Have you ever bought a book just to have it, even though you know that it might never get read? The idea of my favourite author, Canadian Hugh MacLennan, in his Seven Rivers of Canada, intrigued me well enough to buy it at a second-hand Book Sale at one of the Colleges of the University of Toronto years ago, but the examination of the Qu’Appelle Valley and River recently drew me to read a little of it for the first time. In its own comfortable way, Seven Rivers of Canada paints the topography and the character of this country by reference to its major river systems: the Mackenzie, St. Lawrence, Ottawa, Red, Saskatchewan, Fraser and St. John. You might wonder how he could do this. But he does it magnificently, intertwining each of them with the economic and social lives of their regions.
This approach of MacLennan’s inspired me to consider my life in relation to the Qu’Appelle Valley. The Valley is a place that my Father regularly travelled through by horse. The horse brought him to this very special place and, as we mentioned last time, was itself an important part of the experience. In a similar vein, you might even say that because of my father’s horse, I too was brought to this special place on the Canadian prairie landscape. In subsequent years I have experienced the Valley multiple times, however briefly, and the river and series of lakes that accompany it.
In any experience of place I would argue, the name is a necessary and important component of the experience. Qu’Appelle Valley’s name derives from the Cree word, Kab-tep-was, meaning “the river that calls” (https://umanitoba.ca/student/indigenous/media/24_Place_Names.pdf). But there is also a legend that has stood for a very long time within the Valley and was captured within the poem, The Legend of Qu’Appelle by Mohawk-English poet Emily Pauline Johnson (1861-1913), who was also known as Tekahionwake (https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/pauline-johnson).
The legend speaks of a love between a Cree warrior and a Cree “maiden of rare beauty, and many gifts,” who, in spite of this, remains nameless. The warrior seems to be only named as Three Eagles in Johnson’s prose version (http://www.victoria.tc.ca/~sly/epj/valley.htm). In The Legend of Qu’Appelle Valley the Cree returns from war to be with his loved one and marry her. She however passes away before this can happen, and the legend has it that he heard her voice on his return to her father’s tepee:
Selection from "The Legend of Qu’Appelle Valley" by Emily Pauline Johnson:
When suddenly from out the shadowed shore,
I heard a voice speak tenderly my name.
“Who Calls?” I answered; no reply…
I leaned and listened – yes, she spoke my name,
And then I answered in the quaint French tongue,
“Qu’Appelle? Qu’Appelle?” No answer, and the night
Seemed stiller for the sound, till round me fell
The far-off echoes from the far-off height –
“Qu’Appelle?” my voice came back, “Qu’Appelle? Qu’Appelle?”
It is, for sure, a quaint legend, one that is no less an experience of place, where the echoes of distant hills are heard as the voice of a lover. But it is also equally important, in my view, to see a place on its own terms, without reference to its name, to experience the place directly, individually, to understand it as it appears to you in the moment. The Valley is, then, regardless of its name, a place where the perfect flatness of the plain is momentarily interrupted, and standing watching it alone you feel as though you are looking into the mirror of this prairie landscape and find yourself in a moment of truth. The past, the present, not only of the valley, but those of you yourself, seem palpable, and coalesce to taste like an exquisite red wine, the taste of truth settling down upon your tongue. You could not begin to deny it.
Maybe it is the sense of enclosure, the feeling of being cut off from the rest of the prairie, the rest of the world, as you stand alone in the quiet of a valley that is at peace with the world and with itself. Maybe it is the perfection of this circumscription, one place set off so completely from the rest of the prairie, that it allows you to look inside instead of at the eternity of a prairie horizon. There is a “near” view here which is absent elsewhere. You feel as though you have entered into the privacy of a room set apart. And in this room, alone, you are brought to a moment of introspection.
And in this circumscription, this Valley stands up and declares that what is true here is not the same as that for the rest of the prairie. The place itself declares that it stands just as much a part of the prairie as any straight-lined road reaching for the horizon. The Qu’Appelle Valley and its River and Lakes know what they are. And in our moment while standing alone with them, they ask us to know the same about ourselves, to know who we are, and to know for what truths we are willing to stand, to be different, so as to defend them.
This yearning for, this reaching for and sometimes finding, what is true is, I suggest, an example of the experience of place. This is the kind of circumstance wherein place and self intertwine. In this place we feel our own uniqueness. We, too, are undulations in a plain composed of others. It is in much the same way as how MacLennan intertwines rivers into the nature and history of this magnificent country. The places become not just the backdrops or stages for the living of our life, but they become intimately, inextricably, part of it, so that we feel incomplete when absent from our own landscape.
The Valley has spoken this way about what is true, I am sure, to many of the individuals who have been fortunate enough to find it. I think that this might be the real reason why my Father loved this Valley. I know it to be the reason that I do. Could this even be part of the reason for its name?
The Qu’Appelle Valley: Where Horse, River and Road Have Already Been.
By Douglas Allen
The calculation is always the same:
How much of yourself you need to give away,
how much you keep for still another day.
The horse, the river, the road,
Measure not what is left,
But how much has been given away.
So just how many miles have slipped under your feet,
Of the prairie road that lies there silently in front of, and behind, you?
And how do you measure what has slipped away
under clouds that seem to follow you,
Which drift immeasurably over a landscape that never changes,
Over the endless miles of the unrelenting horizontal plum line?
Like all of the hours of your day that always seem the same?
Horses are Sometime Rivers,
Taking you with them to places
You’ve never been before.
Watching you watching them,
As they silently stand guard,
Necks bent down under the weight of the sky,
Feeling the poignant tug of soft dew-drenched green.
Sometimes you find yourself just sitting there,
Watching them watching you,
Not quite sure of what to do.
You sit there on the fence
Somewhere between knowing and not-knowing.
You watch the horse, like the river,
Silently keeping its natural shape,
Staying within its nature,
Within the confines of what it is,
Under every colour of sky,
Under every colour of rain.
And so this is the Valley,
The name of which is more question than answer.
This is the calling,
To a truth that has been waiting for you,
All the while,
To find it and bring it home to you.
And you know in this moment,
That this is what you must do:
Find your way to your own house,
To where horse, and river, and road
Have already been.
They are already there,
At peace under the eternal, clouded sky,
Whispering that it is you
That has to find your way to them,
And not the other way around.
WHO IS DOUGLAS ALLEN?
Douglas is a PhD Candidate in History at the University of Toronto. His studies are of late medieval and Renaissance Europe. He is interested in using the lens of identity to explore and understand history, human motivation and action. He is also a writer and is currently writing a novel set in the City of Winnipeg in the 1980s, which explores the nature of indigenous and non-indigenous relations.