskatchewan Archaeological Society, and met people who could point me in the right direction for the kind of information I craved.
It turned out that The Elbow of the South Saskatchewan River had been a landmark and a recognised geographical point for hundreds of years; references lay scattered throughout diaries, in unpublished archival manuscripts and in old books. My early curiosity about the past had survived and grown but now it seemed that every little bit I learned produced new questions. Instead of starving for information, by the 1990s, I was drowning in it. It seemed as though there were documents, letters, and maps everywhere I looked, but I had no framework in which to place them.
Now, my high school and college history classes had never gone beyond the required overview of Canadian history. Napoleon’s definition of history being “a set of lies agreed upon” seemed to me an apt description. When Trevor Herriot made his radio documentary about the Mistaseni Rock, “Losing Aiktow” (CBC radio’s Ideas, about 1994) I realized that sometimes an alternative story is at least as legitimate as the official version. That encouraged me to put together a few stories that would help me and maybe others make sense from the fragments. These narratives took various forms – first, a local history tour, where we tried to show-case some of the more startling events of the 1800s at the Elbow; later on, stories formulated for young students at our local school, or my for my own family (basically anyone who would listen); next, historical tales for the SAS newsletter or Folklore magazine. One of the early stories was, of course, the story of the Buffalo Rock of the Aiktow, which I published online on the wonderful and highly under-rated website Virtual Saskatchewan. A professor at McMaster University saw it there, and used the photo of the rock in his book White Civility. I also made the story into a booklet for a museum fundraiser. The Pohorecki family graciously gave permission to use Zenon Pohorecki’s drawings, and a local wildlife artist, Carmen Heinrichs, donated her work for the cover. Next a drama student contacted me for more information about sources for the story; Joel Bernbaum’s fictionalized dramatization was performed by Dancing Sky theatre at Meacham and here at the university this past spring. The story goes on and on, with Steven Thair writing the next chapter in the saga with his proposed documentary. Obviously this story speaks to us.
Other stories about The Elbow grew out of hours of reading and research. Each seemed to have its own core of meaning. Palliser and the Peacemaker pays tribute to Maskepetoon, one of the unsung heroes of the West; Shortstick of the Sandhills shows the drama and tragedy of tribal life in one band of Plains Cree. Lost in the Red Ochre Hills is a detective story, seeking to untangle a web of careless half-truths about inter-tribal warfare.
All these stories are, of course, true ... but they are also stories, not a collection of historic facts. An archaeologist will spend months excavating and recording tiny pieces of debris, and then begin her real work of interpreting it, putting it into context. The files filled with maps and notes and my shelves of books were just the beginning of my work.
When telling stories to the children in the school library, I found that they needed some hook to make the story matter to them. I wanted to touch their hearts as well as their minds. Thinking back to my own childhood and my hunger to know the stories of my land, I sometimes started story-time like this: “Imagine that you are back in a time when your grandfather was the age you are now. Now suppose his grandfather is telling him a story of something that happened here when he was a boy – that is the time of this story. Your grandfather’s grandfather’s time. And this is the place.”
In order for something to matter to any of us, we need a point of contact. I tried to do that with each of the stories in this book, find a point of contact so that the story is not just a story about another people in another time, but touches us today.
Every good story has an image or a character or an incident that stays with you long after the story is over. Each of the stories in this book was chosen not only because of its connection to The Elbow, but because something about the incident or person grabbed my imagination. With the Mistaseni story, it was the tragic loss of so much that did not need to be lost, symbolized by the rubble that had been the buffalo rock. In Hitchcock’s story, it was the tumbledown century-old cabin standing alone on land that had been continuously though sporadically occupied for most of the previous 10,000 years. In A Tale of Two Traders, I think of John McDonald of Garth’s kite flying in the moonlight, and Peter Fidler’s hand-drawn maps sent off to England to be added to the most up-to-date map of North America.
The stories are linked first of all by location – all have an historic connection to The Elbow of the South Saskatchewan River. On another level, they are linked by a theme that runs throughout our history, prehistoric as well as today – our dependence on the land, a need to come to terms with it and each other. The land itself provided the metaphor: two rivers, the mighty South Saskatchewan and the peaceful Qu’Appelle, joined by a strange little valley with a stream called the Aiktow, the river-that-flows- both-ways. Sometimes the Aiktow drained into the South Saskatchewan River. In other seasons, the spring flood poured its waters into the Qu’Appelle. Like the people, who for thousands of years had eked out their daily living from this harsh land, the Aiktow maintained a precarious balance. Taking and giving back.
The Aiktow, like much of its history, has disappeared. But the waters of the Aiktow still flow through the lake, just as the current of events long past affects life in Saskatchewan today. That, I think is what makes history relevant. That is what makes archaeological investigation valuable. That is why stories matter to us.