Ancestors

It’s nice to be living near my family and have people to talk to about spiritual concerns. I know I don’t chase people down to smudge them or anything, but I was raised primarily with Cree spiritual traditions, some of which seem very unbelievable. I used to get so frustrated and indignant with white people when I tried to talk about spiritual events I’d just naturally seen during my life. Or heard about. But I don’t think I will talk about my personal experiences. Instead I will talk about my Great Great Grandfather Mistatimwas.

His story is the one I remember the most, we were all told it over and over so that we would remember where we came from before the first Cuthand had a last name. Mistatimwas was a war chief, horse thief, and medicine man. His name means Flying Horse, because that’s what he looked like when he was stealing a horse. he was apparently an excellent horse thief. You have to remember this was a long time ago, when things were still very different. He was the war chief for the infamous Battle of Cutknife Hill, during the Northwest Rebellion, and we used to get long drawn out explanations of his battle plan which actually worked, using the nature of the geography and basically surrounding the Red Coats led by Colonel Otter.

Mistatimwas doesn’t get any credit for leading this battle actually, Poundmaker does. But in fact Poundmaker was the Peace Chief and did the diplomatic work before and afterwards, and for some reason the europeans decided he was the one who lead the war. Nope. He did lead the people, but the battle plans and war charge were lead by Mistatimwas. I hear there are historical documents of Mistatimwas saying “I was the one who did that!” And Poundmaker saying “Yes, it’s true, he did it, not me!” But Poundmaker is the one who got into shit over it, and he’s the one who’s remembered.

Mistatimwas was also seriously injured during the battle of Cutknife Hill. Here’s the story (the spelling is different between what I was taught and what’s written, I don’t know which one is correct, I’ll have to ask Grampa. This is from “Old Ways of the People of the Cree Tribe” by Fine Day).

“Misatimwas was dying – wounded in the belly. His guts were coming out. He told them to cut it off, but no one had the courage to do it, so he did it himself. The Bear hide was hanging in the tipi where he lay. Misatimwas drank a lot of water all the time. His father took down the Bear hide near morning, when Misatimwas was just about dead. The old man started to speak to the hide and covered his son with it – head to head – and sat behind the heads. He took a rattle and started to sing a Bear song. The fire went out – it was pretty dark. Before long we saw the Bear hide moving, and we heard a Bear squealing. The old man kept on singing. We could hear the Bear all the time, coming down. I don’t know if the sound came from the hide or the man’s body.

“Misatimwas was so low that he didn’t want anymore water. When the fire blazed up I went close and Misatimwas motioned me to come closer. “If I see the Sun coming up I’ll live.” I could hardly hear him. His father asked what he had said and I told him. Misatimwas sank lower. It seemed as though the Sun wouldn’t come up soon enough. I listened to his breath and the others were watching for the Sun. They finally saw it, but I thought that Misatimwas had fooled himself – that he was going to die anyway. But when the Sun was quite high he drew a deep breath. Not long after he breathed good – called for water and was well. I saw this with my own eyes. He was Jose Cuthand’s father.”

Heady and romantic stuff for a young native bolshi activist. Woo! Anyway, yes, Poundmaker got the credit for the battle of Cutknife Hill. I actually went to day care and school with a descendant of his, Tara Worme. I locked her in a sandbox and went off for snack time with Laurel and left her there when we were three. I think my first television appearance was me chasing her around a jungle gym with a little halloween witch on CBC. She and I also did a 24 hour hunger strike in solidarity with the other hunger strikers when a cap was put on Native education funding back in the 80’s. I wrote a really mean letter to Mulroney. We weren’t allowed to publicise it though because people thought some would assume we were being pressured to do it, when it was our idea in the first place. Sadness, a political act without an audience, like one brown hand clapping.

While Mistatimwas was being doctored his son, my great grandfather, Jose, fled Saskatchewan and went down to Montana to tour with a Wild West show. I’ve heard it was because he thought his father was dead for sure. So he went down to the states and played Indian for a while, then he came back up here. Mistatimwas is buried on the reserve in an unmarked grave, because he was buried with a medicine bundle and the family didn’t want grave robbers to get it. As you may surmise, some pretty intense medicine has been handed down through the generations. I’ve known a couple people to tell me about the process when it shows up, it involves a specific triad of female spirits. But that’s getting personal. I can say that the Bear spirit stays with our family, it’s a really funny character, but also fierce. There’s something about dreaming about being eaten by a bear that starts the process of becoming a healer, but it’s pretty scary for me anyway. I keep running away. Nooo! Don’t eat me!

Generally the Bear spirit in our family is terribly witty though. I’ve heard other tribes get suspicious of Bear spirits, but I think there are various types.

I saw a Huron medicine bundle at the Smithsonian once and my mom and I were really disturbed by it, the fact that it was being displayed, for one, and that you could tell it was getting angry. It was a really unhappy bundle. I’ve heard that museums with remains and artifacts get VERY haunted. In fact, I recently heard that a museum in the States with the remains of an Inuit shaman had been having some problems because he would get out in the middle of the night, leave his case, and start walking around the museum, TERRIFYING the security guards.

I’ve also found out that a lot of old artifacts which are being repatriated, like bundles, have been turned into toxic waste, LITERALLY. To preserve leather and feathers they’ve been liberally sprayed with DDT. If people want to repatriate them to bury them in the land, they can’t, because it’s legally toxic waste material. They can’t even touch it. Now that is a crime. I know to some people aboriginal spiritual objects seem like just a bunch of things, but there’s some really intense power in them, and to turn them into toxic waste material is just beyond revolting.

No one’s taken me to the location of Mistatimwas’ grave, but I’m hoping this year someone will show me. I’m also hoping to get a grant to do my huge history documentary. I’m hoping to trace my Cree and Scots ancestors and figure out where I come from in both the European and the Aboriginal lines. I’m hoping to find out which tribe in Mongolia or Sibera has the same haplotype as me and go visit them. And at the end I’m going to get my lip chin tattoo, and hopefully be able to speak Cree.

I hate telling my interesting stories to people who just go “Nah, that never happened, it isn’t possible or logical.” Boring. There are many things in the world we can never begin to comprehend, especially not with that DDT attitude.

Here’s my Grampa’s version of the story, and to remind you, Poundmaker was the Peace Chief so he did all the diplomatic work.
Poundmaker’s Surrender by Stan Cuthand, Saskatchewan Indian 1988
Ahaw is a Cree utterance of agreement, Tapwe means truth, or more specifically true speech. We were also neither a patriarchal nor matriarchal society, we were egalitarians, so there’s a lovely detail about Poundmaker’s wife trying to speak to the white soldiers and them being totally disinterested. In fact, women were the ones in charge of trade, which made the Fur Trade history complicated. Women would tell the men what to say because those were the only people the white traders listened to, and often in order to be a successful trader white men took on native wives (with the charming name Country Wives) because otherwise they couldn’t access trade as easily.

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