by Paul Clugston from Brantford, ON
Sep 6, 14
Years ago my wife and I left suburban, small-town Southern Ontario, to teach at Grassy Narrows First Nation. We wanted to be teachers who make a difference. We had very little idea of what our new life would hold.
We only hoped to be good.
One of the first words of advice we got in Grassy was that if Shoon offered to teach you something or take you somewhere, you should say yes. Shoon is an elder in Grassy who loves to teach youth traditional Anishinabe practices, and going to what the locals call “Shooniversity” is too good an opportunity to pass up.
So when Shoon invited us to come moose calling one evening, we enthusiastically accepted. He told us to dress warmly as we would be going out on the water.
We came to his house in our warm coats, hats and gloves. He greeted us in his jean jacket and ball cap. We got in his boat and headed out on the English river with no idea of how long it takes to find a moose on the shore. As we trolled along, you could sense the love of the land in his voice as he described the place where he grew up. He showed us where his home had been before the community was relocated by the government – in order to bring in road access. He showed us places that were good for fishing before the river was poisoned with mercury by a paper mill in the 1970s.
Suddenly, he stopped talking and said “There’s a moose over there across the bay.”
How he saw that moose through his thick glasses I will never know. I stared at that shore for the longest time and it wasn’t until we had gotten several hundred meters closer that I finally saw what he had spotted.
He cut the motor and we floated towards it.
I heard him grunt.
He told me that’s the sound a bull moose makes and asked me to try.
I uttered something that sounded more like “ugh.”
He smiled and said that I wasn’t close. I tried again. He stopped me. One of the secrets to a good moose call is the space between them. Moose don’t speak often, he explained. If you call too soon they will know something is wrong. I waited a few minutes, and grunted something like “Oooog.” The moose turned around and walked back into the bush.
Shoon said, “I heard another moose get into the water around the bend. Let’s go see if we can find it.” I thought he was kidding – it was absurd to think he had heard an animal walk into the water from behind a peninsula of rock and trees. We trolled around the bend and sure enough, there was another moose standing in the water. This time we just sat and watched. It was a type of peace that I have rarely experienced. I don’t have a sense of how much time passed as we sat and watched this beautiful, shy creature eating, drinking and standing guard on the shore. I do know that as the sun went down I was grateful for my hat and gloves. I couldn’t believe that Shoon wasn’t even zipping up his jacket. Before long, it was completely dark, but the sitting in peaceful silence continued.
Shoon told us to let him know when we’d like to go home. He said he would stay out on the water all night if we wanted to, and I believed him.
Over the next four years, we faithfully taught the Ontario curriculum in the local high school, but we learned just as much as we taught. We came to Grassy thinking we had a lot to give. We had no idea how much that community had for us. When you go to Shooniversity, you usually have to think for a while before you understand the true value of the experience. As I reflect on that freezing cold boat ride, I see what an important night it was for an outsider coming to live in that community. If I wanted to be a great teacher, I would first need to learn how to see and hear what was easy to miss in an obviously scarred, but subtly beautiful community.