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”.

Qu'Appelle River

Qu’Appelle River


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.


6 responses to “The Qu’Appelle: A Story of Estrangement and the Awakening of Empathy”

  1. Dwig says :

    This post couldn’t be better for me to comment on a book I just finished: “Honoring the Medicine: The Essential Guide to Native American Healing”.

    The author, Kenneth Cohen, is a New York Jew who studied Chinese spiritual disciplines (Taiji and Jigong) before encountering Native American “medicine men” (and women). He has worked with healers from many Native American nations, become a healer in his own right, and has been adopted by a Cree family. The book goes into considerable depth in the spiritual and healing ways that characterize that worldview.

    I was fascinated by many similarities (and interesting contrasts) to much of the material that’s appeared here, and in Greer’s articles on modern magical practice. I was left with the impression that there’s a small but strong population that continues to follow the Good Red Road. (He has a website:

    One striking difference from the religious traditions that I’m familiar with: the emphasis on gratitude as a fundamental “mode” of living. As I understand it, prayer, in this tradition, isn’t usually about “please forgive me” or “please give me”, but “thank you for the gifts of life you’ve given me, and continue to give me.”

    Perhaps the European invasion (installation?) is just a passing phase in Turtle Island, and the future truly belongs to those who follow the Way.

    • Scott Preston says :

      One striking difference from the religious traditions that I’m familiar with: the emphasis on gratitude as a fundamental “mode” of living. As I understand it, prayer, in this tradition, isn’t usually about “please forgive me” or “please give me”, but “thank you for the gifts of life you’ve given me, and continue to give me.”

      Yes, for the most part, that’s true in my experience.

  2. Scott Preston says :

    By the way, I don’t want to romanticise the hunter/gatherer or magical structure of consciousness. It was a pretty harsh life in many ways, and inter-tribal warfare and feud was almost constant. And that feuding still simmers away below the surface appearance of “First Nations” unity. The magical structure of consciousness is real. It’s still exploited by advertising and branding precisely because it is real. And when it comes to the magical structure of consciousness, Gebser’s advice is pretty much “handle with caution”.

    The realm of magic is a realm of powers, and power can be pretty harsh. Contemporary propaganda relies on magical technique, and its aim is power and the control of perception.

    In fact, the early Christian Church recognised “natural magic” as authentic. What was anathema and tabu was what was called “supernatural magic” — conjuration or necromancy. But this is exactly what “propaganda” is — even as branding/advertising. And the admen and brandmeisters even speak of it in just that way — “new shamans”, “ad wizardry”, “the black arts”, and so on. I haven’t read a book yet on contemporary advertising that doesn’t invoke “magic” as the effective function of advertising or propaganda.

  3. abdulmonem says :

    It is what we really grasp is the deciding factor in our growth not biologically but spiritually a field in which we are co-creator. How malleable. How stories change our mood and push us away from the pathological mood of the Joneses and the avarice and cupidity of the markets to the souls that hear the voices of the calling rivers, the hospitable meadows, the running clouds and murmuring water to let us enter the flowing field of Floyd of one world, one soul when the boundaries melt away and Nelson gets married to the ojibway women and Pauline hears the spirit voice of the calling river reliving in herself the experience of the mythical consciousness whose grasp outstrips the slow speed of our physical existence to enter the sphere of the lovelight radiating from the melancholy songs of the human hearts that are realizing the truth of things. The melancholy songs that echo the great sweet sorrows that have morphed into embracing compassion that negates every ugly emotions and affirms everything beautiful. The songs that remind us of our spiritual history and our underlying unity with the cosmos in its epistemological sense, avoiding being drowned in the diversity of the physical manifestations. To be concerned with the cosmos and not to be occupied with the earth we are walking upon, forgetting it is only a small part of the whole, to humanize the animal and not to animalize the human. Oh! vanishing years, oh death the door for a wider existence, let the sleeping hearts awake because the death of the hearts herald the death of everything and let us keep our bond with him, least all promises fall to the ground unfilfulled and heed the call of Pauline at the end of her cry. Thank you Scott for a beautiful story that has ignited all these emotions. May all we shall be seekers on the path to him and never forget ourselves in the searches of the others, but use these searches in the precising and perfecting of our own spiritual journey.

  4. Charles says :

    Good writing. Empathetic Awareness. The Spell of the Sensuous- David Abram is a book that is insightful about the separation between humans the the living ecology which we are immersed in. The first chapter is entitled the ecology of magic.

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