Walking the Grade
Matthew Whetung, my uncle, was born in 1923 on the Curve Lake Reserve near Peterborough Ontario. His Blaker grandparents on his mother’s side were from Curve Lake prior to emigrating to the L’Anse Indian Reservation in Michigan during the latter half of the nineteenth century. His mother, Charlotte Blaker, was a U.S. citizen but his father Joseph Whetung was from Canada and had to go back to Curve Lake to receive an annuity payment when Charlotte was pregnant with Matt.
This was always a good story in our family, especially after an eighties visit to Whetung’s Ojibwa Center in Curve Lake where Uncle Matt struck up a conversation with an elder who lived next door. The elder pointed to the back of the property and said “this is where you were born.” Matt grew up in the United States and always considered himself an American citizen. He was on vacation in Canada with the Ojibwa Senior Citizens and American Customs didn’t want to let him enter the U.S because they said he was actually a Canadian citizen! They eventually let him enter but told him he would need more documentation next time.
My uncle, later often called “Uncle Monk” was more present in my life than my own father. Here is a picture of my my birthday party at “Tollies” an apartment building near the waterfront in L’Anse. Guests include cousins Jerry Curtis and Colleen Emery. When I was 13 we moved to Zeba, on the eastern shore of Keweenaw Bay. I learned to hunt and fish with Matt, who had lived all is life in the woods. We hunted the old railroad grade, climbing in elevation through the rugged country of Baraga County. It began at the Silver River Falls and ended near Mt. Arvon, the highest point in Michigan. Often, as we passed a deer trail, swamp, logging road, or rock outcropping, he would point with his lips and tell me where he got this monster buck, ”knocked him down right here”. If it was a big buck, he sometimes would bend his head down and slowly sweep his open hand over each side of his head, representing “big horns.” He liked to talk about other adventures like when he slipped and broke his brand new .22 on some wet, moss covered rocks between the grade and Dakota Farm, an old abandoned apple orchard just off the grade.
As Matt got in his seventies, he didn’t walk as much and I thought he no longer hunted the grade. One morning in November during Michigan’s firearm deer season, I made my way up the grade. About a half mile ahead of me I spotted a slow-moving man-his head down and rifle slung on his back. When I got about 300 yards from him, I could detect the right sleeve tucked up under his right upper arm. Due to a birth defect Matt was missing his right forearm. When I walked up beside him he said I should have gotten up earlier so I could have been ahead of him. My Uncle wondered why I was wearing a backpack and fanny pack. When I showed him (first aid kit, extra clothing, emergency blanket, and other survival gear), he teased me in his good-natured way, saying when he was my age all he had in the woods was his hunting knife, a piece of rope, matches, and a sandwich.
Whenever I came back to visit, I always stopped at Matt’s house in Zeba, to help him with a huge puzzle he was always working on, or watching wrestling in his living room. Often we just looked out the window at cars and people going by while sharing gossip. He was always present at the Baraga Pow Wow sitting on the hill, and at family gatherings. He was fun to draw because he didn’t move much!
I treasure the last time I saw Uncle Matt. He was in his eighties and resided in the Winkler Nursing Home in L’Anse. As I was checking in and wondering if he would recognize me, I felt something hit the back of my knees. Startled I turned around and there was Matt in his wheelchair. He motioned with his hand “follow me.” On the way to his room, he introduced me to a staff as his brother Ted. I drew the above sketch during that visit. I couldn’t finish it because he lost interest and he wheeled himself into the long narrow hallway of the nursing home. As we proceeded down the hallway, Matt pointed with his lips and said the hallway was the grade. In a way it made sense; I could see why my uncle’s mind would interpret the hallway as the grade, which was like a corridor in the woods to us. Matt then shared a few of his hunting stories with me, including hunting with his grandfather, which was the last time I would hear him talk about “walking the grade”.
The next time I visited was in 2010 to help him in his journey, and for the traditional ceremonies, including his sacred fire in my mom’s backyard. I stayed that beautifully mild March night tending the fire, listening to the night creatures, and thinking about Uncle Matt’s walking journeys.