Come back with me. Way back. European settlers had discovered the New World but had only begun to push into its interior, through the Great Lakes, up the mighty rivers. There were a few trading posts along Lake Michigan’s shore. The Anishnabek knew of them, some had even visited them, bringing pelts and blankets, returning with beads and implements, even guns and powder.
Come with me to the banks of the Grand River, at the mighty rapids that cascaded down eighteen feet over one-half mile. A village of framed houses with skins stretched between the wood members huddles on west the bank of the river, civilization with its spine set against the wilderness. Pulled up on the shore, just beyond the water’s reach, is a fleet of boats. Their builders are Odawa, the predominant people of this area.
Each craft is carefully constructed from the bountiful storehouses of nature around the tribe. Ash for the frame. Bark for the skin, stitched together with deer sinew. Pine tar applied liberally along the joints. Lighter than the hollowed tree trunk crafts, a man could hoist this canoe on his shoulders and carry it above the rapids. Sliding the boat into the water he could paddle along the shoreline for miles upstream beside dense pine forests and cedar swamps lining spring fed creeks, past fertile floodplain fields. He might be gone for several weeks, depending on the hunt. Always he returned with the craft loaded with deer, beaver pelts, medicinal herbs, berries or nuts.
The return of the boat would be heralded by the children as the women come out of the huts to greet the returned hunter and carry the deer carcasses for skinning and tanning, butchering and smoking; the beaver pelts for scraping, tanning and stitching into winter wraps, warm against the chill wind that rattles in the winter branches of ancient oak trees.
Other barks return to the village, similarly loaded. Here one carries firewood, stacked and loaded so deeply in the canoe that merely an inch of freeboard keeps the boat from capsizing. Another comes with two sturgeon, identical spear marks behind their heads, gutted and ready for curing, their eggs preserved in a basket lined with ferns, a delicacy for the feast that would welcome the hunters back.
That night around the flames of the community fire, to the sound of the drums, singers and dancers celebrate the success of the hunt, the bravery of the hunters and the virtue of the canoes that brought them home.