Aiktow was a notoriously dangerous place. In 1866 a clash between Cree and Blackfoot warriors left hundreds dead, their bleached bones littering a valley. Joan Soggie describes this battle and her search for the site in Looking for Aiktow: Stories Behind the History of the Elbow of the South Saskatchewan River.
Aiktow, Cree for elbow, referred to an abrupt bend or elbow in the South Saskatchewan River, located near the current village of Elbow, SK. Both Cree and early explorers avoided camping in this area where the river turned; to do so was an open invitation for the Blackfoot to attack.
According to Soggie, “Cree became the official language of the fur trade” on the prairies. For a while the Cree profited by their relationship with the Hudson’s Bay Company, supplying traders with tonnes of fresh meat and pemmican “But those golden days were as elusive and short-lived as the mirages that haunt distant prairie horizons,” Soggie says.
She maintains a sympathetic view of Aboriginals, devoting a chapter to Cree Chief Maskepetoon, also known as He Who Has Eyes Behind Him. While guiding John Palliser’s exploring expedition, his alertness prevented Blackfoot warriors from stealing their horses. Although he has been forgotten by history, Soggie speculates that Maskepetoon may have deliberately led Palliser through the driest regions of the prairie so his report would discourage settlement, thus giving Aboriginals a brief reprieve from encroaching settlers.
Soggie relates some exciting incidents – a grizzly bear and her two cubs chasing explorers as they scramble into boats, and the bears trying to clamber aboard after them. She spices up her narrative by quoting from diaries of explorers, as well as incorporating native oral traditions. She regales readers with her account of explorer Henry Youle Hind as he amazed natives by striking a match to start a fire. At first the wide-eyed natives thought it was a trick and not real fire.
The landscape changed dramatically when Lake Diefenbaker swallowed up vast tracts of land, including a giant rock that a massive glacier, more than one kilometre thick, had deposited. Aboriginals considered this rock sacred and called it Mistaseni. The Big Rock suffered a double indignity. It was not only flooded over to make way for Lake Diefenbaker, but, much to the consternation of archaeologists, was also blown up with dynamite.
Looking for Aiktow has a bibliography, endnotes, and more than two dozen black and white photos and maps. Each of its fourteen chapters tells a complete story while forming part of a larger story, and the prologue and epilogue combine to form yet another story. Soggie’s writing style is reminiscent of Pierre Berton’s when she introduces background information as a seamless part of her script, and her narrative runs as smoothly as a shimmering summer stream.
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