Dogs chase trail bikes and summer dark young Metis vault into the boxes of pickups moving away from the BIGWAY Superette while the teens pack big American cars to pour into the High Prairie Hotel chasing the hook of beer and broads and brawls and a black-shirted band booming with authority through the best hurtin music and honky raunch this side of Slave Lake. Here in Grouard, Alberta, on this particular Friday, at dusk.
The best art student the vocational college in this forest-frozen hamlet ever saw, the one who drew the chiefs and warriors and wrinkled old Athapaskan women for the white walls before ‘going Indian’ after a big drunk-up and wrecking the museum here, where his people’s artifacts hang and where he once sat, reverent, drawing for hours... the best sits now in the pen at St. Albert, trying to talk the guards into getting him maybe some paper? and pencils? but they don’t believe he’s an artist, just another Indian trying to get them to run and fetch and if he’s such a good drawer what’s he got to show for it?
In the college cafeteria, the Metis staff pay little mind to the large black-and-white drawings they work under, more concerned with molding the new students to their regimen of breakfast 7:30, lunch 11:30, dinner 5:00 and the recitation of meal ticket numbers and the importance of scraping your plate before sending it down the conveyor belt back to them. ‘What number belongs to this tray?’ Marie bellows over the din but the lazy culprit has stolen away.
The TV in the lounge is tied to a satellite dish and stays on 24 hours a day on the 24 hour a day movie station from Chicago and when the old caretaker is asked if she’s ever seen the ocean she answers straight-away, ‘no need to, I seen it on TV.’
Land is slave to sky, under its towering muscle, its flex of blue and black, rippling bulging cloud ’neath clear blue lid of night down on the flat flooded barrens where river winds its slow snaking way to lake, where pelicans swoop and soar, where grasses grab for air: add a canoe and it could be 1900, it could be Bishop Grouard bringing an Indian orphan to his mission on the rise to fill his mouth with righteous hunger, give him a taste of salvation and English and Latin and books, make good the savage.
Struggling up the bank, the sharp and scrambling bank, we meet the dead, the common dead first then, on higher ground, close to the church itself, the mowed and fenced graveyard of the priests graveyard with the Bishop’s monument rising above us all.
Back down the rise a recent grave sports plastic flowers under a sheet of clear poly held down by a ring of rusting automobile wheels and marked by the tin stake of the High Prairie funeral home.
Babies babies babies their small and soft boned bodies inside small white picket fences, innocent, unnamed, babies populate the cemetery. And a trench three feet deep through the middle draws the run-off.
We joke about watching for six-foot holes but don’t laugh very long. And don’t question, no one wants to talk. We are warned not to go out alone at night. That is all. No reason. ‘It’s just not good.’ The cafeteria janitor bounces at the HP Hotel, takes us there one night where he is proud to protect us from Emma, her cigarette-mooching, grabs her by the worn collar of her scruffy overcoat and lifts her wrinkled little body out the side door, while at the back, behind the bar, the young — too young to get in — watch with big eyes and sometimes wave to attract the attention of parents, wanting a dollar to play the video games down the street or buy a bag of chips, needing keys to the trunk, a blanket from it to sleep in.
These people call this land the Slave.