Ancient Land, Ancient Sky: Following Canada's Native Canoe Routes

by Peter McFarlane and Wayne Haimila

Published by Knopf Canada

320 pages, 1999


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Peter and Wayne's Excellent Adventure

Reviewed by J.M. Bridgeman

 

Once, long ago, in another part of this life, when I was the only passenger on a scheduled flight out of Winnipeg, the pilot waved me forward and asked if I wanted to ride shotgun. I eased myself into the navigator's chair and buckled up as my host named the parts and the functions of the gauges on the control panel. When he wasn't radioing the tower, he talked me through take off. When we reached cruising altitude, he ran through the basics. Pull nose up; push nose down. Bank right. Bank left. VFR (Visual Flight Rules, meaning you can only fly when you can see the landmarks below.) Due North, between the lakes. Over Hecla, line up with St. George's Island; then aim for Warren's Landing, the mouth of the Nelson River where it leaves Lake Winnipeg. Follow the Nelson to Playgreen Lake. Scout the landing strip to determine which direction to approach. Touching down was high and fast. Although I was a white-knuckle flyer who had never ever been bitten by that bug, it was an exhilarating trip.

The cover photograph of Ancient Land, Ancient Sky: Following Canada's Native Canoe Routes put me immediately back into that cockpit, floating somewhere between earth and ceiling. At the center of the world, horizon visible in all directions. The map actual land and waterways below. With the illusion of control, and a guide at my elbow who really knew what he was doing.

In Ancient Land, Ancient Sky, the pilot is Peter McFarlane, a Montreal-based writer. In the navigator's chair, Wayne Haimila, "lawyer, journalist and political advisor of Cree, Tsimshian and Metis ancestry [who] lives in Kamloops and travels the country on native land claims business." They fly from Newfoundland to Vancouver Island in a single-engine Cessna 172, retracing ancient transportation routes used for millennia before they were "discovered" by Europeans moving inexorably across the continent.

McFarlane and Haimila's flight combines celebration and mission. The celebration -- the 500th anniversary, in 1997, of John Cabot's arrival, which marked a beginning. The mission -- to reinstate into the story of Canada the original peoples who met and assisted the newcomers. To tell the stories, for the most part, from a native point of view. To revisit sacred sites. To restore the old names. To return the "Old Countries" to their vastness. To recover the past.

In the most important ways, the flight device works well. For Peter and Wayne's excellent adventure, the flight plan organizes both trip and book. The geographical journey becomes also time travel; the short hops link the places in theme (westward movement, encroachment) as they mimic the passage of time. The touch downs in different territories anchor the historical records to locations and people existing today. Moreover, the flying details function as the honey that helps the medicine of history go down.

But is it good medicine or bad medicine? And does the chaser of political correctness help or hinder?

There is little here that is new. Even the native history is retold simply by shifting narrative positions. The sources are the same old documents familiar to Canadian schoolchildren. Some of what is retold is bad history. Some really important aspects of history, important today and to the future, are ignored. And the chaser of political correctness leaves a bitter taste. Drafting maps of the "Old Countries," the navigator imagines a glorious past and attempts to fix it on paper. No flight plan to the future is filed.

It may not sound like it, but I really enjoyed reading this book. It describes adventure travel through a land I love, from one familiar sacred site to the next. The best parts for me, aside from the flying details, were the times spent at each stop visiting a place; the actual physical descriptions of landscapes and desecrated tracts; the contrast between cross-cultural memories of a locale; the names and name origins; and the legends and myths attached to locations. These are the places where strangers meet on common ground.

Ancient Land, Ancient Sky offers a different perspective, an overview of history. But it offers no vision. I couldn't help thinking that these flyers feared expressing an opinion, like politicians who remember that the less said, the fewer doors you close. Maybe I just refused to take the vision seriously because it sounded both anachronistic and vengeful -- to take back the old countries and put the whites on reserves. Unfortunately, without vision, the book leaves an impression of a lack of hope, a failure to imagine a future. It fails to imagine a future because it refuses to envision newcomers as part of that future. Thus it fails to address the relationships between First Peoples and the next wave, who have been here nigh on to 500 years, whose dead too are buried here, who know no other homeland, who aren't going anywhere. Like the book says elsewhere, in different contexts, things exist first in the imagination, and navigation is impossible without a destination. When Peter flies home alone, he looks down on the beauty of the land with the new eyes of a pilgrim. I'm not sure whether his navigator, who imagines a past, not a future, sees anything any differently after their adventure.

When I took my own flight out of Winnipeg, I touched down in the land of the Swampy Cree. Cree comes from Cris short for Kristinaux, a corruption of Kenistenaag, Peter and Wayne tell us. "The settled order of the ancient lands blurred out of focus with the chaos of misnaming, mispronunciation and mistranslation." In contrast, my sources told me: a Cree is someone for whom this land is sacred. This is where we have to start.

The newcomers must adopt that old way of understanding and respect for the land. For who can permit the drowning of valleys, the clear-cutting of forests, the destruction of the buffalo and salmon, the desecration of burial sites, the "disappearance" of entire nations, if the land and the creatures on it are recognized as sacred? We can begin by acknowledging the presence of the spirits who inhabit these sacred places, by making offerings to them, so they know that we respect them. We can learn to return to the windswept rock for spiritual renewal. Ancient Land, Ancient Sky helps show us the way. | July 1999

J. M. Bridgeman is Contributing Editor for Canadian History and Culture at Suite 101.