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What is a River?

For the people of the Chapleau Cree First Nation, the channels of the Chapleau Rivers
are a multi-dimensional construct that defines origins, families, and meaning.
Copyright 1998, Lark Ritchie

According to the dictionary, a ‘river’ is a natural stream of water of fairly large size, flowing in a definite course or channel or series of diverging and converging channels.

Beyond the third grade, most people store this definition in their minds along with shoes, and pies, and hammers; an accepted fact that needs no further thought or understanding.



A ‘River’ is a fundamental word, a noun, denoting a thing of geographical importance, a locator, or point of reference we use to frame and connect other ideas.

For other people, a river is much more. For Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, the river couched a way of life; a fundamental and central point of stability in the life of a society. An entity.

For Mark Twain and his readers, the Mississippi River was brought to life as a key-word denoting an experience and record life for a people in the nineteenth century. The stories and adventures of Tom Sawyer, and Huckleberry Finn are the stories of a culture that existed along that great stream of water. Clemens created a window into that culture allowing readers to glimpse an understanding of a life, most long forgotten, save Twain’s stories.

In today’s hi-tech world, few people have fewer direct links to such experience. Although our very existence owes itself to water, many of the planet experience that fluid in glass or plastic bottles, filtered and sanitized; its source not a consideration in their immediate lives. For some few others, there is still a trickle of meaning; a connection to a way of life, a consciousness, and a culture.

For the people of the Chapleau Cree First Nation, the channels of the *Chapleau Rivers* are a multi-dimensional construct that defines origins, families, and meaning.

Sadly, because of a legislated and negotiated shift of residence and a shift in our people’s economies and industries, this individual and collective culture is being eroded and lost. We accept this loss in its physical sense. We are being drawn away from the rivers. As individuals, there is little we can do to prevent it. Like individual life itself, those direct links to a past will always be drawn from each of us.

What we refuse to accept; what we fear, is the loss of the deeper meanings those waterways held for us, and ways they supported and delivered us into this present. In those meanings lie our origins; a source defining who we are today. They are the basis for an almost undefineable and unconscious identity and spirituality that can somewhat be grasped by indirectly understanding the roles of the rivers in our stories; of those who lived their lives on and near those waters.

I begin with some personal examples of meaning the waterways around Chapleau hold for me.

The first I call these ‘The Communion."

On a Thursday evening in May, in the Spring of 1961, my mother fried some pike fillets and sent me with them to the Lady Minto Hospital. I brought them to my grandfather, who lay there in the last stages of cancer. I was twelve years old, and he, sixty seven.

"Hello", I said, as I entered his room. He opened his eyes and looked up with a short reply. "Hi Boy, sit down". I sat. He arranged himself, moving a pillow under his side, facing me. We both knew his conditions, though we did not talk about it.

A silence continued. We were used to silence, we had spent my life until that point as grandfather and grandson. Walking and sitting together; few words, long periods of silence, interspersed with teachings and play that helped make me who I am today.

I handed him a small brown paper bag. "Mommy made some fish for you," I mumbled, and handed the bag to him. He accepted the bag, and pulled out two packages wrapped in white translucent waxed paper. He unwrapped one. "Ooo, Fish", he said. His expression conveyed that this was an important thing, and that I was somehow, I was special for bringing it to him. "Where is it from? What kind?"

"It’s Pike," I replied, "From down the river."

"Who caught it?"

"Daddy caught it. Down past the rapids, in the weedbed near the beach."

We both knew that place; we had traveled the river and each bend, each weed bed was as familiar to us as the cupboards of our homes. For others who travel the river, that spot is on the east side of Henderson Lake, a small sand beach now used by hunters in the fall as a moose hunt campground.

Again we entered a moment of silence, as he broke a fillet into two. "Have some with me," and he handed me a small piece. "I already ate," I said, "we had it for supper." He offered it again, urging the fragment towards me, "Have just a little piece with me; its better to eat together." I took it and ate it.

For some seconds, we chewed, and swallowed. "It’s good." The short sentence trailed off, almost a whisper. I watched him break off another piece, which he handed to me. I accepted it. He broke of one for himself, and as he did, I saw tears in his eyes. The first tears I had ever seen in those eyes, and the last. My own eyes welled with the same warm water. He rolled onto his back, looked at me, and his hand motioned, "Eat." He placed his own piece into his mouth, and chewed. I did the same.

He looked up, past the hospital ceiling towards a sky he saw in his mind, "We used to camp there, on that beach, it is a good place for a break; to cook." He wiped his lips, and then his eyes; first one, and then the other. "Across the river, there is a small bay; behind the island. It’s another good place to fish." And he told me a story of a fish he had caught there, and how he had used a green line and a sucker to catch it, and how it had flopped in the canoe. He told me one more; of a bear on a rock, just down the river a bit.

Our tears had passed, and he asked me about school, and what it was like outside. I do not remember what else we talked about, or when, or how I left. But it was the last time we ate together, and talked of fishing and hunting, of canoeing and camping. I saw him one more time; two days before the end. He was unaware.

We had shared a fish. Looking back at it now, it was an act of communion. A final sharing of knowledge, and being together. A passing. The basis of that communion was the river, and the life and lifestyle it provided. Two people connecting, two adjacent generations. Two ages of humanity; one moving into the past, one into the future, bound together by memories of a river. Saying goodbye.

This little story illustrates the central significance of the environment in many Native American lives. When in the last days of life, a man remembers and shares life and experience in the context and framework of a river, we begin to understand the subtle, yet vital interweaving of ecology and being, a fundamental entity in personal and social identity.