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T’seku Dawedah (Woman Sitting Up There)
We’re very fortunate to publish this excerpt from Antoine Bear Rock Mountain’s From Bear Rock Mountain: The Life and Times of a Residential School Survivor (Brindle & Glass/Touchwood), this Truth and Reconciliation Day. In the excerpt, he talks about visiting T’seku Dawedah, a sacred site where he went as a youth to reconnect with his Dene culture.
T’seku Dawedah (Woman Sitting Up There)
Making Raidi Sho, Grandmother sits in watery splendour, watching over our Peoples.It’s a place people in the North go to every year for a sacred pilgrimage: Desnedhe Che, a traditional caribou crossing near Fort Reliance. It is across the lake from Somba K’e, on the east arm of Tu Nedhe.Many years ago, there was an old man of over eighty winters, from the Dene Peoples of Lutsel K’e. He said that his time of dying was getting near, but that he wanted to do something before he passed on to Not’sin Nene (the Spirit World). He told his relatives that when he was just a child, there was an old woman in camp who was very kind to him.But one day she was refused a special dish of beaver blood soup, and she got angry, saying, “I don’t want to live with people who do not want to share with an elder. I will leave here.”The rest of the People did not take her seriously and said that no one could survive on the land in the dead of winter anyway.One day she was gone.They couldn’t do much about it and, over the winter, simply forgot her—until the old man told his people that he wanted to find out whatever had happened to this kindly old lady. He put his birch bark canoe in the water and paddled for quite some time, going north and east toward the forbidding Barren Lands, finally making it to the place they had camped at so many years before.There he sat, looking around at the shore, thinking, Where would anyone go and still live from here, on the very edge of these forsaken Barren Lands? Certainly not on the lake itself. There would have been too many wolves that cold winter. And certainly not out in the Barren Lands themselves. Again, too many dangers, and no trees for firewood.He finally decided that the best place for her to have gone would be up the Lockhart River, which drains into the east arm of the Tu Nedhe.He beached his canoe and walked along the shore of the winding river, up, up for about thirty kilometres. He stopped on a high ridge overlooking a set of waterfalls he had never seen before.Behold! It looked just like a commanding woman sitting down, with the cascading waterfall itself being her dress. Using his sacred medicine, he turned himself into a bumblebee. Flying all around, he finally found a way into the falling wall of water. He was now in a huge dark cave and very afraid. Trembling, he heard out of the dark the echoing of a strong woman’s voice:“Dene, what are you doing here?”“It’s okay,” he replied, “I was just leaving anyway—”“Oh, I know who you are! My little friend from so, so long ago. Here, let me help you.”She then told him of the troubles to come to their People with the modern world and that they could come to use her sacred holy water to help them.The old man had left at the very end of his life and returned a young man again of twenty years. This was T’seku Dawedah’s gift to him.As Dene youth, these were the kinds of places that now attracted us to help relearn our own culture.In the early 1990s, at the first of many ceremonies with the Native American Church, we spent ten days on a spiritual pilgrimage to Desnedhe Che, where the caribou come out to the big lake and return in the spring, about thirty kilometres south of T’seku Dawedah (Woman Sitting Up There).A small group of our Navajo Dineh relatives were invited to visit the sacred place, including a Roadman of the Native American Church, Hanson Ashley, and his wife, another Roadman, Peter Chee, and Lorenzo Max, Joe Bedonie, Garrison Yazzie, Jerry and Hatathlie, and a White man named Sky.After setting up a teepee for the Education Meeting, Hanson Ashley, as the Roadman, determined that we began at sundown. As hunters, we were more used to sitting up at night in summer, waiting for a beaver to surface, so everything about this was new to us. So was the peyote, which I actually had before, but not as a part of spiritual cleansing. When it came to midnight, the Roadman asked if anyone had any questions, or just something to say.Not ever to be one to sit back and stay quiet, I mentioned feeling bad about my grandparents on my mother’s side who had passed away recently, along with one of my sisters.“Well, whether you know it or not, they are right there in front of you,” answered Hanson. “They are right in the fire there, keeping you warm, keeping you company… and if you want, I can put some cedar in there for you, for the way you are feeling about them.”Of course, I wanted this, but I was not prepared for the flood of emotion that came with it, as, sobbing, I suddenly realized that, yes, they had been with me in my grief all along.I made a mental note to find out more about this. Excerpt from From Bear Rock Mountain by Antoine Mountain, copyright © 2019 by Antoine Mountain. Reprinted with permission of TouchWood Editions.
* * *Antoine Bear Rock Mountain has received many awards for his art, community activism, and athletic achievement — including the NWT Premier’s Award, the Queen’s Jubilee Commemorative Medal, the Tom Longboat Award — and was recently inducted in the NWT Sport Hall of Fame. Mountain is currently completing a PhD in Indigenous Studies at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario but will always call Radelie Koe (Fort Good Hope), Northwest Territories home. Find out more at amountainarts.com.