MAP OF DREAMS
The rivers of northeast British Columbia are at their most splendid in the early fall. The northern tributaries of the Peace achieve an extraordinary beauty; they, and their small feeder creeks and streams are cold yet warm -- perfect reflections of autumn. The banks are multicoloured and finely textured; clear water runs in smooth, shallow channels. The low water of late summer reveals gravel and sand beaches, textures and colours that are at other times of the year concealed. Such low water levels means that all these streams are easily crossed, and so become the throughways along the valleys that have always been at the heart of the Indians' use of the land. In October those who know these creeks can find corners, holes, back eddies where rainbow trout and Dolly Varden abound.
The hunter of moose, deer, caribou (and in historic times, buffalo) does not pursue these large animals without regard to more abundant and predictable, if less satisfying, sources of food. The man who tracks and snares game, and whose success depends on his constant movement, cannot afford to fail for much more than two days running. On the third day of hunger he will find it hard to walk far or fast enough: hunger reduces the efficiency of the hunt. Hunger is inimical to effective hunting on foot; yet continuance of the hunt was, not long ago, the only means to avoid hunger. This potential source of insecurity for a hunter is resolved by his ability to combine two kinds of hunting; he pursues large ungulates in areas and with movements that bring him close to locations where he knows rabbits, grouse, or fish are to be found. These are security, but not staples. Hunting for large animals is the most efficient, the rational activity for anyone who lives in the boreal forest. But such a hunger would be foolhardy indeed to hunt for the larger animals without a careful and strategic eye on the availability of the smaller ones.
In October, only a month after Joseph Patsah and his family first spoke to us about their lives, they suggested that I go hunting with them -- and, of course, fishing. By now the rainbow trout would surely be plentiful and fat. Joseph said that he also hoped we could go far enough to see the cross. One evening, then, he proposed that we should all set out the next day for Bluestone Creek.
Between a proposal to go hunting and actual departure there is a large and perplexing divide. In the white man's world, whether urban or rural, after such a proposal there would be plans and planning; conversation about timing and practical details would also help to build enthusiasm. In Joseph's household, in all the Indian households of northeast British Columbia, and perhaps among hunters generally, planning is so muted as to seem nonexistent. Maybe it is better understood by a very different name, which is still to suppose that planning of some kind does in fact take place.
Protests against the hunting way of life have often paid hostile attention to its seemingly haphazard, irrational, and improvident nature. Before the mind's eye of agricultural or industrial man loom the twin spectres of hunger and homelessness, whose fearsome imminence is escaped only in the bright sunlight of planning. Planners consider many possibilities, weigh methods, review timing, and at least seek to deduce what is best. To this end they advocate reason and temperance, and, most important, they are thrifty and save. These ideas and dispositions, elevated to an ideal in the economics of nineteenth-century and secular puritanism, live on in the reaction of industrial society to hungers -- and in the average Canadian's reaction to Indians. And a reaction of this kind means that a person, even if inclined to be sympathetic to hunters and hunting, has immense difficulty in understanding what planning means for hunters of the North.
Joseph and his family float possibilities. "Maybe we should go to Copper Creek. Bet you lots of moose up there." Or, "Could be caribou right now near Black Flats." Or, "I bet you no deer this time down on the Reserve ..." Somehow a general area is selected from a gossamer of possibilities, and from an accumulation of remarks comes something like a consensus. No, that is not really it: rather, a sort of prediction, a combined sense of where we might go "tomorrow." Yet the hunt will not have been planned, nor any preparations started, and apparently no one is committed to going. Moreover, the floating conversation will have alighted on several irreconcilable possibilities, or have given rise to quasi-predictions. It is as if the predictions are about other people -- or are not quite serious. Although the mood is still one of wait and see, at the end of the day, at the close of much slow and gentle talk about this and that, a strong feeling has arisen about the morning: we shall go to Bluestone, maybe as far as the cross. We shall look for trout as well as moose. A number of individuals agree that they will go. But come morning, nothing is ready. No one has made any practical, formal plans. As often as not -- indeed, more often than not -- something quite new has drifted into conversations, other predictions have been tentatively reached, a new consensus appears to be forming. As it often seems, everyone has changed his mind.
The way to understand this kind of decision making as also to live by and even share it, is to recognize that some of the most important variables are subtle, elusive, and extremely hard or impossible to assess with finality. The Athapaskan hunter will move in a direction and at a time that are determine by a sense of weather (to indicate a variable that is easily grasped if all too easily oversimplified by the one word) and by a sense of rightness. He will also have ideas about animal movement, his own and others' patterns of land use ... But already the nature of the hunter's decision making is being misrepresented by this kind of listing. To disconnect the variables, to compartmentalize the thinking, is to fail to acknowledge its sophistication and completeness. He considers variables as a composite, in parallel, and with the help of a blending of the metaphysical and the obviously pragmatic. To make a good, wise, sensible hunting choice is to accept the interconnection of all possible factors, and avoids the mistake of seeking rationally to focus on any one consideration that is held as primary. What is more, the decision is taken in doing: there is no step or pause between theory and practice. As a consequence, the decision -- like the action from which it is inseparable -- is always alterable (and therefore may not properly even be termed a decision). The hunter moves in a chosen direction; but, highly sensitive to so many shifting considerations, he is always ready to change his directions.
Planning, as other cultures understand the notion, is at odds with this kind of sensitivity and would confound such flexibility. The hunter, alive to constant movement of nature, spirits, and human moods, maintains a way of doing things that repudiates a firm plan and any precise or specified understanding with others of what he is going to do. His course of action is not, must not be, a matter of predetermination. If a plan constitutes a decision about the right procedure or action, and the decision is congruent with the action, then there is no space left for a "plan," only for a bundle of open-ended and nonrational possibilities. Activity enters so far into this kind of planning as to undermine any so-called plans.
All this is by way of context or background for the seemingly straightforward proposal that we should set out the next morning to hunt moose and fish for trout at Bluestone Creek. Since there are many such apparent decisions in the following chapters, it is important that they be understood for what they are: convenient -- but often misleading -- reductions to a narrative convention of intimate and unfamiliar patterns of hunter's thought and behaviour.
"The next morning" came several times before we set out in the direction of Bluestone. Several individuals said they would come, but did not; others said they would not come, but did. Eventually, we drove in my rented pickup to a stretch of rolling forests, where hillsides and valley were covered by dense blankets of poplar, aspen, birch, and occasional stands of pine or spruce. After studied consideration of three places, Joseph and Atsin chose a campsite a short walk from a spring that created a narrow pool of good water in a setting of damp and frosted leaves.
There we camped, in a complex of shelters and one tent around a long central fire. It was a place the hunters had often used, and it had probably seen an Indian campsite off and on for centuries. It was a clearing among thin-stemmed pine, a woodland tangled and in places made dense by a great number of deadfalls lying at all heights and angles to the ground. Night fell as we completed the camp. The fire was lit and was darkly reflected by these dead trees that crisscrossed against the forest.
Long before dawn (it cannot have been later than five o'clock), the men woke. The fire rekindled, they sat around it and began the enormous and protracted breakfast that precedes every day's hunting: rabbit stew, boiled eggs, bannock, toasted sliced white bread, barbecued moose meat, whatever happens to be on hand, and cup after cup of strong, sweet tea. A little later, women and children joined the men at the fire and ate no less heartily.
As they ate, the light changed from a slight glimmer, the relief to predawn blackness, to the first brightness that falters without strength at the tops of the trees. As the light grew, the men speculated about where to go, sifting evidence they had accumulated from about where to go, sifting evidence they had accumulated from whatever nearby places they had visited since their arrival. Everyone had walked -- to fetch water, cut wood, or simply to stretch the legs a little. Atsin, at the end of a short walk that morning, returned with a rabbit. He had taken it in s snare, evidently set as soon as we arrived the evening before. It was white already, its fur change a dangerously conspicuous anticipation of a winter yet to come. Conversation turned to rabbits. All the men had noticed a proliferation of runs and droppings. It was an excellent year for rabbit, the fifth or sixth in a cycle of seven improving years. It might be a good idea to hunt in some patches of young evergreens, along rails that led towards the river. There could be more rabbits there. Lots of rabbits. Always good to eat lots of rabbit stew. And there could be rainbow trout in that place, below the old cabin, and in other spots. Or maybe it would be good to go high up in the valley ... This exchange of details and ideas continued off and on throughout the meal. When it had finally ended and everyone had reflected a good deal on the day's possibilities, the men set off. Perhaps it was clear to them where and why, but which possibilities represented a starting point was not easily understood by an outsider.
Atsin's younger brother Sam set off alone, at right angles to a trail that led to the river by way of a place said to be particularly good for rabbits. Two others, Jimmy Wolf and Charlie Fellow -- both relations of Joseph's wife Liza -- also set off at an angle, but in the opposite direction. I followed Atsin along another, more winding trail: Liza and her oldest child, Tommy, together with two other women and their small children, made their own way behind the men on the main trail; Atsin's son David attached himself to Brian Akattah and his ten-year-old nephew Peter. The choice of partner and trail was, if possible, less obviously planned than direction or hunting objective. Everyone was plainly free to go where and with whom he or she liked. As I became more familiar with this kind of hunt, though, I found that some individuals nearly always hunted alone, whereas others liked a companion, at least a the outset. A sense of great personal freedom was evident from the first. No one gives orders; everyone is, in some fundamental way, responsible to and for himself.
The distance between camp and the particular bend in the river that had been selected as the best possible fishing place was no more than a mile and a half. No time had been appointed for a rendezvous. Indeed clock time is of no significance here. (Only Joseph had a watch and it was never used for hunting purposes.) Everyone nonetheless appeared from the woods and converged on the fishing spot within minutes of one another. This co-ordination of activities is not easily understood, although it testified to the absence of big game, of moose, deer, or bear. If any of the hunters had located fresh tracks, he would have been long gone into the woods. Atsin, who seemed to be an expert at the job, appeared in the dun-coloured undergrowth. But fishing was going to supply the next meal.
The river at this place flows in a short curve around a wooded promontory that juts from the main forest. Both sides are deeply eroded banks, where sandy rubble is given some short-lived firmness by exposed tree roots. On the far side the landscape is barer, with meadowy, more open land for fifty yards before the forested slopes rise towards the mountains. Where the trail meets the creek (sometimes no wider than ten rushing yards), it deepens into a pool. There, the water is held back by a shallow rib of rock over which it quickens and races to the next pool.
The fishing spot itself turned out to be a platform of jumbled logs that must have been carried by the steam in flood, and then piled by currents until they reshaped the banks themselves. The sure-footed can find precarious walkways across this latticework platform. At their ends the logs offer a view down into the deepest part of the hole. Through the sharp clearness of this water rainbow trout could be seen, dark shadows, hovering or moving very slowly among long-sunken logs and roots.
Joseph studied the water and the fish, then produced a nylon line. It was wound tightly around a small piece of shaped wood, a spool that he carried in his pocket, wrapped in cloth. Along with the line were four or five hooks (size 6 or 8) and a chunk of old bacon. On his way along the trail he had broken off a long thin branch, and by the time we had arrived at the creek he had already stripped off its side twigs, peeled away the bark, and broken it to the right length. He tied some line to this homemade rod and handed other lengths to Brian and David. The three of them then clambered along the log platform, found more or less firm places at its edge, and began to fish.
The baited hooks were lowered straight down until they hung just above the stream bed. They did not hover there for long. Almost immediately the fish were being caught. The men could watch a trout swim towards a bait, and with one firm turn of its body, part suck and part grab the hook. The fisherman, with a single upward swing of the rod, would pull it straight out of the water and onto the logs. Then each fish was grabbed at, and missed, fell off the hook among the logs, and was grabbed again ... The fish, and the fishermen, could easily slip between the gaps of the platform. As the trout thrashed and leaped about there were shouts of excitement, advice, and laughter.
The trout were plentiful, as Joseph had said they would be, and fat. One after the other they came flying though the air into someone's hands, then to shore, where Atsin and Liza gutted them. A dozen or more, fish of one or two pounds each, every one of them with a brilliant red patch on its gills and red stripe along its sides -- rainbow trout at their most spectacular. Then the fishing slowed down. Enough had been caught. Joseph, Brian, and David climbed back to the bank. We sat around the fires to eat rabbit stew and cook some of the fish.
By this time it was early afternoon, but the meal was unhurried. Perhaps the success of the moose hunt was doubtful, while a good supply of rabbit and fish had already been secured. Conversation turned again to places where it might be worth hunting, directions in which we might go; many possibilities were suggested, and no apparent decision was made. But when the meal ended, the men began to prepare themselves for another hunt. Having eaten and rested and stared into the fire, one by one the hunters, unhurried and apparently indecisive, got up, strolled a little way, and came back. Then each began to fix his clothes, check a gun -- began to get ready. By the time the last of the hunters was thus occupied, some had begun to drift away in one direction or another. After a last conversation, the rest of them left, except for Joseph, Brian's wife Mary, Liza, and the children, who stayed by the fire. Perhaps the afternoon was going to be long and hard.
This time a group of men walked in single file, Atsin in front. After a short distance, one went his own way, then others did so, until each of them had taken a separate direction. I stayed close to Atsin, who made his way, often pushing his way, through dense bushes and small willows, along the river bank. He said once, when we paused to rest and look around, and think, that it was disappointing to find so few signs of moose, but there might be more fishing.
It must have been an hour before the men regrouped, this time on a high and eroded sandbar. The beach here was strewn with well-dried driftwood. Atsin and Robert Fellows began to gather enough of this wood to make a large fire. Brian fetched water for tea. Atsin's brother Sam, together with Jimmy Wolf, cut fishing poles, fixed up lines, went a short way upstream to a spot where the water turned and deepened against the bank, and began to fish. Their lines hung in the water, baits out of sight and judges to be close to the bottom. From time to time they changed the angle of their rods to adjust the depth at which they fished; and by taking advantage of the pole's being longer than the line, they periodically pulled the bait clear of the water, checked that all was well in place, and then dropped it easily back to where the fish should be.
But the fish were not there, or not hungry, or not to be fooled. Sam and Jimmy waited. There were no sudden upward whips of the pole, no bites, no shouts, no laughter. The others sprawled around the fire, watching the two fishermen, drinking tea, limiting themselves to an occasional squinting look towards the river and remarks about the dearth of game. The afternoon was warm and still. There seemed to be no reason for any great activity. Soon Jimmy decided to abandon the river in favour of a rest beside the fire. Sam forded the stream, crossed the sandbar, and tried his luck on the other side. From where we sat and lay we could see his head and shoulders, and the lift and drop of his long rod. It was easy enough to tell whether or not he was catching anything; he was not.
Moments, minutes, even hours of complete stillness: this was not time that could be measured. Hunters at rest, at ease, in wait, are able to discover and enjoy a special form of relaxation. There is a minimum of movement -- a hand reaches out for a mug, an adjustment is made to the fire -- and whatever is said hardly interrupts the silence, as if words and thoughts can be harmonized without any of the tensions of dialogue. Yet the hunters are a long way from sleep; not even the atmosphere is soporific. They wait, watch, consider. Above all they are still and receptive, prepared for whatever insight or realization may come to them, and ready for whatever stimulus to action might arise. This state of attentive waiting is perhaps as close as people can come to the falcon's suspended flight, when the bird, seemingly motionless, is ready to plummet in decisive action. To the outsider, who has followed along and tried to join in, it looks for all the world as if the hunters have forgotten why they are there. In this restful way hunters can spend many hours, sometimes days, eating, waiting, thinking.
The quality of this resting by the fire can be seen and felt when it is very suddenly changed, just as the nature of the falcon's hover becomes clear when it dives. Among hunters the emergence from repose may be slow or abrupt. But in either case a particular state of mind, a special way of being, has come to an end. One or two individuals move faster and more purposively, someone begins to prepare meat to cook, someone fetches a gun to work on, and conversation resumes its ordinary mode. This transformation took place that afternoon around the fire on the pebbled beach at just the time Sam gave up his fishing and began to walk back towards us. Atsin, Jimmy, and Robert all moved to new positions. Robert stood with his back to us, watching Sam's approach, while Atsin and Jimmy squatted where they could look directly at me.
In retrospect it seems clear that they felt the right time had come for something. Everyone seemed to give the few moments it took for this change to occur some special importance. Plainly the men had something to say and, in their own time, in their own way, they were going to say it. Signs and movements suggested that the flow of events that had begun in Joseph's home and Atsin's cabin, and continued with the fishing at Bluestone Creek, was about to be augmented. Something of significance to the men here was going to happen. I suddenly realized that everyone was watching me. Sam joined the group, but said nothing. Perhaps he, as a younger man, was now leaving events to his elders, to Atsin, Jimmy, and Robert. There was a brief silence made awkward by expectancy, though an awkward pause is a very rare thing among people who accept there is no need to escape from silence, no need to use words as a way to avoid one another, no need to obscure the real. Atsin broke this silence. He spoke at first of the research: "I bet some guys make big maps. Lots of work, these maps. Joseph, he sure is happy to see maps."
Silence again. Then Robert continued: "Yeah, lots of maps. All over this country we hunt. Fish too. Trapping places. Nobody knows that. White men don't know that."
Then Jimmy spoke, "Indian guys, old-timers, they make maps too."
With these words, the men introduced their theme. The tone was friendly, but the words were spoken with intensity and firmness. The men seemed apprehensive, as if anxious to be very clearly understood -- though nothing said so far required such concern. Once again, it is impossible to render verbatim all that they eventually said. I had no tape recorder and memory is imperfect. But even a verbatim account would fail to do justice to their meaning. Here, then, in summaries and glimpses, is what the men had in mind to say.
Some old-timers, men who became famous for their powers and skills, had been great dreamers. Hunters and dreamers. They did not hunt as most people now do. They did not seek uncertainty for the trails of animals whose movements we can only guess at. No, they located their prey in dreams, found their trails, and made dream-kills. Then, the next day, or a few days later, whenever it seemed auspicious to do so, they could go out, find the trail, re-encounter the animal, and collect the kill.
Maybe, said Atsin, you think this is all nonsense, just so much bullshit. Maybe you don't think this power is possible. Few people understand. The old-timers who were strong dreamers knew many things that are not easy to understand. People -- white people, young people -- yes, they laugh at such skills. But they do not know. The Indians around this country know a lot about power. In fact, everyone has had some experience of it. The fact that dream-hunting works has been proved many times.
A few years ago a hunter dreamed a cow moose kill. A fine, fat cow. He was so pleased with the animal, so delighted to make this dream-kill, that he marked the animal's hooves. Now he would be sure to recognize it when he went on the coming hunt. The next day, when he went out into the bush, he quickly found the dream-trail. He followed, and came to a large cow moose. Sure enough, the hooves bore his marks. Everyone saw them. All the men around the fire had been told about the marks, and everyone on the Reserve had come to look at those hooves when the animal was butchered and brought into the people's homes.
And not only that fat cow moose -- many such instances are known to the people, whose marks on the animal or other indications of such dreams. Do you think this is all lies? No, this is power they had, something they knew how to use. This was their way of doing things, the right way. They understood, those old-timers, just where all the animals came from. The trails converge, and if you were a very strong dreamer you could discover this, and see the source of trails, the origin of game. Dreaming revealed them. Good hunting depended upon such knowledge.
Today it is hard to find men who can dream this way. There are too many problems. Too much drinking. Too little respect. People are not good enough now. Maybe there will again be strong dreamers when these problems are overcome. Then more maps will be made. New maps.
Oh yes, Indians made maps. You would not take any notice of them. You might say such maps are crazy. But maybe the Indians would say that this what your maps are: the same thing. Different maps from different people -- different ways. Old-timers made maps of trails, ornamented them with lots of fancy. The good people.
None of this is easy to understand. Sometimes they saw heaven and its trails. Those trails are hard to see, and few men have had such dreams. Even if they could see dream-trails to heaven, it is hard to explain them. You draw maps of the land, show everyone where to go. You explain the hills, the rivers, the trails from here to Hudson Hope, the roads. Maybe you make maps of where the hunters go and where the fish can be caught. That is not easy. But easier, for sure, than drawing out the trails to heaven. You may laugh at these maps of the trails to heaven, but they were done by the good men who had the heaven dream, who wanted to tell the truth. They worked hard on their truth.
Atsin had done most of the talking this far. The others interjected a few words and comments, agreeing or elaborating a little. Jimmy told about the cow moose with marked hooves. All of them offered some comparisons between their own and others' maps. And the men's eyes never ceased to remain fixed on me: were they being understood? Disregarded? Thought ridiculous? They had chosen this moment for these explanations, yet no one was entirely secure in it. Several times, Atsin paused and waited, perhaps to give himself a chance to sense or absorb the reaction of his words. These were intense but not tense hiatuses. Everyone was reassuring himself that his seriousness was being recognized. That was all they needed to continue.
The longest of these pauses might have lasted as much as five minutes. During it the fire was rebuilt. It seemed possible, for a few moments, that they had finished, and that their attention was now returning to trout, camp, and the hunt. But the atmosphere hardly altered, and Jimmy quite abruptly took over where Atsin had left off.
The few good men who had the heaven dream were like the Fathers, Catholic priests, men who devoted themselves to helping others with that essential knowledge to which ordinary men and women have limited access. (Roman Catholic priests have drifted in and out of the lives of all the region's Indians, leaving behind fragments of their knowledge and somewhat rarefied and idealized versions of what they had to preach.) most important of all, a strong dreamer can tell others how to get to heaven. We all have need of the trail, or a complex of trails, but, unlike other important trails, the way to heaven will have been in dreams that only a few, special individuals have had. Maps of heaven are thus important. And they must be good, complete maps. Heaven is reached only by careful avoidance of the wrong trails. These must also be shown so that the traveller can recognize and avoid them.
How can we know the general direction we should follow? How can anyone who has not dreamed the whole route begin to locate himself on such a map? When Joseph, or any of the other men, began to draw a hunting map, he had first to find his way. He did this by recognizing features, by fixing points of reference, and then, once he was oriented to the familiar and to the scale or manner in which the familiar was reproduced, he could begin to add his own layers of detailed information. But how can anyone begin to find a way on a map of trails to heaven, across a terrain that ordinary hunters do not experience in everyday activities or even in their dream-hunts?
The route to heaven is not wholly unfamiliar, however. As it happens, heaven is to one side of, and at the same level as, the point where the trails to animals all meet. Many men know where this point is, or at least some of its approach trails, from their own hunting dreams. Hunters can in this way find a basic reference, and once they realize that heaven is in a particular relation to this far more familiar centre, the map as a whole can be read. If this is not enough, a person can take a map with him; some old-timers who made or who were given maps of the trails to heaven choose to have a map buried with them. They can thus remind themselves which ways to travel if the actual experience of the trail proves to be too confusing. Others are given a corner of a map that will help reveal the trail to them. And even those who do not have any powerful dreams are shown the best maps of the route to heaven. The discoveries of the very few most powerful dreamers -- and some of the dreamers have been women -- are periodically made available to everyone.
The person who wishes to dream must take great care, even if he dreams only of the hunt. He must lie in the correct orientation, with his head towards the rising sun. There should be no ordinary trails, no human pathways, between his pillow and the bush. These would be confusing to the self that travels in dreams towards important unfamiliar trails which can lead to a kill. Not much of this can be mapped -- only the trail to heaven has been drawn up. There has been no equivalent need to make maps to share other important information.
Sometime, said Jimmy Wolf, you will see one of these maps. There are some of them around. Then the competence and strength of the old-timers who drew them will be unquestioned. Different trails can be explained, and heaven can be located on them. Yes, they were pretty smart, the men who drew them. Smarter than any white man in these parts and smarter than Indians of today. Perhaps, said Atsin, in the future there will be men good enough to make new maps of heaven -- but not just now. There will be changes, he added, and the people will come once again to understand the things that Atsin's father had tried to teach him. In any case, he said, the older men are now trying to explain the powers and dreams of old-timers to the young, indeed to all those who have not been raised with these spiritual riches. For those who do not understand, hunting and life are restricted and difficult. So the people must be told everything, and taught all that they need, in order to withstand the incursions presently being made into their way of life, their land, and into their very dreams.