BY MARCUS DAY
I joined about 30 people for a “Kokoms” and “Mosoms” walk Against Drugs and Alcohol (KAMADA) on Sunday morning. It was my first time to the Nekaneet First Nation reserve, which is about 23 kilometres south of downtown Maple Creek. Everyone was welcome to join the walk.
On a blustery Sunday morning that briefly threatened rain, Alice Pahtayken’s car headed towards the Nekaneet First Nation reserve, making light of the dirt and gravel. Following Alice was the only way I knew of ensuring I made the 10am start of the “Kokoms and Mosoms” walk against substance abuse.
The trip was short, but tough on my delicate Ford Fiesta, which struggled to keep pace, slipping and shuddering, lurching and rattling. I had images of a tire shredding. Did I have a spare? No, I didn’t think so.
It was a relief to arrive unscathed at the former Nekaneet school, now a band office, where I met walk founder Mary Rose Naytowhow and her husband, Ovid Campbell, and immediately received a bright red KAMADA T-shirt. I wrote Naytowhow’s name in block capitals in my notepad, to make sure I got it right and held it up to her.
Why the different names, I asked.
“He didn’t want to take mine, and I didn’t want his,” she laughed.
Mary Rose and Ovid had been invited here by Alice, the main organizer of this walk.
“We did this walk 10 years ago, and back then there was a lot of alcohol abuse,” said Alice. “I noticed later, the problem decreased. Now we are doing it again to show people that we love and care about them. We are trying to promote awareness about substance abuse and prevention so that future generations won’t be affected by opioids. It takes a community to raise a child.”
Ten minutes later, under a chalky, wind-picked, uncertain sky, I joined a group of about 30 people at the Upper Camp, many carrying placards, which had been made over the weekend by Danielle Mosquito.
Although Naytowhow, who hails originally from Sturgeon Lake, had started the event as a way of honouring grandmothers (Kokoms) and grandfathers (Mosoms), half of the group were children, some barely tall enough to see above their signs.
When there was a particularly strong gust, child and sign went to ground with a clatter. I wondered whether the children were aware that the walk was aimed at them, the future of their community.
I wondered too whether I was the only non-Indigenous participant.
Someone called us to order and we sat or knelt on the ground for the pipe ceremony.
No photography was allowed as the sacred pipe was lit and Campbell began reciting a prayer in Cree, talking quickly like someone who had memorized every word. His eyes were closed, his brow furrowed.
Next to him sat Roger Pahtayken, Alice’s husband. The two men later smoked the pipe.
It was a long prayer. Children fidgeted a little, as you would expect, but remained remarkably quiet throughout. I longed to photograph them, knowing this would be my best opportunity.
Twice I asked Danielle: “Is it okay to take pictures now?”
No was the response each time. I had to wait until the walking began.
Once we finally clambered to our feet, I quickly learned there was a structure to the walk; children who rushed ahead were called back by elders.
Our leader was Campbell, the pipe carrier, who inched forward in a black car, presumably with Naytowhow in the passenger seat, while behind them walked Charisma Pahtayken, carrying a healing stick, and Dalyce Buffalocalf, the smudger. Next came Danielle, helping to carry our big banner proclaiming: “KAMADA Kokoms And Mosoms Against Drugs & Alcohol.”
Bringing up the rear was Alice Pahtayken in her car. I learned later that she was still recovering from a serious road accident.
Her husband, who had suffered a fractured jaw in the crash, appeared pensive as he walked. Occasionally he would lay tobacco on the roadside as an offering to the spirit world. Later he took over smudging duties from Dalyce.
Nobody was supposed to get ahead of Charisma and Dalyce, although I broke this rule several times to take photographs. Nobody objected, at least not publicly.
We were a neatly bunched group at the start, but the longer we walked, the more spread out we became.
It was soon evident that I was overdressed. The sun had decided to join our party – it was a glorious day, after all – and I began to swelter in my green winter jacket and jeans. No matter, I was enjoying myself and felt strangely energized.
There is nothing like a morning walk to raise the spirits, even if the cause is sombre. We made a loop at Lower Camp, at around the half-way point, and I looked around. The line of walkers had thinned.
“Where is everyone?” I asked.
“Some of the children have got into cars,” I was told.
A wonderful aroma from the smudging repeatedly washed over me. I learned later it was burning sage, used as a ritual cleansing of mind, body, spirit and emotion. Maybe this explained why I felt so lithe and springy.
I began chatting to Doreen Oakes, who started a job as a local Nekaneet councillor in 2017.
A Cree language lecturer, she had studied at the First Nations University of Canada in Regina and Saskatchewan Indian Federated College.
Returning to Maple Creek from Regina was like coming home, although part of her missed the bustle of city life.
We walked past an octagonal house, set back from the path, partially enclosed by trees.
“There’s my house,” she said. “It’s called the straw house because it;s insulated with bales.”
I ran ahead to take a photograph of Doreen … and went “click, click, click”, only to discover that my memory card was full. I took out my cellphone as a back-up.
By now, I was holding a camera, cellphone, notepad, pen, KAMADA T-shirt and a plastic water bottle. In hindsight, I call this My Very Low IQ Phase of the walk. Mountaineers suffer impaired cognitive function at high altitude, but what was my excuse?
I blundered on, wishing evolution would go into overdrive and give me multiple arms for carrying my belongings.
I considered the theory of wormholes, wondering whether I could travel through one and turn into a green human octopus. That would be pretty cool.
As I contemplated the physics of the universe, a dog came up to me and sniffed about, perhaps enjoying being in the company of a less intelligent being.
Towards the end of the walk, I solved the problem of clutter. I stuffed everything, bar the camera, into my pockets. Einstein would have been proud of my ingenuity.
Now I felt liberated, albeit with swollen, morbidly obese pockets. Knights must have felt this way going into battle, clad in armour chain mail.
“Hey paparazzi, you’re doing pretty well over there,” a voice said behind me.
I was encouraged. I was doing all right, wasn’t I? No blisters, no aches and pains, plenty of energy still left. Hell, I probably could do it again.
Nevertheless, the band office was a welcome sight when it gradually appeared below us.
Even more welcome was the feast that awaited us. Just thinking of it makes me hungry again. Thanks should go to the two ladies who prepared it: Shannon Sasakamoose and Patsy Buffalocalf. Judging by the amount of food, I can only assume they expected many more walkers.
“Take it all, take it all,” was their refrain.
I stacked my plate monstrously high with bannock, hotdogs and all manner of salads and sat next to Alice.
“How far do you think we walked?” I asked.
There was consensus that we had covered 10 kilometres. Not bad, I thought, but I wanted an even more impressive number.
“How about that I write 20 kilometres?” I said.
While we ate, Mary Rose’s cellphone was passed around showing a photograph taken during the walk.
When I looked at it, I saw a spiral of light in the clouds; it was as if we were being allowed a glimpse of Heaven.
“Looks like an angel, doesn’t it?” Alice said.
I immediately thought of Roger Pahtayken’s offerings. It seemed they had been received … with gratitude from above.