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.
Uncle on the Rez
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. Due to a birth defect,he had only his upper left arm. We always asked him what happened to his arm and he always replied “bear ate it.”
When I was 13 we moved to Zeba, part of the L’Anse Indian Reservation located on the eastern shore of Keweenaw Bay. I learned to hunt and fish with Matt, who had lived all is life in the woods.
One of the first places he took me was the old railroad grade that ran west to east through some of the most rugged wilderness in the midwest. He called it “walking the grade” which meant climbing in elevation through the rugged country of Baraga County. Sometimes we would start walking the grade at the Silver River Falls and end not far from 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 often talk about other adventures like when he slipped and broke his brand new .22 on some wet, moss covered slate while walking the grade to Dakota Farm, an old abandoned apple orchard just off the grade.
The Final Hunt
One day during Michigan’s firearm deer season I decided to hunt up at Dakota Farm so I began the hike along the grade. I didn’t leave as early as I usually do so it was full daylight as I began my ascent. The line of sight in the Upper Peninsula woods is usually short due to the terrain and the trees but on the grade one can see a good mile up it.
I soon noticed a bright speck of hunter orange about a mile up the grade and knew someone was going to beat me to Dakota farm. However I gained on the hunter rapidly and as I got closer, noticed it was a man walking slowly but steadily, head down. the man had a big upper torso and head but most importantly only one arm! Happily I sped up my walk but didn’t say anything, knowing Matt wouldn’t approve of the noise. Matt had said previously he was done walking in the woods so this was a most pleasant surprise.
My uncle never turned around as I closed in which didn’t surprise me even though I knew he could have heard me. I spoke “Matt” when I got within talking distance and he finally stopped, sporting a smile on his septuagenarian face. He looked at the sun and said, “you should have been to Dakota farm by now!”-a typical good humored reprimand. He asked to see the contents of my backpack and that thing around my waste-he had never seen a fanny pack before.
With some pride at my preparedness I laid out my compass, a map, whistle, extra food, emergency blanket, extra socks, first aid kit, even a camera, etc-everything that the magazine “Outdoor Life” said was essential in the wilderness. After he inspected it all he chuckled, saying ” When I was your age all I carried was my knife, rope, and matches.” He opened up the pocket of his hunting coat to show me-a knife, rope, and matches!
We talked hunting for a short while, Matt using profanities that were only reserved while he was in the woods. When we were done I moved on ahead of him. I didn’t come across him again that day, which would be the last time I saw him hunt.
Whenever I came back to “the rez” to visit, I always stopped at Matt’s house in Zeba. Usually I helped with a huge puzzle he was always working on or we played cribbage. 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 in our family’s usual spot on the hill, and at family gatherings. He was fun to draw because he didn’t move much!
The final time I saw Uncle Matt he was living at the Winkler Nursing Home in L’Anse. As I was checking in and wondering if he would still 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 my uncle was March, 2010 to help him on his final journey, that included participating in the traditional ceremonies, including tending to his sacred fire in my mom’s backyard. I was a firekeeper for a night that was still and very mild, listening to the night creatures, and thinking about Uncle Matt and walking the grade.
The unusually beautiful and mild march weather held during uncle Matt’s burial at the Pinery Cemetery. Two eagles soared above while we were lowering his casket into the ground. On the way back I stopped on the Indian Cemetery Road to paint this picture of a barn. Using the bright colors and bold strokes helped me deal with my grief.
I still think of Uncle Matt often of course. This website, blog, and the art have brought him back in a small way. Walking the grade with him has continued to be a source of strength for my walk. I have just turned 60 so my memories of uncle Matt and his generation strengthen me as I continue to “walk the grade.”