My search for my great-grandmother, a native American medicine woman, takes me to the north woods of Canada.
I have always been the family historian, researching genealogy, recording the stories of elders, and tracking births and deaths. I had been successful with my father’s side of the family, documenting our history back to the 1500’s in England and Scotland.
My mother’s side was another matter. There was a story told that her grandmother had been a native American medicine woman before she married a Hudson Bay man, moved to Saskatchewan, and founded the town of Rocanville. They said that she practiced hands on healing and herbal medicine, delivered babies, treated wounds, and set fractures. Known as “Granny”, she was the only midwife for miles around.
In 1994, my seventy-three year old mother found a tin-type picture of her grandmother and expressed a desire to learn about her heritage. There was very little to go on. We knew that her Christian name was Clara Crate and she’d married a Hudson Bay man named Auguste Rocan Bastien.
I sent out letters of inquiry to research societies, churches, and government agencies in Canada. We were able to find information on Auguste in the Hudson Bay profiles, but nothing on Clara. The town of Rocanville acknowledged that she had lived there, was buried there, and had been an important part of the town. But they claimed that no one asked about her tribe because it wasn’t proper.
Early in 1995, my uncle offered me some engineering diaries that his father James (Clara’s son) had kept after he moved his family from Canada to Niagara Falls. They were faded texts with crumbling covers, written partly in French and partly in English. Drawing on my high school French skills, I spent months translating these work diaries, which contained personal information as well.
Towards the very end of the last book, I translated an entry that was to be a clue to finding Clara.
“Sister Eveline’s 65th birthday. Oh how I think of when we were little tots. Don’t seem so long ago but what changes since. Our mode of travel from Norway House northern Manitoba was by York Boats, 8 oared and helmsman. There were 5 of these boats about 6 tons each fitted for the Hudson Bay Company. We went from Norway House to Fort Carlton on the Saskatchewan River in the year 1875. I believe it took us 4 weeks to make the trip. I was baptized at Pas (or Ross) Mission, close to Norway House.”
I studied a tribal map of Canada with great expectation. There was a reservation at Norway House and the tribe was the Woodland Cree.
An inner voice told me loud and clear “YES, YOU ARE CREE.”
I switched my focus from Saskatchewan to Manitoba and wrote to the pastor of the church at Norway House. We sent him our information and hoped to get a speedy reply. But months went by without a word.
My inner voice told me to travel to Saskatchewan and visit the reservation in Manitoba. Logic told me to wait until we had more information; but the voice was persistent and won out.
I began the process of booking a trip. It was easy to get transportation and accommodations in Saskatchewan but getting to the reservation was another matter.
I wanted to rent a truck in Winnipeg and drive north to the reservation at Norway House, but there were no real roads going up there. A man at Travel Canada told me that the roads were dotted lines on the map, which meant that they were dirt roads at best. Once we left Winnipeg to travel around the lake, there would be no place to refuel, buy food or water, sleep, or pee along the way. Not real friendly for me and a seventy-three year old woman. In closing, he said that they’d been fighting forest fires up there but that they would probably be out in a week.
Forest fires? I asked the logical question. Was there any other way to get there? I was told that Perimeter Airlines flew out of a small airfield in Winnipeg.
Later that day, I sat across from a confused AAA agent, insisting that this airline existed. Not referenced in any books or computers, she called dozens of contacts at Winnipeg airport before anyone would acknowledge it.
With phone number in hand, she called Perimeter Airlines for reservations. The girl on the other end said just bring cash, we will get you on. When the agent demanded a reservation number, the girl gave her the name ‘Gertrude’.
We had no set itinerary, yet my inner voice was insisting that we go. It was telling me that, “ALL YOU SHALL NEED WILL BE PROVIDED.”
It was two days before the trip and we still had no definite plans. Then a miracle occurred. I received a phone call from a historian in Winnipeg, who said that a letter I wrote to the pastor at Norway House had been sent to him. Ray Beaumont had our entire history for us in written form. There was so much information on Clara’s mother Sarah Nekahwiw that they’d made a school project about her. The school district had always wondered where the medicine woman, Clara, had gone and who her descendants were. He was eager to talk to us.
We juggled our trip so that we could meet with him for an entire day before we left for Norway House. Two days later, my mother and I flew out of Toronto for Regina, Saskatchewan. Traversing that province, the ground appeared below us like a patchwork quilt, blanketed with squares of bright green canola and purple-blue flax, and adorned with miniature oil wells.
In Regina, we visited a local museum and spent time at a library researching birth and death records on microfiche. Then we got some sleep and the next morning headed east across a desolate prairie to the town that her grandparents founded.
Downtown Rocanville had been a hub along the Canadian Pacific Railway in years past, but no more. What remained was a wide street with tiny stores, a post office, a bar, and a dreary-looking Chinese restaurant. A sign claimed that the population was 918, but even that looked outdated. The townspeople were nice and showed us the cemetery where Clara and her husband were buried. Tombstones claimed that many had been lost in the 1916-1917 world flu epidemics. We toured a little museum where my mother saw a chair that her grandfather had made.
Such a tiny community! We left that place thinking that if we ever needed to be in the Federal Witness Protection Program, here was a place that no one would ever find us.
We stayed the night in a motel and in the morning we were off for Manitoba!
In Winnipeg, we spent the day with the historian, who provided us with a complete family tree from my great-grandmother back five generations. We received information on the Cree syllabic language, the Hudson Bay settlement, and Clara’s mother Sarah. We learned about her marriage, her children, what jobs she held, ceremonies she attended, and what she bought and sold. We found out why we had trouble locating information on Clara Crate. She had been born Clara St Germain. When her father died, her mother remarried a man named Crate and Clara took his last name.
The historian asked us if we had a guide once we got to Norway House. We told him that we weren’t sure what we were going to do once we got there. He made a call and arranged for us to have a guide meet us when we arrived.
He also offered to connect us with a distant cousin of ours, a full-blooded Cree living in Winnipeg. When we returned to the hotel, our cousin Ken called and asked if he could come over to meet us, so we gave him our room number. In the meantime, we went down to the lobby to have coffee.
Fifteen minutes later, a man came into the hotel, looked us over, and walked to my mother. He touched her cheek tenderly with the back of his hand and held it there. It was Ken.
He said “You don’t even have to tell me who you are. I know who you are. You look just like my grandmother.”
We spent an evening with him looking over the genealogy, discovering how we were related, and talking about Norway House.
Early the next morning, we arrived at a small airport and boarded a Perimeter flight for Norway House. The aircraft was so tiny that you had to stoop to enter it and keep your head low as you walked the narrow aisle. We were separated from the cockpit by a drape and the pilots looked like they were nineteen years old. We sat down and looked around. The plane carried ten people, all native Americans, who promptly put earplugs in their ears. I remember having a ridiculous thought that we wouldn’t get breakfast on this flight.
The noise level was deafening and without earplugs you could hear the pilots fighting over the gauge alarms going off. This was quite an unnerving feeling as we were flying over the waters of Lake Winnipeg. Because of a lightning storm, we were diverted to Cross Lake where we landed hard on a dirt runway.
The pilots collected money from a rider and we waited an hour for the weather to break. Then it cleared and we continued on to Norway House, where we landed on a rough gravel road. Disembarking the plane, we learned that the airport terminal was a 20x40 deserted shack with a telephone inside.
I called our hotel and said, “This is Ms. Treat. My mother and I are expected as guests. Will you send a shuttle to the airport to pick us up?”
This evidently was not something anyone had asked for before, as it caused a stir on the other end of the phone. They agreed to send someone and fifteen minutes later we noticed a vehicle approaching in a cloud of dust. Soon, an old man covered with plaster arrived in a beat up pick up truck. Without a word, he tossed our bags into the back of the truck, nodded, and helped us up onto the bench seat.
The hotel turned out to be the local greasy spoon with a couple of rooms above it, vintage 1950’s with dark furniture and chenille bedspreads. We were informed that for the most part only Hydro engineers stayed there. My mother and I settled into our room and went down to the restaurant.
While we were having a late breakfast, a man appeared at our table, who stood silently for what seemed like five minutes. My inner voice was telling me to “BE STILL AND LISTEN”.
At last he spoke, “I am Byron and I will be your guide.”
Byron drove us around the reserve, then to the old Hudson Bay cemetery, where Sarah Nekahwiw was buried. He introduced us to his people and showed us their community center.
Norway House was beautiful! We saw shimmering lakes and fast-moving rivers, with little islands in the middle of them. Byron then took us to Rossville, where we went to the church on the point and met the Reverend John Crate. If you ever needed a beautiful setting to believe in God, this was the place.
Our guide took us to see the York boats up close and a team of women rowing one in preparation for York Boat Days. What more could we want from a genealogy trip? We thanked him and returned to our hotel with a sense of satisfaction. Our trip seemed to be over.
The plane was scheduled to leave the next day at 4:45pm. At this point we didn’t expect anything else to happen. The next morning, we were having breakfast in the restaurant.
Byron appeared, sat at our table, and lowered his head. He sighed and said that this is a very small place. Everyone wanted to know about the two new women and what their story is. The tribal council wanted to meet with us.
First he took us to the school, where he gave us books on the Cree and videos of the history of Norway House. Then Byron took us to the longhouse to meet the elders. More modern than I expected, we sat around a conference table and listened to the sounds of a fax machine.
I had photocopied my family tree and gave each man a copy. Talk was friendly and we soon found that we were related to three of the men on the council.
My mother spoke at length about her father’s diary so we gave them a copy as well. When she told them about James’ account of his trip on a York boat, they presented us with a three foot replica of the boat to take back with us. I wondered how I would get it on the plane.
At last we stood. The elders offered prayers about ancestors and family and held a ceremony to accept their lost sisters back into the tribe.
My inner voice came forth loud and clear “YES GRANDDAUGHTER, YOU ARE CREE”.
My great-grandmother followed me back that day. From that time forward I felt unafraid to touch others who needed healing or reassurance. I began to intuitively know about plants and to practice herbal medicine on myself and family members. I sought out a local tribe, participated in rituals and drumming circles, and studied alternative therapies.
Many years have passed. My mother is in her twilight years and reminisces about the trip where we discovered her grandmother.
“Granny” has been a dear companion to me, helping me to heal myself and others, and protecting me from those who would do me harm.
It was a worthwhile trip, a grand awakening, and I will always be grateful for her love.