A Cree Gentleman Follows Tshkabesh to Europe

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My father was a great storyteller. He wouldn’t announce which story he was to tell like many others with this talent. He’d be lying on the couch in the quiet of our home and out of the blue, he would begin…

Tshkabesh was invited to cross the great sea to Europe. He was told he could find everything he could dream of there. Tshkabesh, being Tshkabesh, was always curious. He of course accepted, and set sail to where the sun rose. Little did the English know that he had once snared the sun, covering the world in darkness.

Finally, land was spotted. As they got close, he lifted the massive anchor, jumped overboard and pulled the ship right up onto the beach.

He was invited to dine at a tavern. “What will it be, Mr. Tshkabesh?” “I’ll have moose tongue.” “We don’t have that.” “Then I’ll have beaver tail.” “We don’t serve that.” “Sigabon?” No. He listed other favourite dishes of his but they weren’t on the menu.

“Ahh!” exclaimed Tshkabesh, “I was told there was everything here! Then I’ll have a bottle of your finest vintage. Red. Bring it to me unopened, I’ll suck the cork out myself.” Tshkabesh was a badass.

Okay… okay, the line about the wine is mine. But that’s pretty much the way my father told it.

I too was invited to visit Europe, to present the Rezolution Pictures film, Reel Injun. Part of Europe looked and felt exactly like home – Inari, in northern Finland where the Sami people live. Even the food was similar. I had dinner one night at an Elder’s home where he served reindeer stew – meat that came from his own small herd. So, I felt I hadn’t yet reached Europe and I went home.

Months later, while in Seoul, South Korea, I received a Facebook message from my friend Chris Eyre, the director of Smoke Signals. “Do you want to come with me to Croatia?” he asked.

Quickly checking my social calendar, I announced that I would in fact be able to squeeze him in. I’ll see you there! Zagreb, the Croatian capital, was not exactly Paris but it would do nicely.

After checking into the hotel, I found I hadn’t packed anything semi-formal. A social faux pas, it appeared, because a dinner had been organized for some other social unction and I’d been invited. I walked into the fancy dining room wearing my ripped, faded jeans and was seated at a table with complete strangers. Chris had missed a connecting flight so he wasn’t there to watch my back. There was a woman seated to my left and we exchanged pleasantries. It was all very pleasant, as pleasantries usually are, and the food was good. I had learned from Tshkabesh that they didn’t have moose tongue in Europe so I didn’t bother asking for it.

After dinner, Tim, my host, told me that the woman I’d been talking to was the President’s spokesperson. That would be the equivalent of sitting next to Kellyanne Conway at a dinner in Washington, DC, except she wouldn’t be lying her way through the last course.

Chris finally stepped off the plane, looking like crap, but happy to have made it. After our adventures in the capital, we moved on to Osijek, a small city near the Serbian border where some of the fiercest battles had taken place when Yugoslavia was breaking up in the early 1990s.

Osijek is a beautiful city, despite lingering signs of the war pockmarked on its buildings. Before I left Montreal, friends had warned, “Don’t talk about the war.” But I found that many wanted to share their experiences. Bombs exploding, sniper fire, blood on the streets, living in basement shelters. But that’s a story for another time.

The University of Osijek had organized the screenings of Reel Injun, which offered the opportunity to meet with a few students at a nearby bar. The rumours were true. Eastern Europeans are fascinated with all things Native American. They wanted to know everything about the Cree – their culture, their history, their cuisine, spiritual beliefs and the language.

They asked if I spoke Cree and when I told them I did, one asked, “Can you say something for us in your language!?” I thought for a moment before saying, “I am a Cree so I know my language. But then again, I could be lying to you and I’m now just speaking gibberish and you wouldn’t even know it.”

“What did you say?” one of them asked, leaning in, extremely curious. I translated. They laughed and nodded in agreement.

The students showed me the local nightlife; the old city square filled with bars. Finally, the bars closed and we went on and lingered awhile on the ancient ramparts but the night wasn’t over yet.

We ended the night at the only bar still open, at an old railway station, followed by a motorcycle ride through the city.

The night after the film screening, Sanja Runtic, a professor of Native American literature at the University of Osijek, approached me and asked, “Would you like to go to Montenegro?” I replied, “Let me think about it. Yes!”

Little did I know that such an impulsive answer would change my life, yet again.

The morning of my scheduled departure for Montenegro I woke up thinking, “I don’t want to go. I’m not going.”

I had been living out of my suitcase in airports and hotels for two years. I also started having recurring dreams of frightening things happening to the airplanes I was on. While sweating out my sins from the night before in the bath, I had a guilty change of heart. My ticket had already been paid for. People were interested in the lives of Native people there. I might not be the preferred representative or the best ambassador, but if I didn’t go, I might miss something.

I quickly packed my bags, grabbed my smallest camera and rushed to the airport, late as usual. When I got there – a miracle! I found I was five hours early for my flight. I grew suspicious. Wait a minute, what’s happening to me? Why am I early? I usually boarded with my heart racing and sweat dripping off my forehead, looking like some kind of freak. Seatmates would perceptibly edge away from me as I sat down.

But not this time. I walked into the plane calm, cool and collected and only slightly tipsy. My seatmate did not recoil in disgust. Instead, he asked, “Where are you headed?”

“Home,” I replied.

“Where’s that?”

“I don’t know yet.”

After an agonizing, five-hour stay at Belgrade’s Nikola Tesla Airport, we descended into Montenegro at dusk. It was barely visible. By the time we sped up the mountains towards Nikšić all I could make out were dim lights off in the distance. I found myself lost.

Thus began my long trek. I had planned a seven-day stay. It quickly turned into seven years. And so, our story begins…

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