By Sadie-Phoenix Lavoie
I remember the early days when my older brothers would come home with a freshly snared wabos. I grew up in the reserve, so seeing dead animals was a normal way of living. I was not saddened because rabbits were adorable, instead I was deeply intrigued and wildly curious what they planned on doing it with it once it was snared. They would go into the laundry room and sit on an old dingy pail to begin the process of skinning the animal. I would watch between the slight crack in the door while I sat in the hallway. I didn’t want them to be distracted by my attentiveness out of fear that I would startle them and they might slip and slice themselves with their sharp knife. I had never before seen the red stringy muscles underneath the soft white fur. I was amazed at how fast they were able to skin the animal by simply pulling the fur once they got past the arms and head until they reached the long feet where they would cut around and remove the skin entirely from the now skinless carcass. One by one they would repeat this process. They would feed the carcass to our rez dogs or else freeze them to later be given to whomever craved rabbit.
Many years since passed. Intergenerational trauma ensued from family dysfunction, and I had already experienced many forms of abuse and oppression at the hands of men and the state. I seldomly spoken with my father in the years after my parents separated when I was 11. I had felt neglected from him after I decided to leave the reserve to stay with my mother in Winnipeg. My mother then shared with me horrible stories of her time with my father, which only in turn made me feel as though that he didn’t love me too.
I was homeless in Winnipeg shortly after my 18th birthday, which was in the cold Fall of late October. Snow had already deeply covered the lands and waters of the prairies. I was left with the only option but to hitchhike back to my true home of Sagkeeng, where I knew my Dad still lived along with my four brothers. I felt defeated since I could not survive without guidance or support from my family. My Mother always taught me to be independent and to not rely on her to solve my problems. “Tough love” was a normal way of being raised where I come from. This was clearly a product of the residential schools system, but I was still unaware of that history at this point in my life. This resulted in feeling I was unworthy of being taught anything about where I come from or that I wasn’t smart enough to figure it out.
By the time I made it to Sagkeeng, my father recognized that I was very underweight and that I barely spoke. We didn’t really communicate a whole lot with each other most of my life so I was sorta used to the silence when I was at his place. I also grew up being very intimidated by my father because of his level of strictness and the way he disciplined us whenever we disobeyed. My Dad didn’t seem to prye about why I came back but sensed that it was too much to talk about at this point. He set down the rules and that was that.
It didn’t take long before I noticed my father’s daily routine. 6am wake up, coffee, leave for work, come back at 5pm, supper, leave somewhere, come back at 11pm, go downstairs into the laundry room. I began to get curious as to why he immediately went downstairs in the laundry room and stay down there for at least an hour. My curiosity intensified each day.
One day I decided to silently walk down stairs and see what he was up to. I would open the door just slightly enough to see where he was. He was sitting in the corner on an old dingy pail with his back to me. But I still couldn’t see what he was doing. I did this every night hoping I could get a better look until one day my dad says “You might as well come inside” and ushers towards another pail to come sit next to him. Slowly, I walk towards him not realising this would be the start of our healing as father and daughter.
To my amazement I see a few skinless muskrats on his left, a long thin board with an inside-out stretched muskrat pelt over it between his legs as he stretched it and then nailed it tight. I looked around and saw many pelts just like this on his right side. Pressed against the far wall were dozens of beaver pelts, coyote pelts and even wolf pelts already stretched and dried. I was in utter awe. We both sat in silence as I watched him move his hands. An hour goes by and he says it’s time for bed.
Every day, I would get excited for when my father would come home at 11pm like clockwork. I could hear his truck roll up and I would stop whatever I was doing. As soon as he came inside and went straight downstairs to the laundry room, I too would rush downstairs, sometimes even going down two steps at a time. Over time I would begin to ask him a question here and there, attentively watching his hands. He showed me many things. He taught me how to set up a snare, how to skin each of the different types of animals and even giving me the chance to try it out myself. He showed me all the tricks of the trade. He explained to me the fur market, why it was slowly becoming a dying trade but that it was important to know these things in case we need to rely on ourselves again. I soaked up every teaching, each and every second of it.
Eventually, I realised that I was becoming more relaxed around my father which I used to think would be impossible. I didn’t feel sad like I used to. We were actually bonding. Some days we would spend the evenings watching trapping and hunting videos. He would explain to me all the ways to hide our human scents, including how to trick wolves. My father had a huge fascination with wolves and took huge pride in being able to snare them because of their level of human detection. Wolves were becoming an issue in town so folks would ask him to help them out. He would show me books he read about them and things he learned over the years. Sometimes he would even other show me books he also liked to read, which usually was about sasquatch aka Sabe.
This went on for months until the Spring. I was at a better place with my mental health that I was ready to go back to Winnipeg to attend University and move into my own place as an adult. I was excited about going to school to learn Indigenous Studies but deep down I knew I was going to really miss my father and our times we spent together. I left with a greater appreciation for my father and knew that I would forever hold those memories with me and that someday I would pass them on to my future children. I will tell them these stories about their grandfather and how he taught me to appreciate these animals and the land for what it provides to us Anishinaabek.
Living in Winnipeg, now 26 years old, I still yearn for the feeling of being home and sitting next to my dad as I watch him work his magic. Most of my friends don’t have this experience, to which I feel the weight of this privilege I carry. Knowledge of the land and respect for animals is something I hear so many Indigenous people preach about, however acquiring this knowledge takes lots of patience, observation, attentiveness to detail, and access to the land. Teachings I value because of my father. Thus, I use these teachings to guide the advocacy work I do with Wa Ni Ska Tan: An Alliance of Hydro Impacted Communities, and to give respect to all the traplines in Manitoba for all that it offers to our people in healing ourselves and connecting with the lands and animals.
-Two Spirit Dreamer