July 16, 1988 7:30 pm, Penetanguishene, ONT
Walk through the gate at Sainte-Marie-Among-the-Hurons and you enter New France. You enter the year 1639, within the dream of the Jesuits and fur traders who struggled in this strange land to recreate their home at this mission. Nowhere did I feel the power of vision more strongly than at Sainte-Marie: that vision that fueled the European drive to conquer inhumanly difficult conditions and spiritual isolation. But it was in the longhouse at the native compound that vision held me frozen in its smoke.
The longhouses are huge Quonset huts of bark and branches, cunningly woven into interlocking arches. A sleeping shelf runs the length of each side. Sunlight pours through the smokehole in the ceiling, shafting through the white smoke that fills the house with the pungent magic of the spirit world. The wealth of the land hangs from the poles: pelts, tobacco, corn, herbs, all parched and permeated with the power of the smoke. A woman in buckskin tends the fire, her round moon face as tanned as tobacco. She belongs to this world; she has inherited this longhouse and its contents as surely as she owns her corn-copper skin and coal-black hair. Suddenly, a young man rushes in, staggering under the weight of the broken girl he carries in his arms.
She burns, he says, your daughter burns hot as the fire with the evil sickness. You must call the medicine man to cure her with his herbs.
But hot on his heels follows the priest, his black robe flapping over his spare body in scarecrow contrast to the bronze, muscled torso of the young warrior. Your daughter will soon depart to the spirit world, he says, and if you do not let me baptize her she will burn forever in the flames of hell.
No! cries the young man. It is the black robes that have brought us these diseases, as they seek to poison our hearts and deny us our traditions. What have they brought us except evil?
But you are a Christian, the priest urges the woman, you have looked into your heart and know that in Christ is your only salvation. How can you deny this peace to your daughter?
How can you deny the teachings of your people? says the young man.
The woman stands frozen in the smoke, frozen in the choice between two cultures. It is the choice that comes to every native people in contact with Europeans, a choice that is as starkly, poignantly bitter today as it was three centuries ago. It is not simply the exchange of one material world for another, but a choice between two spirit worlds: the world of the chapel with its bare scrubbed boards, its incense and embroidered icons, and the world of the longhouse, the pelts, the tobacco, the herbs and the smoke.
The scene ends unresolved. In the applause that breaks the spell I hear the crashing of centuries and the repercussions of her unmade choice. Was it ever a choice freely made? Could it ever have been a wise choice? Could there have been a way to blend the two worlds, to find common ground between the incense and the smoke? Under that fervent applause I hear the white, European audience asking, "what have we lost?"
Then the years dissolve, the audience disperses, and a young woman in machine-stitched buckskin sweeps ashes from the dirt floor of an empty longhouse. She is a student at an Ontario university, an Ojibwa who finds this an interesting way to learn about her heritage through a summer job. As I turn to leave, the late afternoon sunlight slants through the smokehole, catching that serene moon face in an ancient smile. She bends over the fire for an instant caught out of time, frozen in the smoke.
Sunlight pours through the smokehole in the ceiling, shafting through the white smoke that fills the house with the pungent magic of the spirit world. The wealth of the land hangs from the poles: pelts, tobacco, corn, herbs, all parched and permeated with the power of the smoke.
TOP: Cleveland kids learn to make a pet "frog" with fingerplay songs about water critters at the Cleveland Children's Museum.
PHOTO: Museum staff
CENTER: Historical maps and folksongs tell the story of westward migration to Ohio Valley lands like the Aullwood Farm, now Aullwood Audubon Center , in Dayton.
PHOTO: Lynn Noel
BOTTOM: GOING UPRIVER staff Teresa Garen and Alain Meunier interpret the Canadian Heritage Rivers exhibit to visitors at the Old Arcade, Cleveland, OH.
PHOTO: Lynn Noel
RIGHT: Voyageurs-in-training practice with miniature paddles courtesy of the Charles River (Massachusetts) Watershed Association. PHOTO: Jeff Andersenn
CENTER: Most voyageurs routinely carried two pièces, or packs, of 90 lbs. (40 kg). Only the legendary attempted three! Fortunately for Will Kershaw (Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources), these are lighter demonstration pièces. PHOTO: Teresa Garen
LEFT: Vince Kerrio, Ontario Minister of the Environment, opened the dedication ceremonies for the Mattawa River by unveiling this official plaque commemorating the Voyageur's Highway.PHOTO: Teresa Garen