The Qu’Appelle: A Story of Estrangement and the Awakening of Empathy
Let me tell you a story. It’s a story of something very human, but which, as is said, is now of something “lost in the mists of time”. It’s the story of a young native man, a near neighbour, really, speaking in temporal or historical terms as well as in geographical terms. It might be considered a contemporary story of the Prodigal Son (or Daughter for that matter). In the telling of the story, I hope to arouse to recollection an ancient memory through awakening your own latent powers of empathy, because his story is also our story.
And so, once upon a time….
I live in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, near The Qu’Appelle Valley — or, The Valley of the Qu’Appelle, really, as The Qu’Appelle is the name of the river that runs through the valley. The name of the river is French, and translates as “Who Calls”. It’s an unusual name for a river, but it is a direct translation of the Cree word “Katepwa”, which is still the name of one of the four large lakes that make up the valley — Pasqua, Mission, Echo, and Katepwa.
The contemporary popular notion is that the river and the valley got it’s name from the idea that the Cree Katepwa (or “Who Calls”) referred to an echo. And this idea that the name referred to an echo was further popularised by the Metis poet Pauline Johnson, (1861 – 1913) whose poem “The Legend of The Qu’Appelle” became somewhat famous, even though it was a very highly romanticised (and not very accurate) tale on how The Qu’Appelle got its name.
Henry Kelsey or de La Verendrye — the historical record of who was really the first European to visit the valley is quite fuzzy. But the earliest records of the explorers seem to contradict the contemporary idea that the river valley got its name from a supposed “echo”, but rather that it referred to a “spirit voice” — the voice of the river itself, and that the Indians named the river itself “He Who Calls”. Yet a generation later, when other Europeans inquired, the Indians did not know or no longer remembered how the river got its name. They had become estranged from it, and in an apparently very short period of time. In fact, the very word “Saskatchewan” translates as “the Living Water”.
That the name “Qu’Appelle” meant, in all probability, the voice of the waters and not an “echo” was confirmed for me when I stayed on the Peigan (Blackfoot) Reserve in Alberta a few years back. Then, there was controversy over the damming of the Old Man River and the diversion of its waters for irrigation. The traditionalists said that the voice of the river sounded “muffled”, like it was being strangled, and the tensions between the “modernists” and the “traditionalists” were quite severe, along with many acts of sabotage against the upstream heavy excavating and construction equipment.
Imagine, if you will, a young Indian man sitting by the banks of The Qu’Appelle, no longer hearing the voice of the river and yet knowing that, what had been real and true for his immediate forbears, was for him now only legend or fable, and perhaps pondering why or what had happened that he could no longer hear that voice of which the stories spoke. And as you imagine that young native man, listen to Pink Floyd’s song “Sorrow”. It is particularly and especially his anthem, his mood, and his sense of loss. But, in more general terms, it is also ours. The song is the lament of the Prodigal Son who that young Indian man now is, and as are we all — estranged. Yet, “all in one canoe”.
The sense of loss, the sense of grief at the loss which “Sorrow” captures so well is also the awakening of empathy, the awakening of a memory. That memory is the memory of origin — of origin and of estrangement and alienation from origin which is the lament of the Prodigal Son — memory of a time when men knew the language of the birds, the songs of the trees, and the voice of the waters. It wasn’t “anthropomorphism”. It was empathic awareness — an awareness that has now receded into legend and myth. For William Blake, though, it was the only true and primary reality. “He Who Calls”, the voice of the river, is a calling because it is a summons to remember. It’s the same river in David Gilmour’s song. But only those with no memory feel no deep sense of loss.
The sweet smell of a great sorrow lies over the land
Plumes of smoke rise and merge into the leaden sky
A man lies and dreams of green fields and rivers
But awakes to a morning with no reason for waking
He’s haunted by the memory of a lost paradise
In his youth or a dream, he can’t be precise
He’s chained forever to a world that’s departed
It’s not enough, it’s not enough
His blood has frozen & curdled with fright
His knees have trembled & given way in the night
His hand has weakened at the moment of truth
His step has faltered
One world, one soul
Time pass, the river rolls
And he talks to the river of lost love and dedication
And silent replies that swirl invitation
Flow dark and troubled to an oily sea
A grim intimation of what is to be
There’s an unceasing wind that blows through this night
And there’s dust in my eyes, that blinds my sight
And silence that speaks so much louder than words
Of promises broken
It was not so long ago that the animals, the elements, and men spoke to one another, in fact. Just a few generations since George Nelson recorded his own experiences of magical beings while a guest of the Woodlands Indians near present-day La Ronge, Saskatchewan. His remarkable story was saved, and eventually published as The Orders of the Dreamed, and it is a first rate example of what Jean Gebser calls the “efficacy” of the magical structure of consciousness.
It was not that long ago.