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Picture of Pot Maker making pots

Death Wait

by Henry T. Epp

From Long Ago Today - The Story of Saskatchewan's Earliest Peoples

Pot Maker was of the northern arrow people who had moved to the prairies some generations ago, but not long enough to have forgotten the forests and the caribou in their stories and legends. Her people spoke the northern tongue of the caribou hunters, different from that of the prairie people who spoke a dialect similar to that of the southern forest people, the canoe people.

Pot Maker's people had brought with them the bow-and-arrow to the prairies, and had learned how to use this weapon to good effect on the buffalo. The people were always on the move, their families driving the herds into traps or over cliffs and then peppering them with arrows. This was a life of plenitude, with buffalo even more numberless than the caribou they still occasionally talked about. But killing the buffalo was dangerous and required able-bodied people, and moving frequently to anticipate the movements of the great herds required further mobility. Individuals who were too slow to move with the families had to be dragged along by dogs or people or remain behind, in good places, yes, but behind nonetheless. This was the way of the roving hunters, for all must eat and to eat they must move. Usually the families came back to those left behind before their food stores ran out, but occasionally things went wrong and they did not return. Then the slower ones had to scrounge for themselves, and sometimes they died.

Pot Maker had been named such when she became an expert manufacturer of clay pots. Not only was she the best in her family or band, but the best among all the people who met each summer by the river for the summer ceremonies, when the buffalo and spirits were honoured an1 when the boys danced and tested their endurance and became men. This was also when the sweet grass smoke rose from the ceremonial fires, according to the customs of all the prairie peoples.

Long ago Pot Maker had learned how to make clay pots by watching her mother and aunts and listening to them. She remembered being fascinated by the way the pot was started, by coiling a long clay rope up upon itself or by hollowing out a wad of clay with grit in it, then building it into a cup-like structure rounded at the bottom. Sometimes the sides were flattened by holding an oval stone ;inside the pot and smoothing out the walls with a flat wooden paddle. She remembered her first attempt at this and the clumsy look of her first pot. Her mother and aunts had laughed, but encouragingly, and had shown her once more, and she had learned, feeling good and that she was a useful and important family member. She had never forgotten how important it was to make sure children felt good about themselves and their families, and she had made certain that her own children, grandchildren, and nieces and nephews always felt the strength and importance of their family role, even when they were tired and reluctant to help.

Pot Maker remembered firing the clay pots to make them hard and waterproof. Placing the previously dried vessel in the fire was a tricky job. The fire had to be right, not too hot at first, else the water in the wet clay might evaporate or turn steam too quickly and the vessel would explode. Later, the pot required greater heat to solidify the clay. Pot Maker chuckled at the many vessels she had had to discard before being completed due to explosions while firing them, making them too thick to dry properly or too thin to hold together. But most of her pots had been good, much water had been carried in them by many women, and many meals had cooked in them. Several times she had even traded some of her pots for food with neighbouring villages when her family had been unable to obtain meat early in spring. They had had to wait until the ground thawed to obtain fresh clay for new pots, but there had been food. Her fame had spread. Her life had been good. Her people knew how to live, how to teach young people and how to treat old people; well. Her deeds might well become legends.

But now she was one of the old folks, and the swelling of her joints had left her crippled, able to hobble only, no longer able to keep up with her nomadic family. Maker had known for a long time that one day she would have to stay behind while the rest of her band moved on. Now was her time.

One of her sons, as yet unmarried, had volunteered to stay with her, to feed her to look after her until the band could return, but she had refused this offer. Suppose the band could not return to them in time, their food supply ran low, and there was no game. Already the great prairie buffalo herds had returned to the northern buffalo country for the fall, and the family might have to settle somewhere far away for the winter. She might die then, and so might her son. One death was enough. Reluctantly her son had agreed to leave with the rest of the band.

The story among the canoe people to the north was that these arrow people were very cruel, abandoning the old and infirm whenever and wherever they became too slow to follow their ever moving families. Sometimes the families did not even leave food for the individuals left behind and, one year later, or perhaps more years, when their cycle brought them back to these places, they would bury the bones in sandy holes and place a few stones over the graves to mark them and prevent animal depredation. Not that they had been concerned about animal activities before that. So the canoe people believed, she thought.

But the canoe people should talk. She almost laughed at how naive they were They lived in a country where lakes and rivers were plentiful, so they never traveled anywhere overland, except to hunt, and that was a young man's activity. Old and disabled folks could ride along in canoes no matter where the families went.

On the prairies it was not like that. Rivers and lakes were rare and widely spaced and the buffalo were not necessarily near them. The canoe people simply did not understand.

The canoe people did not understand further that Pot Maker's people always placed food and fuel with the individuals they left behind, unless they had none themselves, and that shelters were built for the old people. Pot Maker had a very nice lodge, and food for at least one turning of the moon. Perhaps her family would return before the food ran out, perhaps they would not return. If they did, she would be pleased, but if they did not she would not feel abandoned. Their thoughts would be with her even if winter and distance should make travel to her lodge impossible. Then, in spring, she could watch with the animal and other human spirits while they burled her remains.

A little, she was afraid, but the spirit world was good, she knew, and the pain to her body caused by travel was worse than remaining here in one place and being hungry. She was too sore even to travel by dog travois. Here, she could rest. Furthermore, when she ran out of food, she might soon have visions, special dreams like those of the individuals who fasted during their lonely vision quests. And these visions would then merge into the final dreams of the spirit world. An easy transition, she thought, much easier than that of one of her sons who had been gored by a buffalo three summers ago. He had become very hot to touch and had shouted spirit talk and then had gone to be with the spirits very suddenly. Her transition would be much slower, and she knew she could face it calmly as was the way of her people. She would not shame them. Her body would become part of that of which it was already a part, the earth, and her spirit would be with the other spirits, animal and human, now all her friends.

It was getting cold outside, and she could not move enough to gather more wood or buffalo chips to keep warm. Her food was almost gone too, she thought as she reached for a handful of pemmican and quickly shrank back into her warm buffalo blanket. There was no sign of her family, and soon there would be snow. If the snow was deep, early, they would be unable to return to provide her with more fuel and food.

It was snowing heavily, a wet, early snow, when her food ran out. She thought of her family, and how kind they were to their old people and those who had trouble moving or became tired quickly. She thought of how, when she was a little girl on a long walk to a new camp, she had become very tired. Her father had gone ahead to hunt, and her mother was with the rest of the family, but her grandfather had walked with her and talked to her.

She was not exactly dreaming or having a vision induced by fasting, but she was reliving the events as clearly in her mind as if she were there again. She was small again, only eight summers old, and her grandfather was walking with her, holding her hand.

The journey to the new village at the edge of the river was far, a full day's walk for healthy adults. The last fall hunt of the buffalo, migrating northward in their great herds, was over, and the family was moving away from the sand hills where they had spent the summer. Soon it would snow, so the journey to the winter village site in the river valley must be made, and they had been walking all morning and well into the afternoon. The council had decided the day before that all should pack up their belongings and move north to the river breaks so as to be firmly encamped when the first permanent snow came. Little Pot Maker, already a great help to her mother, had packed food, pots, and blankets onto dog travois and the dogs' backs while her mother was taking down the lodge. She liked the riverside campsite, sheltered from the cold wind and safe from flooding in the winter, but it was such a long walk for a small girl.

By early afternoon she began to get tired, even though they had all had a short rest and eaten a few handfuls of pemmican, prepared after the last great family buffalo drive, when dozens of animals had been driven into a trap at the edge of the sand hills and then slaughtered by the young men. She had helped in the drive lines, shouting and making herself visible to the buffalo so that they would run straight into the trap. Now they had much meat, enough to take them well into the winter. Later, when the snows became soft, the young men would hunt individual buffalo, deer, and antelope over wintering in the river breaks.

Little Pot Maker did not complain about being tired but her grandfather knew she was having trouble keeping up with the rest. Grandfathers always were very solicitous about tired children, and hers was no different. No, he did not slow his pace, and she had not expected it. Her people always worried about those who might lag, but they did not slow their pace to accommodate weariness. They had other ways of dealing with this problem, but it was not cold-heartedness or indifference to suffering as the canoe people thought.

Grandfather began to talk. He told her he knew she was tired, and he kept or walking. He patted her hand encouragingly, and then he began to tell stories, stories so fascinating that she almost forgot she was tired, and trudged on bravely

He told her of the time, long ago, when their people still lived in the forests, and three young men had gone hunting one morning. They had taken their canoe up the river, around the rapids, where the hunting was good. But all they had found was a large party of young men from the dangerous canoe people, in three large canoes They were enemies.

The young enemies had set out immediately after the three young men, yelling loudly and paddling violently, some shooting arrows at them although they were still well out of range.

Quickly the young hunters turned their canoe around and fled down river. They were brave, but they were not stupid, and a fight would result in certain death or capture.

Furiously, the young hunters paddled, but they did not gain on their enemies, who were in huge war canoes. The hunters held their own, but knew they could not do so indefinitely. The enemies had men to spare in their canoes, and some could always be resting while other plied their paddles relentlessly.

On came the enemies, and now they were within range of a bow shot. An arrow pierced the stern of the canoe, and another hissed slightly as it slipped into the water beside them. They would have to do something immediately.

All the while, the roar of the rapids had been growing louder. The enemies were uncomfortably close now, and the deadly rapids were in front of them. They would have to head to shore instantly, or take their chances in the rapids with their flimsy birch bark canoe. They had no time to discuss the situation, so the man in the rear of the canoe, the steersman, would have to make the split-second decision.

He glanced at the shore, and realized they would stand almost no chance of escape through the bush. The enemies simply were too close and too numerous. He glanced at the rapids, and saw how in the middle the river took a sharp bend to the left around a large rock face. If they tried to shoot the rapids they would almost certainly be dashed against this rock and either be killed instantly or captured. Then he remembered the stout pole he carried in the canoe to help navigate shallow waters when looking for the nests and young of waterfowl. He looked down at the pole and estimated its strength. He could use the pole to deflect the canoe from the rock so they would shoot directly down the second half of the rapids. The pole might not be strong enough, and they could be knocked into the foaming waters, but this was their only chance.

The other two young hunters in the canoe began paddling shore ward, but the steersman corrected the deflection with several powerful strokes, and the canoe was heading directly toward the lichen covered, now menacingly-near cliff. The two men in front froze in their places, paddles immobile, faces blank with disbelief. But the steersman quickly grabbed the pole and held it out horizontally in front of him as the canoe rushed straight for the rock face. Even the enemies stared in confusion at first, and then quickly began paddling shore ward with the strength of sudden, chilling fear spurring them to supreme effort as their own possible fate became startlingly clear to them.

The young hunters' canoe shot directly toward the rock, and the shock of the pole against the rock wall almost tipped the canoe, nearly flinging all into the water. Barely, the steersman kept his seat as the canoe turned sharply to the left. Then it shot straight down the rapids and into nearly still water. They were safe.

Briefly, they glanced back before resuming their escape. Sticking straight out of the rock wall was the pole. So powerful had been the steersman's thrust and the contact between the pole and rock face that the pole had penetrated well into the solid rock, and there it stayed, stuck for all time as a reminder to the enemies that the people's relationship with the spirit world was extra strong, and that they could not be defeated even against overwhelming odds and impossible situations. The enemies left, and whispered among themselves about the strength of the spiritual medicine of the place, and they never returned. The pole sticks in the rock wall to this day.

Then Pot Maker's grandfather told her another story. This story was just as interesting as the first one, but it was about an event which had occurred after their people had come to the prairies.

A young buffalo hunter had been caught alone on the prairie by the prairie relatives of the canoe people. The young man had run, fast, but his hunt had already winded him, and he could not shake his pursuers. He was going to be caught unless a miracle intervened. And it did.

The young hunter spotted a large, flat stone, and he ran up to it and sat down beside it. Swiftly he took a chipping stone from out of his satchel, and then pecked out the figure of a turtle on the flat stone. Normally, such a process would take a long time, but when the young man was done the pursuers had not yet arrived. He removed a skin bag filled with red ochre from his satchel and reached into it. The ochre had been mixed with grease already to make paint, and with his fingers he painted the grooves to accentuate the turtle's outline. Then he rose and stepped aside, But when the enemies beheld the red turtle image they stopped in their tracks. Suspiciously they stared at it, glanced cautiously at the young hunter, and began to mutter among themselves in their language. One of the enemies pulled back the arrow in his bow and raised it threateningly at the hunter, but after a few words from his companions he lowered his weapon and looked away, almost furtively. Thereafter, none of the enemies dared look directly at the hunter, and then they no longer would look at the image in the stone, a spiritual turtle nearly as red as blood. As one they turned and ran to whence they had come.

The young man was saved by his magic, and the turtle became the family's symbol. From then on, the family carved turtle images into many stones, some large and very hard stones, and some flat tablets of soft red stone which they could carry about with them. Sometimes, also they made large turtle effigies by arranging stones in order on the prairie uplands.

Pot Maker remembered one evening in a camp after a buffalo drive when she was half grown. A young man had been killed, a cousin, and she was sitting beside her grandfather, eating fresh meat. Where had the young man gone? Why had the blood dripped from his mouth and why had he stopped breathing? He had gone away forever, grandfather said, to be with the spirits of all the people and the animals and the earth itself. Death was not an enemy of the people, grandfather told her, even though it took people away and they did not return. Nor was death the people's friend. It was simply part of life itself, part of all things, an ending of one state of being and an entry into another. She had been satisfied, yet sad, and she had remembered.

She remembered how her grandfather had told her that one day he would have to remain behind while the rest of the family group moved on. Some day he would be too slow to keep up, and then it would be his turn to join the spirit world. She had asked him if he was afraid and he had said no, and his calm way told her it was no lie. Their people accepted what they could not change, yet always worked hard to change what they could in their favour. But the final slowness in life was unchangeable. The family members always showed they cared, and that was what mattered most. Next fall, when they moved, grandfather had remained behind in a small lodge created especially for him, with a supply of provisions. But she had not seen him again.

Pot Maker remembered another story her grandfather had told her. It had been about one of her grandmothers of long ago, gone to the spirit world before grandfather was born. The grandmother, then a young girl from their village, had been caught by the canoe makers to the north one spring when the family had gone into the pots. They cooked their meat in skin containers, not nearly as handy and much leakier. The girl had been put to cooking duty under an old woman's tutelage, and had been made to run all household errands, tend fires and gather firewood, even when it was very cold. And she had been given only clothes already discarded by others.

But the young woman had known a secret, pot making and uses of pots.

One day when her mistress was gone for a long while, the girl made pots. She had gathered clay and hidden it in some bushes near a pond behind the hut for just such a day as this. The fire was just right, and before the old woman returned she had fashioned and fired two large pots. They were ready to hold water and, yes, frogs. She knew just where to find the frogs, many of them and large ones, in a small pond just behind the bushes where she had hidden the clay.

The young girl laughed. Her captors felt a severe aversion to frogs, like some people hated snakes or mice or spiders. She had learned this during her weeks among them and had taken careful note of this strange fact. Then, an escape plan had formed in her mind. Furtively, she sneaked to the back of the hut and placed dozens of frogs in the pots. The enemies would be surprised, not only at something so strange as pots, but what they contained.

The mistress was angry when she returned. What were those vessels the girl carried in a woven grass sling over her back? Why had she wasted her time when she should have been doing camp chores? The mistress was so angry she wished to punish her captive publicly, so she took her to the council lodge where a meeting was already in session that evening. There she took the young pot maker to the centre, and told everyone that her captive was very disobedient and she was seeking advice on an appropriate punishment. What did council think?

Just then, the little pot maker saw her chance and removed the two frog filled pots from her sack. She danced and chanted over them to impress the council with their magic while her mistress ranted, and she held the pots up to show the turtle impressions she had made on them. Then, all in an instant, she flung the live contents at her mistress and the council members, frightening everyone and throwing the meeting into chaos. It was fun to watch even the grown men cringe back in fear and revulsion. Then she escaped.

This was not so much a miracle, her grandfather explained, as it was an example of a girl using her natural gifts of intelligence and good sense. From that day forward, could keep going. Were these stories all true? Grandfather said they were, mostly, but that different people had told them at different times through the years so they might have changed a little here and there, and a story was no good unless it was interesting, so some of the details might have changed. People had to remember these stories as they were passed on from generation to generation, and memory could be as unreliable as predicting the future. Yet people wanted both to remember and predict all the time. This made life interesting. Life was more than moving, setting up households, hunting and cooking. There must also be time for the telling of tales, and tales should be enjoyed.

Children must learn, her grandfather said, yet they didn't always like to learn. But children love stories, and they remember what is told them in stories. So a very good way for children to learn is to make stories out of truth and to put truth into stories. But they should always be stories. Grandfather was very wise in the ways of the world, in the ways of animals, but also of people.

Pot Maker stopped thinking of the past and looked at the red soft stone tablet in her hand, and carved into it was a turtle image, made by her father. She was getting weaker and she dropped it, but continued to look at it. It began to swim. Perhaps a vision was coming.

As she leaned back, she did have a vision. She was with her family after a successful hunt, and everyone had plenty to eat. She reached for the food, but was not strong enough. She knew it was a vision when she joined the spirit people. She had known it would be like this. She had learned this from her family.


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