Paul Seesequasis is a Canadian Cree/Ukrainian man who works with early photography in the high northern prairie and boreal lands during the early twentieth century. Sometimes as far north as Inuit country. He caught my attention because he uses the photos of Blackfoot taken by Walter McClintock and Thomas Magee. I’m white, but since I came to Browning in 1961, sometimes I recognize people or know something about what they are doing. The photos are remarkable, not just because of content but also because of their high skill and great beauty.
These images tell stories of domestic life and the last gatherers of the old ways. No war stories. Rather gambling games, dances, cookfires, and horse races. You might say the Real Lives of the Real People, not Hollywood melodrama. So I’ve felt free to make comments on Paul’s Twitter posts.
These two photos, esp. this first one, were so eloquent and open that it was as if the girl were telling a longer story. This is what I imagine her story might be at that moment.
GROWING UP IN BLUEBERRY CAMP
The cousins always loved blueberry camp because they were good friends and liked being together while they picked and then chatting later when they spread out the berries on a clean blanket to pick the leaves out — how do they get in there when they pick so carefully? Their mothers might suggest it was because they had too much fun and didn’t pay attention, but then the grown women would laugh at their happy girls. They were growing up, but there was no hurry. Berries and girls ripen in their own time.
This year did seem a little different. The basic structure of the camp had evolved over the years so that the fireplaces and the big stones marking out camp spaces stayed in place and most people put up their tents in the same places. Just because it was a camp didn’t mean it could be cattywampus and mixed up. The old people especially liked the reminders of earlier years and sat in their same places while they smoked and told jokes. They loved being under the trees but having the tents nearby for sheltered naps.
Maybe it was the girls who were a little different from last year. They were approaching womanhood and knew it. The berry stains on their skirts reminded them. Jean Marie had bobbed her hair in the modern way, but Claire Ann left hers long. Now and then the chatter stopped and the girls were silent for a bit, lost in thought, staring off into the trees at the edge of the meadow as though they could see into the future. Then one would begin a soft song and the other would join.
One day Jean Marie’s granny, who usually took care of the summer baby and the toddler, wanted to do laundry and so Jean Marie had to stay in camp to do the Granny’s usual job so her mother could continue to pick. Claire Ann didn’t look for anyone else to pick alongside. Instead she enjoyed making her own decisions and went apart from the others to a place the others never went.
The picking was good and she filled her pail earlier than usual. It was a warm day, but breezy enough to be comfortable. Over at the edge of this good place she saw a sandy bank with fox burrows in it and then, as she sat quietly, the cubs came out to play. Their antics were so funny that she lost herself in their pouncing and tussling, their mouths gaping and their tails sticking up in an arc. She would like to hold one, but she knew that she must sit quietly — not even laugh — or they would disappear. The bushes rustled a bit in the wind and the reverie of the moment held her.
This last year she had become more aware than usual that the lives of the People were changing. Not a lot yet, but the grownups were wary of what might happen. They looked at her sideways and talked about traveling to schools far away. She didn’t want to leave her family — her family was herself. But also she began to understand that the world was a huge place with a lot of different people in it, and that they might even think about her. They had power she couldn’t understand and seemed able to even oppose the older people in the webwork of people who claimed her as her relatives.
Even beyond that, her body was changing and might entice her into new behavior. And yet she would like to be a mother, to have children who played like little foxes, happily content in a place they fit and understood. There were certain boys who caught her attention with their energy. They were showing off, but it was meant to impress her, maybe not even Jean Marie. Her, for herself. Jean Marie was different. She was very curious and had even said she might like school. She had heard about cities and wanted to know more. The nature of these two good friends might pull them in very different directions.
A soft clinking sound made her look behind her where she had set her blueberry pail. The mother fox had the wire bail in her mouth and was tugging on it while her eyes rolled over to see what Clair Ann was doing. This bounty of berries all in one place had made her bold. The girl could see that the mother fox was thin except that her belly was dotted with clean little nipples from nursing. The babies were keeping her hungry. Just as Clair Ann realized and shouted, the fox pulled hard, the babies went down the holes, and blueberries spilled in every direction. She didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry. Mama Fox went off making her funny nattering fox commentary with her ears back and her tail high.
She knew what to do — get busy to fill the pail again. It wasn’t a disaster — just an incident — and she would make an amusing story about it when she and Jean Marie ate supper together. In a way without words, she knew it was about babies and growing up. A little scary but natural.