In some traditions, after a wedding, the “young” couple travels for the first year of marriage to visit family. We spent our summer just doing that.
We visited cousins, aunts and uncles, and found ancestors in graveyards and hidden pockets of Canada we never knew existed. We traveled from the Okanagan Valley to the Peace River Valley, from Nanaimo on Vancouver Island to Gimli, on the shores of the large inland sea, Lake Winnipeg.
At family dinner tables, we enjoyed stories and exchanged histories.
The most poignant of these stopovers, was the journey to the Key Reserve, at the Saskatchewan-Manitoba border, to see Andy’s birthplace and hopefully find some of his ancestors.
Andy was adopted at the age of two by English-Norwegian-Scottish parents. His adoptive family consisted of many relatives, with a family tree as twisted and entwined as the branches of an old oak. He didn’t feel a need to find his ancestors, but now that we were living on a reserve, he had many questions.
On our way back to Mistissini from BC, we planned a layover at the Key Reserve. Preliminary research on the internet proved futile. Numerous e-mails to the band office were unanswered. We were able to glean some information from the band’s rather generic website.
Heading towards the reserve, we spotted a small sign indicating “Key Reserve” and a dirt road leading into cultivated fields.
“Should we turn in?” I asked Andy.
“No,” he said. “Let’s set up camp first and wait until morning. I want to be fresh.”
According to our map, Duck Mountain Provincial Park was the nearest promising campground. We pulled into the visitor centre and reserved a campsite by the lake.
While I was wandering about the displays of the wildlife representations and educational items at the visitor centre, Andy asked the park employee what the best way was to get to the reserve.
Barbara, as she introduced herself, expressed interest that we were looking for the small band. According to her, there were two other bands on the other side of the highway, in constant state of feuding, but the community at Key pretty much kept to itself.
“We are passing through and I want to see where I was born,” he told her.
Barbara smiled. “I can help you with that. I am the town librarian and have access to reports from all over this area.”
She promised to make photocopies for us of anything she could find, including reports by the Department of Indian Affairs dating back to the late 1800s.
We were up early the next morning.
“How do I look,” I asked Andy. I was in my comfortable travel wear. We were both nervous.
We had sketchy directions and traveled several miles on dirt roads, set in a grid pattern. There were no distinguishing landmarks, just copses of poplar and fields. We continued on the deserted roads, reminiscent of the endless lost landscapes of Stephen King novels. Finally, a cloud of dust arose and a car appeared.
“Flag them down, so we can find out where we are,” I tell Andy.
The car stopped in a choking brown cloud of silt. Andy rolled down his window. I couldn’t see who he was talking too, but it was a woman’s voice.
Andy: I am looking for the Key Band Office.
Female Voice (“FV”): Who are you?
Andy: Andy Anderson.
Andy: Well, Earl Brass was my birth name.
FV: Oh Yes! I know YOU! You have a brother named Leon and two other twin brothers named Joe and John and your mother’s name was Alice. Come! Follow me to the band office so we can talk.
We followed her dust and parked at the band office situated at a small lake. Here we were welcomed into a meeting room.
It turned out that the female voice was Terry, Andy’s second cousin.
Terry had short, spiked black hair. She told us that she had retired two years ago, but at 67 she is still working as a mental health counsellor for the band.
Erin, the receptionist, popped into the room. She was also a cousin. As Andy, she had been adopted out into a non-native family. Interestingly, the term used during our conversations was “apprehended” not adopted. Andy questioned Erin about her experience and she replied that she had a good relationship with her adoptive parents. When she made connections with her biological family, they heartily endorsed her quest; however, they were worried that it might affect their relationship they had with her.
“As a mother, myself, I can understand your adoptive parents,” I told her.
We met so many people, who greeted us with gentle curiosity and warm welcome. Cousins, second cousins, cousins several times removed, great aunts and uncles … we had many conversations. By the end of the day, we were both quite overwhelmed.
“It’s almost like they’ve been waiting for you, that it was completely natural that you would just show up one day,” I said on the way back to the campground. The relatives could have contacted Andy, as they did have information, but chose not to. I feel that this was out of respect.
I cannot possibly recount all the conversations that went on and the information given to us. There was just too much. Meeting Elder Campbell Papequash is one I will tell.
At the band office, I asked Terry, “Who do you think would like to meet Andy most.”
She made a quick call to Campbell, Andy’s first cousin once removed (his mother was Andy’s grandmother). A few moments later, we were following a puff of dust to his home.
Campbell sat on his porch on a metal office chair, the wind-music of the poplar trees wafting around him. His steel-grey hair was tied in a long braid. He observed us coming up the wheelchair ramp with penetrating black eyes.
Terry made introductions and left us to attend a meeting at the band office. Campbell and Andy spent the afternoon on the porch talking, while I wandered about with two neighbouring dogs and played with a ginger cat, occasionally listening in.
Campbell’s wife, Terisita, came out of the house and offered us glasses of water and returned into the kitchen to prepare lunch. We felt it was time to leave, but that was not to be. The table had been set for four.
After lunch, Campbell drove us to the area where he sets up an annual camp, a reunion and meeting place of sorts. Sweat lodges had been erected for ceremonial use. He showed us the teaching circle with the tree of life planted at the eastern portal.
While I was photographing, Campbell walked the large teaching circle, clockwise, and I heard an ancient hum, a melody, resonant to the earth emanating from him.
We visited an abandoned Anglican church, the second oldest church in Saskatchewan. Campbell had a key so we could see the plaque dedicated to Andy’s ancestor, Margaret Brass, from the Orkney Islands. Here is another beautiful story, but for another time to tell. The church was maintained, the grounds freshly mowed, the small white crosses and gravesites tended to lovingly. My favourite picture is of Campbell and Terisita walking away from the graveyard to their old truck, into the boundless prairie and popular parklands.
On the way back to Campbell’s home, we drove by Campbell’s grandfather’s sacred space, colourful prints hung in trees, creating a cloth garden.
One of Campbell’s remorses is the loss of language and culture of his people, often lost when children were taken to residential schools. He set about to learn the Anishinabe (antonym for Ojibwe and Algonquin) language in his later years, from listening to tapes. He is one of the few people on the reserve that can still speak it. At this point, Andy discovered his heritage to be Anishinabe, not Cree, as he had always assumed.
Campbell also wrote a book, one of which he signed, and presented to us as a gift. The book is about his experiences in residential schools, on skid row, and how after a spiritual awakening, he returned to his roots. More can be found on his website at http://theyearningjourney.com/
We decided to extend our visit another day. There was still so much the men needed to talk about. Campbell had an appointment the next day, but we agreed to come at dinner time.
The next afternoon, we headed back to the band office for more information. It was a long afternoon of looking at family trees, registered births and pictures. More cousins filtered in. Terry mentioned that she had ordered Chinese food for lunch. By late afternoon, we felt quite hungry and craved Chinese food, which, we were told, could be found in the nearby town of Norquay. We decided to have a quick dinner before heading back to Campbell’s.
“Do you mind if we come?” Merle, one of Andy’s cousins asked.
We were delighted to have a small entourage into town. At least we didn’t get lost this time.
After dinner, we all headed to back Campbell’s home, where more relatives and Campbell’s brother Clarence, the current Chief had gathered. Terisita prepared cake, and sliced my humbly offered banana bread from our RV freezer, and offered refreshments.
We had to return home before Campbell’s annual camp in late August. Vision Quest takes place in the spring and maybe we’ll make it back then.
We both know this is a place we will return to. It has called us and we will be back.
Photos of our trip to find ancestors: