Tag Archives: Stoney

Minnewanka

What pasts and presents we drown in pursuit of our futures.

Minnewanka is a name of a lake near the town of Banff, Alberta, Canada. I visited it a week ago for the first time in decades and walked a path on its shore that I don’t remember ever walking before. The path starts paved, then becomes well-worn dirt, and over its course gradually roughens as it traverses roots and rocks. Within a half hour you’re at a bridge over a small canyon, and then the trail climbs up to bend around the mountain and follow the farther shore from on high. Past a certain point you are advised to travel in tight groups in case of bears; hikers can continue to overnight campsites many hours of bootsteps farther on. But up to the bridge, it is well worn and friendly.

At the trailhead is a parking lot and a snack bar and a motorboat rental. You may, if you will, speed across its surface, a score of metres above ghostly streets where people used to walk and talk and kiss and eat. You may, if you will, strap on a can of atmosphere and dive down to look at a town drowned seventy-seven years ago, a town on a site where people had lived even ten thousand years earlier. See the video with this article from Smithsonian – you may find it spooky and wonder what waterlogged ghosts are over your shoulder.

There has always been a lake here, though it wasn’t always this big. A long, long time ago it was bigger, but glaciers and moraine rise and fall and so do lakes. By 1888 it was eighty feet down from where it is now, and a hotel and then a town were built on its shore: Minnewanka Landing. Fifteen years later, up the hill, a mine was started and a town of a thousand souls sprouted up there. It was called Bankhead and had a power plant that supplied power for Minnewanka Landing.

In 1912 a dam was built on the lake to store water for another power plant. In 1922 the Bankhead mine closed and its power plant shut down. A new power plant was built to replace it. The houses of Bankhead were mostly unmoored from their foundations and moved to nearby towns, leaving a cluster of concrete lumps in the woods for local schoolkids to visit on field trips and a small selection of buildings with interesting pasts mixed in with the others in Banff and Canmore.

But in 1941 there was a war on, and more power was needed. A dam was built across the end of the valley for a new power plant, and everyone in Minnewanka Landing had to leave. They didn’t get to take their houses. Fifty-three years a town, ten thousand years a place people passed through and sometimes lived, now a dim dreamworld like a far-gone childhood, walked in only by people long passed, seen from above darkly by the eyes of our time.

As we ever see other worlds darkly. Their sacred fabrics become burial shrouds. Look at the name of this lake. For a time, the European settlers called it Devil’s Lake. Beyond its end is a place called Devil’s Gap (now also the name of an establishment in the town of Banff where you may buy bites and spirits). A sign near the snack bar will now tell you that Minnewanka comes from local Native words meaning ‘spirit lake’. One website I found declares it’s from “Minn-waki (Lake of the Spirits).” But that’s not quite it.

How do I know that’s not quite it? The local language it’s from is Nakoda, or (in settlers’ terms) Stoney. That’s the language of the people on whose land I grew up. It’s a language I don’t speak, alas – but my dad does, quite well. So I asked him. The name of the lake in Nakoda is mînî wakâ, which means ‘sacred water’. The circumflexes indicate nasalization – the sort of thing you hear in French and Portuguese when an nor mis written after a vowel. So mînî, which means ‘water’, has nasal vowels, and wakâ, which means ‘sacred’, has a nasal vowel just at the end.

Did you catch that? If it were wâka it would sound like “wanka” to English ears, but it was wakâ, more like “walk on” without fully saying the n. We’ve shifted the sound. Just as we’ve shifted the sense, from ‘sacred’ (a fluid quality) to ‘spirits’ (individual beings) and then, for a time, because we feared the spirits of the people we invaded, to ‘devil’. We forced it with our own constructions just as we forced the water when, in one of our wars, we stopped it from flowing freely and used its holy fabric to shroud the ghost of a town because we wanted power.

But it’s still there. It’s all still there. For us now it seems a pleasant thing to look at when we’re not looking at our screens, a fun thing to invade, a present of nature from our past selves and our ages-old planet, but it’s still there. And when we have walked on, when we have drowned our last memory and spent our own futures, and the evidence of our passing slowly drains out of time, it will be still there. Mînî wakâ.

Stoney

Books you’ve had for a long time may seem like a trip down memory lane. But a book is more than a lane, especially if it carries an important part of your formative years. It’s more of a memory neighbourhood. Smetimes when you visit it you notice that it’s still a living neighbourhood. And sometimes as you step into the houses you find the foundations… of your present life and world. You open the cover, leaf through the pages, and see that it is part of how you learned to see. And what you learned to see.

I have two copies of a very special book. The book was printed in a limited leather-bound edition in 1980. One copy was given to me, signed, in 2003. The other belonged to my grandmother, and so, like my full set of Encyclopedia Britannica, it came into my possession. They are up behind some of my other ways of seeing, new and old. I need to remove a lens to see it more clearly.

Not a metaphorical lens. That Canon 135mm f/2.5 lens. (Ironically, I grew up using my father’s Nikon F2. The Canon equipment, though of similar age, came into my possession in more recent years.)

Do you see them now? Two leather-bound books with ornamental laces? Here, let me take one down and set it on the table.

Stoney Country, 1970–1980.

Is this a rocky land? It is a land near the Rocky Mountains. But though the country may be stony, and often dry and dusty and cast in the colours of cover and table, Stoney is not a description of it, not directly. It is the English name given to that people who live there. They call themselves Nakoda. Where is there? Morley, Alberta, Canada. The Stoney Indian Reservation (that’s still the official designation). If you saw The Revenant, you saw some of it, because much of the movie was shot there.

But I saw even more of it. Because I grew up around there.

I saw this sign every time we drove back home from Calgary on the Trans-Canada Highway.

This is a lovely book, many images, few words. It has sheets of parchment every so often with a few more words. When you open the book, the first photo you see is half-seen through a sheet of parchment, like a palimpsest.

Like a memory that is still there in full vividness when you turn the page.

If your memory seems like parchment, it may be that it is parched and needs water. Or it may be that you just need to turn the leaf.

As I leaf through this book, I see picture after picture of what I remember from my childhood.

Teepee encampments in the summer. Real teepees, not fake ones set up by tourists looking for some “authentic” experience. Ways of living, set up in the summer as a retreat from their houses. Flip aside the flap, stoop down and come in, greet everyone one by one, have a cup of tea, sit and talk.

Or, if you were me, sit and mostly not listen and mostly not understand. We, not being Stoney, spoke English at home, but my parents – especially my father – spoke Stoney and had long conversations. I looked at the fire. I played outside. Sometimes I played with the other kids.

Sometimes we went to the rodeo.

One time I even – in a small paddock by the house of one of our neighbours on the reserve – tried riding a calf. I’m not sure I lasted two seconds before ending in the dirt. At the rodeos I just watched, or didn’t watch, and maybe played or got some food. Tea, bannock. (A culinary ethnologist could be forgiven for thinking at first that the Stoneys were a lost tribe of Scots.)

Then I got older and didn’t join my parents to these things as often. Looking back, it would have made more sense for me to have learned the language. But little kids never really enjoy adult conversations, do they?

But the mountains don’t go away. None of it goes away. I went away, but it didn’t go away from me. Look, here is the mountain we lived at the foot of for five of my most formative adolescent years. Yamnuska.

The book closes with a traditional Stoney benediction. I’ve heard it spoken so many times. I’ve even said it aloud a few times myself. Next to the benediction is a picture of crocuses growing on the shoulder of that same stony Rocky mountain. Crocuses like we used to pick when I was a small child.

It is the country of the Stoneys, so it is Stoney Country. It is also stony country with rocky mountains. And I, having grown up there, am a child of those stones. Having been born there, to parents who had been accepted as part of the community, I was given a name: Îpabi Daguskan (or, as it sounded to my young ears, “Pobby Dowscun”). It means Son of Rock. Or, I guess, Stonechild.

Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that I have ended up with two copies of this book. This one is number 743 of 1000, initialled at the time of publication by the person who did much of the work putting it together, who took me to the production shops where I first learned about CMYK offset printing, who photographed so much of it with his Nikon F2.

My dad, of course. (But the snowy photo above was, fittingly, by Tom Snow.)

I haven’t really talked much about this word Stoney, have I? Not directly. But what you see above is some of how it tastes to me.

Oh, and this. The theme music from a multi-media show about the Stoneys my dad did in 1977 (using, among other things, some of the same pictures). It wasn’t written for that, but it was perfect, and the singer – Lobo – let it be used. Let’s play this video of it for the closing titles today, shall we?