Genot “Winter Elk” Picor for The Storykeepers Project
During the previous month, I recorded the unfortunate accident of having endured several painful stings after a wasp nest exploded above my head, the result of an errant canoe paddle that had been hurled during a game. I was cared for by Wenoka, a “Midewiwin,” or healer of the Outawa (Ottawa) People. Wenoka had become the object of my affections long before the accident. I was immediately smitten with her at first glance soon after our voyageur brigade landed in the village of d’etroit, which was recovering from the ravages of the Fire of 1805.
Over the course of seven days, Wenoka or another woman would change the poultices of rattlesnake fern and plantain as I lay immobile. Wenoka and I had little conversation, which was of some disappointment to me. Yet, I cherished every visitation she made on my behalf. Her gentle, soothing touch on my inflamed skin brought me much comfort. I hoped she would accept my affection in the spirit in which it was intended; freely given and of the utmost sincerity.
The month of October, 1805 brought us good fortune. I had fully recovered from my malady and scarcely a pin-prick of discomfort from the stings remained on my person. Alexander
Frobisher, nephew of Benjamin Frobisher, the wealthy Montréal fur trader of the North West Company offered to purchase the small fur trading company with whom we were employed. A fair offer was made to Achille, our conducteur (conductor/boss) and the transaction was completed. Frobisher placed high value on the furs in our possession, and as luck would have it, he was impressed with our éthique de travail (work ethic) and selfless spirit in reconstructing the village after the Fire of 1805.
The question now became whether or not we would winter in d’etroit, or proceed northward to Mackinac Island. Would the voyageur brigade risk the tempests of November on Lac Huron? The furs we transported to d’etroit would remain in the warehouse for now. Frobisher would most likely have his own people complete the transfer of goods. Without cargo, we could travel faster and paddle greater distances in our efforts to reach our homes to the north and west. I had so much to tell my family who resided on Mackinac Island. Perhaps Wenoka would come with me. I was expecting my father’s disapproval of his prodigal son. I recalled how he forbade me to leave our island home for life as a debauched voyageur. But from these men, I had learned the valuable lessons of comradery, ingenuity and fortitude.
The date of this entry is Le trente et un octobre – 31st of October, 1805, la veillée de Toussaint (the vigil of All Saints Day), or All-Hallows’-Eve. Bonfires were lit along the banks of the d’etroit river, of course, far from the newly constructed village domiciles. The town could not suffer another devastating fire. Some among us believed the bonfires would keep away the devil on this night, so they risked their own well-being during their vigil to remain in close proximity to care for and contain of the flames.
The Catholic children who were of Irish descent made a curious plea as they went begging from door to door on All-Hallows’-Eve:
A Soul Cake, a Soul Cake, have mercy on all Christian souls for a soul cake! Soul, soul, an apple or two, If you haven’t an apple, a pear will do, One for Peter, two for Paul, Three for the Man Who made us all.
The children were invited into the household where they would recite a prayer for their neighbor’s departed loved ones. They were each rewarded with a small shortbread cake. From my own experience, I recall reciting Psalm 129 in Latin on this night at the graves of those who had gone before. We placed bowls of milk on their graves. This was done so their souls could partake in the food of the living. Many of the strict Protestant families forbade any such practice, believing the rituals to be pagan and not Biblical in their origin or intent.
On this night, some women practiced divination, professing to know how use powers beyond the natural world to see into the future. My companion, Devereux, paid a woman named Maëlys to foretell my destiny. She bade me to sit down at her table. Maëlys was a wretched old hag, long in the tooth, considering the few teeth that remained in her head. The odor of her body was like that of an old mule’s stable that had been neglected over the course of many weeks. She peered at me for some time, took a long draw on her tobacco pipe and asked to see my left hand. Maëlys traced the lines in my palm with a jagged, broken nail. The sensation produced a quivering in my gut.
“Hmmmm!” She said with a crooked grin. “Fame and fortune are seldom free…but wait! You are in love I see….yes, an unrequited love that is not to be!”
She ceased her incantation long enough to peer up at me, but I remained stoic and cold. I tried my best to resist her spell. Maëlys puffed out her lower lip, perhaps to mock me. Ribbons of smoke curled up out of both sides of her mouth. She chuckled and continued.
“Poor boy. The one you love suspects your feelings. When you are old and gone, she will be part of your history…yes, but maybe not be your destiny. Only fate can decide. What will be your choice mon garçon (my lad)? Are you willing to risk the maelstrom that is a broken heart in desperation for a future that might not to be?”
I began to think that Maëlys knew too much beyond the reaches of the supernatural. How could that be? I looked up at Devereux who was trying not to laugh.
“You told her about my feelings for Wenoka!” I growled.
Both my tormentor and her informant burst into laughter. Such was the night for playing pranks on unsuspecting fools like me. Only to Devereux had I expressed my feelings for Wenoka.
Now more than ever, I was determined let Wenoka know how I felt, and at my earliest convenience nonetheless. And so it was, on this night of departed souls, I chose to seek her out to be at her side. After many inquiries, I found her alone some distance from the evening’s events, seated beside a small fire, looking off into the distance. My mind raced with thoughts of holding her in my embrace.
I approached and asked if I could join her. She glanced over her shoulder, expressionless and then turned away.
“If you wish,” she murmured.
“I wish to thank you for your care,” I tenderly offered after having sat down next to her.
“You took a long time to recover,” she said after a brief pause, continuing to look away.
“The poison ran deep,” I answered. “Even now, it gives me some irritation.”
“That is too bad. I too know something about irritation,” she countered.
“I don’t understand,” I replied, quite puzzled by her statement.
Wenoka abruptly turned to face me. Her eyes locked with mine.
“Your feelings for me betray you. Do you think you are the first man who has sought my affections? You are what the Outawa does not need.”
“Your conceit does not serve you well,” I said in my defense.
Wenoka’s voice was sharp with a derisive edge. To the best of my recollection, this is what she said.
“I see the way you look at me. You stare too long and pull away when our eyes meet. Yet, you do not look deep enough to know me. My grandfather was a French man. He was a drunk and a vagabond. He would beat my grandmother until one day, he met his end at the hands of her brothers. The Frenchmen who lived among us could not prove his murder.”
“Many French men married our women. They learned our language and customs and gave our clans many mixed-blood children. The French did not want our land, but their lust for furs could not be quenched. The creatures of the forest began to disappear. The French took more than what they needed. They told us about their religion, but they said one thing and did another. Had it not been for the Black Robes (the Jesuits), we would not have been treated fairly. The Black Robes lived among us, but with them came sickness from which many could not recover. The British forced the French to leave after the first great war, but the The Anishinaabeg (Outawa, Ojibwe and Bodéwadmi/Potawatomi) remained, and were made to swear allegiance to the British, their new masters.”
“The British made promises they did not keep. They gave presents and traded goods, firearms and cheap whiskey that were meant to buy our allegiance, but friendship cannot be bought. The British never treated us like brothers and sisters. They took without asking.”
“Bwondiag (Pontiac) longed for his French brothers to return, but it was not to be. The French would not break the peace they made with their enemies and The Anishinaabeg suffered. Then, the British lost a great war to their brothers, the Americans.”
“The British moved to Shawganoshking (Canada/British Land) on the other side of the river. The gichi-mookomaanag (Whites/Americans) come, but they are just like the British. Like you, they take without asking….”
I interrupted Wenoka.
“I take nothing from your people! My family came to the Mitchigaamii (Great Waters) from Quebec to find a better life after they risked crossing the great sea from France. We did not come with the British or the Americans. My grandfather traded with The Anishinaabeg on Minis Mackinac (Mackinac Island). Like your people, we were forced to swear allegiance to the British prince after the French were sworn to leave, but were never treated as equals. Now, we must swear allegiance to a new country where kings and princes do not exist.”
Wenoka’s eyes blazed with anger.
“And to whom must The Anishinaabeg swear their allegiance? You remain in the employ of those who would rape the land, whether they be French, British or American.”
I felt an anger growing inside me.
“The Anishinaabeg trade with the British and the Americans, and my French compatriots act as liaisons to provide your people with what they want and need,” I replied. “I do not trade. I do not set prices. I do not trap. I only move goods from one place to another. It is a life I chose in defiance of my father’s wishes. ”
“Damn your father!” shouted Wenoka. Her voice cracked with emotion. “And when there are no animal furs left to be found, what will you do? You will make amends with him, seek a new life among the Americans, the British or whomever conquers this place and abandon us. Not one among you can see into the future to answer the question, ‘What will become of The Anishinaabeg?’”
Wenoka wiped away her tears and rose to her feet. She wrapped herself in a shawl and disappeared into the night. I found it odd that her shawl was of British manufacture. Even she could not escape the dependence her people placed on foreign goods. The bonfires were dying and the wind was still. We would not share the embrace I had so anticipated. Are history and destiny locked together like one foot following another? Perhaps in time, there would come a deeper understanding. The cold barrenness of November was settling on the land while at the same time, maelstroms would commence on the lakes as they had done for time eternal. It was if Wenoka and I were caught betwixt and between a great struggle of two inescapable opposing forces and two opposing worlds.
All-Hallows’-Eve As told by Genot “Winter Elk” Picor for The Storykeepers Project From Voyageur Tales © 2019 Genot Picor. Published on Voyageur Heritage with permission of the author.