Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

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How Old Wives Lake Got its Name

When one travels south from Moose Jaw one soon enters a vast upland area rising from the flat prairie. This is the Missouri Coteau. The water in the streams and rivers east of the Coteau flow into the Assiniboine River and eventually into Hudson’s Bay. Streams and rivers of the Coteau flow to the Missouri River, then the Mississippi and finally the Gulf of Mexico.

Many years ago this was all grassland, with water in all the low spots between the hills. There are a few larger bodies of water, the largest being Old Wives Lake, just north of the town of Mossbank. Wildlife is abundant in the hills; the lake is a migratory bird preserve. Buffalo no longer roam these hills; they are now partly cattle country, partly grain-growing country.

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But for hundreds of years the Missouri Coteau was home to vast herds of buffalo and prime hunting ground for indigenous people. The Lakota people inhabited an area that extended from Old Wives Lake south into Montana. The Lakota medicine man Sitting Bull always claimed to have been born on the north side of the Medicine Line (the USA-Canada border). I don’t believe there is any reason to doubt the accuracy of his memory.

The Nakota people, closely related to the Lakota and speaking the same language, lived further east but also came to these hills to hunt buffalo. The Cree people who lived northeast along the Qu’Appelle Valley also hunted in this area. These people all respected each other and made no trouble for each other.

The Blackfoot people lived far to the west and did not come to these hills to hunt. However, sometimes a group of young braves ventured into the hill to seek an occasion to prove their manhood.

And so it happened on a day many years ago that a Cree hunting party had set up camp not far from the body of water now known as Old Wives Lake. The buffalo hunt was a family affair. The men killed the buffalo and brought them back to the camp. The women and children busied themselves scraping and drying the hides, collecting wild berries and pounding the meat and berries into pemmican.

Toward evening a scout returned to camp with the chilling report that a large group of Blackfoot braves was encamped in a nearby valley. Everyone knew that at the crack of dawn the Blackfoot’s braves would come galloping over the hill and slaughter everyone in the camp. The Blackfeet had done this many times before and their hidden presence left no doubt as to their intentions.

The men gathered around a campfire to plan a way of escape. There was a small chance they could drive off the Blackfeet, but many lives would be lost, especially of the women and children. To slip away during the night would silence the drums and let their campfires go out; that would send a signal to the Blackfeet to attack immediately. Their situation seemed hopeless.

Then the old women approached the men and said: “We have been talking. There is no hope for us all to get out of here alive. We will stay, keep the campfires burning, beat the drums and sing all night. You take the young women and children and slip away in the darkness. By morning you will be far from here and you will be safe.”

At first the men refused to consider this idea. But as they talked it became clear that this was the only way to save their young women and children. So they slipped away silently in the night, heading back toward the Qu’Appelle Valley.

The old women remained, kept the campfires burning, beat the drums and sang all night. In the morning the Blackfoot braves swept over the top of the hill, attacked the camp and killed the few old women who had stayed behind.

Soon the story was being told around campfires all through the west of how  mighty Blackfoot warriors had bravely attacked the camp of a Cree hunting party and killed a few aged women. The story reached the Blackfoot elders and they told the young braves “You have brought shame to our people, You shall not go into those hills again.”

From that time the lake and the small river that flows into it have been known as Notukeu (old woman) by the Cree. When French-speaking people came into the area and heard the story they translated the name to la Vieille. On English language maps the river is labelled Notukeu and the lake is Old Wives Lake.

The Bible tells us that God loves us the same way that these old women loved their children and grandchildren: “Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? yea, they may forget, yet will I not forget thee” (Isaiah 49:15).

In the New Testament, Jesus compares Himself to a mother hen: “ how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!” (Matthew 23:37).

A rock of refuge

In 1951 the doctor told Dad he had an ulcer and needed to eat a very bland diet and find a less stressful lifestyle. Thus it happened that in October of that year we loaded all our possessions and left the land of hills and sloughs for a new home in a land of ravines and coulees.

It was mid-afternoon when we got to our new home just outside the town of Craik. I was just in the way when the trucks were being unloaded and I went to look around the yard. I checked out the barn, the chicken house and the garage for our truck. As I walked away from these buildings where all the activity was going on I discovered a ravine north of our house. It began with a large culvert under the road on the west side of the yard and seemed to get deeper as it went east. It was dry now but water must come through that culvert in spring. Soon I was called for supper and after supper it was dark and I was tired.

After breakfast the next morning I decided to see where that ravine would lead me. I hadn’t gone far when the ravine widened and I found myself in a coulee coming from the south. There was a cliff on the opposite bank that I imagined to be a buffalo jump where buffalo had been driven over and killed where they fell at the bottom. When I climbed up the bank beside the cliff and looked around I saw circles in the grass and was sure there had once been tents standing where those circles were.

At the old farm the pasture was a long way from the house, had lots of beef cattle and a few big horses. I had walked it a few times with my Dad and with my older cousins when they came for a visit, but I was a little boy with no permission to explore it alone. Here I was a big boy, nine years old already, and there was a new world to explore at my doorstep. The only cattle were a few tame shorthorns.

I walked further along the coulee. It curved to the east, back west and then north again. The bank inside that last curve was the highest in our pasture. There was a hollow depression halfway up that bank and that was where I discovered the most wonderful place in that whole pasture. There stood a giant rectangular block of pink granite with a step halfway along the top. One could imagine a giant doorstep or recliner. It was a buffalo rubbing stone, rubbed smooth by buffalo rubbing their itches for thousands of years.

The best part was that when I was beside this stone I could not see a fence, a road or a power line and could hear no sound from the roads or the town. I was back in the days before the settlers came and almost expected to see buffalo come along the coulee. This spot beside the big stone became a haven for me as I was growing up. I could walk away from the tension and anger that often existed in our house and find rest and quietness beside my rock of refuge.

There were many other wonders in the coulee. In one spot along the bottom there was a burial site marked by stones. There were wild roses, buffalo berry bushes (my father called them buck brush), Saskatoon berry bushes, tiny red flowers that I later learned were scarlet mallow. Not far from my rock was the spot where the first crocuses bloomed in spring. There were pools of water along the bottom where the cattle drank and frogs croaked. There were gophers and Swainson’s hawks that hunted them.

One time, just as I entered the coulee, a hummingbird flew up to me, stopped so close that I could have reached out and touched him, looked me in the eye for a moment, then zipped aside to let me pass. It seemed an invitation to enter the coulee where the atmosphere would spread a healing balm over me whenever I was troubled.

A refuge from the storm

Abner slipped out of his bedroom and into the spare bedroom. Even there the angry voice of Papa Zedner disturbed his attempts to read. Abner knew that his father wasn’t angry with him, but he knew from experience it was best to avoid giving opportunity for it to be directed at him. Papa Zedner’s anger was like the prairie winds, all one could do was give it time to blow itself out.

The best thing would be to explore the new farm. Abner slipped out the door and walked to the barn and the gate to the corral. He was going to open the wooden gate, then saw that one side of the gate was fastened to a heavy post, leaving a gap between the post and the corner of the barn just big enough for an eleven-year-old boy to slip through if he turned sideways.

Abner walked through the corral and the open gate that led to the pasture. He hadn’t gone far when a tiny bird appeared in front of him; it’s wings a blur. Abner stopped; the bird stopped. For a moment they eyed each other, almost nose to nose, then the bird zipped away. The storm of the house vanished with the bird and Abner stepped forward to discover what wonders might lie before him.

He had been walking beside the ravine that ran through their yard and now that ravine merged with another that came from the town. Buffalo berry bushes grew on the hill sides of the ravines, with wild roses scattered among them. He walked across the bottom of the ravine and up the steep slope on the other side. The shrill whistle of a gopher alerted him to the gopher mounds at the top of the hill. The gophers were gone, warned by the whistle that an intruder was present.

A little farther along on the flat pasture land above the ravine he saw a group of circular depressions in the ground. Tipi rings! What else could they be? He had noticed that part of the ravine bank was almost vertical.  That hadn’t seemed significant before, but now it became a buffalo jump and scenes of the buffalo hunt appeared in his imagination.

He walked further along the top of the ravine, seeing how it turned first one way and then the other. Just ahead of him the ravine turned again and the hill on the inside of the turn was the highest point in the pasture. Then he saw the rock. Halfway down the hillside there was a hollow in the side of the hill and at the bottom of this hollow was a huge rock.

As Abner ran to get a closer look, he felt as though this rock was the reason he had come out to the pasture. He knew it was a buffalo rubbing stone, even if he had never seen one before. Worn smooth by thousands, no millions, of buffalo rubbing their itching sides on it, the ground around it eroded by the hooves of the buffalo, it had once served to remove their winter coats. There were still brown hairs caught in the crevices of the rock. Abner knew they must be cattle hairs, the buffalo had been gone too long. But still . . .

The rock was oblong, the sides and corners almost squared off, with a step up about halfway along the top, like giant steps, or a chair for a giant. Abner tried sitting on it, but it felt best to sit on the ground beside it. When he did so, he looked around and there were no fences, power lines, roads or buildings to be seen. There were not even any sounds to betray the impression that he was back in the time before the settlers came. Perhaps even now the hunters were camping not far away, preparing the buffalo hides and pemmican from their hunt.

The rock had stood here for ages, a friend to the buffalo, perhaps a landmark for the hunters. It has survived summer heat and winter cold, prairie fires, droughts, floods. And for a young boy it had now become a refuge from the storms at home. It was time for Abner to go, but he felt peaceful now and knew he would return.

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