The last keepers of the fire

           As a little boy, my grandfather used to take me on fishing trips down the Kalamazoo River. He had made the canoe for my grandmother as a wedding gift, but she had left this earth when I was only three years old. My grandfather said he felt her presence strongest on the river in that canoe, he said this was my time with my “grandparents”. My grandfather would plunge his paddle on the left side of the canoe, then the right, and I would turn around to watch the ripples behind us as we went sped forward steadily. Sometimes, at night we slept in the canoe, for the river was gentle. I would breathe with the rhythm of our boat rocking back and forth; pretending to sleep while my grandfather sang low and sweet the songs of our people.

            After grandfather would fall asleep, I opened my eyes and listened. I could feel the stars, the water, the wind, the animals on either side of the bank, the birds of the air, as if they were within me, part of me. One. My world back then was much smaller, much simpler than the world I know today. I was raised in the Council of the Three Fires, our tribe Potawatomi, and the Ojibwe, and Ottawa tribes. Together the three tribes make up the “keepers of the fire.” We had a fire, which we tended and fueled for it was believed that the day the fire went out the world would end. I knew there were other tribes beyond our lands, for I heard stories of great conflict and war amongst the others. I never suspected there were lands across the great waters, or that the people who belonged there would come here.

My grandfather was not chief, but members of all three tribes regularly sought him out for his wisdom. I believe it was his passion, to guide others down the right path. He had been a warrior when he and my grandmother were first married, but he had refused to kill even our enemies, the northern Iroquis tribes, and was wounded many times as a result of his mercy. Some of our tribe saw this “mercy” as a weakness, ones who believed a warrior who wouldn’t kill was not a warrior at all. My grandfather said in order to kill an enemy; he would first have to have an enemy. My grandmother begged him not to return to battle after their first son, my father, was born.

My father was also a warrior, but he had different beliefs than my grandfather, which caused them to dispute over the years. My father was known for his ruthless fighting until the end.  He died in battle against the French, three years after the fishing trip I was then on. The French, with their rifles and foreign strategy, won countless unfair fights against the Algonquin people. As my grandfather and I drifted peacefully down the river I had no thought that it would be our last river trip together. I did not know what was headed our way in huge, black steamboats with flags of red, white, and blue. Most of all I did not know the terrible price our people would later pay for peace with what we called “the hairy-faced” newcomers.

One morning we floated in place, fishing rods in hand. Throughout the morning grandfather kept tipping his head to the side and mumbling that he thought he heard something downstream.

“There’s nothing there grandfather,” I preferred to fish in total silence, to listen and meditate. In typical twelve-year-old fashion I was impatient with him interrupting my serenity.

“It’s not that I can hear anything,” he replied softly, “I feel something coming up river. I can’t tell if it’s kitchemonedo or matchemonedo. But it’s coming with the wind…” He closed his eyes and inhaled. Our people believe in the two spirits of the world, kitchemonedo, the guiding spirit of all good things, what brings people together, and matchemonedo, the evil spirit. We feel these spirits, moving around us, we make choices based upon what spirit enters our minds when,  we think of our decisions. We follow kitchemonedo, always.

“Upstream? Nothing is going to paddle upstream. Maybe a beaver?”

He chuckled, a bittersweet laugh, “This is not an animal, this is not something I have known…”

I caught a fish and decided he was delirious. I loved fishing. I loved catching my dinner, and I had long since decided never to be a warrior like my ancestors. I would be a fisherman. The best fisherman the council had ever known. I would bring two canoes on my trips, one for myself and one to bring back filled with fish, overflowing for my people. I pictured myself pulling the second canoe onto the beach, the people gasped. I saw the children come squealing forward with delight and the women mutter thanks to kitchemonedo. We would bring all the tribes together and celebrate with a glorious feast by the fire in my honor! And Pneshiwit, the pretty girl from three wigwams over, would beg her father to let her marry me! I thought of her hair in braids, her long lashes as she looked down from smiling. My future wife. Maybe I would even bring her fishing on occasion. My brilliant future with my people seemed inevitable. Without doubts or worries, I smiled to myself. Then I heard the rumble from the water.

It was a low, distant sound. But unlike anything I had heard before. It sounded like a hundred bears ramming their heads into each other, like a far off forest falling down in unison. While I began to shake, grandfather did not blink. Was I losing my mind? Grandfather rested his hands on my shoulders. “What is happening has been foretold. Various council members have had visions, as have I. But we must wait, we must not fight whatever this strange beast is. Time will tell. Wait. There is hope. Kitchemonedo is strong within our people. Do not be scared.”

I had no idea what he was talking about. Meanwhile the rumbling grew louder and louder. It was close. I began to hear voices, shouting back and forth in another language. The fear I felt made me want to dive off the edge of our canoe and swim away. Why wasn’t grandfather paddling? We could have made it to shore. He was just standing there waiting! We could have done something. Anything. I shut my eyes. Louder. Blaringly loud. And then, silence. A voice rang, “Regardez-vous muet trappeurs égoïste! Je vois indigènes. Où? Vous merde! Vous êtes aveugle? Ils sont juste là. Dans un canot. Couvert de fourrures. Oui! Plus chères. Haha !" They wacked their hands together merrily and looked in our direction.

One cleared his throat. "Parlez-vous français?"

One man interrupted the other when he saw us standing there blankly. "Firme ton buche Pierre. Do – you – speak – English?"

            Neither grandfather nor I could understand a word they were saying but the one who had spoken last raised his hand and bobbed his chin up and down and we could tell this was some sort of greeting.

            "Bozho," replied grandfather, raising his hand in a similar manner to the men. By this time I had opened my eyes and began to observe these creatures. They were positioned upon a giant thing that resembled a canoe, but I thought it must be an animal for the noises it was making. I’d never heard any one thing so loud. And the people, I wondered if they were even people at all ! Their faces were covered in hair, wild and curled, but much shorter than that of my people. Their skin was pale and patchy with red splotches, at least, the skin that was showing beneath their facial hair and bizarre clothing. Their clothing was whiter than they were on top, and they wore strange little fabrics draped over each individual leg. Their moccasins looked hard and made a "tap, tap, tap" noise while they walked about. Perplexing. Unless they were spirits, this wasn’t how I pictured the spirits though it didn’t feel right somehow.

             They had eyes like us, ears, mouths, hands, even feet, we were the same in so many ways. So many similarities. I learned later that we saw different things with our eyes though. Where we saw our home, our land, they saw profit. They saw all the ways it could be changed, civilized. Where we saw animals, our brothers and sisters with whom we kept balance, they saw furs that they could use for profit. When they saw us, they saw lost souls in need of Christianization, and dumb savages easily defeated. Through their eyes we were people they could morph to be more like them, to give them what they wanted. We were easily relocated.
          When my grandfather and I met these French fur-trappers for the first time we figured that these twenty or so men was all of their kind. And the gifts they presented us with where dazzling, necklaces that shine, the sharpest knives we’d ever seen, bracelets with dials that spun around and around as the sun moved across the sky. As a young boy, their gifts seemed to me to be magical. We communicated with the French using hand motions, and taught each other the simpler words of our languages. Instead of "bozho," they would say "bonjour."Grandfather and I led them back to our people up the river. We told them to welcome the hairy-faced newcomers, for they had been our friends. So we feasted, all of us, the finest aromas filled the air. Blueberry soup was my favorite back then. Thinking back on those days so much has changed, but not my love for my tribes blueberry soup. Never.           
            We figured they would be on their way. We had welcomed them as guests, but after about a month we thought they would surely returned to their beloved France, which they spoke of so often. The pride they felt was unmistakable. From a birds eye view our village was interspersed with our people and them. We shared our food, our fires, our medicine with them and were occasionally given shiny things in return. We made a huge wigwam for them to stay in. As our people and the French finally began to understand more and more of each other's languages and ease into a comfortable peace, it happened.

            The girl from three wigwams over who I believed I would someday marry, Pneshiwit, entered into the hairy-faces wigwam without permission. The French had left their women and wives across the big water, and had now begun to seek out our women out of loneliness. Many men of our village were honored to arrange marriages between their daughters and the hairy-faces, however our people drew the line there. Pneshiwit was only twelve when three French men cornered her on the outskirts of our village. When they were done with her she ran away, blind with tears in her eyes. She ran straight towards there wigwam, for she knew these men were evil and that she would need proof of matchemonedo amongst them. That was when she saw the piles upon piles of furs. Our people believed in using these furs as clothing and shelter out of necessity, we never killed more animals than we needed to eat, and wasted nothing. Hunting involved great prayer, respect, and gratitude for the Potawatomi of those days, and it was clear to Pneshiwit that the hairy-faced Frenchmen did not protect the same natural balance as we did. She spat, "filth."

           Pneshiwit begged at her father’s feet. She told him of the piles on piles of wasted, dead animal skins. She told them she knew these hairy-faces were evil, plotting, heartless men. She said the moment we let them into the village we welcomed matchemonedo. But her father had favor with these men, and did not listen.

          "Daughter," he said, smiling. "Our family has been honored. Two hairy-faces came to bargain with me today. They gave me many generous gifts. I believe, by their gestures, that they are offering these blessing to us in return for you and your sister marrying them. This is a wonderful thing, this cannot be matchemonedo."

           Standing very still Pneshiwit's voice was barely more than a whisper, "See for yourself father. Before you give me to them, see what they are hiding in their wigwam." She broke into tears, "Father, today something happened and I can't trust their sincerity in wanting to marry my sister and me..." And yet, transfixed by the beautiful gifts the French had given him, her father would not follow or check. She was only a young girl, what was her word against two men?

          I know all this because I was sitting with my grandfather when Pneshiwit ran to him madly, fuming and sobbing into his arms. She had known my grandfather all her life, and was hoping with everything in her that he would believe her story. Grandfather rocked her in his arms until she settled down. Then, she began to speak and we both listened. I was enraged before she had told us of her father’s denial, I felt a fire of anger burning inside myself, threatening to explode if I did not go immediately to these mens' wigwam. I had thought they might be gods', but I knew now they were monsters.

              There were six of them in their wigwam. Six surprised faces looked up to see me, twelve years old, bursting in on six fully-grown men with guns without explanation. In my language I yelled at them, "I KNOW WHAT YOU DID!" but they couldn't understand. I hadn't even acknowledged the piles of fur yet, but as I did I became insane with anger and ran at them flailing my arms. I wanted to hurt the monsters. It took the closest one to me about two seconds to restrain me. So I screamed. I took a deep breath and reached deep down into my lungs for the loudest most desperate scream I could manage, and it did not go unheard.

        Within seconds, Sutmi, a warrior of my village who had been standing nearby sprinted into the wigwam. He saw the way the hairy-faced man was holding me back. He looked around and noticed all their waste. These men were responsible for so much death, and there was no time for attempted communication. The rest of them were probably out skinning more animals and leaving them. Sutmi let out a battle cry.

           All peace ended on that day. Countless battles were fought. The French killed my father a year later. They continued to make money on fur-trading, rape our women, steal from us, and so we continued to fight them. Their weapons were far more advanced than ours, and we never really stood a chance, but, as long as the Council of the Three Fires was still around, as long as the fire still burned, we would not give up. 

          One fall day, as the leaves circled in the wind, our village was raided for the final time. They had no mercy for women, elders, or children. Pneshiwit and I were miles away from our village when it happened, and by the time we returned very little was left. Our wigwams had been set on fire, while the dead lay black and blue on the ground. The French used their weapons to shoot holes in our bodies.  

            My people had gotten so caught up in war, hatred, matchemonedo, that we’d lost sight of what we were fighting for. We were fighting for out people, our beliefs about how the land and animals should be treated, and how our women should be treated. But this was easily forgotten with so much blood and death. The French seemed to have an endless supply of warriors; more of them arrived every month on the river. Our strength was steadily draining; our arrows were incomparable with their weapons. When we killed one of their warriors we would take their weapons, but we still didn’t know how to work them as skillfully as our enemies. I began to notice a change in people. I began to think that sometimes people become the very thing they’re fighting against.

            Our minds were consumed with war. Whole villages of ours were wiped out. The council was in anguish. We were not tending to our crops, our minds, or kitchemonedo. But most importantly we were no longer tending to our fire, and the day Pneshiwit and I returned to find our village ransacked we also discovered the fire was out.

            Our people always believed the world would end with the fire. In a way, it did, for everything we knew unraveled into the rest of time. Not every conflict has a resolution. One side has to lose in war.