The Medicine Line
After making her announcement about leaving the reservation, Alberta sat
at her mother’s kitchen table behind The Globe and Mail “Careers” section.
The paper was two weeks old; the jobs were thousands of kilometres away from
the reserve and required skills she didn’t have. No matter. She was using
it to hide, hoping to avoid further criticism from her know-it-all, teenage
daughter. “They're looking for an Airport General Manager in Halifax.”
“Where’s this Halifax?” Louisa, Alberta’s mother,
spoke in her nearly toothless Cree: Tan-tay Han-i-vax? She arranged three plastic mugs on the kitchen counter in a row and turned to check the progress
of the teakettle moaning on the wood stove.
“She’s not going to any Halifax, Gran. She can’t manage
a correspondence course, let alone her life. Airport General Manager. Bull.” Jo’s
pierced eyebrows furrowed. “Try again, Mom.”
Alberta sank deeper behind the paper. Books with prominent Lakehead University
logos lay at one end of the table. “Principal of Havergale College. In
Tee Oh? All girls. You’d love it, Jo. You can’t wait to get to
“Gag. I’d so fit in—in some preppy uniform. Stop joking,
Mom. Get your degree, OK?”
Louisa pulled a clean margarine tub from under the counter and started making
her wah-pah-ka-mi-ni-kan tea by dropping in a half dozen Red Rose packets,
then pouring the boiling water over them.
Alberta put the paper down and folded it. “We need to leave Otter Creek.
For a while anyway. Till you finish high school.”
“I knew it! I knew you’d put this onto me. I’m not going.
Louisa looked at her daughter and granddaughter, then pressed her lips and
squeezed the floating tea bags, one at a time, between a fork and tablespoon.
“Then I’ll go by myself.”
“So go. Who’s stopping you? I can stay with Gran.”
Alberta ran her finger along the cover of a book. She’d just finished
number seventeen in her twenty-four lesson undergraduate course—History
2311, “Native People and Newcomers.” She hadn’t mailed her
essay yet, “The Medicine Line,” but it was now, finally, inside
the university’s manila envelope waiting for a stamp. It told about the
arrest of some “Canadian” Cree in 1881 by the U.S. Second Cavalry
for hunting on “American” soil. How their weapons and some of their
clothing were confiscated in the middle of winter before they were “deported” to
freeze and starve trying to walk barefoot back to Chief Piapot’s encampment.
Invisible border lines had meant little to the buffalo hunters. She glared at her
daughter. “I’ll move off the reserve if I want to.”
Louisa mixed flour, lard, and water into a paste and added it to the tea until
the mixture was the same brown as a summer beaver’s soft belly fur.
She sweetened it with nearly a full cup of sugar. Then she set a plate of
cut into thin slices, on the table between them and carried the books into
the living room.
“Don’t lose those, Mama. I haven’t finished with them,” said
Jo picked at a bright red fingernail. “So whatcha gonna do off the reserve,
Mom? Start a restaurant or something?”
“I could if I wanted. I might.”
“Need a restaurant here in Otter Creek.” Again Louisa spoke in
Cree. She slowly stirred the tea, then tipped the bowl carefully above each
“None for me, Gran. Got a Coke?” Jo was already half inside the
fridge, her jeans wiggling in the air as she searched. “Something drinkable.”
“Indian food better for you.” Louisa poured the contents of one
mug back into the bowl and slid into a chair at the table. “You want
off the reserve? Just go to the mission side.”
Otter Creek was cut in two by a sometimes-trickle of water and a quarter-mile-wide
stretch of dried-up ox bow lake. On one side lay the reserve; on the other,
the school, airstrip, mission, nursing station, and store.
“It’s still Otter Creek, Mama.”
“Bull, it is.” Jo pulled the tab on her soda. “It’s
like further than you think.”
“You’re just lazy, Jo. You need to jog or something. Build up
your leg muscles.”
“Not what I meant,” said Jo.
“What did you mean, love?”
“You ever walk over with Gran? Like when she goes to the hospital or
“Maybe not recently. That makes it longer?” asked Alberta
“You wanna hear this or not?”
Louisa sipped her tea.
“I'm listening, Jo.”
“Like we're talking, eh? On the road. And Gran is going on and on in
Cree about a mile a minute so I can barely understand her, OK? Well, every
time we hit the bridge—I mean exactly when our feet first touch it—even
if she’s right in the middle of a sentence, she switches to English.
Louisa raised her eyes.
“I don’t think she even knows. And it’s not just her. I’ve
heard others do the same. And it works the other way coming back—English
back to Cree.”
“Make a restaurant on the mission side if that’s what you want.” Louisa
said it in her own language.
“It’s weird, like magic,” said Jo.
Alberta looked out the kitchen window. “Maybe it’s like a medicine
line.” She thought about the possibilities, thought about a restaurant name.
“Whatever a medicine line is,” said Jo. “Sure.”
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