tapasîwin ᑕᐸᓰᐃᐧᐣ flight The first time my father saw an airplane, he thought it must be an angel. He was five years old, standing outside his family's cabin deep in the bush, on Pukatawagan First Nation in northern Manitoba. It was before he attended residential school, but Catholicism was already very present in the community and he had heard about angels from the priest who lived on the rez. That day, he heard a strange noise and looked up. He saw a white cross flying through the sky, and he thought: This must be an angel, because what else could it be? He told me that story many years later. We were at the St. Regis Hotel in Winnipeg, and he was drunk out of his tree. It was one of the half-dozen times I ever spent with him. Even though I was only seven at the time, hearing the story triggered something inside me. I now know that the unsettled feeling I had was the sudden understanding that I'm only one generation away from living in the bush and being of the land. In only one lifetime, everything had changed. My father, Peter Sinclair Sr., was a Cree bushman, and a miner, and he worked for the railroad. He was also an advisor to political leaders, and a writer, and a bureaucrat. He was from Pukatawagan First Nation, the easternmost First Nation in our territory, Treaty 6, which spans Saskatchewan and into Alberta. My family is spread out over a vast region, from Pelican Narrows to Sandy Bay, a Métis settlement in northern Saskatchewan, through South Indian Lake and Nelson House, Manitoba, where my mother's father comes from, with Pukatawagan right in the middle of it all. These are all the territories of the Swampy Cree people, or the Rocky Cree as we call ourselves. My father was actually half Cree. His father, Keno, born Adalbert du Bois de Vroylande, was a full-blooded Belgian immigrant who was a World War II fighter pilot and a war hero. My grandfather became disillusioned with his aristocratic life and jumped on a steamship after the war. He went to Hudson Bay, got on a dogsled, and went into the bush. He met a woman who became his wife, and they created my father. My grandfather was famous in our community of Pukatawagan. He and my grandmother owned and operated a general store. He had a Clydesdale horse way up in northern Manitoba, and he built a root cellar so he could have vegetables in the wintertime. That just blew all the Indians away. My father drank himself to death at the age of fifty-eight. I don't know why he drank, but the limited stories he told me about himself give a glimpse: watching his father die of a heart attack in their general store, being raped by a nun throughout his whole time in residential school. The last time I saw my father was at the Seven Oaks General Hospital in Winnipeg. He still had jet-black hair and big, bushy black eyebrows, sort of a kind look, and a bit of a crooked smile. But he was all swollen and yellow with jaundice. The late stages of cirrhosis had kicked in. The last thing he said to me was "Ah, Clayton, always so serious. I'm sorry I haven't been a good dad. Take care of your kids. Make some money so that when you're dead, they'll have something." I said, "OK, I'll do that, Dad," and I left. I was twenty-six years old. A couple of weeks later, I flew back to Winnipeg to bury him. As I sat on the plane, I thought back to my father's memory of the first plane he saw and here I was sitting in one of those white crosses in the sky on my way to bury him. After the funeral, I drove with the procession to The Pas for the second funeral, with my dad's body in a coffin in the back of a pickup leading the way. I slept beside his body at the funeral parlour in Opaskwayak Cree Nation, and then my siblings brought him to our trapline for his third and final funeral service, burying him beside our grandmother. His spirit sat with me for the drive back to Winnipeg, the whole way down Highway 6, and we laughed about all the things we did not get to work out while he was still alive. I didn't really know my dad, but I was always thankful to him for giving me life. I never hated him for being a drunk and for not achieving his potential. He had been a very handsome man, intelligent and articulate. People I've talked to from his generation have told me that they thought he was going to be the one to lead our people. From my father, I have eleven brothers and six sisters, from Alaska to New York and all the way to Brazil. I know a few of them and we all have different moms. All of my dad's children took his death differently--some got angry, some didn't come to the funerals, some were so drunk they were barely there. Some fought over my dad's earthly possessions, and he didn't have much. The only thing I inherited from my father was the sportscoat he had on when he was admitted into the hospital before he died. It still had his blood all over the front of it from him puking it up. What I really wanted was photos--I only have one or two of my dad, and he was pretty hammered in them. I don't have any pictures of him looking dignified. My dad had an eye for my mom, though he was much older than her. He first met her in 1976, when my mom was about fifteen and going to high school in Thompson, way up in northern Manitoba. At the time, my father was working as an agent for the federal Ministry of Indian Affairs. He was one of the only Indian Indian agents. On one of his trips to Thompson, he ran into my mom and he said to her, "Hey Gail, I really like you. I would like to spend some time with you." That night he took her on a date to the Thompson Inn, a notorious Indian bar. He and my mom snagged on their first date. My mom became pregnant with me. She didn't tell him. The social worker at Student Services at the Indian Affairs office in Thompson told my mom that she had to get an abortion. But my mom, like all my aunties, had gone to a Catholic residential school, so she thought she'd go to hell if she had an abortion. The social worker said, "Well, you're going to have a really hard time if you stay here in the north and have a baby." She put my mom on an airplane to Winnipeg. My mom was all alone, with no friends or family, and over eight hundred kilometres from home. The social workers in Winnipeg managed to get her a place at Villa Rosa, a home for unwed mothers, run by nuns. She stayed there until the morning of July 17, 1977, when she thought she had to go to the washroom and one of her girlfriends said, "Maybe you should go to the hospital." The hospital was one block over, so she walked there. I was born at 8:42 that morning in a hospital called Misericordia, in the West Broadway neighbourhood of Winnipeg. My mother is also Cree. Her mom came from Pukatawagan, and her dad is from Southend, Saskatchewan. My mother was born in The Pas, in northern Manitoba. She lived a trapping lifestyle in the bush until the RCMP took her from her family and forced her to attend the Guy Hill Indian Residential School. She was only six. She stayed there until grade 10. My mother moved to Thompson to finish her high school at the Indian day school they had there. It was at that day school that she met my dad. So she pretty much went from residential school to the maternity ward. But my mother left our reserve at sixteen. She knew that Winnipeg could offer her more than just decent healthcare. She wanted to get an education. She wanted to give her child more choices than she had. If she was going to raise a kid alone, Winnipeg was the place to do it. There were more services available and more education and work options in Winnipeg than back home on the rez. And people weren't trying to rape you or shoot you, which was a common thing in Puk back in the 1970s, which is why they called it Dodge City. It had the highest murder rate per capita in North America for a decade. She was vulnerable there. To my mom, going to the city was the safest thing for a pregnant teenager to do. She lived a paradox I have spent years trying to understand. She had to leave her people to be safe. Leaving the land is the source of so many of our problems, so how could it also be the solution? She survived residential school only to seek refuge at a hospital founded by nuns. These facts have not been easy for me to reconcile. Still, my mother did not turn her back on the land. My childhood was like that of many other Indigenous youth in this country called Canada--it was very urban. But when I was a young child, I would spend my summers in the north on our family's trapline in Jetait, which is at Mile 121 of the train line between Pukatawagan Cree Nation and Lynn Lake. A trapline is the land Indians are entitled to occupy under the Indian Act. Each trapper is allowed to hunt, fish, and trap on a parcel of land, and the head of the family receives a land occupancy permit, which is passed down through inheritance. So a trapline is a complicated thing too. It is part of an Indian's relationship with the federal government. But it is also a crucial part of their relationship with their family. And it is a life-giving relationship with the land. Often, Mooshum Edward would take all the kids to walk his trapline. We would accompany him as he checked his rabbit snares. Ours is a land of wetlands and swamps that open up onto beautiful rivers and the rocky shorelines of lakes. It is a world of secrets, and of shadows pierced by shafts of sunlight and blue sky, of the earthy smell of sphagnum and the lemony aroma of spruce. We loved making our way along the paths and among the thickets. Grandpa's snares would frequently catch animals he hadn't intended--a lot of squirrels and chipmunks, that sort of thing. We kids loved it. We'd get these stiff squirrels on a piece of copper wire and we'd walk behind my grandpa making the squirrels talk: "Hi, Larry, how you doing?" "Oh not too bad, Bob." "Going to the store today?" We'd make the squirrels fight. Make them fly. Kids are like that. On our trapline, I got to witness the abundance of our land and the incredible love that my great-grandmother and great-grandfather had, not just for me but for so many children whom they would take from the reserve every summer to come live out in the bush and fish and pick berries. A lot of kids who had problems or came from dysfunctional homes would stay with my great-grandparents, who would take care of them, and feed them, and give them the love they needed. Excerpted from Life in the City of Dirty Water: A Memoir of Healing by Clayton Thomas-Muller All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.