Idle No More: A White Man Speaks Part II
Many thanks to “The First Perspective” for publishing Part I.
By now you have hopefully read my first blog entry and Elyse’s. I have more to say, and I am hoping you will find this very enlightening, particularly regarding one point…
Elyse stated in her entry that I told her “I didn’t realize that in the eyes of some Canadians, you are a substandard person.” This is true, and I feel the need to explain myself, because the statement begs the question, “In light of everything that has happened and is happening in Canada (and the US), how could I not know?”
Well, I regret to say, it is possible.
Before I explain just how, I’d like to give you a little history about myself….
I grew up in a middle class suburb of Chicago in a culturally diverse neighborhood. On my block there were many people who’d moved there from other countries. My class in elementary school reflected this.
There was Duo and Duen. They had come over from Thailand, and the class all went to the windows to watch with them when they saw snow for the first time. None of us could wait for recess that day because we wanted to teach them all how to make snowmen and throw snowballs.
There was Nel, whose parents came from the Philippines. She was born in the US, but neither of her parents could speak English well, including her father, who was a brain surgeon at the local hospital.
There was Nancy, whose father came over from Italy with his brothers, bought four lots and built one house first, and later built three more houses as they brought their families over one by one.
There were Bobby and Reika, who weren’t related, but who were both Japanese. They went to what we all innocently called “Jap School” on Saturdays. None of us knew what Jap School was for, exactly, but we knew that both Bobby and Reika could play the piano and the violin very well, so we thought it must have had something to do with music.
And there were many other kids of different nationalities and ethnicities too.
We all got along fairly well, managing to work our way around each others’ accents as best we could, and occasionally getting a taste (literally) of each others’ cultures. To this day, I have a weakness for homemade shrimp egg rolls, even though I break out in hives when I eat them. (I am allergic to shellfish.)
In my innocence, I never noticed when white culture imposed itself on my “foreign” classmates. When we all played war, for example, Bobby sat out at first, having been tapped to play the “Jap” Kamikaze pilot. But later on, when we all discovered he could draw as good as any comic book artist can today, he became the strategist for the American side, drawing maps and sketching plans for our fortresses and trenches.
Michelle, who was Jewish, felt left out the first Christmas we spent together, as we all gave one another -except her- presents and cards, but she helped us to understand that our God was her God, and Jewish people just worshiped Him differently. So the next year, she wished us a Merry Christmas and we wished her a Happy Hanukah, and traded gifts and cards with her as we did everyone else.
I never saw overt racism or discrimination in my elementary school except as it pertained to Michelle. It began when some bullies tried to force Michelle into playing a Jewish Holocaust victim during our WWII games. The idea was for her to stay behind the monkey bars in the “concentration camp” until the American commandos could break her out. She refused to go along with it, and the bullies then changed sides, deciding to play the Germans instead of the Americans. They would go around the playground shouting all the familiar derogatory names at her, punctuating their slurs with the Hitler salute. It wasn’t long before she “moved.” But we discovered that she had actually been transferred -enrolled in Hebrew school by her parents, and taken out of our own school.
I should also mention another girl. I won’t name her here. Everyone liked her…until she was grossly disfigured in a car accident. Mildly pretty before, she was now called “Ester the Molester” because she wound up looking a lot like the character Aunt Ester from the TV show Sanford and Son. I had been teased for a while because I was the only kid in class who wore glasses. My name was Four Eyes, and I tried to befriend the girl, believing our medical problems to be a possible commonality between us. But she did not trust me. Disfigured for life, and with the continued ranking by my classmates, she became very cynical about the future.
As I got older, I began to reflect that fear was the driving factor behind taunts, and ignorance the root of misunderstanding. Lori, for example, lived across the street. She too was Japanese, but unlike my classmates, she did not go to “Jap School”, and her grandfather did not fight against the allies in World War II, but with them, on the American side. He retired from the armed forces a fully decorated high ranking officer, and played an instrumental role in directing combat operations in many wars after WWII.
As for the girl who’d been in a car accident, I began to understand that the other kids were afraid of her and what she represented. Her face had many scars. Her smile was lopsided, because the nerves and muscles in that side had been severed. She’d had a skin graft, and she also wore a wig, because a big chunk of her hair was missing. To all of us at the time, including me, she looked like the bride of Frankenstein, but after we got over that and learned not to think twice when looking at her, we reflected that there but for the grace of God went we. If something like this could happen to her, it could happen to us as well. For my classmates, to keep them from remembering that fact, it was best to drive her off.
And my friends did begin to die. In Junior High, one of my friends died of cancer. Another “disappeared”, but we found out afterwards he had actually been “taken away.” He had this nebulous thing called childhood schizophrenia, and had to be “institutionalized.”
I should also mention that I come from a very extended family. On my mother’s side, she has many sisters, step sisters, and step brothers. When I was little, her whole family would get together twice a year to spend time with one another. The first time would be in the summer, where my mother, father, sister, grandmother and step-grandfather, aunts, uncles, cousins, step-aunts, step-uncles, step cousins, great aunts, and great uncles would all get together and go fishing in Minnesota for two weeks. The other time we’d get together was at Christmas time, ostensibly to observe the anniversary of the birth of Christ, but also to reconnect with one another, and reaffirm our family ties and bonds.
My step-uncle Fred, who is 100% Chippewa, married into the family before I was born, and while he was accepted by my grandmother, step-grandfather, my mother and her sisters, not all of my step-aunts and step-uncles accepted him. In fact, some of my step-aunts and step-uncles cut ties with my aunt Sandy when she announced her engagement to my uncle Fred.
I could not understand why. I very much liked my uncle Fred, and his son Joey. My uncle lived in Minnesota, worked for the electric company, belonged to “the union” (whatever that was), received good pay, got good benefits, was religious, owned a big house, and actively participated in dances at a nearby reservation. To me, Uncle Fred was cool because he drove a snorkel truck. He was always “on call” during electrical storms, running out day or night to restore power during outages, and stringing up lines on regular days. He wore a hardhat, and messed around with power cables that could kill an elephant, let alone a man.
He took us to a pow-wow one summer. Not one that was put on to foster good relations between indigenous people and whites, or to educate them, but to a private one. I remember him taking great care before the observance to make sure his ceremonial garments were ready. Uncle Fred (this man with big muscles and a black goatee) explained to me -as he delicately sewed a gap in a seam with a tiny needle and thread- that the dances I would be seeing were both historical and instructional. He would be telling a story through dance. He explained that each step had been choreographed and taught generation to generation, and his job was to ensure that this story would be taught to others who didn’t know it yet.
I had to keep from laughing. Grown men dressing up in costumes and dancing? And he was telling me this while he was sewing? Only women knew how to sew! Well… I might have seen my father darn a thing or two, but his stitches looked like a tangle of knots. Uncle Fred’s stitches looked as good as anything a woman could do. Even better, in fact.
He told the story to me in words, but being a young child at the time, I listened to the story in the same way one listens to a fairy tale, not internalizing it, and not thinking about what it meant or what deeper meaning it might have had.
The dance was wonderful. My uncle was a hawk, who would step in and step out when it was his turn, dancing not in a circle, but going back and forth between the rest of the dancers, and only going around in the circle near the very end of the dance. Other dancers were dressed in very big or very little costumes, robes, and things, and entered and left the dance as the story required, making themselves look big or small as was appropriate to the tale.
The pow-wow took place inside a gymnasium, and the drums and singing were deafening. I was overwhelmed with everything I was seeing, but I remembered many things, and thought many strange thoughts.
First: Native people were not like the Indians I saw in cowboy movies. And none of them looked or acted like Tonto either.
Second: They didn’t know how to dance. They kept missing the beats.
Third: Their dances were long. They weren’t like a square dance or a polka, which only lasted a few minutes. The dances I saw that day seemed to go on for half an hour or more each!
Fourth: Despite these shortcomings, native people certainly had a very long attention span. It didn’t matter whether the spectators were young or old, all sat rigid in the stands and watched each dance carefully. There were no kids running around in the aisles, or pushing or shoving each other or teasing, like you often see at events put on by white people. No one, adult or child, talked or whispered to their friends. At the time, I thought this was because native people were what my mom sometimes called “stuffy.”
Fifth: Even though I felt out of place there looking so different from everyone else except my parents and my sister, and clueless as to what was going on, I was made to feel very welcome.
I remember afterwards being introduced to some people whom I was told were very important. They may have been elders. Others were dancers. These people shook hands and told me they were pleased to have me. They asked me if I liked the dances and if I learned anything.
I told them the five things I have just told you, and they laughed heartily.
I have two more stories to share about my Uncle Fred and my cousin Joey before I settle into the main point of this blog entry.
That same summer my extended family on my mother’s side went up to my granduncle’s cabins in northern Minnesota for our annual fishing reunion. Joey was there, and when we weren’t fishing with our respective parents, we often played around the cabins, and especially at the giant sandbox over by the main building. There, we could drive our toy trucks around, building houses with wet sand, and cutting roads into the dry. Some kids from an adjacent camp came over and wanted to join us. That worked for a while until one of them “accused” Joey of being an “Indian.”
Boys and girls alike began running around the sand box in a circle, hands beating their mouths, going “Woo! Woo! Woo! Woo!” and “Joey is an Indian!” alternatively. Joey smiled and kept playing. Meanwhile, I stood up and started pushing the other kids, telling them to leave Joey alone. They pushed back, and soon fists were exchanged. It would have gone on indefinitely, but a horde of my cousins spilled out of their cabins and made quick work of the invaders. They left crying, and fifteen minutes later, their parents came over and started yelling at us all.
That was when my great uncle, who was too old to fish, but not too old to mind the camp, threw them all out for trespassing. He admonished them, first telling them that their kids were acting like bigots, and then telling them (truthfully) that both his cabins and the ones they were staying in were built partly by folks living on the nearby reservation, and if they had any complaints about Indians, they could take a five minute ride over to the other side of the lake and air their grievances there.
There are a few other memories I have about my Uncle Fred and my cousin Joey, but I will share only one more.
Fast forward another couple of summers.
I was fishing with my Uncle Fred, my cousin Joey, and his “new” brother. Joey’s adoptive brother came from “The Rez” and had fetal alcohol syndrome. He was notorious for catching the mice that invaded my great uncle’s cabins and turning them loose without getting bitten. Uncle Fred and his kids sat in the boat, perfectly still, their lines baited and cast. Minutes went by with them doing nothing but just sitting there. Meanwhile, I had developed a routine. Cast, slowly roll in my line, check the bait. Repeat. My three fellow anglers -including my “new” mentally impaired cousin- caught three fish for every fish I caught, and I just could not understand why.
Finally, Uncle Fred said, “What are you looking to catch there, Tommy?”
Me: “A fish.”
Uncle Fred: “Any kind of fish in particular?”
Me: “One that will bite.”
Uncle Fred: “But what though? Perch? Blue gill? Crappie? Walleye? What?”
Another one of my cousins, Kent, had caught a gigantic northern pike a few summers before that and I aimed to beat him, and when I told my uncle this, he said “Do you know anything about northern pike?”
He said, “To catch a fish, you have to think like the fish you are trying to catch and outthink him. If you don’t know anything about him, your best bet is to leave your line in the water and let him come to you on his own.”
In terms of the number of fish I caught, it worked. And I infuriated my father the next time my father and I went fishing together when I caught three times as many fish as he did, even though we traded lures and poles at one point.
I did not catch the monster fish I was looking to catch the day I went out with uncle Fred, however, but uncle Fred told me not to worry. Either the fish I was looking for wasn’t there to catch in the first place, or I was fishing in the wrong place, or it wasn’t my day to catch it if it was there. In fact, he said, maybe the fish I was looking for was the one my cousin Kent already caught, and he was meant to have it. You could never tell. But best not to worry. I had caught plenty of others, and that was good enough for that day.
He winked at me and said I had been taught a new lesson, but he never told me what that lesson was.
Interestingly, it was my uncle Fred and what he said about the big fish that was the first thing I thought about when my cousin Kent died a few years later of heart failure.
You see, every year at my great uncle’s camp, we had a competition to see who could catch the biggest fish of each species we caught. There was a monetary pool, and the winner took all in each category. For years, Kent had always been beaten, many times by his father. He had often joked “I want to win just once before I die” and everyone would laugh at him, because he was only in his early twenties, and too young to die. But he did die a few years later, and he had won…just once. I guess you could say that uncle Fred was right. Maybe Kent was meant to have “my” northern pike after all.
But let’s move on to the present.
Coming from that kind of background, I guess you could say that I was a mix of ignorance and open-mindedness. I had come from a multi-ethnic community, had “real live Indians” as part of my extended family, but at the same time, I knew nothing about what was going on in terms of government/indigenous people relations.
Never heard of it.
The “Indians” that I had learned about in elementary school were part of a social studies unit that had less to do with the affairs of indigenous people than the problems they made for white settlers. I had a book in Kindergarten that was fairly advanced for its time. It was about a class full of kids, and each chapter told a story about a different kid and their ethnicity. The “Indian” in our book had a mom and dad who held jobs like the other kids’ parents did. But the relatives of these natives were “happily” living on reservations, where it was “most comfortable” for them, and where my teacher said they “belonged.” She explained it to us in simple terms: While some Germans, for example, lived in other parts of the world, most Germans lived in Germany. And while some Indians lived in cities and towns and on farms, most lived on reservations. I told her back then about my Uncle Fred and my cousin Joey, and she said my relatives were an example of the former natives in the book, while the rest of the Indians were an example of the latter.
At any rate, I was supposed to be talking about the present.
A few years back, Elyse and I were eating at a fast food restaurant, talking about all sorts of things while a fellow behind us starts talking to his friend about a blockade that was going on, and how these “scuzzy” Indians were never satisfied with what they had.
“It’s enough that they’re on the government dole as it is, getting a free college education and all that too, and now they’re clamoring for even more? They’re greedy. All of north America is one big melting pot where people the world over chose to settle. All of these immigrants integrated themselves just fine, and if they have odd customs, and queer religions, they keep them to themselves and practice them in private. But not red Indians. They’re always causing trouble. They would do best to take a page out of history where it was often said that the best Indian was a dead Indian and realize how lucky they have it to be tolerated now despite their incessant whining.”
Now, despite my upbringing, I would be lying if I said to you that I had never heard words like that spoken before about African Americans. But at the same time, it seems to me that people in the US are making progress on that front. If there are any slurs to be spoken, or any bigotry to be brokered, it’s usually done behind closed doors…unless it’s at a white supremacist rally.
At any rate, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. And it had nothing to do with Elyse being Metis either. It was just that this guy was so loud. Worse, he was proud to be loud.
“Is he drunk?” I whispered to Elyse.
She said, “I told you once before. My mother used to bleach our hair and bleach our skin when we were little. You said you thought she must be crazy or paranoid, but this is the way people can be up here. They can say these things in public and no one cares.”
I looked around and realized she was right. Here was a family or four, snacking on chicken nuggets and talking about hockey. There was an elderly couple sitting opposite from one another reading a newspaper. At the table across from us was a college student working on her laptop.
I said, “I didn’t realize that in the eyes of some Canadians, you are a substandard person.”
She said, “To some, I am not even a sub-standard person. I am a half-breed.”
The man who was talking was speaking in a very loud voice. Even people who were hard of hearing wouldn’t have much of a problem hearing what he was saying.
“Let’s leave,” I said.
“Sure,” Elyse said, snapping up her belongings quicker than usual and stood up. “Just one thing before we go…”
She turned and stopped in front of the table with the ignorant bigot. She said, “You might take a moment to learn a little about why it is my brothers and sisters even need to blockade anything in the first place. You’re upset about the free college they get? They got that by treaty. Blame the people who gave the free college to the First Nations people, not the First Nations people who make use of it. Or better yet, talk to some of the older natives about the ‘free’ education they got at some of the residential schools, eh? You think it was so great? Ask to go to a school just like they did. You might learn something. And oh, yeah, there’s this thing called the Indian Act you ought to learn about too. Not such a great thing, either.”
“Oh, fuck you! You bloody squaw!” he yelled.
Around me, everyone minded their own business, saying absolutely nothing, and acting as though nothing was happening. Elyse (who has since explained to me why the word “squaw” is so offensive), said, “You’re angry. You know how I can tell? Your skin is just as red as mine is right now. Better watch it. You might be mistaken for a scuzzy Indian and get yourself arrested for civil disobedience, eh?”
I stood by and watched all of this, my hands in my pockets, utterly speechless. I felt like adding something, but all that I could think of to say was, “You go that?” Pretty lame, so I didn’t say anything. Better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you’re stupid than to open it up and remove all doubt.
As we went out to the car, Elyse seethed. She had taught me the Metis colloquialism for “sea gull” and there were a few of them circling outside in the parking lot as we headed toward the car.
I said, “Maybe we’ll get lucky and those shithawks will live up to their name and empty their cargo on that guy’s head.”
She answered, “Better yet, maybe a regular hawk will come and deliver him a message his brains can understand.”
Elyse had been educating me about native issues for some time, but I hadn’t -up until that time anyway- seen anything like that outright prejudice in either the United States or Canada. Since that time, I have seen the same and worse, I am sorry to say, but I now come better armed to back up Elyse, who is more than capable of defending herself on her own if the need arises.
A few weeks ago, we were watching the Idle No More movement take shape and I repeated myself. “I didn’t realize that in the eyes of some Canadians, you are a substandard person.”
“We have to do something,” I added, and she agreed.
These blog entries are working toward the goal of making the ignorant -including me- less ignorant. My understanding is that bill C-45 is going to virtually ensure that native culture as it exists now disappears forever. This cannot be allowed to happen, nor should the disrespect given to indigenous people be allowed to continue in any way shape or form.
I should not need to tell anyone stories about my Uncle Fred or my cousin Joey and his brother for people to come to see natives in a better light. All people, no matter what their roots and ancestry, should be seen as equals and respected as such.
No matter who you are or where you come from, open your hearts and ears. Listen and hear. Learn. Become less ignorant. Learn to value others who are different from you. Help people who are losing their rights and their heritage to keep both.
Stay tuned for further blog entries from both Elyse and myself.
Non-bigoted comments are welcome, and I will endeavor to answer anyone who comments.
Thomas D. Taylor
Co-Creator, Midnight In Chicago, author of “Geo-213: The Lost Expedition,” “Evil Creeps In: A Tale of Exorcism” and other books.