old promises new deals and bringing in the sheaves

I learned to drive when I was 10. It was an old grey Allis-Chalmers tractor and my job was to pull the wagon where the men of my adopted family…

I learned to drive when I was 10.

It was an old grey Allis-Chalmers tractor and my job was to pull the wagon where the men of my adopted family forked sheaves of wheat at threshing time.

I never went very fast, but I learned to drive carefully so the men on the top of the load were safe.

Threshing time was big. Back then, hereditary farms still flourished in Huron County and there was a strong sense of community along the dusty concession roads.

Neighbours had been neighbours for generations and folks looked out for each other. There was always a time when help was needed for one thing or another and in those times, it was always there.

When they gathered together to help each other bring in the crop, it was an event.

People came from all along the line and it gave the work the feel of importance and I was proud to be allowed to be part of it.

The only thing I could do at my age was drive and I took to it quickly.

I drove steadily. When I needed to turn, I made sure I did it evenly, conscious of the both the load and the men atop it.

When the wagon was full, I drove up the lane to the barn where the threshing machine waited. I could hear the men chatting and laughing on the wagon behind me. I drove as smoothly as possible, proud to be able to contribute to the work.

When we stopped for lunch, there were virtual feasts prepared for us. The women and girls worked in the kitchen all the time we were in the fields.

There was roast beef and mashed potatoes and four kinds of pie and ice cream for desert. The talk was lively and quick and there were jokes and teasing and I watched it all with a kind of awe.

As a foster kid I had never been a very real part of family things. At celebrations I was ignored for the most part and gatherings were reserved for the real family.

There was always a sharp sense of difference, of separation and I learned to see things from the sidelines. Being included felt magical to me and I reveled in it.

Those meals felt like a passageway into a whole new world.

But it was what happened after that sticks with me today.

The men gathered on the veranda. There they sat in chairs, slumped on the railings or lazed on the stairs. They smoked, drank a beer or two and talked and laughed and joked.

It was like the work created a different kind of space for them; a light that you could cup in your hands, feel like the warmth of the sun on your back. I felt manly in that space, right, included, allowed entry by virtue of my labour.

I was a boy of 10, working for the first time and in the loose togetherness of those people I got a sense of what it took to accomplish things.

They were farmer folk and threshing was important business, something they took seriously, something they valued and came together easily for. It wasn’t work to them. It was necessity, purpose, a matter of fact need and they just got to it.

You could feel the way they felt about the land. It was in their easy talk and the way they squinted in earnestness at the fields, maybe rubbed a head of wheat in their palms then sniffed it deeply with their eyes closed.

The land defined them, gave them substance, gave them breath.

Years later working with my people I’d see that connection again. It was in the easy talk of the elders, they way they squinted in earnestness at the bush, maybe rubbed sage or cedar in their hands and sniffed it deeply with their eyes closed.

The land defined them, gave them substance, gave them breath.

It takes togetherness to accomplish things. Unity. A common purpose. That’s what I learned when I learned to drive.

These days there’s a lot of talk about land claims and treaty rights. There’s a lot of anxiety about someone losing while someone gains. There’s a lot of concern about the land.

We’re all neighbours. Whether we live on concession roads, paved avenues, or along the hard line of highways that shape the grid of this country, we’re all neighbours.

We’ve lived together for some time now, generations, and there’s work that requires us to come together to accomplish.

The trouble is that a lot of things have been said or written that confuses things. We’ve all become victim to misinformation and the time for straight talk, for an earnest leaning over the back fence kind of talk between neighbours is here.

You learn more by looking in the eyes of folks. I learned that in the fields of my boyhood.

Land claims and treaty rights are old promises made when the country was young. They’re not new deals based on greed. They’re not acts of revenge or retribution.

They’re a request from one group of people to another for the honoring of a promise, for a pact made in honour, for a handshake, a deal made square while standing on the land.

This land defines all of us. It gives us all substance. Honouring a promise is as important to native people as it is to farmer folk.

The process of finalizing outstanding claims and defining rights is valuable work, serious and requires a coming together of wills and strength and visions of the country.

There’s no right or wrong in this. There’s only honour or dishonour. That’s the straight fact of it.

There’s only the harvesting of a common future, of neighbours rallying together to get the job done, bringing it home, the drive smooth and measured so as not to topple anyone.

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