Echoes in the Cypress Hills

Candace Savage’s A Geography of Blood: Unearthing Memory from a Prairie Landscape is a wonderful book, in turns delightful, demanding and discomforting. Unlike her tour de force, Prairie: A Natural History, which painted a broad-brush canvas of grasslands from Texas north to the Alberta Park Belt, this book is a miniature, a focused examination of a small area illuminated by precisely observed detail. It is the outcome of staying put and paying attention to where you are. The writing is effortless and accessible, with frequent riffles of lyricism. Describing the vigour of a grassland ecosystem, Savage writes:

The power of the soil, the wind, and the rain is concentrated in every leathery shrub and every blade of sun-cured grass. Transferred up the food chain, this vitality takes on animal form and becomes manifest in the blue of a butterfly, the bright eye of a snake, the eerie voice of a curlew echoing over a lonely landscape.

This book is a page turner, sharing much in common with a good thriller. During the early chapters, as the characters are fleshed out and the beautiful, tranquil setting of the Cypress Hills is described, there is, nevertheless, a brooding sense of menace—of bad things about to happen. This unease is sparked by the book’s title and fed by the poetic prelude. It is sustained and intensified by interjections throughout the text. “Voices hang in the air here,” Savage writes, “speaking of hunger, displacement, and cold, but we do not hear a word.” A shadow is cast over a family picnic when a young person remarks, “Maybe it’s just the sense that so much has been happening here for so long. It’s kind of spooky.” The author comments, “I have to admit that she is right: this land is filled with ghosts … I wake up to find myself troubled by an unaccountable melancholy.” Later, having explored the geology of the Cypress Hills, she asks, “what lay inside that obscure stratum marked ‘the end of the frontier’? Was it true that something terrible really happened here?”

Indeed it had. On June 1, 1873, a clash between a group of frontiersmen from Fort Benton, Montana, and a band of Assiniboine left some 20 Indians dead, including their chief Manitupotis (Little Soldier) and several women and children. Bodies were mutilated, women prisoners sexually assaulted and the Indian camp burnt.

Often the horror of a memory is made more poignant by the contemporary beauty of the landscape where it happened. As Savage reels from her introduction to the Cypress Hills Massacre, her head full of gunshots and children’s screams, she writes:

Better to go outdoors. Better to see the flash of warblers in the willows, to smell the spicy aroma of sage, to hear the gurgle of the creek as it speeds under the footbridge. Better just to be here and to accept the solace of this land which refuses to let us forget.

The sense of foreboding breaks through in a rising crescendo of horror as Savage seeks to describe the nightmare side of the national dream. In a series of chapters that make up the core of the book and give it its heft, she describes the ecological and humanitarian atrocities that cleared the way for European settlers—for us and our forebears. The narrative explores, in turn, the extirpation of the buffalo, the Cypress Hills Massacre and the prolonged agony of the starvation winters of the early 1880s, when both treaty and non-treaty Indians, “Canadian” Indians and refugees, froze and died of hunger and disease in sordid camps hidden in the folds of the hills. Parts of this story are relatively familiar, others much less so, but Savage tells it all with a passionate new voice that speaks to us directly, with all our contemporary sensibilities.

Much of the impact of these accounts comes from the author’s clever selection of witnesses from the abundant sources her thorough research unearthed. For example, to illustrate the profligate slaughter of the buffalo and other animals, she uses the case of Hudson’s Bay trader Isaac Cowie, who was forced to leave behind a staggering eleven tonnes of meat when his overloaded cavalcade of carts pulled out of the Cypress Hills in the fall. As well as buffalo meat—preserved as pemmican—those carts were carrying the hides of 1,500 elk and 750 bearskins. An Assiniboine child, Ochankugahe, remembered seeing “acres and acres of dead buffalo packed closely together, bloated and rotting in the sun.” To convey something of the story of deceit, broken promises and mutual incomprehension, Savage selects a coded telegram from the Indian commissioner to his masters in Ottawa, which brings out the stealth and secrecy with which policy was implemented. Perhaps most telling are the words of Dr. Augustus Jukes, the police physician, as he reported on conditions at the winter camp at Cypress Lake in October 1882. The horrified doctor used words like “wretched,” “disastrous” and “appalling” in his account and described “little children at this inclement season, snow having already fallen, who had scarcely rags to cover them. Of food they possessed little or none.”

This is a grim story, told with passion and honesty. One feels the author is wrestling with a sense of personal guilt and an overpowering need to pursue justice, and to give the forgotten and dispossessed a voice. But this is by no means a grim book. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, and it has lingered as a topic for reflection and discussion. Part of the reason for this is that this book is so intensely personal. Savage’s family, including assorted dogs, a cat, horses and even an old van, play a vital role in the story. She uses her personal journey as a means of leading her readers on their own paths of discovery and understanding. She transmits her own excitement and sense of adventure as she embarks on a quest to know her new home more intimately and deeply. Being something of a curmudgeon, I was not sure I wanted this family to befriend me, but it was not long before I mellowed and allowed myself to be charmed. The presentation of this facet of the book is clear, conversational and without undue sentiment. Savage, like the famed western writer Wallace Stegner, in whose house she stays, digs into her own family history to reveal the reality beneath the patina of idealized, heroic, homestead life. Elsewhere, a health crisis deepens the family’s need and desire to seize the moment, and their appreciation of the wonder of the natural world around them.

The last chapters of the book are alive with glimpses of redemption. Savage worries that “perhaps the present was so deeply contaminated by the miseries of the past that it was no longer possible to create a connection based on respect and trust, with a sharing of benefits among equals.”

Yet she perseveres, and reaches out to contemporary First Nations people. Expecting bitterness and resentment, she is met with acceptance and a generous sharing of time and stories. A Geography of Blood throws an unflinching light on our past and implicitly presents a challenge for our future. As geographer Cole Harris wrote in The Resettlement of British Columbia:

Our luck has been built on others’ misfortune, and we should appreciate the havoc our coming has wrought. Colonialism is not pretty, neither here nor anywhere else. We took away, often quite inadvertently, most Native people’s opportunity to live with dignity, and I think we have to give that opportunity back.