Carol A. Hand
A few days ago, I intended to write a story using the metaphor of sharing a canoe to describe relationships. I spent more than half of my life with a partner I only accompanied on one canoe ride. He built canoes at one point during the years we spent together – works of art built of different colored strips of cedar. But he never took the time to learn how to canoe or build vessels that traveled well on the water. Traveling in a canoe with a partner is not like rowing a boat with two oars, where riders take turns being the one person who does the heavy work. There is usually only one paddle for canoes, although I carried a second just in case on this one and only ride. It turned out to be a wise decision.
Photo Credit: Wetlands
We set off through the narrow channels in the wetland between thickets of water lilies, tall cattails and swamp grass. He was in the front of the canoe, while I sat in back. He used his paddle forcefully, as the canoe lurched from side to side, frequently entangling us in the reeds. He wouldn’t listen to my mild suggestion that he needed to use his paddle gently, alternating it from side to side to guide the canoe slowly through the center of the channel. Finally, I lifted the second paddle to try to buffer the lurching. He quickly decided it was time for us to return home. I think that was my role in the partnership – to steer us on a straight course though the challenges.
I wanted to tell the story of how I first learned to love traveling in a canoe. I didn’t learn about canoes until I was a teenager. Even though my Ojibwe uncles and cousins took me on tours of the interconnected chains of lakes in Lac du Flambeau, they used motor boats, not canoes. (Historically, canoes were one of the primary modes of transportation for Ojibwe people, as were snowshoes in the winter.)
Photo Credit: Lakes Surrounding Lac du Flambeau, Wisconsin
My family moved to northwestern Pennsylvania when I was twelve. My parents and brother spent the summer in their new home, the third floor apartment above the 20-bed nursing home my mother bought to administer. I spent the summer with my grandmother on the LdF Ojibwe reservation. I arrived at my new home just in time to attend my new school. I had no friends, the classes were all at least three to five years behind what I had already studied, the summer with my grandmother had eroded my self confidence in profound ways, and my father’s mood swings and abuse escalated. I tried to commit suicide that first year and really did not intend to survive. But I did survive. That was when I began spending time with Clara and other elders in my mother’s nursing home. They helped me find a reason to live, at least for the moment. The next summer, my parents bought a tiny summer cottage on the Allegheny River. Although the cottage smelled of mold and mildew, I loved to spend my summers there. The river became my sanctuary, like the woods that had surrounded my old childhood home.
Our cottage was nestled among a cluster of similar cottages along the shore of one of the many placid wide sections of the river, positioned between islands and eddies on both sides. Some of the channels formed on both sides of the islands were rocky and shallow, and others ran deep and fast. It’s where I learned how to canoe. Perhaps I was motivated by my father’s near disaster. Like my partner in later years, my father was confident that he knew how to canoe. So confident, in fact, that he went on his first trip alone in his best suit and dress shoes. He made it to the middle of the river and proceeded to show off his skill. With a mighty tug on the paddle, he intended to make a quick turn about. He ended up swimming back to shore, swearing, pushing the overturned canoe in front of him.
Photo Credit: Allegheny River – Hemlock Eddy
At first, I used the rowboat. I could leave my family on the shore and drift or travel around the islands to another quiet place. I quickly learned it was wiser to travel upstream first and then let the current carry me home. But the islands and eddies downriver were more interesting because they were shallow and rocky. Sometimes I needed to exit the boat to guide it through the rapids and the river eddies. As my muscles and skills grew, I used the canoe instead. It was lighter and easier to maneuver.
The river was my sanctuary. Until I did a little research online to contextualize this reflection, I didn’t realize that my sanctuary came at a great cost to others. Suddenly I understood many things. Why my mother expressly forbid me to ever mention our Native heritage, why we could afford the cottage and why it smelled of mold and mildew. I wondered why I never heard anyone speak of the dam upriver, except to say it was a good thing that would prevent future flooding. Not one teacher, not one article in a newspaper, nothing.
A few days ago I understood the cost and my heart was heavy.
For My Seneca Relatives
Land promised in treaties to be yours forever is now your ancestors’ watery grave.
All to protect white towns from (maybe) floods and power their insatiable greed.
My privilege was just downriver – a few mile west of your suffering,
My sanctuary was your hell.
As my horizons expanded, your history was buried beneath tons of water.
As I learned to paddle a canoe, all that you owned was lost.
I didn’t know the cost.
My mother never told me, I doubt if my father cared.
True, I was only a teenager, finding solace downriver while your community disappeared.
I might have stood with you, if only I had known
Please forgive me. I didn’t know…
Photo Credit: Kinzua Dam Recreation Area
A Brief History (an excerpt from David Sommerstein, Seneca Nations New Chief Seeks to ‘Change Course’, 2011, NPR):
In Allegany, one of the Senecas’ two territories in southwestern New York state, there’s an area where a paved road turns to dirt and disappears into the woods. The road is blocked off with concrete slabs. A quarter mile down is an abandoned bridge.
“Old Red House Bridge – that went through the community of Red House,” says Leslie Logan, spokeswoman for the Seneca nation. “Nobody lives down there. It’s a bridge that goes to nowhere essentially.”
Sixty years ago, the road meandered past thriving communities, with Seneca homes along the Allegheny River, hunting and fishing grounds, cemeteries, churches, schools.
But in the 1960s, the U.S. government decided it needed the land to control flooding downriver in Pittsburgh. The Army Corps of Engineers condemned the villages, burned down the houses and schools and churches, and built the Kinzua hydropower dam. The Senecas had fought the plan in Washington for almost two decades.
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