Travels with Two Skunks

When I was in my late 30s, I travelled to the Temagami area of Northern Ontario. There was a retreat there for native men who had experienced…

When I was in my late 30s, I travelled to the Temagami area of Northern Ontario.

There was a retreat there for native men who had experienced cultural dislocation — who’d been displaced from themselves and their identity.

Because I’d been a product of foster homes and non-native adoption I went to spend 10 days reconnecting to traditional ways and teachings.

We were guided by a team of elders and healers. For the most part those of us who travelled there were city dwellers, more used to the pace of urban life than the bush or reservation.

Most of us did not speak our language. The majority had never had any link to the bush ways of their people or the traditional teachings that guided them. None of us had ever directly faced the issues of our displacement.

As soon as we arrived we were paired up in tents. My tent mate’s name was Paul and he was a 39-year-old half-Cree man from Northern Quebec.

He lived in Montreal, worked as a pastry chef and had never been beyond the city in his life. Like me, he had been taken away from his people as a toddler. Unlike me, he had been in more than 20 foster homes by the time he was 16. He’d come to the camp to begin the journey back to tribal identity.

The first day of sessions, we were asked to choose an animal to use as our name for the length of our stay. We were to tell the group why we had chosen the animal we had.

I called myself Wandering Bear. I said that I admired the bear for his ability to live alone for great lengths of time yet still crave family and togetherness.

When it was Paul’s turn, he said that he was a skunk. He sat with his head down staring at the ground, clasping and unclasping his fingers. He said he chose a skunk because they’re scavengers, rooting around for whatever they can find.

 “What’s lower than a skunk?” he asked.

 “I don’t know,” one of the guides replied. “Two?”

From that day on he was Two Skunks.

We travelled a great journey in those ten days. We learned to build fires without paper and matches. We learned to set gill nets, clean fish, shoot rapids in a canoe, snare rabbits, read animal tracks and build a bow and arrows in the traditional manner.

We spent a night alone in the bush, building lean-tos from spruce boughs. But we also learned about the spiritual way that guided all of those practices.

There were sweat-lodge ceremonies, prayer and smudging circles, tobacco offerings, drumming circles and a lot of talk.

Each of us spoke about growing up without the benefit of our native identity. Each of us shared stories of displacement, awkwardness, the struggle to fit in, to belong. We talked of where our trails had taken us and how we felt about where we’d been.

Two Skunks spoke so quietly we had to strain to hear him. Over the course of days, he shared stories about the sexual abuse he’d suffered at the hands of a foster father.

He’d never spent a whole year in any one home. When he was 16 and old enough to be on his own, he went to the streets of Montreal.

He sold himself there. To men. He drank and drugged. He stole and went to prison where he sold himself again just to survive.

He talked of hating his skin. He spoke of wanting sometimes to just scrape it off. How he felt betrayed by it and how no one had ever given him any answers about where he came from, who his people were and who he was supposed to be.

He spoke of never feeling honest or deserving or worthy. He spoke of the hole at the centre of his being.

But the elders took him in their hands. They had healing ceremonies for him and we all got to attend. They gave him permission to cry about it all and he did. In the sweat lodge he cried for himself and prayed hard for the ability to forgive himself.

Then he prayed for the forgiveness of the ones who hurt him. At nights we talked quietly in our tent and he spoke of the incredible feeling of light that was beginning to shine in him.

Then one day, he asked me to come along with him and an elder. We walked deep into the bush and Two Skunks made tobacco offerings and gave thanks for everything that had ever happened in his life. He thanked the universe for the gifts of those teachings. Then he put those offerings in the ground, returned them to earth and sang a prayer song. I felt honored.

When the retreat was over we hugged and went our separate ways. He wrote me sporadically through the years. He joined a drum group in Montreal, started to learn his language and attended talking circles and sweat lodges every week.

He wrote about feeling happy, about being connected, about finally feeling Indian. But like all things time and distance become time and distance — he never wrote again.

Then, one day, a letter arrived. It was written by a woman who said she was Paul’s wife. She was a Cree woman and they’d been married four years and had a young daughter named Rain.

Two Skunks had died of complications from diabetes. He was 44. But he’d become a traditional dancer and singer. He helped guide a traditional camp in her community and he spoke his language fluently. When he died, he was buried in the traditional way.

I sat with that letter in my hands for a long time. Then I went deep into the bush, returned it to earth and gave thanks for the teaching.

We heal each other by sharing the stories of our time here. We heal each other through love. And love, in the Indian way, means you leading me back to who I am. There’s no bigger gift and all it takes is listening and hearing. Ahow.

Richard Wagamese is Ojibway and the author of Keeper’n Me. He recently won the Canadian Author’s Award for Dream Wheels.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Team Togo member Katie Moen sits in a sled behind a snowmobile for the ride from the airport to Chief Zzeh Gittlit School. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)
Coming together: How Old Crow became one of the first communities in the world to be fully vaccinated

Team Togo and Team Balto assembled with a mission to not waste a single dose of vaccine

Main Street in Whitehorse on May 4. If council moves forward with bylaw changes, eating and drinking establishments could set up pop-up patios in on-street parking spaces. (Stephanie Waddell/Yukon News)
Patios may be popping up in Whitehorse this summer

City considers program for downtown restaurants and bars

The Yukon Coroner's Service has confirmed the death of a skateboarder found injured on Hamilton Boulevard on May 2. Gabrielle Plonka/Yukon News
Whitehorse man dies in skateboarding accident

Coroner urges the use of helmets, protective gear, while skateboarding.

The new Yukon Liberal caucus poses for a photo during the swearing-in ceremony held on May 3. (Yukon Government/Submitted)
Liberal cabinet sworn in at legislature before house resumes on May 11

Newly elected MLA Jeremy Harper has been nominated as speaker.

The Yukon Wildlife Preserve’s baby bison, born April 22, mingles with the herd on April 29. (John Tonin/Yukon News)
Yukon Wildlife Preserves welcomes two bison calves

A bison calf was the first 2021 baby born at the Yukon Wildlife Preserve

A map provided by the Yukon government shows the location of unpermitted logging leading to a $2,500 fine. (Courtesy/Yukon government)
Man fined $2,500 for felling trees near Beaver Creek

The incident was investigated by natural resource officers and brought to court.

The site of the Old Crow solar project photographed on Feb. 20. The Vuntut Gwitchin solar project was planned for completion last summer, but delays related to the COVID-19 pandemic pushed it back. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)
Old Crow is switching to solar

The first phase of the community’s solar array is already generating power.

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Brendan Hanley. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
One new case of COVID-19 in the Yukon

Case number 82 is the territory’s only active case

Flood and fire risk and potential were discussed April 29. Yukoners were told to be prepared in the event of either a flood or a fire. Submitted Photo/B.C. Wildfire Service
Yukoners told to be prepared for floods and wildland fire season

Floods and fire personelle spoke to the current risks of both weather events in the coming months.

From left to right, Pascale Marceau and Eva Capozzola departed for Kluane National Park on April 12. The duo is the first all-woman expedition to summit Mt. Lucania. (Michael Schmidt/Icefield Discovery)
First all-woman team summits Mt. Lucania

“You have gifted us with a magical journey that we will forever treasure.”

Whitehorse City Hall (Yukon News file)
City news, briefly

Whitehorse goings-on for the week of April 26

The Yukon Department of Education in Whitehorse on Dec. 22, 2020. The department has announced new dates for the 2021/2022 school year. (John Hopkins-Hill/Yukon News file)
Yukon school dates set for 2021/22

The schedule shows classes starting on Aug. 23, 2021 for all Whitehorse schools and in some communities.

Most Read