A spiritual nightmare

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It was a dark and stormy night in Val-d’Or when we finally rolled out, destination Waskaganish.

It had taken us more than eight hours to make our exit. First, the trailer my brother had bought required a different hitch. Then, the documents needed to pick up lumber for his new woodshed were on another vehicle in Amos so we had to drive into La Corne to retrieve them.

When we got back to Sin City we found the lumberyard closed because the power in the city had gone out. We headed north when we realized we wouldn’t make it to the next gas station. Back we headed again.

We chugged into town and the first gas station we see is closed. We decided on dinner and went to Del’s downtown, where we had a quick bite of spring rolls and gulps of won ton soup. We managed to get a fill-up and headed back out again.

Exactly 10 kilometres later, my brother’s beat-up pickup started slowing down, and down, until we rolled to a stop. It was like an episode of The Twilight Zone. Help was called and we waited in the cold and dark for our ride.

A friendly colleague finally arrived and back into Val-d’Or we went. We borrowed a truck and off we went, once again. We arrived in Matagami at 1 am and went straight to bed.

In the morning we laughed at the previous night’s travails and headed to Waskaganish to see what all the fuss was about. We rolled into the reliably muddy community and went straight to Reggie Hester Park down by the Rupert River’s high bank.

We were early. There were people milling about. The sellers had their wares displayed. The food sellers were still setting up and there was no hot coffee about. The dancers and drummers were ready to dance and drum. Someone excitedly mentioned that a moose had swam across the river straight for the powwow ground. If ever there was a sign that this was an Event – that was probably it.

Some background: It is alleged that the rookie Chief of Waskaganish, Darlene Cheechoo, had called powwows evil. Unfortunately for the Chief, her band council voted to support the event. The details are a bit murky but there was talk of several council members walking out of the meeting in a huff.

So a referendum was hastily called just days before the event. Though few came out to vote, a bit more than half of those who did voted against the event. The people – or some of them – had spoken. Still, seeing that the law was on their side, organizers asked: What are they going to do? Arrest us for dancing and singing?

Imagine if… the police arrived and beat up the head dancer. Then they proceed to whip and strangle him in front of the howling women and children. Local firefighters with their hoses spray the gathering with freezing water. Snarling rabid German Shepherds are set loose on those fleeing the event. The Chief arrives, picks up the drum and throws it into the dying river where it sinks, never to be heard again.

Later that night, a howling wind blows in from the North as naked captives are brought before the Inquisitor and their sentences pronounced. They are to be baptised and then burned at the stake even after they have confessed their sins. Much pained wailing fills that dark night in Waskaganish.

The following morning, the charred, smoldering remains of the powwow tent lay on the ground as I leave in a semi-hallucinationary state on a flight bound to historic St. Mary’s City in Maryland below the Mason-Dixon Line to speak at a college. I was housed on an old plantation where slaves had toiled under a hot sun only to be beaten, raped and killed for the slightest offence by their Christian masters.

As I sat drinking one night on the mansion’s veranda scanning the estate, I thought of the evil that had taken place here not so long ago. I imagined the slaves at night quietly singing and dancing to their African songs while their master, barely able to hear or understand them, lay in his soft bed quivering with fright.

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