roots and bones

I got to look at my mom’s family tree this weekend. Jacob Grass got on a ship sailing from Hanover in 1752 called The Nancy (my mom’s name). He came to what would become the United States to begin with but of course it was 1752 and the United States did not exist yet.

I am also descended from a Cameron and a MacGregor. No wonder I’ve always been a Jacobite! But! Also, a Hanoverian! No wonder I’m so mixed up.

And so there are roots and bones stretching back through time, to people I don’t know and am only beginning to learn about. I am Jacob Grass, I have his genetics. Perhaps I look like him or at least recall an expression he had in some forgotten way and it’s all jumbled together with everyone else to create something uniquely mine, uniquely me.

Jacob Grass took a risk. He got on a ship to an unknown land and he tried something. Why did he do this? Was he leaving something? Or going towards something else?

I wonder if he liked tea. And cats.

Why history? If it is a bewildering clutter of dates and names, no wonder people lose interest. Stories have power and influence, so this is better. But still, why? Why should anyone care about what happened in the past, and what influence does it have on our daily lives?

October is the right time to explore themes like this, to ask questions of the ghosts that haunt us, and reflect on how we can perhaps be connected to and guided by them instead.

Sometimes, the impact of history is big and broad … like a war that killed two percent of the British population or twenty million missing bison.

And sometimes, it can be small and relevant to how we can live life today, just now.

I’ll tell you about a little practice that I have. I say good morning to my grandmas every day. When I make my tea, I use tea cups that were given by my great granny to her daughter-in-law, my grandma. My other great-grandmother gave my grandma (her daughter) a tea caddy as a birthday present. I don’t have anything that belongs to my mom’s mother, but I say good morning to that stylish, courageous French girl with the beautiful structured jawline every morning too. I do have something of hers! That determined, rather elegant jaw. Merci, madame.

I imagine getting a hug from each grandma. It makes me feel rooted and connected as I start my day. And sometimes to be honest the rest of the day isn’t very good. But I can start off feeling loved and supported. I think this is a small example of how history can help us to live more thoughtful, meaningful and loving lives.

If I’m descended from healers (nurses) and teachers, I’m also descended from warriors. The Gordon Highlanders Museum sent us my great-grandfather’s war record from World War One a few weeks ago. Henry Grey was awarded three medals.

  • 1. The Military Cross
  • 2. The British War Medal
  • 3. The Victory Medal.

Henry witnessed and suffered terror that I cannot imagine, was wounded several times, and he also experienced the drudgery and discomfort and boredom and loneliness of that forgotten and overlooked time between battles that soldiers also experience.

I think, how hard that must have been … awful food, the dreaded endless rounds of Mulligatawny soup, wet feet, uncomfortable beds, or no beds. Loneliness.

I’ve seen my great-grandfather’s battle box. He would collect it at the end of the day and it contained his things … extra socks, letters, a book or two perhaps. Maybe someone had sent your favourite cookies or some other treat from home. Some soldiers didn’t get anything from anyone. And of course there were the leftover battle boxes at the end of the day that no one came to collect.

I had an awful dream this summer that my nephew went off to war with a battle box that his dad had lovingly made for him. At the end of the day, a wagon came round and that battle box was still in there. I started screaming, “No! No! No!”

Honestly, my brain sometimes.

My great-grandfather did meet a warrior who confounded and defied him and that was his own daughter, my great-auntie Mary, who of course wasn’t anyone’s great auntie at the time but a little girl with auburn curls and a determined chin that recalled her father growing up in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan in the 1930s. She refused to eat porridge for breakfast and went toe to toe with this warrior who had been wounded and decorated and survived the deadliest conflict in human history.

And she stood him right down. He told her she’d have porridge for breakfast or go hungry and this is just what the young lady did. Every day … for years. Even the most implacable soldier will inevitably meet his … or her … match.

I do eat porridge because it’s cheap and I rather like it this time of year. I made it today and giggled when I was thinking about this story.

Those are some roots and bones for today, and I hope you find it nourishing. History, said Thomas Moore, is food for the soul. And sometimes the local and homegrown history is best of all.

custom woolen mills

George McElroy Sheep Ranch in the Bancroft Area 1896

The story of Southern Alberta is inextricably linked with animals grazing … first, the mighty herds of bison, then … and now … the cattle that produce the world famous Alberta Beef that Albertans are justifiably proud of.

Flocks of sheep grazing at Crescent Heights

What many people don’t realize however is that our early pioneer/settler history also included vast flocks of sheep. This was a time when everything … carpets, clothing … were made from wool, so sheep travelled west when the settlers did. One of the earliest families in the Midnapore area, the Shaws, travelled west with the intention of setting up a woolen mill. There are photographs in the Glenbow Archives that show big flocks of sheep on the hills above Calgary where Crescent Heights are now; thanks to Alan Zakrison for supplying the image that I was too lazy to track down!

Local rancher George McElroy decided to try his hand at the sheep ranching business. He pastured his flock in the Rosebud Creek area east of Carstairs and is recorded as being the first white man to see the area. There is a butte in the area known as McElroy’s butte.

George also built a sod house and sheep shed, and employed a shepherd. The business must have prospered, because there are photographs of flocks numbering over 2,000 sheep. George spent three years in Alberta before he could afford to buy his first cow.

George gave up the sheep business after a heavy growth of speargrass wiped out his entire herd. He later wrote that he had been in Alberta for eight years and had nothing to show for it. George recalled with gratitude that it was a loan from a friend at the Southern Alberta Pioneers that gave him the help he needed to start again, this time turning to cattle ranching.

These days, we have a huge range of options when it comes to fabric and clothing but sheep are still important.

At Custom Woolen Mills in the Carstairs area, you can witness the history of wool because the woolen mill works five days a week!

The mill has been running since the 1970s but the equipment is much older than that. The newest machine on the place is from 1927!

Accidents … you typically don’t have to worry about fires at a woolen mill. Wool is a fire retardant and if it catches on fire it will extinguish itself immediately.

The Spinning Jenny was a machine that triggered the industrial revolution with machines mimicking handspinning. Unfortunately, the textile industry was … and still is … often unethical with regards to human rights and the environment. The textile industry in the 1900s relied on child labourers. Lewis Hine wrote an expose letting the public know about the unsafe and abusive environments children were working in. You can find his photo journalism online.

This carding machine has been in business since 1910! And it still works Monday to Friday, 9 to 5.

bison

I’m reading a book called Crazy Horse: A Lakota Life by Kingsley M. Bray right now.

In both Canada and the United States, the disappearance of the buffalo was the biggest humanitarian and environmental catastrophe that you’ve never heard of. Scientists are only beginning to recognize now that cattle also introduced diseases into wild herds that weakened them.

The American government wanted the bison gone — it had two transcontinental railroads to build and dealing with freedom fighters like Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull was impossible as long as they had access to the food and shelter supplied by those big herds.

Here in Canada, the situation was slightly different. The government knew the bison would be gone eventually but their priority was not to be financially responsible for the First Nations people in western Canada. They thought they had time, and if you had ever seen one of those massive herds you would have understood why they believed that.

Let’s say you and I are standing on a rise in the prairie. We say to each other, “Do you hear that?” But that isn’t exactly what we mean. What we mean is do you FEEL that … the sound is coming out of the ground up through our feet. An hour later … look to the north as far as you can, look to the south as far as you can. That herd is a mile wide, and it passes us by for an hour. You would never, ever forget a sight like that.

Only two years after Treaty 7 was signed in 1877 (the agreement the Crown signed with the indigenous people and settlers in my area) the bison were gone from southern Alberta and the people here were starving. We talk about the bison on the tour of Chestermere that’s happening tonight — did we have bison herds in this area? Come to find out how glacier rocks and a natural prairie spring offer us some clues.

go stamps go: the calgary tigers

Among the recruits who marched west with the F Troop in 1874 in search of the place where the Bow and Elbow Rivers met were immigrants from Europe who brought the game of rugby with them from their faraway homes. Rugby is known to have been played in Calgary as early as 1883. This match was played at the NWMP barracks at Fort Calgary with the Deane House in the background.

Meanwhile, the First Nations people were willing to give some of the new Canadian sporting events a try. However sometimes the game made no sense. For instance, when it came to football, why would you let another person attack you? In his book NWMP: The North West Mounted Police 1874 – 1885, Jack F. Dunn describes a rugby/football match that went awry: “One day at Fort Walsh, several Indians were invited to join a rugby match. The game took other dimensions, however, when a shoulder block by constable George Adams sent one Indian opponent flying. When the downed man got up and drew a knife, Adams “made for the fort”. ”

The Calgary Tigers were formed officially at a meeting on August 27, 1908. Practices were at 5.00 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays where Riley Park is located now and the season would run from September until the end of October.

The first rugby/football uniforms were canvas pants and leather helmets. Pads were not used for playing or practice until the late 1920s. Sprains and broken bones were common. Concussions happened too, but they were not recognized as causing potentially serious and permanent damage to the brain we recognize today.

Imagine we could bundle up on a beautiful September night in 1908 and head down to Riley Park to watch the Calgary Tigers in action. What sort of game could we expect to see? Well, football at the time was English-style rugby … kicking, tackling, punting. Also, North Hill in the background with not a structure or a tree in sight!

Read more:

  • Go Stamps Go! Graham Kelly
  • NWMP: The North West Mounted Police: 1873 – 1885 by Jack F. Dunn
North Hill does not have a tree or a structure on it!!
Here the Calgary Tigers are in action near what is
now Riley Park.

we are coming home

Have you ever heard of the First Nations Sacred Ceremonial Objects Repatriation Act (FNSCORA)? Alberta began the new millennium by becoming the first province in Canada to pass legislation that stated the Alberta government’s collections of sacred Indigenous objects in the Glenbow and the Royal Alberta Museum needed to be restored to the communities they came from so they could return to ceremonial use. From the First Nations perspective these ceremonial objects were not objects at all but were living beings … beings who had been in captivity for a long time. You can read more about this important legislation here and here.

Gerald T. Conaty was the curator at the Glenbow Museum when this legislation was passed and he was responsible for the repatriation of many sacred beings to Siksika, Kainai and Piikani First Nations around southern Alberta during the 1990s. You can read more about this incredible Made in Alberta true story in We Are Coming Home, a book edited by Conaty, which explores the challenging history that museums have had with indigenous people and what he and others decided to do about it.

21 great books

  1. High Rider by Bill Gallagher
  2. Frontier Farewell by Garrett Wilson
  3. We Are Coming Home by Gerald Conaty
  4. Clearing the Plains by James William Daschuk
  5. The Pemmican Eaters by Marilyn Dumont
  6. A Terrible Glory by James Donovan
  7. Ranching Women by Rachel Herbert
  8. Crowfoot: Chief of the Blackfoot by Hugh Dempsey
  9. Firewater by Hugh Dempsey
  10. Grant MacEwan’s Journals (edited by Max Foran )
  11. The Red Man’s Bones: George Catlin, Artist and Showman by Benita Eisler
  12. The Children’s Blizzard by David Laskin
  13. The Banker and the Blackfoot: A Memoir of My Grandfather in Chinook Country by J. Edward Chamberlin
  14. Moon of the Crusted Snow by Waubgeshig Rice
  15. Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese
  16. Quietus: Last Flight Accident Proneness in WWII by Anne Gafiuk
  17. Buffalo for the Broken Heart by Dan O`Brien
  18. The North-West Mounted Police: 1873-1885 by Jack F. Dunn
  19. The Great Blackfoot Treaties by Hugh Dempsey
  20. A Voice of Her Own (Legacies Shared) by Thelma Poirier
  21. Metis Pioneers by Doris Jeanne McKinnon

five things i love about canada:

1) Peace
2) Freedom
3) Emily Carr (I was so drawn to her wild, challenging paintings and defiant, independent spirit as a child).
4) W. O. Mitchell — I just saw “The Kite” performed. Hilarious, heartfelt, magical.
5) @cfl @calstampeders football!
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