Dance of the Squirrel
Fr. Joe was comfortable in his bed and had his eyes nearly closed so
he could envision Pierre’s story, Pierre stood by the window and
began to tell of an event that changed his life. I, Eaglewatcher, sat next to
Fr. Joe’s bed and listened with him.
This is Pierre’s story. It was the summer of 1987, July 7, to be
exact. I remember the
date because seven is my lucky number and July is the seventh month
of the year. On that day I
was finishing a canoe trip-guiding job for Laketrails. If things had going right
for us, we would be getting back to the base camp on Oak Island
Things were not up to snuff.
There was a strong wind at our back as we surfed the rollers
from Spike Point on Shoal Lake to Deadman Portage. Some of the waves crashed
over the sterns of a few of the canoes and got a few of the packs
wet and even heavier for the portage into Portage Bay on Lake of the
Woods. Some of us had
to run two trips across the portage to get all the gear into the
canoes for the final leg to Laketrails.
Steve LaCousiere was holding down the bow of the canoe, but
he wasn’t putting much power into his stroke. He kept turning around
and asking questions about different birds we were seeing around us. Normally Steve is a good paddler, but he was tired and was
dogging it. He knew all
the answers to all the questions he was asking, but just wanted to
get a conversation going so he could rest, turn around, and watch me
paddle. Steve’s mother was a Powassin, a member of the Anishinnaabeg
Band that has lived on Windigo Island for more than two hundred
years. She had taught
Steve all about the birds of the area as well as the native language
which many of the band members still use today. I should have been asking
him questions about the lake.
After a while I got him geared up and we got far ahead of the
others. Whenever I
looked back, I could see lightening flashes to the west. A huge storm was coming our
way. I wanted to get to
the leeward side of Picture Rock Point before we rested. We could take shelter from
the storm in a grove of cedar trees east of the point.
When Steve and I got to Picture Rock Point, we were about a mile
ahead of the others. We
waited for them out of the wind next to the cliffs. I used the time to look at
some of the ancient pictographs that had been painted on the steep
cliffs hundreds of years earlier.
I could also see a few coins and some tobacco offerings stuck
into some of the crevices close to the water. While I looked around, I
noticed that Steve seemed to be more alert than usual and seemed to
be listening for something. I figured he was just listening for thunder to see how close
the storm was, but then he said, “Do you hear that chant?”
“What chant are you talking about! All I hear is the wind
whistling around this point.”
“Yes, I hear that too.
I also hear the Anishinnaabeg Death Chant. Listen.”
I tried to hear what he heard, but heard nothing. Steve wanted me to paddle out from the base of the cliff to
see what was going on top of the cliff, but I didn’t want to get
into the wind again.
Steve and I were arguing about the sounds he thought he heard when
the other canoes caught up to us.
When we were all together, I said, “Let’s get going. Follow the base of this
cliff for about a mile to those cedars up ahead. We’ll set up there until this storm passes. Get a move on.”
“No way,” was the answer in one loud voice. “We’re resting. It’s jellybean time.”
I started to regret that I had told them how the voyageurs
used to stop paddling every fifty minutes to smoke a pipe full of
tobacco. Now as a reward for paddling they were demanding jellybeans
because it was not healthy to smoke.
I was out numbered.
“Ok, ok,” I said.
“Here are the beans.
Everyone can take four, but one has to be white. Take a rest. Steve and I have to check
something out. Wait
here, and eat the beans.”
I had to get out of there.
I figured it would be easier on my nerves to listen to Steve
talk about “Death Chants” than to listen to three canoe loads of
teens fight over how many jellybeans each person took and how many
were red or black, the best colors, and how many were white.
After taking my five black beans because I was the guide,
Steve and I paddled away from the base of the cliff. When we could no longer hear
the yelling about jellybeans, I turned the canoe and looked at the
top of the cliff.
There stood a man in white with his arms raised.
Although the wind was howling, I could hear him sing, “Arma
virumque cano…” The
fringes on his white leather jacket and pants made a popping noise as the wind made them
snap. His long gray
hair flowed in the wind like white water over a falls. It was like a vision with
sound and color.
However, it was real.
Steve then yelled,
“He is going to jump when he finishes the song. It is part of the
I knew I had to do something.
Immediately I thought of the entire situation and started
putting a plan into action. That was why Laketrails was paying me the big bucks. I was an achiever. There was no time to waste.
First Steve and I paddled back to the other canoes and told
them to get away from the base of the cliff so the jumper would not
land on a canoe and dent it up.
Insurance would not cover that situation. Then I told them to get the tape measure out that I use for
measuring the muskies I catch and release. Then measure 52 feet six
inches from the base of the cliff and then anchor one canoe there. The other two canoes should
move a little further from the cliff and get their cameras out. If the guy jumped and hit the anchored canoe that would be a
world record in the long jump.
A picture like that could be on the cover of Sports
Illustrated, hopefully not during February when the Swimsuit Issue
comes out. Then if the fellow hit and dented the anchored canoe, that
canoe could be as valuable on the open market as the chair Lincoln
was shot in.
Next Steve and I started to climb to the top of the cliff
through thorny wild rose bushes. We did not pause to smell the blossoms. Sting weed was also growing there, but we only chewed a
little of it. By this
time it was starting to rain heavily and lightening was flashing all
around us. Thunder made
the cliff shake, but we pushed ourselves toward the sound of the
When we got to the top, I grabbed the man in white leather
and pulled him back from the edge.
Steve yelled to the people below to find a place out of the
rain. There would be no
records set from that cliff on that day.
When my heart stopped pounding, I introduced myself and asked
the man his name. He said something in Anishinaabeg. Steve immediately ran over and acted as interpreter since the
man knew very little English.
To save time here, I will not tell you what the two said in
Anishinaabeg. You don’t
understand Anishinaabeg and, to be honest, I can not remember what
they said exactly. This is a rough translation as I remember it.
“My name is Chief Whocawmacha. I am 865 moons old.”
Immediately I whipped out my pocket calculator and divided
865 by 13. There
are around 13 full moons in a year since there is a full moon every
28 days. Anyway, 865
divided by 13 came to 66.5 years old. My most people’s standards
Chief Whocawmacha was
of retirement age, but still a relatively young man.
When Steve asked the chief why he was going to jump, Chief
Whocawmacha said, “Since the age of thirty-three I have been chief
of my band. When I was younger, all the people in my band listened to my
words, the words I had heard from my elders as a boy. I spoke of the customs of my people. I spoke of the way to live with the land and the birds of the
air, the animals of the forest, the fish of the lakes and streams. I spoke of all our Relations
and of the four directions – North, East, South, and West. The people listened and we
lived well. Now that I
am older, the young people no longer listen to me and follow the
wisdom of the elders.
They listen to others and do not follow our Way. I have no other purpose in
life anymore. This is
why I jump.”
When Steve asked whom the young people were following, Chief
Whocawmacha said, “They are following the Chief in the Village
People, you know the one with the big head dress. Rather than do the
traditional dances they are all singing and dancing to the tune of
Right away I jumped into the conversation and said, “Hey,
hold on, Chief. I am
interested in your customs and traditions and I think I could teach
your ideas to young people.
I am a leader of men.
There are plenty of women chasing after me too. Teach me what you have
learned from the elders so I can teach all the young people of the
The chief shook his head and said, “You, Pierre, are
Gitchimookomaanag, a White Man, a Frenchman. You are not an Anishinaabeg. I no can teach you.”
“Wait just one minute, Chief.
Jesus was a Jew, but He talked to the gentiles and later His
sidekicks have been going around for centuries teaching people of
all races the Christian way.
What is the difference?
A good idea is a good idea.
A belief does not have a color or a language. What is good for all your
Relations is good for all people in the world. I have lived like many of
the people in your band for years already. I am ready for the next
“What you say might be true, Pierre. I saw you chewing on sting
weed on the way up the side of the cliff. That is good. That is the traditional we
try to teach the young people so they will not use strong drugs. We tell them that sting weed
is the beginning of the Drug Road which is bad. Of course, since the elders
say it is bad, the free spirited youth try the sting weed. It burns the mouth more than
soap. Even the fingers
that touch the sting weed hurt.
In that way the young people will not be stupid enough to try
harder drugs. They will
listen to their elders.”
“See, Chief, I know some of the basics already. Ask me another question
about the Way of All your Relations.”
“Tell me this, Pierre.
Even with this strong wind blowing away from us, I can smell
the fragrance of White Lightening on your clothes and on your in
breath while you talk.
This is a drink that the elders have tried to teach the young people
for centuries. How is
it that you, Pierre, know this secret and have the smell of White
Lightening on your person?”
“Once when I fishing during June as a young boy, I saw part
of a ceremonial going on shore. Young Anishinaabeg boys and girls were gathering dead fish
flies that had washed onto the beaches. A few were running into the
water and getting wet and then standing on a doe skin on the shore. (The swimmers all had
swimsuits on, of course.)
Then when the horse flies, or bull flies, as you Canadians
call them, landed on the bare, wet skin of the swimmers, the
swimmers swatted them. When there was a pile of flies about knee high to the
swimmers, they stopped killing and started cleaning those flies.
They just let the rest of the flies bite them so there would be bull
flies left for the next year, I guess. I never did understand that
“The cleaning you saw was merely taking the wings and legs
off those critters. It
was a time consuming job, but it kept the youth busy and out of
trouble. What else are
they going to do with their time in the summer when there is no need
to carry wood to keep warm.
We tell the young people that the cleaning was necessary for
a proper brew. The legs
and the wings do not break down into a mush like the rest of the fly
does. If a youth drinks
a brew that has not been properly cleaned, the legs of the bull fly
will get caught between his or her teeth. The wings will build up
under young people’s braces and will flash in the firelight while
they are standing around drinking the stuff. Then people will laugh at
“I’ve never cleaned
the flies in my brew, Chief.
Now I know why people have been laughing at me all these
“We all make mistakes.
You were not properly trained. Did you put all these dead
flies into a container made of birch bark and then fill it with
water from a swamp.”
“Yes, I did that.”
“Did you wait for the soupy mixture to bubble and ferment?”
“Most of it. I did drink a little of it
before it got to that point, Chief.”
“You have a problem, Pierre. You are not patient enough. Entire brew has to sit
for one winter at least and maybe more if the temperature does not
get to minus 40 degrees.
Then in spring, youth
are allowed by elders to start a fire and stand around and
drink the entire mixture.
“However, in all cases mixture smells
so badly that entire birch bark container was dragged deep into
woods so stink not drive all people from village. Often dragging would cause
small rips to develop in the bark and mixture would drain out. Sometimes mixture would be
consumed by hungry bears.
Bears will eat or drink anything. Seldom was container ever
found again since it was pulled so far in woods. Each spring, youth would start a new batch again with same
“ The stuff I brewed smelled bad too,
but I just put the soupy mixture into a bottle and kept it under my
bottles kept the entire room warm in the winter. Are you saying, Chief, that
I am the only human to ever actually drink White Lightening?”
“Probably. Others may pour themselves a
drink and then pour it on the ground when no one is watching. A person would have to be
crazy to drink something that taste and smells like that.”
“Well, everyone seemed to be having
such a good time working together to make the stuff. I figured it had to be
“You were wrong, Pierre.
Process not finished product was what elders were concerned
about. I do not think
you are worthy to know any more of our traditions.”
“Please, Chief, give me one more chance. Give me another question
about your traditions.
Please!” I begged.
Chief Whocawmacha was silent for some time as the rain poured
down on us. Just about
when I was ready to give up on ever knowing more of the chief’s
traditions, a lightening bolt struck an old pine tree near us. It sliced a branch from the
trunk and sent it shooting through the air. The branch hit a crack in
the rock between the chief and me and stuck there humming like a
tuning fork. I’ll never
forget that tune. It still sends thrills to the bottom of my spine.
Then Chief Whocawmacha looked around the branch and said,
“That is the sign I have been waiting for. If branch miss crack, I
would not give you another question.
Now I ask you this.
What you do when you hear call, The Call of All Nature?”
This was the question I hoped he would ask. I had studied for this one
and did not even have to use the clue card that I carried in my
pocket since my youth.
But just in case there was a television camera trained on my face, I
rubbed my eyes and stroked my beard before answering. “Well, Chief, that is a
tough question, but I think I can answer it without calling a
friend. There are many
steps to this answer. I
hope I don’t miss a single one.
“First of all, it depends where I am when I hear The Call of
All Nature. If I am in
a canoe, I usually find a quiet, little bay to beach the canoe out
of the wind. Then I’ll
look around to make sure no one is watching me. Then I’ll work my way
through the brush and up a rocky ridge until I am 100 paces from the
water. Then I look
around for two things - a tall pine tree and for a person that may
be watching me. The
tall pine is good: a person watching is bad. When I find a tall pine I
take out my compass and make sure I am on the south side of the
pine. Then with my foot
or a stick I dig a hole into the dirt or moss about six inches deep. Then I make one final check
for people watching. If
I see no one, I quickly drop my pants and answer the call.”
The chief smiled.
I thought I had aced the test. I figured he was proud of me
and would tell me more traditions.
Instead he said,
“What you say is good.
But what do you do with paper?”
That question threw me into a panic. I never use paper. I just am not that kind of
guy. Should I tell a
white lie, or should I tell the truth. I went with the truth and
blurred out, “I don’t use paper.
I am a leaf man!”
Then I went into details that I don’t want to bore you with. Basically I told the
chief I use the aspen leaf, figuring that is how the tree got its
name. If I cannot find that leaf, I will use the leaf of the ash
tree. I never use the
branch of the jack pine.
That will put a stain in your shorts.
The chief looked pleased.
Then he said, “What you say is good. It is our way too. I was afraid you are like many whitemen who throw the paper
into trees. Sometimes
when I go to suburbs of big cities, I see whole rolls of paper
hanging in trees, many times in trees of teachers’ homes at end of
school year. I thought
that was white man way.”
“No, Chief, I do not speak with a forked tongue. I use only leafs from trees
and never bushes. It
might be poison ivy.
Then I put the leaves into the hole and also throw in a pine cone or
two before covering the entire hole with dirt or moss. The pine cones are to grow
forest for future generations.”
Then the chief stood with his arms out to give me a hug. Finally he said, “Welcome,
blood brother. You are
worthy to learn special dance of Anishinaabeg. It is dance we all do when
it seems world is falling apart around us. Come to edge of cliff.”
Just then the rain stopped pouring down and the wind died. I looked up and saw a double
rainbow in the eastern sky.
Steve suddenly thought of the others on the canoe trip and
yelled to them from the top of the cliff, “How is everyone doing down
He had forgotten that was the original signal we had agreed
on if it looked as though the man in white was going to jump from
the cliff. Everyone
hustled to their spots and got their cameras ready for a jump. From their eagerness, I knew
all the jellybeans were gone, even the white ones. They were on a sugar high. I didn’t care. I was about to learn the
most important dance of the Anishinaabeg.
While the others watched and took snapshots and videos from
below, Steve and I stood on each side of Chief Whocawmacha on the
edge of the cliff.
Finally he taught us each movement of the Dance of the Squirrel. He also taught us the
following dance song using the tune of the branch that was still
humming after being thrown into the ground by the lightening bolt:
Gray squirrel, gray squirrel,
Swish your bushy tail.
Wrinkle up your
Hold a nut
between your toes.
Gray squirrel, gray squirrel,
Swish your bushy tail.
Then Chief Whocawmacha
ripped off white
leather clothes that
were snapped together like a basketball player’s warm-up pants. (Of
course, he still had a Mark Spitz Speedo on.) Screaming “Geronimo”
he sprang from the cliff in a spread eagle position. On the way down he went into
a swan dive for the cameras.
Finally he did a full twisting one-and-a-half somersault with
a 2.2 degree of difficulty.
I would have rewarded him with a 10 for the dive. However, in
the last second he pulled out of an arrow straight entry and went
into a canon ball. He
landed on the far side of the canoe that was marking the world
record for the long jump.
The wake from the chief’s dive swamped the canoes with the
camera crew so I can’t prove any of this.
Then Steve looked me with a wink in his eye and said, “Grampa
is always doing stuff like that.”
I knew then that the secret to a happy life is not to take
things too seriously at times.
Holding hands, Steve and I jumped off the cliff ourselves.
Pierre look closely at Father Joe’s face that was now
brightly lit by the setting sun. There was a huge smile on Father’s face, but his eyes were
closed. He looked so
whispered to Pierre that Father was probably still replaying in his
mind Chief Whocawmacha’s words and reliving his personal and world
record breaking leap.
After saying a silent prayer by Father’s bedside, Pierre and
I, Eaglewatcher, left Fr. Joe with his vision of Chief Whocawmacha.
Pierre's Fourth of July
Pierre's Religious Experience
Pierre Starts South
Pierre And the Gravel Road Agents\
Pierre Goes Shopping
Pierre's Duluth Trip
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