Our Alberta prairie town was home to very few Indians. Actually, the town had few minorities – a few Metis and a few Chinese. The town was a mix of British Isles stock, a few Germans and a few Scandinavians. No Blacks or Jews or Hispanics. If the town had an overt expression of bigotry, it was against Ukrainians, using the pejorative “Bohunk“. But you had to be careful because the Ukrainians didn’t like the term and were quick to correct you, one way or another. With no Indians in the town, the endemic prejudice against them went largely unsaid. It was largely limited to calling the province’s liquor indictment list, the “Indian List”. In an echo that resonates today in rural North America, you simply couldn’t raise a discussion about bigotry – truth was what the town ‘believed’ and you didn’t question it. Maybe that’s why so many people are amazed to this day when you suggest they are bigoted. It is not so; they’re only living up to the perceived wisdom of the community. That they may be racist simply does not occur to them.
I had my first encounter with prejudice when I was sixteen and a member of the local boxing club. Our star boxer was a middleweight Metis named Gordon. He was a superb boxer and an even nicer person. But when he ran afoul of the law on a suspicious arrest for assault (he was goaded by bullies), he was given a stiff jail sentence totally disproportionate to the alleged crime. The town lost a good citizen and embraced the two louts who brought about the charge. Official prejudice was alive and well. This was something I probably should have known at a younger age. The prejudice wasn’t nonexistent; it was simply hibernating, waiting for a chance to do its job – reinforce hate and the illusion of superiority in white men.
Fast forward a few decades and I’d like to think I am more understanding but that is a totally unjustified conceit. I profess to abhor prejudice of any sort but abstain fighting the hate where I can. I am more sedentary. The equanimity is real but rarely leaves my head.
Yet, I am drawn to the native cultures of North America and am acutely aware of how brutal we immigrants were in dealing with them and how deaf we were to all they could teach us, especially living with our environment. This awareness was sparked by Dee Brown novels – “Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee” and “Creek Mary’s Blood”. Again, though, I never once stood up for any of the battles the aboriginals waged against the establishment and I never took the time to visit a reservation.
Which leads me to one of the few ‘touchstones’, if you will, in my life.
And, most peculiarly, they are real stones.
It’s the Ribstones, a special Cree memorial of sorts roughly 100 miles southeast of Edmonton, Alberta. Some years ago the provincial government designated the ribstones a historical site but, to this day, the site is little known by most Albertans, much less the rest of North America.
But there is something timeless and uplifting about the site, something that “talks” to me in a language I am not used to hearing.
The ribstones, two of them, sit on a height of land some distance southwest of the hamlet of Kinsella. They’re roughly the size of an adult pig and both have two ribs carved into them. When this happened – and by whom – is, of course, unknown, but the ribs are thought to be well over a thousand years old. The stones have been a special site for Prairie natives over the centuries. It’s not hard for me to see why.
The height of land is not obvious as you approach. Upon arrival, however, you realize there is an unobstructed view of the countryside. For a culture heavily dependent upon hunting bison, this vantage point must have been invaluable.
I’m struck by a sense that where I am is an important place even as I stand there dumbly staring off into the distance. The site almost demands the visitor contemplate this open view of the prairie for 15 to 25 kilometers in any direction. There are no distant mountains, no lakes, no big valleys, no monuments. Only the prairie. An ocean of gently rolling prairie.
As I stare into the distance, turning slowly like a rusty mannikin, I wonder how much of what I am seeing is different from what the Cree saw in 1750 or 1350. Today, I see barbed wire; a few cultivated crops; an occasional pasture; a couple of farms; distant power transmission lines; wild oats and quack grass; poplar and willow groves. To the old cultures, only the trees would be recognizable. Even the grass was different. The original prairie grass has all but disappeared.
I’m reminded of a time in Montana in the 1990’s when we visited a ranch in which a half section of land had been seeded back to prairie grass. Apparently the federal government sponsored a program to pay ranchers to let their land revert to native grass. This rancher allowed the money was better than he could make raising cattle.
We were hunting pheasants and he was quite willing to let us hunt this half section. “But you’ll drive your dogs insane,” he cautioned. Sure enough, the grass, left on its own, was easily over five feet high and dense. The place was swarming with pheasants but they’re not a stupid bird. They knew quite well that in a half section of dense tall grass, they could simply run the dogs crazy. We moved on and it occurred to me how important the bison and lightning fires were to the prairies. Without those two keeping the grass from reaching those heights, it’s impossible to understand how the prairie native culture, not to mention the biota, would have evolved.
So much has changed. But so much is the same. The brisk wind from the northwest is timeless. As is the bracing tonic of the air, faintly redolent of plants, weeds, and trees. The fleecy cumulus humilis clouds drift by as if strolling through a park. There is a sense that if you stood there long enough the entire history of the post-ice age prairie would pass in front of your eyes.
I am not a very spiritual person but I am also aware that our so-called logical minds are limited by our cultural history, our unevenly developed senses, and our environment. The spiritual connection of native cultures with their environment is something I admire. Respect and honor ought to be attached to that which sustains us. But I cannot replicate it, no matter how much I admire it. Roughly thirty yards from the stones is a small poplar grove, undistinguished until you get near. Hundreds of small swatches of colored cloth are tied to the branches. Evidently, this is a spiritual invocation of sorts, like the small bits of cash that used to be left in the ribs of the stones. Both invite more questions than answers. Who were the swatches meant for? What were the drapers petitioning for? What is obvious is that some aboriginals still find the site an inspiration.
When I stand up on the rise next to those sacred stones and stare out over the land, I sense a connection of sorts with what came before me. I know little of native mythology and am only dimly aware of the interconnectedness aboriginals profess to see in all things. My sensibilities are roughly-hewn by our western heritage and this leaves me ill-equipped to appreciate the mystique of those two black stones, the natural world and man’s place in it as a participant, not a master. I am moved, nonetheless, by a feeling I am part of something. Like many seniors, I regret not taking advantage of so many learning opportunities when younger. I don’t pretend to understand the Ribstones experience beyond saying a visit to the site stirs my imagination and assures me it’s never too late for some things. Even if it’s a sense of a history we never knew.
Robert Alan Davidson