The Boy Who Knew Foxes - from Trail To Heaven

(Trail To Heaven - 1988 Copyright University of Iowa Press 

co-published by Douglas & McIntyre, Vancouver)

(This passage describes the death of George Chipesia, Japasa, and his saying goodby to his animal friends.)

On Tuesday, August 4, Sam and Jean returned to Buckinghorse with Johnny Chipesia and most of the people who had been staying with Asah at Prophet River.  With them, to my surprise, was Asah himself, led by his grandson, Willy Olla.  Asah had suffered another attack the night before.  The schoolteacher made arrangements to fly him back to hospital in Fort Nelson, but at the last minute, the old man said he wanted to go to Buckinghorse with everyone else.  He needed moosemeat, wind, stars, his language, and his relatives, rather than the narrow white bed on which I had seen him perched cross legged, like a tiny bird.  As he had told Sally the week before, Japasa wanted to say goodby in his own way.  He stayed in Jumbie's camp, while Willy set up a small wall tent for him.  Sam and I hauled a load of wood from behind our camp and I bucked it up for the old man with Billy's power saw.  I could hear the gentle rise and fall of Jumbie's voice in song throughout the rainy afternoon.

About 9:30 that evening Dolf Andree came into the tipi and whispered something to Sam and Jean.  They left hurriedly.  Sally told us that Asah  was having another attack.  In the silence of that gentle northern evening, we could hear the old man's cries coming from the tent Willy had set up for him.  Jean told Sally to stay in the tipi.  I asked Sally if she  thought people would mind if we went to the old man.  She said, "No."  At Asah's camp, we found a circle of people gathered around the entrance to his tent.  Jumbie, Sam, Bella, and Willy, and Asah's young daughter, Janice were inside.  They held the old man.  They rubbed his arms and chest as he struggled and moaned.  Among those who watched in silence, women were on the right, and men on the left.  Bella called for "holy water," water gathered as rain ran down the trunk of a spruce tree, to sprinkle on the old man.  Later, Sam threw some of it on the fire. 

         Gradually, Asah became quiet and fell into the gentle breathing of sleep.  A group of people stayed in a circle around the mouth of the tent, watching silently while men and boys brought in wood for the fire.  Sam and Jean and Willy settled in to keep watch over Asah during the night, and to keep the fire burning.  Charlie Bigfoot returned late from hunting, and brought a small bottle of holy water in a paper bag to put under the old man's pillow.  Johnny arrived around midnight and joined the vigil.  I wrote in my notes that this evening had brought people together in a way I had not seen before.  Asah had become the center of our camp and the center of our concerns.  Our thoughts and dreams circled around his tent as we slept that night. 

         The schoolteacher arrived in camp the next morning.  I wrote in my notes that she, "talked our ears off about how she knew better what to do for Asah than the Indians - how he should be in hospital - general implication that it wasn't proper to camp at all.  Why should people camp with their nice houses up there?"  She was particularly critical of the people who had held the old man down as he struggled, and she told them so directly.  A woman from Prophet River attempted to make peace, by explaining that she was afraid he would get so strong no one could hold him down.  The teacher did not understand this concern, or even listen to it as anything beyond superstition.  She obviously thought it ludicrous that anyone should be afraid that a tiny, sick, old man could become "too strong."  Bella told the teacher directly that it was none of her business if they wanted to hold him down.  She said, "It's the Indian way." 

         Much later, I learned that in Dunne-za understanding, a person who "knows something" would become "too strong" if his power came too close to the surface of everyday reality.  That could happen if the events of a person's life became too much like those of the mythic animal or power he or she had encountered in the searing transformation of a childhood vision quest.  It could happen when a person's power began to take control of him.  Holding Asah down during his attack was a necessary precaution.  Hence, Bella insisted that what she did was "the Indian way."  A person was particularly in danger of becoming "too strong" if someone else intentionally confronted him with a food or activity that he must avoid because of its central place in the mythic story of his empowering animal or natural force.  I also learned that the person who becomes "too strong" is called wechuge. 

         Wechuge (pronounced way-chu-gay) is a cannibal monster who hunts and eats members of his own community.  His power derives from the power of giant animals that existed in mythic time, before the vision quest of the culture hero, Saya.  A person experiencing an attack like those Asah was having would have been seen as becoming too strong.  I also learned later, that Asah had actually become "too strong" on several previous occasions.  Once, some people had given him meat with fly eggs in it.  The old man had not protested, but not long after, he began to sing his song, and then to hop up and down, like a human frog on the old bedframe, on which I had seen him perched so quietly earlier that summer.  People knew then that he was becoming "too strong."  They knew he was becoming wechuge.  Unless another person's power was applied to bring him back to the world of ordinary reality, he would begin to eat his own lips.  The flesh would turn to ice within him, and he would become a super-human cannibal monster, capable of hunting people in the way that people hunt animals.  In this case, I was told that people called Johnny, who sang over his father, placed his coat over him, and brought him back into the circle of human relationship.  His actions were the same ones that elders take, when children return to camp from the isolation of their vision quest experiences.

Despite Teacher's complaints, Asah stayed in camp.  He continued to be well and in good spirits.  He seemed more at home in the little wall tent Willy had set up for him than he was sitting on the old bedframe at Prophet River.  He was at home with his people around him.  He was at home near the trails of animals.  He was happy to hear the words of his own language, to smell wood smoke, to eat moosemeat, and to sit on a bed of fresh spruce boughs.  He was happy to know the wind was at his call.  At 10:30 in the morning something remarkable happened.  I heard excited voices and saw people looking down the seismic line to where it passed over the crest of a hill beyond the river.  To my astonishment, a bull moose was walking slowly in plain view across the open space.  Never before or since have I seen a moose within sight of a hunting camp.  We all stared in disbelief.  Charlie Bigfoot started out toward where we had seen the moose.  He returned in the evening without having made contact.  Later, Bella said that the moose had come to say goodby to Asah.  This moose, she meant to say, would nourish us more as a living presence than with its meat. 

         As the sun circled down toward the place where it goes beneath the earth, people began to drift toward Asah's camp.  During the dark of night, some of them had been dreaming for him.  Now the sun had returned full circle, to set "one chicken step" from where it was on the horizon a day before.  A bull moose had come within sight of camp.  People had watched over the old man throughout the day.  The time had come to bring a circle of relatives close around the old man the young people called Asah.  Willy went into his grandfather's tent.  The rest of us gathered around outside. 

         Johnny began to tell about how he and his father had survived the terrible flu of 1918-1919.  Japasa listened quietly to his son's words.  Sometimes Johnny spoke in Beaver, sometimes in English for my benefit.  Johnny had just turned six in September of 1918.  His story reminded us of Japasa's importance as a link to the past.  He was one of the old timers who survived.  Johnny spoke the names of others who survived.  He spoke the names of some who died.  His story also reminded us that Japasa was a man who knows something.  The Indians, he said, knew about the sickness coming from their Dreamers.  This is what Johnny said, as I have reconstructed it from notes I made later that evening.  I have taken the liberty of integrating my notes of what he said then, with a verbatim transcription of another occasion when I wrote down his account of the same events in full.  Together, they give Johnny's story of the winter that followed his sixth birthday. 

         People stay at Cecil Lake. 

         Then go to Muskeg where Fort St. John is now. 

         That Prophet, Kayan, came over there.

         Jebis [Old Man Davis] too - Asah Montney -

         all those big old-timers. 

         In the morning, that Prophet, medicine man, make new song. 

         People dance three days.  That song, talking song. 

         "People move to Heaven," that song. 

         After that, start cold. 

         Everybody went to store at St. John

         and took stuff - blankets, everything. 

         Old Montney went three camps away. 

         Big Charlie was at Charlie Lake. 

         My dad, Asah Billike, Jebis, Jari, took me to Spirit River. 

         We stay winter at prairie this side Hines Creek. 

         Nobody know flu. 

         One morning, Old Jebis - funny song song he sing. 

         Charlie Wolf, Dan Wolf, Tanesun, Aske Kwolan, Wolf's sons,

         stay with my dad. 

         Jebis sing in the morning. 

         What kind of song? 

         He say -

         "Nobody live.  Pretty soon, you hear bad story." 

         He say -

         "Every day, you shoot down the road to chase away the flu." 

         Old Aku knew old people story. 

        He told my dad, "We got lots ammunition.  We go try." 

         Five nights they do that. 

         Old Jebis stood outside tipi and talked -

         "You lucky, you shoot him."

         Pretty soon, Jim Jedeya, Yeklezi boy, and Jack Appaw come. 

         Lamas, whitepeople from Spirit River, had store.     

         Aku went to store with team.  I got one weasel. 

         "What you want?" 

         "Brown sugar." 

         Three night he came back with one big sack brown sugar. 

         Fur good price then. 

         "You get my sugar, Huana [older brother]?  "You carry my sugar?" 

         Sundown - we heard people cry - coming from St. John. 

         Something happen.  Jim, everybody coming.  "What happen?"

         "You see, nobody left." 

         I cry and dance, when I hear that. 

         Then Fairview people came too. 

         Nobody left there too - Alex Moose people. 

         Most people die around Christmas. 

         One camp, someone shot a skunk in the summer. 

         They hung it up to protect them. 

         The whiteman's cure was rum. 

         Other camps - Indians try bear paw, other magic,

         but it didn't help.     

         Men said their power wasn't enough. 

         Some camps, everyone but a few kids died. 

         Old Man Jebis alive. 

         One camp, he found just two kids in camp, just around stove. 

         Everyone else dead.  Indians and whites too. 

         He took those kids on sleigh with him. 

         My dad went to St. John to make grave for Asah Montney. 

         Six days we travel.  I go too.  I walk - little snowshoes. 

         My dad, Charlie Wolf, me, Aske Huane, went. 

         Some relatives left.  

         We make grave for Attachie, Big Charlie, Montney. 

         We got to St. John.  Montney's wife, Katige, we met her. 

         Those people stay there too long. 

         Harvey's sister, Jack Appaw's wife, other woman, Asah. 

         We went up to Montney.  Put good clothes on him. 

         He was still in tree.  About ten people dead there. 

         [they first placed his body in a tree]

         My dad made big spruce box. 

         Montney had big bag full of silver

         and my dad put it in box with him. 

         Prospectors give him silver.  He don't use money at St. John. 

         He just save it.  Atluke and Wolf there too.  They helped. 

         From Charlie Lake, just Charlie Yahey and wife,

         Yeklezi daughter, Peter Attachie, Anachuan, and Sitama.

         [Johnny's wife, Julie] 

         When we got to Charlie Lake graveyard, they just half finished. 

         Some people, ears, nose gone. 

         Mice put house in lungs. 

         You take blankets off old people - mice all run. 

         After we finish, we go back again.  We no get flu. 

         Must be we shoot - that make it O.K.  We go Spirit River. 

Old Jari and seven old people playing cards all dead. 

         Money all around.  My dad take Jari money. 

         Jari old lady die making wood. 

         My dad, Thomas Pouce-Coupe work making lots of graves. 

         Johnny finished telling the story.  For a few moments nobody spoke.  We could hear the large fire crackle, feel its heat on our faces.  Firelight had replaced the sun's light as Johnny spoke.  Then, Japasa himself began to speak quietly in his own language.  He spoke as if he were reaching back into a dream to find the words.  The circle of people moved in closer to listen.  Johnny came over to where we were sitting at the edge of the circle.  He whispered a translation of his father's story for our benefit.  Although Johnny must have known that I would not understand the meaning of what he told me at the time, he also trusted that I would remember and learn from what he said as I developed a deeper understanding of the Indian world.  It must have been important for him that I share this event.  He wanted me to understand enough of what was going on to discover its meaning later in my life.  This is the essence of what Japasa told as I wrote it down from notes I made later in the evening:

         My dad said that when he was a boy, about nine years old,

         he went into the bush alone.

         He was lost from his people.  In the night it rained. 

         He was cold and wet from the rain,

         but in the morning he found himself warm and dry. 

         A pair of silver foxes had come and protected him. 

         After that, the foxes kept him and looked after him. 

         He stayed with them and they protected him. 

         Those foxes had three pups. 

         The male and female foxes brought food for the pups. 

         They brought food for my Dad too. 

         They looked after him as if they were all the same. 

         Those foxes wore clothes like people. 

         My Dad said he could understand their language. 

         He said they taught him a song. 

         Japasa began to sing.  The song seemed to be part of his story.  It must have been the song the foxes gave him.  It must have been one of his medicine songs.  I believe he sang the song to give it away.  He did not want to become "too strong."  He was prepared to follow his dreams toward Yagatunne, the Trail to Heaven.  I did not know, then, that a person could sing his medicine song only when death was near to him or to the listener.  I did not know that the song had power to restore life, or to take it away.  I did not know he was giving up power the foxes gave to him in a time out of time, alone in the bush in the 1890s.  The song fell away and Japasa resumed his narrative.  Johnny continued to whisper a translation:

         My Dad said he stayed out in the bush for twenty days.      

         Ever since that time, foxes have been his friends. 

         Anytime he wanted to, he could set a trap and get foxes. 

         When he lived with the foxes that time, he saw rabbits too. 

         The rabbits were wearing clothes like people. 

         They were packing things on their backs. 

         The first night out in the bush

         he was cold and wet from the rain. 

         In the morning he woke up warm and dry. 

         The wind came to him too. 

         The wind came to him in the form of a person. 

That person said -

"See, you're dry now.  I'm your friend." 

The wind has been his friend ever since. 

He can call the wind.  He can call the rain. 

He can also make them go away. 

One time when I was twelve,

I was with my Dad and some other people

when we got trapped by a forest fire. 

One of our horses got burned and we put the others in a creek. 

My Dad told all the people to look for clouds

even though it hadn't rained for a long time. 

They found a little black cloud and my Dad called it to help us. 

In just about ten minutes, there was thunder and lightning,

and heavy rain that put out the fire. 

We were really wet but we were glad to be saved from that fire. 

My Dad sang for rain to come a couple of days ago. 

He sang for it to come and make him well. 

That rain came right away. 

This morning he called the wind and rain. 

They came to him right away. 

Then he told them to go away. 

He told them he was too old and didn't need them. 

He said it was time to die. 

He told the wind and rain they could leave him now. 

After he had been in the bush twenty days,

he almost forgot about his people. 

Then he remembered them. 

The old people must have been dreaming about him. 

He heard a song. 

         He went toward the song. 

         Every time he got to where the song had been,

         it moved farther away.

         Every time he followed it, he moved a little farther. 

         Finally, by following that song,

         he found his way back to his people. 

         Sometimes the old people used to take a boy

         and put him in a box under the ice. 

He would stay there for ten days, maybe even a month. 

         If he had been a bad boy,

         the ice would freeze over and trap him there. 

         The ice would melt for a good boy. 

         The old people would put holes in the box. 

         Fish could swim in and out of the holes. 

         People could get songs from the fish. 

         One time they left a boy in the box too long, maybe a month. 

         When they pulled the box out of the water

         there was a big fish inside it. 

         "Maybe," he said, "that boy turned into a fish." 

         My dad asked me this morning -

         "Why did you sit up all night? 

         If anything happened to me in the night,

         you would know it in the morning. 

         Then you could put me in a box and throw it in the mud." 

               Talking about the stories of his father's vision quest experiences must have made Johnny think about those of his own childhood.  But unlike Asah, who was letting his powers go, Johnny was not free to tell me about his own empowering experiences directly.  He did tell me, though, that when he was a boy he went out for ten days in the bush alone.  He was tracking a moose to get a song.  He might have caught up with it, he said, but Old Man Davis came out and found him.  That is why he didn't get a song from the moose then.  I think Johnny was telling me that some other time he did get a song from the moose.  A person's animal friend may go away, or even cause harm, if he or she talks too openly about the vision quest experience.  Even Johnny Bullshit is bound by this reality.  Stories of the vision quest are secrets that must be told indirectly. 

               Johnny's thoughts then returned to Asah and to the day's events.  He said that the moose we had seen that morning was trying to come to Asah.  That is why Charlie could not shoot it.  Johnny told me that the moose wanted to come to his dad, but there were too many people around.  It came as close as it could for a moment.  In that moment, we were able to see it.  In that moment, we were able to understand its being there as a sign.  Then the moose returned to its trails in the bush.  Johnny told me about one of the old time Indians who had died in the flu.  That man had been friends with the moose.  After he died, moose always came around his grave in the same way that moose came around salt licks in the bush.  Their tracks circled around the grave.  They circled around it, making a single trail like the one that circles a moose lick.  They circled around making the old man's grave into a place like the one from which he had gotten power many years ago.  Still today, there are always moose around that grave, even though the whitemen have made their farms there. 

               As Japasa finished speaking, I became aware again of the contrast between cold air at my back and a flush of the fire's radiance on my face.  The air was calm and bright with patches of stars shining down between the scattered clouds.  It was good to be here in Japasa's world.  It was good to be among his relatives.  His words were a gift to treasure all my days.  Although I had never heard the story of a vision quest before, I knew already that the old man had certain powers.  His teaching served to integrate separate bits and pieces of information I was already holding in my mind.  His stories made sense in relation to my growing familiarity with the trails and ways of the hunters.  They made sense of what I had seen of the animals.  They made sense of the bull moose I had seen from camp in the morning.  They made sense of the special relationship I knew Japasa had with the wind and rain.  That night our camp slept in peace.  Japasa remained well.  I am sure the dreams that came to people that night gave them strength.  In the morning, people told me they had seen the tracks of foxes all around Japasa's camp.  The foxes, too, had come to say goodby. 

A Week Later

               Around 5:30 there was a disturbance around Asah's tent.  It felt as if a strong wind were sweeping across the entire camp.  It was a wind of alarm, of emotion, of change.  I saw people flying toward Asah's fire like wind-blown leaves.  Their words seemed to be swept away like cries in a storm.  In a moment, most of the people in camp were heaped and drifted against the entrance to the old man's tent.  My fatigue and saddle sores from the day's ride vanished as I joined the wave of people.  When I fetched up alongside the tent, Bella and Jean were already inside rubbing the old man's arms and chest.  Asah was limp and unconsious.  A thin line of saliva fell from his mouth.  This attack was not like the struggle we had seen before.  Someone ran to get Sam, who had just left to see Wes Brown.  Peter came over, and Billy and Liza.  Breath from deep inside the old man's body forced its way up past slackened throat muscles in a hollow rattle I shall never forget.  By the time Sam came there was no sign of breath at all, but he and Bella kept massaging him.  After a few minutes Sam got up and said, "He's finished."  There was no pulse.  His face had relaxed into the unmistakable mask of death. 

               A stillness came over us, then a gentle rain of tears.  For a few minutes we sat and watched in silence.  I thought to myself, how near and how far a moment's edge divides one time of life from another.  In this case, the moments on either side of Japasa's last breath divided different eras in the life of an entire culture.  I could hear Bella, Rosie, and Julie Chipesia crying.  For a few minutes more, the rest of us sat and watched.  In those few moments of repose, each of us turned toward the inner spark of self that lives and dies.  When our minds finally accepted that this would be the last attack, Bella and Billy pulled back the tent so that Japasa lay out in the open.  It seemed important that Asah should be where the the winds could touch his body from Heaven.  Then Bella and Billy, with help from Rosie and Julie and Liza, picked him up on the mattress and turned him around 180 degrees.  They pulled the tent back farther to make a sort of backdrop.  Jean got a mosquito bar and covered him with it. 

               The women brought out the clean set of clothes he had been keeping to be buried in.  Bella and Rosie washed their hands.  Then Bella washed the old man's face.  Liza told me to help Billy change his underclothes.  Bella cut off his shirt with scissors.  We put on new long underwear after taking off his pants and underwear under the blankets.  Someone brought the bottle of "holy water," yellow liquid in a square plain glass bottle wrapped in a paper bag.   Liza threw it into the bush.  Some of his personal effects, a cup and a spoon, were also thrown away. 

               Julie took his old clothes away after we got them off.  She was crying hardest, partly because he had asked to see Mary Jean, who was at the reserve.  She took $10 from his wallet and gave it to Daryll to go get Johnny.  Alex Moose arrived and helped Billy wash his feet and put on a pair of Sam's new socks.  Finally, they placed a new pair of moccasins on his feet.  Asah had been saving them to be buried in.  He wanted to look his best as he began to travel Yagatunne, the Trail to Heaven.  The moccasins he brought with him were special.  They had been made by Mary Tachie, a young woman who had died in an accident the year before.  They were beaded with an unusual design of triangles that circled around the upper panel and pointed inward toward a common center.  New western style pants and an old fashioned white shirt without a collar, completed his dress.  His mattress was moved back against the end of the tent, a clean sheet laid on it, and the mosquito bar replaced.  Liza brought a rosary and they put it on his wrist.  They put on his belt.  Sam, who'd been away during the dressing, asked what they'd put on him.  When they told him what they had done, he was satisfied.

               In an hour all these arrangements were completed.  The activity had given us something to do, while the fact of Japasa's death became real to us.  When the laying out was completed, people sat down and watched over him, women on the right and men on the left, after the fashion of their seating during Mass in the little mission church at the edge of the reserve.  Johnny Chipesia, George, and Willy arrived unexpectedly, shortly after he'd been laid out.  Johnny had come down to visit after work and didn't know Asah was dead.  He was told, looked under the mosquito bar at his father, and began to cry, stroking the old man's hair.  Then he walked away to cry by himself.  We went with Sam and Jean to the tipi for supper.  Then Sam said he'd go over and keep Johnny company.  Later we went over and joined the watch, which lasted all night.  People spoke softly.  There were also long moments when the only sound was the fire, the river, a gentle breeze, and the distant rumble of trucks on the highway. 

               As our night vigil moved to the dawn of another day, I thought about the moccasins the boy who knew foxes would be wearing on the Trail to Heaven.  They were among the last works of Mary Tachie, a young woman who had died the year before at an age Japasa would have been during the flu that killed so many of his people.  She would be there to meet him.  After her death, Japasa dreamed of the song she followed to Heaven.  Now, she would be sending a song down for him to follow.  I remembered the story of Japasa's return to camp from his vision quest:

                 He almost forgot about his people. 

                 Then he remembered them. 

                 The old people must have been dreaming about him. 

                 He heard a song. 

                 He went toward the song. 

                 Every time he got to where the song had been,

                 it moved farther away. 

                 Every time he followed it, he moved a little farther. 

                 Finally, by following that song,

                 he found his way back to his people. 

     Japasa would be following Yagatunne, a trail of song linking Heaven and earth.  He would be wearing Mary Tachie's beautiful beaded moccasins.  He would be following her song and the songs of all the people who used to come together in the place the old people call, "Where Happiness Dwells."