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  Turkey and Tobacco

by Dave Yanko
- courtesy Tourism Saskatchewan
Fort Carlton, on the banks of the North Saskatchewan River.

On Thanksgiving several years ago, our family decided to go to Fort Carlton to admire the autumn colors and hike around the North Saskatchewan River valley.

The historic park is officially closed by the time Canadian Thanksgiving arrives in October. But the area remains accessible, and we wanted to be outdoors on the beautiful "Indian Summer" day. The reconstructed fur-trading post provided a destination, as well as a pretty setting on the cusp of Saskatchewan's prairie and boreal forest. The turkey would cook in our absence.

The fort's about an hour north of our home in Saskatoon, and we arrived at the locked gates around noon. We poured out of the car and redistributed our lunch and minimal gear into two small backpacks as our black-and-tan dog streaked for freedom in a nearby field.

As we locked up the car, an old pickup truck arrived at our impromptu parking area and four First Nations people emerged from the cab. We exchanged pleasantries, and then our family walked around the park gates and back up onto the paved road that descended into the river valley and on to the fort.

The road cuts into a hillside of a ravine. As the kids frolicked on the embankment to our right, my wife and I stopped to embrace the carpet of color below us on our left. When I glanced back to make sure the dog was following, I noticed one of the other party was carrying a spade. I pointed this out to my wife, and we began pondering aloud what they might be digging up at Fort Carlton.

Plains Cree Indians have lived in the area for centuries -- the first trading post in the valley was built in 1795. During the North-West Resistance of 1885, the entire area was a-buzz with activity that included the razing of the fort. Could it be, I finally ventured, that these folks had come here to repatriate the remains of a relative buried in the area?

My wife said I should ask them. No, I said, that would be rude.

Go over, she pressed. You're going to be wondering.

She was right.

Their group consisted of a middle-aged man, a young man in his 20s, a thirty-something woman and a frail female elder whose short, lurching steps profited little from her cane. I apologized for my nosiness, then explained how I noticed the spade and couldn't help but wonder what it was for. If it's a private matter, I added, I'll certainly understand.

They glanced back and forth at each other, and then the thirty-something woman spoke up. She told me they were looking for "medicine".

What kind of medicine?, I asked, bewildered.

"Blackroot," she replied, and it dawned on me she was talking about herbal medicine.

A family friend suffers heart problems, she continued, and tea made from blackroot is good for a weak heart.

I noticed she was clutching a pouch of commercial tobacco, and I asked her whether it contained herbs or just plain tobacco. She recoiled noticeably and searched for help in the eyes of her friends.

I apologized, and started taking my leave. I thanked the woman for chatting with me and wished all good luck in their hunt for blackroot.

We don't like to talk about it, she started, and I cut her off, saying I understand and that she need not explain.

"We take from the earth, and we give back to the earth," she said.

We smiled, and I left to join my family for our Thanksgiving outing.

For more on traditional First Nation's spirituality, see Culture and Spirit, about Woodland Cree elder, teacher and artist Sally Milne.

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