This blog is to serve as an outlet for my musings, observations and general pondering as I live with and document Cree Healer Russell Willier in northern Alberta.
Feel free to comment with questions, additional ponderings, or mediocre jokes.
ATTN: I wrote this last week, but haven’t been waiting to post until I got some WiFi set up. So hooray! I am once again slightly connected to the inter webs! Happy day.
I’ve been putting off writing this first post. Partially due to being more than a tad overwhelmed and exhausted, but mostly because when I arrived to Sucker Creek, I realized very soon that the story that I had planned and been expecting to document had very drastically changed. People keep telling me that I’m brave for doing this story, brave for moving to the bush of Alberta with barely any connections, no job, and no real knowledge of what a true Albertan winter is like. (-30 below, what even is that?) But I don’t feel very brave. In fact, sometimes I wonder if I’m just incredibly naive and think of the world as being inherently unflawed. Anyway, here we are, eh? (take note of my Canadian subtleties).
Alright, let me back up.
About a year and a half ago, I decided I wanted to do a long-term documentary story on traditional medicine and food practices. I’ve always been interested in ethnomedicine and indigenous culture. Perhaps it has to do with being raised by a mother who would take me to an eye doctor for herbs and my constant search for spiritual foundation. In any case, after much research and reading, I landed on First Nation healing, which led me to Cree healer Russell Willier. Over the past several decades, Russell has been a major player in documenting medicinal plant use and spiritual healing. I shot an email to a professor who has worked with Russell in the past and within a couple weeks, I had an invitation to live with Russell and document his work, as well as the surrounding reserve in Northern Alberta.
So, how did the story change, you’re probably wondering? Well, first let me just say that in the five days that I’ve been here, I’ve already learned one major lesson. As much as you research, plan strategize, and hypothesize, you can’t predict the story. You all probably know this already, but I think as journalists, it’s so easy to forget. After 9 hours and 3 planes, I arrived to the Grande Prairie airport where I was met by Russell. He was hard to miss with his bright red jacket emblazoned with a Sucker Creek Cree Elders patch and his tall, muddy, rubber boots. He greeted me with a smile, his mustache stained yellow from the cigarettes that regularly dangle from his mouth. We loaded up his van and jetted off - three hours back to Sucker Creek. In the car ride he told me that his cancer had returned (he had originally had bladder cancer, which he treated himself) and that it is now in several places throughout his body. He’s in excruciating pain and doctors have essentially given him no solutions. He’s continuing to treat himself while also seeking more westernized treatments.
Needless to say, it’s been slow going. Russell rests a lot and I’ve spent the majority of my time exploring around his 700 acres of land and befriending all the farm animals. Going straight from daily news to a long-term project is an absolute adjustment. It’s hard to remember that this story doesn’t need to be completed in a day. That I don’t need to make a certain number of frames by the time I go to bed. I keep having to remind myself to be present and absorb my atmosphere. Take the time to get to know Russell and let him get to know me. I’ve only made a little over 200 frames in the past five days, which at times is refreshing but if I don’t keep myself in check, can also be anxiety inducing. I was so blinded by my expectations. Blinded by this picture that I painted before I arrived. Blinded by my own idea of what the story was. But when it’s not my story, who am I to write it before it’s even been told to me? Here I am, feeling unfocused and blindsided because this medicine man isn’t what I imagined. He’s not out picking roots, or having ceremonies. But he’s still a medicine man. A great healer that is incredibly sick.
His sister Dorothy and niece Connie came over this afternoon. They visited and reminisced. Spoke about skunk oil and unintentionally fooling police into thinking they had marijuana in their cars. When they left, I followed them out to ask about tagging along with Connie to collect her fish nets in Slave Lake. Up until that afternoon, I’ve been feverishly on the lookout for other individuals practicing traditional Cree culture, frantically seeking out what I think is the story when really, it’s been in front of my nose this entire time.
“If only you could have come earlier,” Connie said to me, as tears started pooling in the corners of her eyes. “He’s just so sick now. This time of year, he would normally be up from dusk until dawn, out hunting, and tanning, and collecting his roots. He hates being inside like this.”
His sister, Dorothy, agreed and then added, “He’s preparing. He’s selling his things. He says he doesn’t have much time.”
“He’s the reason I’m here,” Connie said, through tears. Connie has had cancer three times, and Russell has healed her with his medicines.
“He’s healed thousands of people,” Connie said, “he’s a medicine man. But he can’t heal himself.”
There is so much power in the story of a medicine man who’s health is diminishing amid a culture that has slowly paled around him. He’s trying feverishly to save himself and his medicine, but both might be lost. After five days of this story, my heart is heavy. But I so strongly believe in ensuring Russell’s story is told.
Anyways, in lighter news, other events that have happened in my life since moving to rural Alberta involve…
- Corralling a sizable group of horses, including one stallion who is rumored to be a murderer (of other horses, relax, mom).
- Third degree skunk interaction, which has resulted in my pants being locked away in a garbage bag until I can go into town for laundry soap.
- I’ve befriended every furry animal in a three-mile radius, minus the cows. But I’ll win them over yet.
- I collected eggs and fed the chickens and felt like Dora the Explorer.
- I ate an unidentified root that tasted like baby vomit.
Here are some of my favorites from the past 10 days. Until next time, beautiful people.