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Waiting for my spirit to catch up

Winona LaDuke

My ancestors and those to the west used to keep track of historic events on Winter Counts—records inked on buffalo and elk robes. Our ancestors would remember in these Winter Counts the winter when the snow was higher than the tipis, when the smallpox came, and when the people were victorious in a battle. They would remember important events.In this era, I am not sure how I keep track of these moments; maybe Facebook or perhaps in my writing.

Sometimes the changes come fast and then we slumber for, it seems years of solitude. We come to take a moment for permanent, a person for permanent. So it is that when I travel, I return. I am often hoping for things to be comfortably familiar, or maybe, in some cases, an improvement, a healing upon my return, of a horse, a person, or a place; scar tissue remains.

Travel changes your perception of time. There is much that can be missed.

I notice today on my drive; first the swans: Waabiziiwag. Hearty and majestic, they stand on small ice patches at the beginning of the Ottertail River. That river, traveling to the Red and one day to Hudson Bay begins on my lake, Round Lake Gaawaawiye Gaamag. Here the water is clean, long before the industrial agriculture , and long before it turns to the Red River and carries the bodies of my sisters, the Missing and Murdered Indigenous women. Long before the polar bears of Churchill Manitoba. Here it is peaceful. The pheasants are enjoying some early thaws, eagles, and turkeys, they stay the winter.

My friend Georgianne Baker used to talk to me about calling your spirit. Sometimes we travel so fast that our spirit may not catch up with us, or remains behind; stunned or pleased by the moment. She used to make a call, to tell the spirits she was home, remind her spirit to be present. In the time of air travel, digital time, and the jackhammer of the industrial world, I find myself caught. I call my spirit back; back to the lake, the birds and the horses.

I return. Each winter, my ancestors, and I today to see who has survived this winter; survived the time of the Wiindigo, the harshest of winters. They used to talk about the times of the plagues. Those came to our people with the missionaries and traders. Many would pass, according to the Winter Counts of the west. Omaa Akiing, here on this land and memories, marked forever; so many would pass. You would know the family had perished when the smoke no longer came from the wigwam. That is what we remember.

This year, I watched the deaths of young from heroin overdoses, violence, and old from illness. The smoke no longer comes from their wigwams. In my travel I did not notice my old friend had gone, Ruth Berquist, a stalwart cross country skier, and the defender of the north woods. My elder, she would watch over our lake and forests, with an intergenerational commitment of someone who had loved that lake since before her birth. Her passing, I mourn, and am reminded, that the greatness of my friends and relatives is best honored through carrying on her work.

This winter, to my modern day Winter Count I remember the storms, and the cold. I remember the big storm which froze the Dakotas, Iowa, Manitoba, Minnesota, Wisconsin into a stillness. I remember feeling unprepared, and knowing I knew better. I remember this year past of the fires to the west, the winds and water to the south, and I prayed for more time to prepare my people.

When you travel far, you are able to see what is coming towards you, whether climate change, or who has learned good lessons. You see, just as in days of old, the sadness, joy and beauty of the large world. But one forgets your own winter count. We forget to be here now. To call our spirits home.

Ziigwan bi daagoshin. It is a new spring which comes. Recognized as the waabizii venture out, the Aandeg, crows move into large numbers. They take to the skies and signal that it is time to tap our trees, and venture from our wigwams, our warm houses into the woods, hoping that smoke comes from many fires. It is time to go into the woods; nopeming to be grateful for this homecoming. It is time to call our spirits home. I pause from my travels, and look to see my world—she is beautiful.

Winona LaDuke lives on the White Earth Reservation. She has written six books on environmental and Native American issues and is executive director of Honor the Earth (, a national Native American environmental foundation.