I took a charter flight north: Wasaya Airways flight WT926. No luggage screening, no masses of people clicking briskly down moving walkways or hunched over iPods, no carpeted jet bridge for boarding. Just six other people and I crossing snowy concrete and climbing the metal stairs of the plane.
Red Lake first, we were told. Then Deer Lake. Then a string of other reserves, but I didn’t care about those. Deer Lake, Ontario, was my destination.
It was nice, flying with the cockpit open. Mostly what you could see out the frost-lined window were frozen pond shapes among brown patches of trees. After Red Lake, no roads.
Dora and Janet met me at the airport with smiles and hugs. Here, I’ll introduce you.
This is Dora, on the right:
And this is her sister Janet, who was kind enough to share her room with me. Janet can never resist a good game of Sorry.
And this is Johnny, Dora’s husband. He’s slicing up frozen moose meat for roasting.
Here’s another photo of four of the sisters: Dora, Lydia, Karen, Janet, with me on the end. There is another sister living, and four brothers. I think. I might have missed someone. Several I didn’t mention have passed on.
I am their sister, too, Dora tells me. “Just one of the family,” Karen says. So on the streets of Deer Lake I feel that I belong, that I can hold up my head and say that I am also a Meekis.
I arrived Thursday, on Christmas Eve, and that evening joined in a gift exchange at Grandma Elodie’s. Everyone got something, even me. Standing room only.
Then at 12 midnight, through the first hours of Christmas day, we went mukshaying. I don’t know how to spell the word, but that is how it is pronounced, and I can tell you that it means “feasting,” and I can tell you what is done.
You go with your group of friends or cousins from house to house; not bothering to take off your boots at the houses, but tromping straight inside; your glasses fogging if you are wearing them; straining to see faces and floors through opaque lenses.
Then you see the people sitting around the edges of the room: inhabitants of the house or the cousins, sisters, daughters of the inhabitants. And your entire group files around the room, shaking every person’s hand and wishing them a “Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas.”
Then your group crowds around the table to eat from the platters of crackers and cheese, of nuts and candy and cookies, of ham and turkey and rice and moose meat. And if, going out, you happen to meet another group coming in, they line up and you file past their line, shaking hands with each one.
“Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas.”
Now don’t think that house-to-house mukshaying is done on every northern reserve. From what I understand, it is unique to Deer Lake. All the reserves have their own flavor and traditions, as disparate from each other as Washington D.C. from L.A. from New York.
During my stay in Deer Lake, I also participated in a nighttime sledding party.
Sensible, these Deer Lakers. They don’t drag themselves out of bed at seven or eight in the morning unless they have to work. On vacation days and off days, they might party until two or three and sleep until ten or twelve.
I attended a funeral, too. That of Victor Meekis, beloved father and grandfather, who passed away only a few days before Christmas.
Here is the graveyard, every “house” festooned with flowers, ribbons, fabric. You can see the fresh dug mound of dirt to the side, awaiting the casket.
My friend Annie and her family gifted me with a pair of gloves:
I felt like a shy pig-tailed girl, felt like royalty, the whole family gathered around to watch me open them, Serena–or maybe it was Miranda–standing ready with the camera. The wrapping paper not taped, only folded, and I unfolded it and then–oh, the gloves!–the leather and beading.
I was given other gifts also: a rich warm throw, a game of Boggle, a pen, candy, socks–and left Deer Lake richer than when I arrived.
Here is the TV station, where Deer Lake news and announcements are broadcast.
Between Christmas and New Year’s, Deer Lakers hold a four-or-five-day annual concert, broadcasting from morning until night: games, singing, skits, local talk shows, and past Christmas Concert re-runs.
I went into the TV station to say a public Good-bye and Thank-you to Deer Lake and, embarrassingly, started to cry. I do this at odd moments in my life–never the moments when it is okay to cry, like at funerals or during good-bye hugs–only at odd moments like in front of the TV camera and half the population of Deer Lake, in front of Steve, who was running the station, and Kylie, who had walked down with me.
I made a hasty exit with Kylie and walked back through the woods. Out of sight of the village, I sat down on a stump to try to gain my composure. “Why are you crying?” Kylie asked, and I gave my standard answer: “I don’t know. No reason,” which probably doesn’t help anybody very much.
I was just suddenly, eminently sad–as though I were leaving Deer Lake for good, as though, maybe, I would never see them again, as though the snow and the pristine purity of the woods were an old old home of mine which I had forgotten, as though Kylie was my little sister who would grow up without me.
It’s only because you were nervous at talking on the television, I scolded myself. And this was probably true, but once the tears had started, I could not stop them easily. My eyes wanted always to water.
We made snow angels, and Kylie accepted my crybabiness as children accept everything, without question.
I left Deer Lake Monday evening, and thank you to those who made me welcome and made my stay a wonderful one, since I never got it properly said on the television.
Here is a photo taken my final afternoon: me with Dahlia and Heaven and two snared rabbits. And yes, they are real, and yes, they will be eaten, and yes, their fur is like soft cloud, like tickles and baby skin and fairy dust on the fingers.
I will visit Deer Lake again, Lord willing. The people are too precious not to. I want to see my friends again, and the children, and my brothers and sisters there.
When I am in Deer Lake, just call me Luci Meekis.