Monthly Archives: June 2012

Eating Bannock Voyageur Style

Our recent trip to Fort Whyte ended with a canoe trip and bannock baking experience. We were on the The Bison and Its People tour. Not only the Plains Indians depended on the bison. We learned that the Metis voyageurs transported bison hides for trade by canoe. 

After practicing our paddling skills on land we headed out in the canoes just like the voyageurs. We sang songs like My Paddle Keen and Bright and Alouette as we glided over the water. We learned that voyageurs paddled up to eighteen hours a day while swatting away thousands of mosquitoes and despite muscle pulls and other injuries from lifting heavy bundles of hides and furs. 

Our guide Lisa showed us the voyageurs’ sash which not only held their warm bison coats closed but also provided back support while carrying heavy loads or on portages. The sash was also a place to hang a knife or a pouch. 

Does it look like my husband Dave and our friend Tad are praying? Actually they are rolling bannock dough. Bannock is made from flour, shortening, a little salt and some milk or water. The voyageurs considered flour a rare treat but when they had some they made bannock. 

Dave’s bannock is just about ready to wrap around his fire stick.  It was the Selkirk Settlers here in Manitoba who dubbed their unleavened flour/ water biscuits bannock. The voyageurs actually called it galette. 

The next step is winding your bannock around a stick for the fire. Bannock has many nicknames including bush bread, trail bread and grease bread. 

This is the step in the bannock making process that requires the most patience. Roasting it over the fire–not so close to the fire that it burns–not so far away that it doesn’t get baked properly. 

Mmmmmmmmmm! That’s delicious!

Our guide Lisa brewed us tea from the berries of the wild rose.

The tea made our bannock taste even better!

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Beggars Everywhere

I often encounter people asking me for money on the streets of Winnipeg and I’m still trying to figure out the best way to deal with it. I had the same dilemma when we traveled in India.  A blind man stands outside our van window, his cupped hands raised in a silent plea for money. Two children dance along the street at our side, their hungry eyes imploring us to share the cold fruit drinks we’ve just purchased. A family huddled around a fire on the highway median breaks rank as our vehicle approaches. They jump up and down begging for rupees. The images of India that will haunt me the longest are the faces of the beggars. I’m ashamed to say their persistence exhausted me, but we could hardly walk a step in India without being stubbornly followed, repeatedly touched or verbally assailed by beggars. I admit at times I was honestly afraid of the beggars. It embarrassed me, especially because most of them were elderly or children. One late afternoon we were walking down the streets of Jaipur and my husband Dave decided to take a short cut to a coffee shop, by crossing an empty lot where a group of gypsies were camped. Indian cities are full of these communities of itinerant workers who come in from the countryside to do construction jobs. Their families accompany them and using sticks and blankets create makeshift shelters anywhere they can find space. They have no water supply, dependable food sources, or sanitation facilities and their children don’t attend school. Many rely on begging to supplement their meager temporary income. Dave was walking quickly and was way ahead of me when a whole group of gypsy children surrounded me asking for money. A half-dozen of them were shouting, grabbing my arms, snatching at my purse and pulling on my clothes. I was scared I would fall down or be pushed down. I shouted for Dave. He turned around and took a step back towards me. This was enough to send the children flying off in all directions as I hurried to catch up with Dave. It was difficult to know if we should give money to beggars. We were advised not to do so by our tour guides.

I had read Rohinton Mistry’s book A Fine Balance before going to India. It paints a moving portrait of beggars in India but also makes one aware begging is really a profession with many different middlemen and entrepreneurs involved. Often the beggars themselves receive little or none of the cash they collect.

We spent an evening in Delhi at the family home of one of our Hong Kong teaching colleagues. Our colleague’s sister is a doctor. She told us about a Delhi physician arrested recently for operating on homeless children to deliberately maim them. The children’s ‘bosses’ had arranged for these surgeries to make the beggar children seem more pathetic to potential donors.

Our colleague’s father, a retired newspaperman, told us people routinely fly into Delhi from different Asian countries to make their fortune begging on the streets. They dress up to look destitute and once they’ve raked in enough cash they head back home.

I’m sure it is best not to give money to beggars, but it is very hard to turn your back on them. My husband Dave found this particularly difficult and I would often see him slipping money to people.

One way I dealt with the situation was to offer the beggars rupees for taking their photographs. It gave them a way to ‘earn’ money, but perhaps I was only taking advantage of their desperate situation. I certainly don’t need photographs to remind me of the beggars of India. Their faces will continue to haunt my memory for a very long time.

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Big Mother–An Unusual Sculpture

A mother baboon grieving after the death of her own baby abducts a human baby to nurture. The human child is quickly rescued unharmed.  That’s the story that inspired Big Mother by Patricia Piccinini, one of the sculptures in the Fairy Tales, Monsters and the Genetic Imagination exhibit currently at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. I was at the gallery preparing for my tours next week and I spent a fair bit of time at the Big Mother installation wondering about the best way to introduce it to children. 

Before I told the story of the human child abducted by a baboon to my tour groups  I wanted to be sure it was a true story. I found a couple of narratives on the web about baboons abducting human babies but they were fiction. One was a moving short story of a young mother on a picnic who goes to chase after her daughter’s pink bonnet when a gust of wind blows it away. She leaves her infant girl on the picnic blanket for just a minute and when she returns with the errant bonnet the baby is gone. The mother spots her darling daughter in the arms of a baboon high in a tree and only after a man distracts the baboon mother with dancing and loud noises does the baboon leave but not before depositing the precious cargo in her arms gently on the ground. 

The National Geographic website reported that one June morning in 2003, on a farm in South Africa, a young mother responding to the cries of her three-month old baby discovered the infant had been taken by a baboon. The website doesn’t tell us the outcome of the story. It is simply a teaser to get us interested in watching the program.  One intruiging thing about the sculpture Big Mother are the designer bags at the baboon mother’s feet. What are they for and what is inside them?  I think I’ll let my tour group participants use their imaginations to figure that out. 

The baboon in the Big Mother sculpture definitely looks sad and I will ask my tour participants to speculate on what might make her sad. If she could talk what would she say? The Big Mother piece is made from silicone, fibre glass, leather and human hair and sells for $250,000. 

I’ll probably avoid a view of Big Mother’s back side with my younger students. It is just a little too graphic but with older gallery visitors it might spark discussion. Sculptor Patricia Piccinini does not shy away from realistic and earthy renditions of her subjects.  She was born in Sierra Leone, perhaps that’s why she is familiar with baboons. Now Piccinini lives in Melboure Australia. 

There are two other works by Piccinini in the Fairy Tales, Monsters and the Genetic Imagination show. Both are equally thought-provoking. 

This one is called The Long Awaited and the one below Stem Cells

Each of these pieces could also spark some interesting conversations and questions during the tours I give. I’m looking forward to it. 

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There Must Be 50 Ways To Use A Bison

On our recent tour The Bison and Its People at Fort Whyte Alive we went into a tipi with our guide to learn about the many different ways the First Nations people used bison. 

My friend Sandy from Hong Kong is entering the tipi after receiving instructions from the guide that to be polite and respectful we must always move to the right once we enter a tipi. 

Apparently it takes anywhere from 8 to 20 bison hides to make a tipi. Once we were seated inside our guide had many artifacts to show us that demonstrated all the ways the Plains Indians used the bison. 

Although my husband Dave tried to use a bison bone for a kind of harmonica our guide Lisa told us the Plains Indians used the bone to clean hides. The bones were also used as needles, awls, digging hoes and tent pegs. They were fashioned into scrapers, knives, spear handles, shovels, clubs and were used in the construction of winter sleds. 

The bison’s thick hide wasn’t just good for making tipis but also for drums, masks, snow shoes, shirts, moccasins, leggings, dresses, belts, bedding, mittens, caps, belts, bags and dolls. 

Dave is touching some bison hair that has been shed from its shaggy coat. The bison hair made a soft lining for blankets, pouches, cradles, coats and moccasins. It was used to make rope, ornaments, medicine balls and pillow stuffing. Bison sinew became thread and bow strings. 

Even the bison’s hooves were used to make glue, rattles and hatchets for butchering animals. 

Dave is reaching over to try and tickle our friend Tad with a bison tail.  The Plains Indians didn’t use the tail for tickling but rather as a fly swatter, lodge decoration and whip. 

Of course the main use of the bison was for meat. The organs, ribs, rump and tongue were delicacies and the rest of the meat was dried and mixed with berries, nuts or seeds to make pemmican and jerky. 

Dave is acting silly by putting the bison horn on his head but the bison horn wasn’t for fooling around. It was made into cups, ladles, powder horns, spoons, toys and head dresses. 

The bison dung or poop which we saw during our drive through the bison herd was used for fuel. 

The bison’s bladder, stomach and intestines were used to make water containers. 

The Plains Indians were ingenious when it came to recycling every single part of the bison. They had many more than 50 ways to use a bison. 

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Killing A Bison Is Hard

During our recent visit to the Fort Whyte Nature Centre where we took The Bison and It’s People tour we learned just how difficult it must have been to kill a bison before 1500 when the Plains Indians were introduced to bows and arrows and horses. Before that bison were killed with spears. Here’s my husband Dave trying out his spear throwing technique. 

The bison were herded into a corral made of fallen trees after being driven down a kind of funnel path created by branch markers. They were chased onto this path by hunters draped in buffalo skins. The bison hunt was very dangerous and many hunters were killed. Using the corral method minimized the number of deaths. 

Here our guide Lisa shows our Hong Kong friend Sandy how to attach the smaller launch spear to her long spear. 

I’m ready to launch my spear. It did go forward a short distance but those Plains Indians hunters must have been very skilled and very strong to throw their spears over a hundred yards and have them penetrate the bison’s thick skin. 

Our friend John is giving Dave some tips as he positions his atlatl. The atlatl was a launcher that gave the spear leverage to achieve greater velocity. 

Unfortunately bison were hunted almost to extinction once guns and horses were introduced. They were killed for sport and hunted as food for the workers building railroad lines. They were also targeted because they were seen as a menace to cattle farmers and because the government wanted to eliminate the Plains Indians’ source of food thus making it easier to send them to reservations. The infamous Buffalo Bill is said to have killed over 4,000 bison in one 17 month period. 

Although bison no longer roam completely free they are making a comeback.  There are some 300,000 bison in herds in national parks and on bison farms. 

I’m pretty sure I couldn’t have been a bison hunter but now that I’ve visited Fort Whyte and learned more about bison hunting I have new admiration and respect for the courageous Plains Indian hunters and the daring, strength and skill they must have needed in order to kill a bison.  Killing a bison is hard!

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Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Bison

Did you know you can sleep buck naked between two bison hides in minus 50 degree weather and stay toasty warm?  

Did you know an adult male bison that weighs 2000 pounds can maintain a running pace of 55km an hour for longer than a race horse and jump a barricade 2 meters high?  I learned all this and more when I visited the Fort Whyte Nature Centre and took their award-winning tour A Prairie Legacy:The Bison and It’s People.  Former teaching colleagues from Hong Kong are visiting us here in Winnipeg and wanted to learn more about some of our native animals. Although they were interested in seeing polar bears in the wild, we told them a trip to Churchill would be too expensive and time-consuming. We suggested that instead we’d introduce them to an animal synonymous with Manitoba–the bison. Someone recommended Fort Whyte as a good place to see bison. Here are Dave and our Hong Kong friend Tad in the foyer of the Fort Whyte Nature Center. Lisa was our knowledgeable guide. She has a degree in eco-tourism and knows everything there is to know about bison. Here she is showing us the Metis flag. The Metis people began hunting the bison in the 1820’s. We hopped into Lisa’s van and within minutes we were driving right into the middle of the Fort Whyte bison herd.  Lisa opened up the van doors and suddenly we were up close and personal with an animal that is larger than a polar bear or moose. The bison were in the process of shedding their winter coats and Lisa showed us the huge stones they have worn to a smooth sheen as they rubbed against them in order to help get rid of their fur. Our visitors John and Sandy check out a hank of bison hair that has fallen off of one of the animals. Bison hides are so warm that RCMP officers at work on the prairies used to wear coats made out of them all the time. The Fort Whyte herd are Plains Bison which have just a little larger heads than the Woodlands Bison.  Dave made me pose with a hank of bison hair for a beard. We learned that bison fur is very dense. For every one hair follicle an ordinary cow has, a bison has seven.  Lisa introduced us to a bison called Twisty Horn because one of his horns curls up and the other one down. Both male and female bison have horns. Those horns can grow to be 66 cm. long and are a powerful weapon for self-defense.

We met Charlie the bull of the herd. Young males are removed from the herd before they turn two years old because Charlie gets snarly when he has competition. Once he slammed and killed a young male because he was jealous.  Charlie’s big head has earned him the nick name of Mr. T. 

This year Charlie fathered seven babies. All the bison in the herd help to look after them. The babies are ready to keep up with the herd just thirty minutes after they are born. They nurse for the first five months. Adult bison are herbivores and sustain themselves on grasses.  

Lisa taught us how to read the bisons’ tails. If their tail is hanging down and swaying they are contented and relaxed.

If their tail is straight up it means they are angry or anxious. We also learned about the cow bird which perches on the bison’s back and eats parasites. 

Bison dung chips are odorless and colorless. We saw plenty of them in the meadow where the bison graze. First Nations people and early settlers sometimes used the chips for fuel. 

Bison live to be about 25 years old. They seem to know when the end of their life has come and go off alone away from the herd to die. 

A bookmark I picked up in the gift shop as we were leaving Fort Whyte, provided some final life lessons from the bison.  Stand your ground. Have a tough hide. Keep moving on. Cherish wide open spaces. Have a strong spirit. Roam wild and free. Let the chips fall where they may.

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Indian Tiger Safari

The three friends from Hong Kong who were our traveling companions on a trip to India are visiting us here in Winnipeg. Yesterday we were reminiscing about our Indian tiger safari.

My husband Dave had his heart set on seeing a wild tiger on our visit to India, so we carefully planned our itinerary to include a safari in Ranthambore National Park.  We arrived at Ranthambore late at night and stayed in a rather seedy lodge with frigidly cold rooms, water stained walls and thin fraying bedding. After a less than ideal night of sleep we were awakened at 5 in the morning to have breakfast before departing on our 6 am safari.

The temperature was a chilly 4 degrees as we clambered into our open-air jeep to begin our tiger hunt. I was happy to be wedged in tightly on the rather short seat between Dave and a banker from London named Sidney. The two large men on either side of me blocked the wind and helped keep me warm. I enjoyed chatting with Sidney as our jeep swerved over rutted trails and lurched up steep inclines. Sidney had grown up in Guinea South America, and had moved to England to attend university. He’d gone on to a successful career as a London financier. Sidney had flown into Delhi a few days before to attend the arranged marriage of one of his banking colleagues. He had decided like Dave, that if he was in India anyway, he’d like to see a tiger.

It is not easy to see a tiger in the wild in India. There are only about 1000 left in the whole country. 26 are said to live in Ranthambore National Park. I had read before our visit, that even in areas protected by India’s Tiger Preservation Authority poachers kill tigers. Just two years ago there were 3,000 tigers in India. Apparently China is the main culprit in the decline of the tiger population since tiger organs are used in the making of traditional Chinese medicines. Poachers do a brisk trade in cross border selling of tiger organs. The tiger population is also dwindling because of a lack of forested habitat in which they can live. There are twenty- three villages in the Ranthambore Park and their residents are continually cutting down trees to use for fuel.

We had heard though that Ranthambore was the place where we had the best chance of seeing a Bengal tiger. The park is on the grounds of a former royal hunting ground with a palatial lodge where the Shah Jahan who built the Taj Mahal used to bring his guests on tiger shooting expeditions. Royalty have continued to visit the area. Prince Phillip and Queen Elizabeth came hunting there before a ban on killing tigers came into effect in India in the 1970’s.

We spent three and a half hours looking for a tiger. Our jeep stopped several times so our driver could talk to tiger-trackers who roam Ranthambore looking for the elusive beasts. Despite their best advice, the closest we came to seeing a tiger was to see the paw prints of one in the sand. We did however see any number of monkeys, exotic birds, wild boar, various species of deer and even a moose……..but no tigers.

Due to international pressure India has just begun a new initiative to try to increase its tiger population. Hopefully it will be successful so that if Dave returns to India in a few years he will get a chance to see his tiger. A few years may be what I need before I’m ready to embark on another freezing cold pre-dawn safari. If you’d like to volunteer to accompany my husband next time, I’ll gladly give you my seat in the jeep.

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