When I was in Saskatoon, even though I had roots in Manitoba, I wanted to really know about where I was, so I dashed out to buy books written by Sask writers and was careful to watch CBC and listen to Canadian radio. Those were the days of Peter Zosky, a golden era. I found a TV series called “The Campbells” about early days Canadian settlers, sort of Laura Ingalls Wilder up North. Then I would say to the locals, “Did you see on ‘The Campbells’ where such-and-such happened?” And they’d give me this pitying look.
They never watched it. They were subscribing to American cable so they could keep up with the murders and sex scandals. To them that was reality, the action, where things happened. ‘Campbells' was hopelessly square and lame. Sort of Walt Disney gruel with trees. They thought it defined them as second-best, dull. A weak version of Davy Crockett.
So now comes “Frontier,” a Canadian series. Six episodes this season.
This is the trailer, but YouTube will take you along from that point to other stories and interviews.
If the story follows across the continent, they’ll come just north of me at a time when there was no boundary between countries, just the pushing edge of the Hudson’s Bay Company. The eastern edge pulled in Iroquois trappers, who later came West, and across both oceans there were outposts: Samoans and Hawaiians in the Pacific and Brits and Irish roaming the Atlantic.
“Capitalism in North America” is one of the themes at a time when the exploitation of the high frontier continent was based on furs. We know about this here. In fact, Bob Scriver was a fur-buyer. Our dog slept on a stack of stretched-round flat beaver hides and I was used to the smell of mink skins drying on wooden scabbards whittled from shingles. PETA be damned. We knew the families who did the hunting and trapping — they had to as survival and their families had done the same for millennia. Now many of them have office jobs.
It’s just that the Blackfeet were buffalo-based and had little to do with HBCo because there were no buffalo over there at James Bay. The Blackfeet disliked canoes, being soaked all the time, and eating what they considered “nothing food” like deer or big birds. But they would go east to trade for metal. On what is now the Canadian side of the high prairie, adventurers from Europe came long before Lewis and Clark. In that strange folded-back way of a round world, there were also people from around the Pacific, including Europeans who had figured out how to get around the various horns of continents.
So Momoa is not the first Hawaiian fur trader. His tribe in the story is Cree/Metis. The wise chieftain is female this time, Tantoo Cardinal. She wears a fabulous feather cape, not the Hawaiian hummingbird shimmery kind, but a rich earth-colored and moving scrim of feathers. Tantoo is one of the most enduring and skillful of the indigenous actors nourished by Canadian respect for theatre. Most of them are aging, even gone, but Tantoo is a figure of wisdom that transcends film roles and supports personal activism.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zm3p8vUdKyE This is an interview with Momoa, who looks and acts like Conan in movies but surprisingly grew up in small town Iowa, actually Madison County. He was born in Hawaii (yes, like Obama) and has a good fraction of indigenous blood from various places, like for instance the brutal British Isles. He’s just learning about Canada, and is one of the few actors who are not Canadian.
In interviews he’s not a lot more talkative than his fabulous character on “Game of Thrones.” So far he’s not riding horses. (Not a lot of grazing in those woods.) But he says he loved the script because it was brutal, violent, bloody, very dark, defiant, and far on the edges where he could lurk mysteriously. The Canadians will love it. At last they’re not gray ladies, but up there with the gladiators, though they wear quite a lot of fur since the climate is not Italian.
As side remarks about the costumes, in one of these shows-about-shows there is a “breakdown artist” whose job is to distress, stain, scrape or whatever the costumes and other materials. They use wire brushes, acid, various pigments, and it’s actually rather dangerous because of the corrosion and force. Ace Powell’s son, David, did quite a lot of that work, but had to stop because it affected his lungs. We’re long past the Maidenform bras; now the corsets make boobies pop out the top like rising bread. I spotted a lot of contemporary off-the-rack leather jackets, but they aren’t obvious. One of the secrets of survival for the actors was built-in electrical heat, battery-operated. They said you could buy that off-the-rock, too.
Living as I do next to the Blackfeet Rez and acknowledging as I do the enormous progress and growing sophistication of the people here, who include a lot of Cree and Metis and are not confined as a tribe to either Canada or the States, I never feel any particular allegiance to the political categories of Montana as a State of America. Rather, my understanding of the terrain is ecological, both sensuously and philosophically. I mean, the long horizon and the rippling grass have meaning to me, as well as the ways of living on this high prairie cut through by rivers and swept by blizzard.
I loved Momoa saying that the weather out on the northern Atlantic coast was what in Iowa he had considered a cyclone. That is, he said, it was “surreal” (his word) when the big blows came ashore in winter full of heavy snow and desperate temps, only to completely vanish in a few days — no trace, only sunshine and songbirds. We just lived through a sequence like that right here.
This world of “Frontier” that is so much about capitalism in North America is crucially relevant to the prairie today. “Fur” is no longer the focus — now it’s minerals, fuel, and industrial grain/meat. The dynamics of murder, corruption, sacrifice of the weak and small, and now — since we are overrunning our ecologies — destruction of the great global commons of sky and sea, all continue on and threaten to wipe away all our troublesome mammal greeds and passions. This is a chance to watch the entry of European savagery into a new continent, which turns out to be old enough to fight back with equal force and relentlessness.