Glimpsing the Bushman
John Bernard Bourne
When I came north, I chuckled at tales of a tall, hairy creature. Until I saw something.
I moved to Rae Lakes, this small, isolated community in the Northwest Territories, almost three years ago as a teacher. In the parlance of the local population, I was a white man from Ontario coming to live among the Aboriginals. In this case, it was a group of Aboriginals I had never heard of before — the Dogribs. At the time, I looked at myself as an anthropologist going to observe a unique and isolated culture.
When I arrived, I was inundated with cultural orientation. I listened to the stories of the elders and observed local customs. In those early days, the story that stuck out most for me was the one about the Bushman.
According to the Dogrib people, the Bushman is a tall, hairy creature who lurks in the bush ready to abduct anyone travelling alone. Those who have been taken are usually never seen again, and if they are, they are found mute and mentally deranged. To an outsider, this story sounded a lot like a cross between B.C.'s sasquatch and eastern Canada's windigo, but for the Dogribs it is something to be taken very seriously.
The Bushman story aside, I tried to leap into life in this Aboriginal community by embracing all of its rituals. I joined the caribou hunt, I attended the community feasts and I went every time there was a drum dance. Participating in the rituals was easy enough and I took them in as one would take in the symbols of any unique tradition. Although I felt detached and out of place most of the time, I still found it interesting.
The difficult part was adjusting to the challenges of everyday life. Many of the people in my village can only speak their native language, so the linguistic hurdle is the first you have to overcome. Issues of illiteracy and substance abuse could also be an obstacle. There were many times when I would forget that I was still in Canada. I lived in South Korea for a couple of years, and I found there was less culture shock living in that faraway Asian nation than in the Far North of the country I called home.
And then there is the long darkness. The lack of sunlight creeps up on you at the end of October and stays until March. Although the phenonenon was fascinating, getting up and going to work in the dark proved very difficult at first. I soon began counting down the days until spring and the endless daylight that it brings.
It was when the daylight was beginning to reappear that I saw the Bushman. It was the middle of March and I was driving with my wife and a friend on the winter road (the ice route that is open about six weeks every year to bring in food and supplies). We were caught in a blizzard and our visibility had deteriorated to nothing. We were stuck on the frozen, endless white of Faber Lake, halfway between Gameti and Rae-Edzo (which means in the middle of nowhere). It was just a flash. In fact, I would have thought it was an illusion brought on by the snow, but the two other people with me saw it as well.
It was tall and hairy, running on its two hind legs. The hair was long and hung from its body in an unkempt and wild manner. It was gone before we could say anything. My friend who was driving shouted, "What was that?" but we all knew. We tried to push our original instinct away and rationalize it as something else. But we couldn't.
When I told my friends and family in Ontario about the experience, they thought I was making it up. Or worse, they tried to logically explain it ("it was probably a bear coming out of hibernation"). It was only the Dogrib people who did not treat the story with any type of condescension. They nodded solemnly and understood it for what it was.
Shortly after, things began to make more sense to me in the community. The drum dance, which I initially perceived as being primitive and unsophisticated, became full of new meaning. I learned to drum. The hunt, which I had always thought was a little atavistic and barbaric, seemed almost spiritual. I became familiar with the various uses of the caribou, including the consumption of the unborn fetus by the elders because it is soft and easy to chew when you have no teeth.
This past fall, a story began circulating around our village. The wise ones were giving everybody fair warning — they had a premonition that the Bushman would be abducting somebody this year. We were warned to be careful and not to go walking by ourselves into the bush. I was surprised by how I reacted. Three years ago, I would have made fun of it. Now, I just accepted the warning and kept it at the back of my mind.
Logically, I know there is no Bushman. It makes no sense and defies any type of scientific evidence. I know it is symbolic of other things, like the loneliness and darkness one feels when living in isolation in the Far North. It is a parable to understand a unique and distinct culture in the world.
But I did see something on that winter road. Winter is here again, and the long darkness gives you time to think. Tales of the Bushman do not really pervade your thoughts during the times of daylight. But now, they almost seem plausible.
Every night, when I put my baby daughter to bed, I lie beside her, singing songs and telling stories. Once she'd sleep, I used to creep quietly out of the room. Lately, however, I find myself staying longer, well after she has fallen into a deep slumber. I feel this subconscious urge to watch over her, and protect her from the Bushman.
Just in case.
Published in MacLean's Magazine, the March 2003 issue...
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