Unchained Heritage – Creative Essay The Elder sat alone on a slab of granite outside a carelessly- erected tent on a Native reserve near Beardmore in northern Ontario, just east of Lake Nipigon. The previous night’s rain was already drying off the ground, leaving only scattered mud patches in it’s wake. Soon the early summer sun would turn these into crusty bits of dirt, only to be muddied the next rainfall. The roar of a twin-engine charter from Dryden filled the air. A squirrel, apparently frightened by the noise, scampered hurriedly past the Elder, pausing only momentarily to sniff the air before taking refuge up a nearby tree.
About a minute later, the plane was completely out of sight, but the squirrel had not yet come back down from his tree. The Elder eased himself off the rock and stood up, looking about him critically. This was not the land he used to know. Although he was nearing his sixty-third birthday, he clearly remembered coming to this same location with his father as a boy. There were more birds then, he thought, and more trees. The Elder walked a few steps to a creek to wash his hands.
A very faint metallic odour met him as he bent down, but he did not notice it as his nose had long become insensitive. The Elder shook his hands dry and glanced up at the position of the sun. It was high overhead, indicating noontime. He sighed, knowing that in a couple of hours his son would bring his family from Toronto to visit him. He did not like his son very much, but he put up with the annual visits for the sake of the grandchildren: he was their only link to their heritage.
For one month a year he would show them how their ancestors lived. How he lives. He thought back to his last visit to the Hogtown, more then twenty years previously. An early morning walk along the lakeshore was ruined by the constant reek of rotting fish and the deafening roar of cars rushing past on the Gardiner. He had followed the shoreline until Don River, where the expressway simply turned into a parkway: woes by another name. He has wondered why expressways were always built along lakeshores and rivers, the most ecologically-sensitive areas of the land, and decided that he would never return to Toronto.
“Now Toronto comes to me,” he murmured softly. The Elder walked back to his tent and rummaged about inside, producing a peace pipe that was more then two hundred years old. He had long quit smoking, on the advice of a physician in Beardmore, but at least it would break the ice with his grandchildren. He carefully unrolled a pouch of aromatic tobacco, whcih he had imported from Virginia and saved for special occasions, and removed some leaves, which he placed in the pipe. He then set about busily creating a campfire. “Everything must be just right,” he said to himself. From his jacket, he removed some grains and nuts, which he scattered on the ground nearby. He hoped it would attract a few birds and small animals.
He wanted to be sure that his grandchildren would enjoy their culture and be proud of who they are. Before he could light the fire, the Elder heard the distant grind of a car. He hurriedly made a few last-minute preparations, then set to light the fire. The breeze from nearby Lake Nipigon made it difficult, and as he fumbled with twigs and safety matches he caught sight of a giant beast through the gap between the trees. He dropped the matches and stood up, expressionless. The beast, a blue Lumina passenger van, came to a stop just meters away, and five figures poured out of its belly. Two children ran up to the Elder and hugged him.
“Gramps!” one of them exclaimed. “We’ve missed you so much!” The Elder forced himself to smile. He hated being called Gramps, but that was what he was to the kids. “Let me look at you,” he said pulling away. “You’ve grown!” Beaming faces looked up at him happily in response. A third child walked up and laid both hands on the Elder’s shoulders.”Hello, Grandfather,” he said.”How’s life up here?” “Peaceful,” he replied.
“Have you finished school yet?” “No,” laughed the oldest child. “You always ask me that same question; you know I still have a year to go.” “Here come your parents,” replied the Elder. “Hello, Ted. How are you, Wendy?” “Just fine,Potewan,” replied the Elder’s daughter-in-law. “We’re a but tired, though, after the long drive up.
Ted’s been behind the wheel since midnight last night.” “Its a new Lumina, Dad,” added Ted. “What do you think?” Averting his son’s gaze, Potewan thought a moment, then replied, “It’s a van, all right.” He disliked motorized vehicles of any kind, but did not want to start the visit on such a sour note. “Why don’t you set yourselves up?” he suggested, picking up the twigs and matches from the ground. “Here, Dad; let me help you with that,” offered Ted, producing a Zippo lighter. Soon he had a fire roaring despite the wind.
“Thanks,” said Potewan without enthusiasm. He looked over at his oldest grandchild and thought about how things had changed. On Alan’s feet were Reebok running shoes with air soles; on his own were hand-tooled leather moccasins. Potewan had long ago decided not to wear modern apparel; he did not wish to contribute to the western capitalism that had destroyed his life. The Elder trudged over to his tent, where the two youngest were squabbling over who sleeps closer to Gramps.
“I’m the youngest, so I get to sleep next to him!” said the girl. “Are not!” replied the boy, nearly shouting. “Am too!” asserted his sister. “I’m four minutes younger than you! Mommy said so!” “Well, I saw it first! So I’m sleeping there!” Potewan took in the sight and then put in a few words of his own. “Couldn’t you both sleep next to me?” hu suggested.
“After all, I’ve got two sides -a left and a right.” His grandchildren thought over this latest proposal, and finally one of them said slowly, “You mean share?” Potewan nodded. “I guess so. Come on, let’s go for a swim in the river!” The two kids ran off. Potewan shook his head sadly. If only it were this easy to deal with Indian Affairs, he thought.
The bureaucrats at the Ministry must have skipped kindergarten. Wendy walked up, a puzzled expression on her face. “Where do you keep the pots and pans?” she asked. “Ted wants to warm up some lunch, and he can’t find any cookware.” “I don’t use pots or pans, Wendy,” replied Potewan, kindly. “Don’t you know the best way to cook fish is to spear it with a stick?” “Oh, right,” said Wendy, still a little puzzled.
Like last year, and the year before, and the one before that, thought Potewan to himself. Aloud, he said “I’ll go catch us a mess of fish.” He picked up a spear that was leaning against the tent and headed down to the river. Potewan had never used a fishing rod and reel in his life. Soon he emerged from the thickets waving three plump trout in the air. “Lunch!” he called out. Gutting each fish first, he speared them with metal rods he kep for that purpose, and skillfully cooked them over the campfire.
It was nearly two o’clock when the whole family gathered around to eat. The wild berries and fish earned the praise of all. “Do you always eat fish, Gramps?” asked the youngest. “Sometimes I catch small game, if there are any around,” replied Potewan. “Have you ever tasted rabbit?” “Ewww! Gross!”exclaimed the twins together. “Rabbit!” “It’s actually quite good,” put in Ted. “Isn’t that right, Wendy?” “Yes, rabbit is…quite good,” agreed Wendy hesitantly.
She had never ventured to taste the meat before, but did not want to cause tension. “It’s settled then,” said The Elder with a clap of his hands. “Tonight we feast on the hare. Francis, Frances – come with me!” he ordered. Potewan and his two youngest grandchildren left in the woods in search of small game, armed only with a crudely-crafted bow and some flintstone arrows, over which the twins had raved. “Hey, Mom, check this out,” said Alan, walking over with the Elder’s peace pipe. “What is it?” “Ask your father, dear,” replied Wendy absently.
She was never into this heritage stuff, her family having lived in Toronto for five generations. Before Alan could reply, however, his sister Frances came running out of the woods. “Mom! DAD! Come quick! Something terrible happened!” She began to sob. Oh no, thought Ted, getting up. He wondered what got Frances so excited. Francis and Potewan walked out of the woods each smiling from ear to ear.
The Elder was carrying a motionless rabbit by the feet, and Francis the bow and three arrows. “Look Dad!” exclaimed the latter. “We caught a rabbit!” Potewan noticed his granddaughter, sobbing over the loss of “Bugs”, the result of cartoons depicting certain animals as cute. Potewan viewed hunting as necessary for survival. This view was clearly incompatible with the modern world.
He struggled with himself and finally came to a decision. “I give up,” he said simply. He laid down the rabbit on the ground and walked away without another word. He headed off into the woods in search of a new home. He would find a clearing somewhere near a river and he would erect a teepee made from deerskin.
His food, his clothing, his shelter would come from nature. He would live like a hermit if that’s what it took. He did not care if it meant being alone, even though he enjoyed being with others who shared his views. Potewan did not know where he was headed, but he was certain that he would recognise it when he got there. And there he would make his new home, free from the modern world and independant.
At last he could do what he wanted to do, what his ancestors did. He would be unchained for good.