I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
From 1975 to 1979 I grew up in a temporary company town made up of trailers in the boreal forests of northern Manitoba. My father was one of the hydroelectric engineers working on a joint project between the Canadian and Soviet governments to dam the Nelson River at a place called Jenpeg. The river and former town are located on the lands of an aboriginal people the Canadian government calls the Cross Lake Band of Indians but who refer to themselves and the area where they live as Pimicikamak—meaning “people of rivers and lakes.” In the winter of 2016 while researching for my book Silver Road, I learned of a rash of suicides among young people in the town of Cross Lake. The elders performed rituals asking the spirits to help the community and called for a national strategy to combat the epidemic of suicides among young First Nations individuals. I wrote to then chief Cathy Merrick with a series of questions—about the dam my father worked on, its environmental impact, and the social and cultural challenges facing her community. I got a one-line response: “If you want to know what’s happening in Cross Lake, then come. We will show you.” And so, in May of 2017, I returned to Pimicikamak for the first time since childhood. The trip began with a flight on a twelve-seat aircraft from Winnipeg.
It begins to rain as we fly, falling in solid sheets, water from sky to earth—a free system of exchange. For thousands of years, the Pimicikamak people lived sustainably off the river, eating and drinking from it. The hunting, trapping, and fishing practices are disrupted now, destroyed, the river’s water no longer drinkable because of silt dislocation caused by fluctuating water levels due to the dam.
Several people I talk to during my week in Cross Lake draw a connection between the wave of suicides and destruction of land. They’re not referring to the connection between economic underdevelopment, political disenfranchisement, and social despair, but rather something uncategorizable in Western terms: they believe the fates of land and people are joined, and some kind of psychic break between the two is manifesting in the community through mental and physical disease, including depression and addiction.
When I walk into the Perimeter Aviation terminal in Cross Lake, no larger than a living room, a woman rises to greet me. I recognize Chief Merrick from her photograph. She smiles, opens her arms, and before any words are spoken, we embrace. In my ear she says, “I am so glad you have come!”
As we pull back, she introduces her assistant, Sonia. “I’m going to Winnipeg for meetings, but I’ll be back in a few days. Sonia is going to drive you to Lee Roy Muswaggon’s house, and he’ll make sure you are taken care of until I get back.”
“Why are you going to Winnipeg?”
“I have to go get some money from the province,” she declares with a wink, and hoists her carry-on and waves as she makes her way out to the tarmac.
Sonia drives me through town in the chief’s beat-up pickup. She tells me Merrick is only the second female chief in the tribe’s history; the first was nearly forty years ago, during the negotiation of the Northern Flood Agreement. Sonia grew up in Cross Lake. She is forty-eight. She went away to school in Brandon in the southern part of the province but came back to raise her kids here. Her oldest is thirty; she has another daughter and a son.
She was very formal with me in the airport when Chief Merrick introduced us, but as soon as we get outside she loosens up and we joke and chat as she drives me through town. I see posted signs with the faces of young people on them, labeled missing or murdered. They remind me of the posters of Palestinian youth I’ve seen in the West Bank, youth killed by the occupation forces. They also bring to mind Canada’s residential school system, an effort to break cultural, linguistic, and political bonds between aboriginal people and their communities by taking young people from their families and educating them elsewhere.
The town is a little run down—things are old but well taken care of; they get jury-rigged back together. The buildings are like Jenpeg’s, corrugated steel, many seem temporary or prefabricated. But Cross Lake is far more spread out than Jenpeg—the buildings strung out along the lake in wide arms. It is perched—as the name implies—at a place where the Nelson grows wide, splitting one section of town from the other before flowing toward Hudson Bay. The center occupies a small strip where the lakes and river converge. There are 6,000 people living on the reserve itself and about 500 more on the provincial land and out on the trapline. An additional 2,500 Pimicikamak live “off reserve” in Thompson, Winnipeg, Brandon, and other places. Much of this migration is due to an extreme shortage of housing. Only twelve new units were built in the last year; the older buildings look barely habitable, at least from the outside. I learn extended families of fifteen or more often live together in a home designed to house a single nuclear family—one example of how the intentions of housing authority policy fail to keep up with the material conditions on the ground and the cultural practices of the communities it’s intended to serve.
We pull into the dirt driveway behind David Lee Roy Muswaggon’s house. A member of the Pimicikamak council, he’s invited me to participate in a sweat lodge ceremony my first evening in Cross Lake. The driveway leads to a big shed in the backyard where the sweat lodge is constructed. Lee Roy is outside, supervising the heating of stones in a big fire. The armature for the actual sweat lodge is made from willow wood with blankets thrown over it. It’s built up on a plywood floor with a concrete firepit in the middle for the heated stones.
They heat these stones outside for a long time and then bring them in. They glow red from inside, alive, sparking with embers. There are big shovels to port them over to a wooden trench positioned to slide down into the pit at the center of the sweat lodge. Neither the stones nor the willow wood is reused. Each year, at the end of the season the lodge is discarded back to the earth and rebuilt with new branches the following year. Each sweat uses new stones.
Lee Roy pauses his work to introduce me to Mervin Dreaver, a Cree elder from Saskatchewan. He is a longtime activist and has some notoriety among the young people here because a while back, in the ’80s, on a trip to Ottawa, he went into the parliament building and confronted the prime minister. The rumor goes that after the altercation he snuck into the library of the parliament building and smoked sacred tobacco in there. He travels around the northern provinces and teaches young people about sweat lodges and the ancient prayers and rituals involved. He knows how to formulate the traditional blends of herbs used to steam out during the ceremony.
Mervin’s been coming up from Saskatchewan once a month for fifteen years. In the older days, before the rivers were dammed, he tells me, one could travel directly across the continent via the water ways throughout the northern provinces. Now one must fly south from Cross Lake to Winnipeg and get on another plane to Calgary and on from there. The river systems of northern Canada didn’t just feed the land; they provided transportation between the Western Cree territories as well. Now that there are seven dams diverting and harnessing the power of the rivers in northern Manitoba and Saskatchewan, one can no longer travel directly from one Cree community to another.
Mervin calls the Canadian government “the landless government.” He says, “The landless government pretends they own this land, but we’re not on Crown land here, we are on treaty land. We never ceded it. There was no real treaty. And they’ve been waging a continuous war on the identity, culture, and language of the aboriginal people ever since.”
Lee Roy asks me what I’ve brought as an offering. I haven’t brought anything. He suggests one of the young men present, Conley, take me to the store to pick one up. Conley drives me out to the big grocery store in town, and since many of the men at the house were smoking, and tobacco is a sacred herb in Cree lore, I buy four packs of cigarettes. While waiting in line, two women behind us ask if I’m a teacher at the local school. Conley later tells me they rarely encounter outsiders here in Cross Lake, though there are a few, including a nurse, one of the priests, and occasionally a teacher.
Energetic and bright, Conley is as young as some of my older students, maybe in his mid-twenties. He is eager to know all about New York City. He wants to go on vacation there. I ask why there specifically and he says he’d like to go to all the different kinds of restaurants and eat food from around the world. I ask him what he most wants to try and he says without hesitation, “sushi.” He tells me that he has a four-year-old son and then asks if I have children. I laugh a little and say no. He is silent for a moment, his eyes on the road, and then says, “You must be a two-spirited guy then, right?” I say yes.
“For us,” he says, “the two-spirited are respected because they’re not empty, they are full—they have both the masculine and feminine in them.”
“So everyone here is comfortable with two-spirited people?” I ask.
“The people who follow traditional beliefs definitely are. The Christians though,” he pauses and chuckles, “well, they have ideas of their own.”
We drive back to Lee Roy’s and I place the cigarettes on a small altar with the other offerings. There are ten of us who strip down to our shorts and climb into the lodge. There are two other outsiders like me: Mike, the tax auditor for the Pimicikamak, and Sean, a reporter for CBC. We sit shoulder to shoulder in a small circle.
The stones in the center gleam red-gold. The room is hot. In the sweat Mervin and the others begin chanting in their throats. It sounds so much like Urdu to me, perhaps only because that’s the language in which I last heard chants of such spiritual purpose—the mourning marsiya the Shi’a Muslims sing in the month of Muharram.
There are four rounds of sweat. After each, you can exit the lodge and rest or you can stay. I stay to sweat everything out. There are two men who remain outside the lodge to keep everything closed, bring the stones, and be available in case anyone has distress. We all have water bottles inside to drink from.
During the sweats Mervin throws herbs and water onto the stones and they rush into steam and we all breathe deeply. The herbs are pungent and penetrate your nose and sinuses and skin. I feel dizzy remembering the past, my childhood in Jenpeg. I hear voices and the sounds of gravel roads crunching under car wheels. I hear bird calls. For long moments I feel as if I’m there. We smoke the sacred tobacco and Mervin says through the haze, “Now you will really start to dream.”
In prayer they keep invoking their grandfathers, the ones who were here once and are now gone, but it reminds me that my own uncle, my Mamujaan, lived and died not far from this place, when he worked as a mechanic in Jenpeg, about ten miles down the river. My grandfather lived here with us for a while as well—suddenly I realize that, in fact, maybe I am not such a stranger here; that this place is in some ways the place of my grandfathers too.
There is a boy, maybe ten or eleven, who cleans up afterward, clearing away the branches, sweeping, doing little chores. He asks me what the tattoos on my forearms mean. I explain their significance. “The one on this arm just says, ‘Now is the time to study yoga,’” I say. “This other one,” I gesture to my left forearm, “is a line of poetry from Iran. It says, ‘I’m a Muslim; the rose is my qibla.’”
“What’s qibla?” he asks.
“Qibla means the direction to Mecca. When you’re Muslim and you pray, you turn in the direction of a city in Saudi Arabia where a very ancient mosque is located.”
“But it says the rose is the qibla. Which rose?”
“Any rose,” I say. “Any rose in the world is the direction for my prayers.”
The boy nodded like he understood perfectly. He said seriously, “You’re plugged in.”
I don’t feel plugged in. I feel a world away now. I’m the last person who could understand such a connection to land.
After the sweat lodge we go into Lee Roy’s house. It’s well kept, with nice hardwood floors and the wood paneled walls I remember so well from my 1970s childhood. The porch has cardboard spread all over it and a pile of shoes. It’s so muddy here no one would ever wear shoes inside. In the dining room, there’s a high-top table that takes up almost the whole space.
Although I am vegan I decided before I came to Cross Lake that I would eat whatever was offered to me, that I would participate in the community’s hospitality fully. Lee Roy’s wife, Loretta, has been cooking the whole time we were in the sweat lodge. She’s made a neckbone stew and bannock, a hard, dry, thick bread. The broth is a little greasy to me, but the bones have been cooked so long the meat and marrow inside is very tender. I slather margarine on the bread and sop up broth.
I sit at the table with the men and we talk a little about the sweat lodge. There are one hundred and four spices that go into the medicine, Mervin tells us; they are not written down but are part of the oral tradition.
I ask, “Do women ever participate in the sweat?”
Lee Roy says, “Traditionally they don’t. We are taught that they already have so much spiritual power it could be potentially dangerous for them. Also some people say that because of their natures they may draw all the beneficent energy toward them and others present would not receive any.”
“Is it women who gather the spices or men do that also?”
Mervin says, “In fact, traditionally it was the two-spirited men who did this work.”
Lee Roy reaffirmed what Conley had said earlier: that two-spirited people are considered sacred in Cree culture. I ask if there are any two-spirited people in Cross Lake today and Lee Roy says of course there are. I express a desire to meet and talk with them, but as the week unfolds the opportunity never arises.
Throughout, I keep a list of things I want to do and people I want to meet when I return. I already want to come back here, a place I’ve never been before and where I know no one.
Maybe it’s because Jenpeg—the town where I grew up, made of trailers and dug roads, is gone; it’s just forest now. I’ve often said, somewhat fliply, that I have no hometown. I was born in Croydon, England, and taken back to India while still so young I can’t remember either place. We moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba, when I was three, but it was Jenpeg where the bulk of my early childhood experiences took place. When I was nine we moved to the United States. Being back here, among these tall trees, this washed-out blue sky, triggers something deep and lonely inside me. I have somehow adopted this place, but in what way could it ever belong to me?
The sweat lodge is a powerful initiating experience for me, as are the hours I spend talking to Mervin, the Cree elder from northern Saskatchewan. There are few people still versed in the old ways because of all the years of missionary work and the residential schools. In fact, there are many aboriginal people who distrust the traditional methods. While in Cross Lake, I encounter a mélange of approaches to spirituality—a minority like Lee Roy follow the indigenous practices, others are committed Christians and reject the Native practices as heresy and even Satanism. Just a few weeks ago one of Lee Roy’s friend’s sweat lodge structures just down the road was vandalized and burned down.
The presence of my father is also with me here in Cross Lake. It’s been a while since we’ve talked and I wonder if being here might help me understand what it was like for him, a young Pakistani man, to move his family across the globe, up into the northern reaches of a cold continent, so far from what was familiar to him. I think about how I must return home and recount this trip to him. What if I too was called by the ritual of the elders to come back here? We’re all being called by waves of what has been traditionally thought of as “past”—but is the past “passed”? And why am I here after all, at this place I called home, but only for a little while? What does it mean to belong to a place? And how much can any of us belong to any place? After all, every one of us who lived in the old company town left, went back to the cities and towns and countries we came from. But the people who live here in Cross Lake were here before and they are here after.
Mervin talks about the storms that are raging in the oceans and the diseases coming into the community as responses of spirits in the earth, retorts to pollution and war. He talks about an arc of earthquakes from Iceland to Quebec to Ottawa and Yukon—saying there’s a plate shifting beneath the surface of the planet in response to the actions of humans. It doesn’t feel very far-fetched.
Merwin tells me that the Pimicik-amak flag has eleven points to represent eleven sacred promises the people made to the land. He doesn’t say what they are, so I try to think of what they might be. I ask if the Canadian government tries to impose any regulations on the sweat lodge rituals or the people who facilitate them. “We are the ones who pass this knowledge on to each other,” Mervin says. “No one has the right to claim this knowledge for themselves, or to sell it or profit from it.” But surely there are safety concerns around the process, I say. “You are not in Canada right now,” says Mervin. “You are on unceded land. We follow aboriginal laws here. These ceremonies are thousands of years old and only those who have been properly initiated into them are able to offer and supervise them. You are safe here.”
Technically speaking, he might be right. The land the dam was built on, the waterway it governs, was never ceded, not by war, not by treaty; it has only been leased and is apparently still regulated by the Northern Flood Agreement, the treaty made by Manitoba Hydro and the provincial and federal governments with the Pimicikamak.
Mervin is flying back to Saskatchewan tomorrow, going south to Winnipeg, transferring to a commercial plane to Regina, and then boarding a propeller plane north into the Cree lands there. Mike and Sean are going to drive back to Winnipeg in the morning on the dirt roads. It will take a long time, but it’s a journey worth taking. I remember going to Winnipeg when my siblings and I were children; my mother and father would wake us very early, around three or four in the morning, lifting us out of bed still in our pajamas. My dad would have lowered the back seats in the station wagon and spread out our sleeping bags and the three of us would crawl in and sleep as they drove. By the time we woke up we would be nearly there. What seemed like an impossible distance then (a little under 500 miles) strikes me as short now.
When Mike and Sean go back to their hotel, I go with them so I can book a room as well. The hotel is a series of joined trailers on a dirt lot across from the town hockey rink. It’s attached to a poorly stocked general store with a small grill. Working at the general store is a white man in his fifties. Throughout my time here, he will ask me again and again who I am and what I’m doing, though it’s not that he has forgotten because he repeats the details with me as I speak. There isn’t much to eat. I buy onion rings and bottles of water. There’s no coffee.
Lee Roy had told us not to shower the night of the sweat, to let the herbs penetrate our skin all night. I sleep with my hair smelling of sweet smoke.
Kazim Ali’s most recent books are a collection of poems, Inquisition (Wesleyan University Press, 2018), and a collection of essays, memoir, and poetic fragments entitled Silver Road: Essays, Maps, & Calligraphies (Tupelo Press, 2018). Northern Light: Jenpeg, Hydroelectric Power, and the Pimicikamak is forthcoming from Milkweed Editions.
Originally published in
Our winter issue is dedicated to this planet’s greatest resource: water. With contributions from Saskatchewan and the American Southwest to Iceland and Northern Europe, an array of voices are brought together here—artists and writers investigating water as site, sustenance, and symbol, along with those expressing alarm and calling for intervention.
Featuring interviews with Lauren Bon, Oscar Tuazon, Jaque Fragua, Brad Kahlhamer, Ruth Cuthand, Janaina Tschäpe, Jessica Grindstaff, Tomoko Sauvage, Cecilia Vicuña, and Alicia Kopf, as well as writing by Laura van den Berg, Natalie Diaz, Stefan Helmreich, and more.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee