POPLAR RIVER -- The elders used to say that one should not make a sound when crossing the water here, lest one awaken the thunderbird who lives just up there, up there.
Up there, says Victor Bruce, an elder of the Poplar River First Nation. He is pointing above the trees in this boreal forest, where migrating songbirds sing, and fleeting herds of woodland caribou, silent gray ghosts of the boreal, hide.
Bruce says he believes in the thunderbird in the same way he believes that the river is alive and rocks can move, that trees cry when they are cut and the earth cannot be owned. And all the while the thunderbird watches, waiting to descend when it is disturbed, then swooping down, creating thunder and lightning in its wrath, troubling the waters. For thousands of years the Poplar River First Nation, an Ojibway Indian tribe in Manitoba, crossed this water quietly, ever so quietly, not a sound, paddles slipped into the water as if they were slicing clouds. Quietly the people moved from one shore to the next, from one plane to the other, from one generation to the next.
Disturbing the thunderbird meant trouble for us all.
Bruce is wondering why others don't believe -- can't believe that building a road into this forest opens the path to its destruction, that cutting down the trees to make pulp into toilet paper seems wasteful. Why companies with their bottom lines and consumers with their insatiable needs don't think of the trees as having voices and the animals living in them as having souls.
Why don't they believe in the thunderbird?
"It's our guardian, something that watches over you all the time," Bruce is saying. "It's always something that's keeping an eye on you. The old-timers, the ancestors, they used to tell us to respect all the animals and respect the birds. The thunderbird always is flying high. He's always watching everything on Earth. He's someplace in the sky."
From a muddy bank of a healing camp on an island on the tribe's traditional territory on the eastern shore of Lake Winnipeg, Bruce, 72, looks upon the water and he is quiet. The water is quiet too. Surrounding it is a green forest; the sky is gray. The water is clean. The place is surreal. He is in the thick of this place, considered the last frontier of the wilderness in North America. It covers half of Canada's land.
The forest, named after Boreas, the Greek god of the north wind, is threatened by encroaching development. Scientists call the boreal one of the Earth's "lungs"; the other is the Amazon rain forest. Together they "breathe out" oxygen while absorbing millions of tons of carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas thought to contribute to global warming. The forest is coveted by those who want to cut trees, build hydropower dams, mine and develop it, seeking gas and oil.
The Poplar River First Nation, a community based about 400 miles north of Winnipeg, is trying to stop that. Not long ago, loggers came here with promises of building an all-weather road in a place that is now only accessible year-round by air. The road would open the door for others to come in. Poplar River elders said no. Developers promised them jobs. The elders said no. Developers promised them economic prosperity, a new way of life, and the elders said no. The elders had seen what happened to the community of the Pimicikamak Cree, north of Lake Winnipeg, not so far from here. So the elders in Poplar River said no. First Nation tribes have a significant voice in development projects in their traditional territories.
"The reason why we protect this land is, in other communities the forest is wiped out already. Now they have nothing," says Bruce. He is now sitting in a huge tepee at the healing camp, a retreat where there is no water running in pipes, no electricity, no artificial heat. The faint scent of burning sage, used to cleanse people of their impurities, lingers in the tent. A fire smolders in the center of the tent. Someone has discovered moose droppings near the camp site and has brought them near the fire to be examined. The perfect droppings indicate the moose on this island are healthy and there is still hope.
The Pimicikamak Cree watched a utility come and build a dam for hydroelectricity but then, they say, shorelines washed away and forest was swallowed by rising water that polluted the lakes and rivers. Now, they say, they drink polluted water.