My first husband, Bob, got a job teaching on an Indian Reservation around Atikameg, Alberta. Atikameg means ‘Little Whitefish’.
I went up north. By up north I mean 200 miles north of Edmonton near Little Slave Lake. I was pregnant at the time.
Bates managed to burn the Schoolhouse and Teacherage down before I got up there. The house was heated by a cast iron stove which was wood-fueled. The cold kept him from carrying the ashes and cinders out too far from the house. He threw them in the snow next to the house in the full belief that the snow would put them out. The live coals in with the cinders burned through the snow all the way down to the Teacherage’s wood foundations and up she went!
This was the biggest excitement of that winter. All the kids showed up. Bob and the adult Indian workers tried to throw the schoolbooks out of the fire area to save them but the kids threw those books right back in the fire. Take good aim. Throw that book back in the fire. Their aim was very good. I guess they weren’t into book learning.
The only place left for us to live in was a little Indian log cabin way up on the hill closer to Indian territory rather than Anglican Mission territory. Folks got horses and men and all trying to drag that little cabin down to the Anglican settlement. It gets 30 below up north. Frost and cold had a good grip on the foundation and that cabin wasn’t moving!
The Little arrow points to our cabin
We settled in up there, which the Anglican minister considered to be a great shame but that little log cabin was really snug. The old teacher’s house which had burned down would have been cold and drafty because they’d built it like a regular frame house down further south. This was farther north and could get very, very cold. The only time it warmed up was when the Chinook came over the mountains carrying a warm wind from the ocean currents. From Fahrenheit 30° below it would sweep up to 20° above Zero in about an hour and this was something to look forward to.
I was a solitary soul. Folks expected that I would visit with some of the more Christianized Indians and the daughters of the Hudson’s Bay Post Factor and so forth.
I liked to read and think and do things with my hands. Now, I had lots of time to do that. Reading was precious. I had one book of literary horror stories. I remember reading Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’ . I would allow myself three pages a day from this book, so I wouldn’t run out of reading. Most of the books up there had perished in the flames when the Teacherage burned down, so that was all I had.
As the days went by I got bigger and bigger because, hey, I was expecting. Bates settled into teaching with some disturbances. The Indian boys liked to slip shotgun shells into the cast-iron stove which gave the subsequent explosion a really satisfying reverb. We had some pictures of them. I’ve got them now. Pictures of the Indian boys riding quarter horses or small horses dressed in, basically, cowboy regalia, riding bareback and doing it very well. It’s just a strange image of them all dressed up as cowboys. I guess they were sticking to the winning side.
The preacher was British, as was his wife. He was about 70 and had spent many years in the frozen north as an Anglican missionary to the Indians.
The Indians on this reserve were nomadic Cree. They had a special way of looking at time which was embedded in their language and in their culture. This made for some problems when it came to court cases because the past to them was, apparently, yesterday or many moons ago. Nothing in between. This made ‘Where were you on the night of such and such?’ a little bit precarious. I don’t know what their future tense was like, or if the even had one. All I heard about were the legal matters.
The Indians were fishermen and hunters and they worked on the oil rigs from time to time. For fishing in winter they cut a hole in the ice and it was proprietary. Whoever cut the hole could fish there and no one else. I found that out after a polite visitor came and informed me that I had been fishing in his ice hole. We apologized and offered him our catch. If you did catch a fish, all you had to do was throw it on the roof of the cabin where dogs or bears couldn’t get at it and that fish was frozen in no time.
The road and the Atikameg Lake
© Sonia Brock 2005