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Sunday, July 21

Gapers Block

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Do you think of yourself as a Midwesterner? A Northerner? If you live in Chicago, author Ted McClelland would call you a Great Laker. McClelland spent last summer driving around the Great Lakes — a 9,600-mile trip that took him as far west as Duluth, Minnesota, and as far east as Kingston, Ontario — to research his upcoming book, The Third Coast, which looks at the Lakes as a distinct region of North America, with its own culture and common interests. Gapers Block is pleased to present a series of excerpts from the book over the next several months.

Pays Plat First Nations Reserve, Ontario, Canada

The Trans-Canada Highway, which was known as the King's Highway in a more Anglophilic era, arches like a bow over the roof of Lake Superior. A two-lane road, which feels even narrower because of whooshing RVs and long-bedded lumber trucks, the Trans-Canada scribbles a path between boulders and pines. The view was more Western than Midwestern: to the north, the thinly forested hills end in jagged, sheared cliffs where the road crews had dynamited. Wherever the landscape dipped and saddled, I could see polished blue lakes, speckled with evergreen islands. To the south, on the lake side, the water was so pale and shallow that I could imagine wading chest-high to the islands offshore. In the chilly evenings, the inlets became bowls of mist. According to the Thunder Bay paper, the American Midlands were suffocating under a heat wave. It was 93 degrees in Chicago. Up here, on the summit of the Great Lakes, where it never hit 80, that sounded as distant as news of a South Seas tsunami.

I was on my way to Schreiber when I passed the sign welcoming me to Pays Plat First Nations Reserve. The reserve was a gas station, a restaurant, and a few dirt roads spaced with dull little houses wearing eyeless satellite dishes. A hand-lettered sign for "Dave's Smoked Fish" pointed down a dead-end street. On any other afternoon, I would have driven right through this stingy Native settlement. But this was Pow Wow Sunday, the one day a year Pays Plat turns colors and comes to life. So I pulled over.

The Pow-Wow was in full swing. Inside a wood-fenced paddock, dancers in eagle feather bustles hopped and jingled to the pulse of a drum circle — eight heavy-armed guys doom-doom-dooming and wailing under a gazebo supported by stripped logs. Under canvas tents, women peddled dream catchers and fox pelts. The food wagon was serving hot dogs and bannock, a bland but hearty fry bread. I bought a slushy, leaned against the fence and listened to the music. The singers followed no melody. They chanted a monotonous strand of song, then leaped an octave. "Hi-yi-yi-yi-ya-ko-o-o-a ... hi-YA-A-A-Y!" Their ululations didn't follow a narrative, as a symphony would. Instead, they packed every syllable with a dozen emotions. A rabbi once told me that the essence of Jewish music was the expression of ecstasy and sorrow in a single note. I imagined a people as dispossessed as the Ojibway required the same musical grammar.

I had arrived just in time for a ceremony honoring Ojibway veterans. A pair of old men raised the U.S. flag and the Canadian flag on long sticks. The Ojibway lands encompass all of Lake Superior, so the nation fought against both flags. Later, in World War II, Vietnam and Afghanistan, it fought under them.

An old soldier named Garland Moses made a speech: "Many people think Pow Wow is a religion," he said, in the deliberate, sing-song voice you hear in Natives on both sides of the border. "I'm a Roman Catholic. I've been doing this for 20 years. When I started doing this, my father didn't understand. He said, 'I didn't raise you that way.' But my grandmother came from this country. We have to remember the long history we have on this land..."

As I was scribbling this in my notebook, a young man approached me. He wasn't wearing a dancer's costume.

"Are you a writer?" he asked.

"Yeah, I guess so," I said. I'd been writing furtively. I didn't know whether note-taking was allowed at a Pow Wow. "I'm writing a book."

"If you're writing a book, you have to meet the chief."

Raymond Goodchild was settled heavily in a lawn chair, but he stood up to shake my hand.

"This is a pretty small Pow Wow, but what can you do?" he said, as though he would have organized a bigger Pow Wow if he'd known I was coming. "We're one of the smaller reserves."

Then he asked if I had any tobacco.

"We have to throw some tobacco in the fire," he said, "and then I will tell you all about the reservation and the spirits."

I fetched my pouch from the car and gave it to Raymond. He led me across the paddock.

"The secret is offering to the spirits in the trees, in the ground, in the lake, in the river, in the plants and our ancestors," he explained.

We stopped beside the campfire. Raymond dug out a pinch of tobacco and sprinkled it over the flames.

"Hello," he recited. "I pray to my bear spirit, I pray to the eagle spirit, I pray to the animal spirits, plant spirits, water spirits. I pray in the direction of the east, the west, the south, the north and all the traditional lands of the Pays Plat Nation."

We walked back to his chair. His wife was sitting beside him, holding their daughter, a 9-year-old Cree orphan they'd adopted and planned to enroll in the tribe.

The Pays Plat Nation consists of 300 Ojibway. Only a third of them live on the reserve. The rest live in the Native housing projects of Thunder Bay. Raymond had spent many years there himself, making a living as a police officer and a social worker. It was the only place a Native could get a job, an education or even a bed. There weren't enough houses to go around on Pays Plat. "We're in the process of negotiations with Ontario and Canada to add 16 kilometers, so more people can live on the reserve," the chief said. "Last year, I built four houses. I plan to build more next year. I moved back here because I didn't want to raise my kids in a big city, with all the shooting and the fighting and the crime."

Pays Plat didn't have much to work with. The only resources on its square mile were wind, trees and water. The chief was allowing an energy company to build turbines, and planned to log the woods for furniture. The band also tried to snare truckers with its tax-free gas pumps and its diner, Wiisniwin Gamiing. That sounded like a casino (maybe on purpose, because the province wouldn't let them build one) but it meant "eating by the water."

I asked Raymond whether he'd heard of a plan to pipe Great Lakes water to the dry regions of North America. His features became tight.

"To my beliefs, and my values, it's all my land," he said. "Where a corporation or a business tried to do something, they would hear from my people. There's medicines in the water that belong to the people. I will die like my ancestors died for the lake."

"In the United States, there are states that want the Great Lakes water," I said.

"If that happens, you will die, I will die, all the Chinese people will die, because the lake will work against us."

The Pow-Wow caller was sitting in a little wooden booth, like a high-school football broadcaster, commenting on fancy dances, on jingle dances. Suddenly, he announced a "snagging dance." This was the Pow-Wow version of a Sadie Hawkins. A short, rotund old woman galloped out of paddock and grabbed my hand, ending my interview with the chief. I'd been snagged. Soon I was in a line of dancers, jogging through the grass to a four-step drumbeat. I wasn't the only shawegnass: a few hands down was a pale, toothless man. He wore an Ojibway costume, but his beard was too full for a Native's face. He was a doctor who had worked on northern Ontario reserves for decades, and was welcome at any Pow Wow. The line split in two, square-dance style — men curled away to the north, women to the south. When we circled back together, my old woman and I were hand in hand again. I felt like a sparrow adopted by a flock of parrots: the dancers wore white buckskins with flying fringes. Their beaded vests were strapped over bold red frocks gaudy with eight-sided stars and zigzag stripes. There was only one modern touch: the eagle feather bustles fanned out from compact discs that glowed like prisms in the mellow afternoon sun.

"You're going to have to get married," the chief teased, once the drumming stopped. "Diane's husband is in line. He's going to be jealous."

(Diane's daughter was in line, too. She wore a t-shirt with a picture of Geronimo and the slogan, "Homeland Security: Fighting Terrorists Since 1492.")

Boys and girls in turquoise vests walked up and down the line, presenting the dancers with gifts.

"Mi-gwetch," I said, using my one word of Ojibway to thank a girl who gave me a pin.

"There's drums from all different nations, eh," the chief said, when the music started again. We were both finished dancing — the chief because he was heavy-bellied and middle-aged, I because I felt like an interloper. "There's a Pow Wow here this weekend, and next weekend, there's going to be a Pow Wow at Lake Helen. It's a spiritual ceremony. Everything has a spirit or a soul. The water flows through our system, the food we eat flows through our system, so we're all attached. There's powers beyond a church that are real. Some of these people are praying right now to the Creator. They'd say this is our Red Path. One of the things you don't do is go out and drink. You don't go out and do drugs. Right now, there's Pow Wows going on all across North America, celebrating being on the Red Path and obtaining your ceremony."

I went into the diner and ordered a wheel of bannock. Jason, the young man who'd first noticed my notebook, fried up the bread. I was his only customer, so after I was finished eating, we went outside to watch the last dance of the afternoon.

"Do you have forest fires in the United States?" Jason asked. We were both leaning against my car. It was just a question to get a conversation going.

"Sure," I said. "Out West. That's where Smokey the Bear came from."

"I fight fires in the summer," he said. "This winter, I'm going to get a concession to deliver logs to the elders for their stoves. You have to do a lot of different jobs here. I'm lucky because I inherited a house from my grandparents."

Chief Raymond Goodchild offered to let me pitch my tent on the Pow Wow campsite, at the edge of the woods. Turning him down is the biggest regret of my trip. Saying no to hospitality is always an insult, but this felt worse than, say, blowing off the Kennedys for a weekend on Cape Cod. Pays Plat didn't have much land, but the chief had offered me a few square feet for one night.

"I've got to meet someone tomorrow morning," I said lamely. "I need to stay at a campsite with a shower."

He persisted. "You could wash up in the bathroom."


"OK," he said, but he waved goodbye limply when I headed for my car.

That night, in the provincial park, I pitched my tent near the highway. I had trouble getting to sleep, for the surf of 18-wheelers in my ears. Served me right.

Read on:

1. Sheboygan & Manitowoc County, Wisconsin
2. Marquette, Michigan
3. Mackinac Island, Michigan
4. Grand Marais, Minnesota
5. Pays Plat First Nations Reserve, Ontario, Canada
6. Isle Royale, Michigan
7. Rogers City, Michigan
8. Toronto, Canada
9. Hamilton, Ontario
10. Hamburg, New York
Buy the book.


About the Author(s)

Edward McClelland is the author of Horseplayers: Life at the Track, published in 2005 by Chicago Review Press. The Third Coast was released by the same publisher in 2008.

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