I’m going to take you with me on my travels, starting with moving to an isolated reserve in northern Canada in 1976 — I was 23 at the time — and ending with my 60th birthday party at Victoria Falls in Zambia in 2013. In between there were — and will continue to be — a number of adventures.
Stanley Mission, part of the Lac La Ronge Indian Band, was a fly-in reserve on the Churchill River in northern Saskatchewan. Yes, yes I know that “native American” is politically correct, but the people who live on the reserves in Canada want to be called Indians. That is what it says on the Treaty with Queen Elizabeth I — also known as “the great white mother” — and that is what gives them their status. So Indians it is. Under the mantra of “local control of Indian education” the band — which would more likely be called a tribe in America —had just taken over running their own education system. And it seemed like an exciting place to be, so I applied for a job as a teacher and was hired.
When I moved to Stanley Mission in 1976, there was no road, no telephone, no radio and no television. We flew into the settlement in single-engine bush planes that landed on the river with pontoons in the summer and on the airstrip with skis in the winter.
The two-way radio operated out of the Band Office and you could call the outside world from 9 a.m. until 17:00, Monday to Friday. It was a “dry” reserve — meaning alcohol was not allowed — and you weren’t allowed to mention liquor on the public radio system. Swearing wasn’t allowed either. So to get around that you would ask the pilot to bring in a bottle of horse liniment on the next plane. Situations were reported in code, My standard response to “fubar” which translated as ‘fucked up beyond all recognition.”
I didn’t miss television, but radio would have been nice. Mail came in twice a week and Wednesday was milk day. After school we would rush to one of the two local small stores that would barely rate as a corner grocery in a city. The formula was to head for the fridge at the back of the shop. The milk may have been sitting on the dock for a few hours before it was flown in, so it was standard practice to check before buying. If the fridge was littered with opened cartons it was a sure sign they were sour from the heat of the summer. During the winter the cartons rattled with half-frozen milk. UTH milk was hailed as a revolutionary discovery right up there with the wheel.
I’d been weaned into the Indian way of life on the Onion Lake reserve and in Ile a la Cross, where I’d taught short-term adult education classes so sliding further into isolation wasn’t a problem. Living on the reserve further cemented my sense of living as ‘other’ that I had developed by the time I finished high school.
When I arrived on the reserve there were still traditional elements of the Cree culture. Many people have nicknames and the locals called me Okamao-iskwio, which rough translates as ‘little boss woman’.
Local families would pack up their supplies in the autumn before the river froze over and fly out to their remote trap-lines with their ski-doos strapped onto the pontoons of the float plane. Equipped only with a battery operated two-way radio, ‘moccasin telegraph’ was very effective; everyone knew what everyone else was doing even though the trap-lines were often quite a distance from each other. From time to time — usually during the winter because it was easier to travel by ski-doo than boat — I’d visit people out in the bush. Lunch would inevitably consist of tea, boiled beaver and bannock (a type of flat bread) spread with lard. It made the bush meat of West Africa and the smoked dog I was later to eat in China look appetising. But we will get to those taste treats later in the series.
Meanwhile, stay tuned for the next episode of me getting adopted by the McLeod family. Until then, this is your contributing travel editor signing off from Cape Town, South Africa.