There are some things on the road of life that just seem to happen. It’s not knowing exactly when, where or why that surprises us the most. Sometimes these occurrences are a good thing and at other times it just seems at that particular moment it couldn’t have happened at a worse time.
Southern Saskatchewan is a very hot, dry and dusty place mid-August, a never-ending landscape that rarely changes in its appearance of wide-open prairie. Two ribbons of asphalt heading west towards the beckoning mountains are separated by a very wide meridian from another two ribbons of asphalt heading east. The Canadian Pacific Railroad tracks run parallel to both, very long trains now making their way to eastern Canada loaded with double-deck shipping containers.
The trip started out normally — a barely warm half-cup of coffee in the cup holder, country music softly playing on the radio, a general feeling of serenity and bliss as we made our way back towards home.
That’s when I heard the scream.
There, gasping for breath and pointing towards the driver’s side sun visor, slowly working its way across the cloth roof panel and moving towards my wife, was a huge grasshopper. No big deal, I thought, as there were scores of them on our property and they just flew away as you walked towards them.
This one was different.
I pulled over to the side of the road and stopped the vehicle to deal with the intruder and throw him out the window. There was plenty of traffic on the road and chances are the grasshopper could have ended up dead on someone’s windshield. Taking an empty clear container I gently nudged the grasshopper into it and closed the lid. I’ll find a safe place to let him out so he can go about his merry way, I thought. Directly across from the passenger side of the vehicle stood a weather-worn sign along the tracks that said “Piapot.” Beside it was a gravel road leading from the highway and across the railroad only to disappear into the vast prairie.
I decided to call him Felix. I noticed immediately that the grasshopper’s exhalations formed very thin beads of moisture that clung to the inside walls of the bottle. I opened the cap occasionally, always making sure Felix had plenty of oxygen to breathe. He must have been terrified inside that bottle, for it wasn’t too hard to notice that Felix had gone to the bathroom twice. I had to find somewhere safe to let him go. After all, he had done nothing to me but scare my wife and that was no reason to terminate him.
About an hour later we crossed into Alberta and all of us seemed to be faring well. A sign read: “Tourist information ahead, six kilometres.” I thought, this is where we will find a spot to let him go.
A half-kilometre off of the highway, the Medicine Hat Tourist Centre is located on the edge of a small coulee. Taking the imprisoned and frightened Felix into my hand I proceeded down the slope of the coulee and picked what I thought was the perfect place amongst the tumbleweeds to set him free. No vehicles could harm him now and the spot offered perfect cover while he got oriented in his new surroundings.
With Felix now set free and everyone feeling good with what had just occurred over the course of the past hour and a half, our journey west soon resumed as planned.
Browsing inside the tourist bureau, I found out that Medicine Hat is home to the world’s largest teepee. A towering steel structure over 100 feet tall, its sides are adorned by the shields of the prairie nations. It is the tallest free-standing structure on the horizon and can be seen for miles. Medicine Hat is also touted as the city that gas built and, like the small town of Leader, Sask., it also carries the distinction of being deemed the rattlesnake capital of Canada.
I wonder just what I was thinking about when I decided to climb down into a small coulee filled with rocks and snakes laying in wait only to release a grasshopper. It wasn’t until later that evening while sourcing some information on my laptop that certain questions I had pondered all day were finally answered.
Piapot was named after a “Payepot” — a chief of First Nations people in southern Saskatchewan in the late 1800s. Born to a Cree mother and an Assiniboine father he lived with his grandmother after both of his parents had died of smallpox. He and his grandmother were captured by a party of Sioux and lived with them until freed at age 14 by a Plains Cree war party.
The knowledge he gained from the Sioux helped him become a Cree war chief by age 24. His role as a warrior came to an end in 1870 when he led his Cree warriors against the Blackfoot. This engagement was the last major inter-tribe battle on the western plains of Canada.
Piapot, despite his status as a warrior chief, believed in peaceful negotiation and was soon known both as a diplomat and a visionary. His fluency in five native languages helped him divert many potentially violent encounters with neighbours. Wise and knowledgeable with a quick wit and a keen mind, he soon became the moderate voice in negotiations with other chiefs.
In 1883 he led his band in acts of non-violence against the railroad, pulling up survey stakes and placing teepees in the path of the trains. He negotiated an end to the standoff and continued to work on behalf of his people.
Piapot, as a signatory to both Treaties 4 and 5, felt that these were solemn commitments and, although urged to do so by other parties, refused to participate in the Northwest Rebellion in 1884. Chief Piapot honoured each and every one of his obligations and terms he put his hand to.
The Piapot Reserve in later years was the birthplace for Buffy Saint Marie, the Academy Award winning native singer, songwriter, musician, composer, visual artist, pacifist, educator, social activist and philanthropist. Her work has been covered by such artists as Elvis Presley, Barbara Streisand, Neil Diamond, Janis Joplin, Chet Atkins and Joe Cocker. Responsible for setting up the Cradleboard Teaching Project, the educational curriculum devoted to better understanding Native Americans, she has won awards for both her work in education and social activism as well as her music. Buffy Saint Marie has been bestowed a Doctors of Letters, Doctor of Law twice and an honorary Doctor of Music.
She was adopted in 1964 by the Imu Piapot and his wife, he being the youngest and only surviving son of Chief Piapot, at a powwow for the Cree Nation.
Karma is defined simply as what goes around comes around. Grasshoppers may be the bane of the grain farmers on the prairie for all of the destruction they cause, but Felix had the distinction of being different. Why, at that moment in time, did he decide to make his presence known, at a spot in the middle of nowhere, by an old and faded white sign with black letters that simply said “Piapot?”
In retrospect, I did the right thing in saving Felix. He showed me that no matter what size we all are we share similar traits. My wife initially was frightened but so was Felix.
The one thing maybe Felix didn’t realize was just how good of an educator he truly was. Without any great amount of effort I had learned more about our country, a person, a prairie nation and its cultures, albeit in and near some of the almost forgotten pages of our country’s history.
One doesn’t have to look very far in this country to find out about yesterday; one only needs to follow the signs, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant they are. So here’s to Felix, who made his presence known and because of it other paths were found that would lead to a better understanding and appreciation of our country’s almost forgotten history.
Watch out for those rattlesnakes!