Ending winter, but not storytelling


By Drew Hayden Taylor

Originally published in May 2012

I look out my window and can’t help but notice that winter is beating a hasty retreat and spring is rapidly invading, spreading across the land like a canoe full of voyageurs and black robes.

The beginning of spring marks the start of some things and the end of others. No more pushing cars or trucks stuck in snowdrifts – unfortunately the primary source of cardio in many First Nations communities.

 Maple sap is running already, meaning fresh maple syrup is already boiling in the pots.

Much like non-traditional tobacco, it is one of our more dubious contributions to the health of our own society, what with the high rate of diabetes in our communities. Knowing that exquisite taste, however, who wouldn’t chance a pancake coma?

Also, no more ice fishing.  All those shacks I saw only a month or so ago dotting the lakes are already put in storage, the summer cottage for many a spider.

But what concerns me on a personal and professional level about spring is that it is the traditional end of storytelling.

Many cultures, including my own, believe that winter time is the proper season to tell stories. Much like the European story of the Ant and the Grasshopper, summer is a busy time with too much to do to waste time with stories.  Those are best left to the winter, when families and communities spend long hours in the warmth of their tipi/wigwam/longhouse/RVs, weaving intricate stories about the animals, spirits and people that populated their world.

There’s an old saying, or a warning, really. ‘Mosquitos love stories.’

Needless to say this philosophy is problematic to someone like me who makes his living from various methods of storytelling. Every year I ponder if I should I take an enforced six-month break, mastering some other fine art like pottery or macramé? 

I mean, so what if I did tell a few stories… let the mosquitos come.  I have enough Muskol to get me through most of June and July.

And what are the metaphysical implications if I decide to summer in somebody else’s winter… like August in the Antarctic?  Thinking of the broader picture, I’ve always meant to ask an Elder if I could tell stories there. Or are the limitations on seasonal storytelling restricted to location or culture?

This is getting deeper than I expected. Maybe I will just rely on my Caucasian side to tell stories. There seems to be no moratorium on stories told by the colour-challenged. And then I will let my Indigenous half grumble and complain, like chiefs at a First Nations conference.

Coincidently enough, one of my favorite stories is about ice fishing.  And like the best stories, it’s supposedly a true one.  At least that is what I was told.

It seems a friend of mine who lived down in the L.A. region of California married a Cree woman. He himself was of Apache and Pueblo blood, and was more familiar with the dry deserts and rocky Road Runner-type vista of the American Southwest.

Then he went north with his wife to spend Christmas with his in-laws.  And eventually as the week progressed, he found himself embracing the local customs, which included sitting in an ice shack situated in the middle of a frozen lake with a bunch of his new family.  So there they sat for several hours.

Needless to say, he felt very out of place.  He was cold. Nobody talked. He was very uncomfortable knowing he was located in the middle of a large body of water with several holes cut in its frozen surface.

This was not L.A. or the desert. For the Apache/Pueblo gentleman, something was definitely wrong with this picture.  So eventually getting bored, he tried to start a conversation.

“Is this all you guys do, just sit around here?”

One of his companions shrugged and said “Yeah.  But you should have been here last week.”

“Why?” my friend asked.

“That’s when the ice shack hookers came around.”

Ice shack hookers?  Now, admittedly, I don’t know a lot about the sex trade industry, but in the social hierarchy of that industry, working the ice shacks has got to be on the real low end of the spectrum. It’s got to be hard to look sexy in a skidoo suit.

I have heard of prostitutes working truck stops, supposedly leaving your head lights on is some sort of signal, but ice shacks? Do you pay them in fish!? Bait!? Can fish and game wardens bust them for hunting without a license?

Now every time I drive by a lake and look out on its frozen surface, I can’t help but see those small isolated shacks sitting on the ice, and occasionally somebody walking across the ice. It makes me wonder what is really going on in those things.