Wintering Ground: The Stoney Nakoda

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This poem expresses an emotional state known as Clanalas, which expresses the genetic memory of unresolved grief and memories of loss.

Devil’s Head Mountain, Alberta, Canada
Looking Toward the Devil’s Head Mountain from a Hilltop East of Sundre, Alberta
Dedicated to Stan Ghostkeeper, a School Friend from Sundre.

We never forgot You, the Stoney Nakoda

who were here before.

This wintering ground

time out of mind

your place, this soil

wise and tender deer seldom seen, but sensed

quietly shadowing the dawn

secretive, still searching for you.

Their stillness entered us

yet clings close to our hearts

in this land of speaking wind

curling grass with roots so deep.

The land where we lived, your land. Beauty

brought instant worship to our breath, every day

the colors. Never were we blind nor dull

to your leaving. Your beauty was one with surrounding earth.

We knew the land never forgot you.

We heard clearly the murmurs in the wind.

How lonely we lived, how we missed you

hungering, as we were

so close to your wells of joy, the

wild abandon of your songs and dances.

We brought only empty cups to dip.

Our lands in Europe were lost to us, and so we came.

Every day when we looked upward

the open sky challenged us. Asked,

“Who the hell are you? You don’t belong here!”

Each night we watched the starlight fall

into the mouths of howling coyotes

how they mourned for you, opened their souls

roamed the night spaces

searching, their paws tender, careful

quiet, bellies close to the ground

clenched with hunger for you

throats pouring out

thirsty songs. If they sang long enough –

loud enough would you return? Your songs still echo

from every sky, every tree, every stone.

Children never born still call your name

in the night spaces when their ancestors dream of them

trying still to bring them home.

When the dreams come I plead with you: Hear our shame.

We knew the land was stolen from

your ancestors, your songs, your dances, your honour.

We knew you held true.

You took your honour with you when you left.

Did you scatter down just a little for us

as we gazed through our own despair

into the wandering night sky? We too

were broken by the British crown.

I sorrow with my ancestors

and you with yours. Your children.

I have no song lent

to me by any eternal being,

no god to show me how to save myself from

shame or regret. Except to tell you,

“I know. With you I remember. And I am sorry, so, so sorry.

We became their tools of destruction.”

They made us homeless too.

They broke us. A thousand years of battle.

We fought them. The Picts. The Scots. The Irish. The Celts.

We, the indigenous of the northlands, Caledonia

They named our land Hibernia.

I hold in my body the genetic lines of the indigenous Picts

through my mother. Kenneth MacAlpine, KIng of the Picts.

I sing as the bards of old, though my throat is dry

I have no longer the magic of the harp to charm,

to sing the earth now, still we weep and dream of

rebellion. We hope to soon walk out of their grasp.

This generation will do it. Break free.

Back then, blood poured out of our veins

until, spent, we could hold them back no more.

They emptied us of our stories and songs.

Stole our tongues, our land.

Poured over our borders with fire and

despair. Left us homeless, tied our grazing and hunting lands

to their smoking blast-houses, their brick caves of the damned.

The hills of Scotland they turned to sheep for wool

to feed the misery of their churning black industry.

Even the moths changed color, turned black

from sucking in their smoke.

The lands are still empty of folk, hand-built stone crofts

crumbled. So many gone. But memory holds fast.

Fields, mountains stones remember.

Reach for us.

I returned to Mull, I wept there

saw your stolen pines, the

Lodgepole Pines from the Rockies

torn away from Alberta, I found them

swaying, the wind mourning

the blackened moths

lifting their grief across Moray and Fife,

along the River Findhorn

the River Clyde, the Waters of Leith

on their shallow roots. I followed their march

all the way westward across Mull.

But they could not cross the water to come home.

The British dogs (we called them dogs)

took the Lodgepole and planted them

on the deserted hills of Scotland

thinking they’d grow straight, fast, cheap

tall masts just right for white-sailed ships.

The pines, slaves captured from Nakoda lands

brought to Scotland. Those ships no longer sail.

The trees grow without heart. They

break and fall when winter storms come

across the cold, grey, North Sea.

When I stand beneath them I hear their lonely

songs of displacement and despair. The pines

look back toward you. They hear you. They know.

What did we bring to you from our broken lives?

Only scraps of the homeland lost to us,

bannock, the recipe from my grandmothers.

My father remembered; he made it fresh every morning

with strong black tea. But with flour of wheat, not oats or barley.

Bannockburn, in Scotland, was

in 1314, a great battle, a victory

we won over the dogs. 

But no matter how many times we fought

it was never enough to stop them.

We brought to your place, this place, only shattered memories of

our beloved home. Names only, lightly carried, came with us.

Calgary, Morningside, Red Deer, Edmonton.

At the school in Sundre when I was a girl

there was one, an Old Ghost, a Cree, who

wandered along beside me. Silent always.

Never speaking

kept my spirit, held me close.

Without him I had not a friend anywhere.

The light of his many generations shone into mine.

Why couldn’t we make a home together?

When will we learn?

When can we make ourselves, all of us, many homes together?


During the 1800’s moths in England darkened their pigmentation in order to blend in better as the skies filled with the smoke of coal fires; an example of adaptation to environmental change.

Palliser report – John Palliser, Irish born, wrote in his report that much of Alberta and Saskatchewan was unsuitable for British settlers due to climate but they ignored his recommendations.

Lodgepole pine, indigenous to Western Alberta and the Rocky Mountains, tall, straight trees with most branches clustered near the tops.

Coyotes, wild, indigenous dog related creatures that howl every night.

Pict descendants have applied to the UN for status as the only white indigenous; Kenneth MacAlpine, King of the Picts is my ancestor.

A Scottish independence movement has been active for hundreds of years. The Scots still intend to re-establish their own separate government and their own border.

Received a letter from a friend in Ireland full of anguish and worry. . .in 2020.

Bannockburn: A village in Stirling where there was a great victory over the British in 1314. “Burn” is the Scottish for small stream of water.

Bannock: In traditional northern Scottish cooking, a flat unsweetened cake made with oatmeal or barley flour, unleavened; now often made with wheat flour and served with herring, fresh butter and strawberry jam. The likes of David Thompson and Simon Frazer brought the bannock from Scotland to Alberta with them and taught the indigenous to make it. Now, the tribal bands in Canada name bannock as belonging to their native heritage. They don’t believe me when I tell them it was the Scots who brought it here to their campfires..

Calgary, named after Calgary Castle on the Isle of Mull, a safe harbour, a green pasture.

Edmonton, Edmund is a Scottish name meaning “prosperous protector”.

The British crown practiced the methods of butchery and colonialism on us: Outlawed our music, dances, language, traditional dress; took over education. Killed us by the thousands with musket, sword and famine.

Irish famines: 300 years of famine, the produce of Irish farms was shipped to England while at least 2 million Irish died of famine. Genocide. My family departed for North America in the mid-1800s

Darlene Witte
Darlene Witte

Professor of Education, (retired) at Johnson State College in Vermont leads the Green Mountain Writers' Poetry & Performance workshop that meets on Zoom each month on the 1st and 3rd Tuesdays at 7 PM ET. Find out more at

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