Overheard conversations can be a curious invite for your imagination - First Nation assimilation or annihilation?
We had been intending to go over to the First Nation Centre but they were closed for lunch. We manged to fit in a tour later and to find ourselves at the original settlers Church which had become as much a burial ground for First Nations as it was for locals. While waiting for the centre to open we stumbled upon Dees Diner. It was on an industrial site next to a motorbike parts store. Lorries and pickup trucks thundered by. It was very much the standard layout with cubicles but had no sitting at the bar that you can commonly see in diners. It was decorated plainly but had three large pictures on the wall depicting cowboy life. I guess there was an assortment of local people. An older man who I think was in his favourite corner, a younger couple, a man travelling alone and an older couple who looked like 1st Nation people. The men’s room had more cowboy paraphernalia, including a cowboy cut out as signage on the door, as if there were men and then there was cowboys.
The waitress was friendly and had that manner I have become accustomed to. Its cheery with a faint interest in your day but with sufficient efficiency to say I am busy, get on with your order. It lets you know where you stand.
A short while later I am enjoying my sandwich with endless coffee top ups. The door opens and a man leads an older man holding a walking frame through the door. He eyes a table close to the door and gently guides the older man down onto a seat while taking away his frame without jeopardising his sensitive balance. The waitress appears to offer to put the frame to one side and the older man shuffles his rear on the seat so as to be closer to the table. He is a tall man neatly dressed but wearing a hospital wrist band. He has close short cut hair that shows he is greyed with a tan skin although my view is much clearer of the younger man who accompanied him in. Sitting opposite it is easy to quickly ascertain this in his son. Diligent in his care. The tan skin is carried through to the son but he still has a full blackness to his hair. He shows a gentle regard and carries a fairly constant smile for his father. They are with touching distance it feels and we become both reluctant invitees to their story but also curious eavesdroppers.
‘’So we eventually got the new bunk beds set up for the boys. It gives them both more floor space…mostly for discarded clothes and sports gear…. did I say that Tom got a trial with the running club?’’
His father either nods or replies so quietly that it appears the son is having a monologue. Filling the empty space in more than a dutiful way. Somehow he knows he must try and keep the tenuous connection going. It’s as if he has the conversation tethered to a rope that pulls on a weight that is pulling his father further into a distance place that even his tenacity would fail to recover him from.
''The meds suiting you well?’’
''You know Bart’s pool solar panels eventually went up. How warm must that be. Lot of water in there to heat''
''Schools out so boys be on camp soon. Oh, Dan comes home this summer’’.
In a place like this the tan skin and bone structure of these men’s faces lead you back in time. While the walls might celebrate the cowboy in all his glory the clientele probably hold a rather less glorious story in their hearts.
The father sits upright and tall in his chair and I am guessing probably with some health plan in place. He is still and remains silent, looks out at his son without expression, so I am not sure where his emotions might be at this time. Maybe he is not so strong, maybe whatever ails him has taken his voice, so all he can do is be a silent partner to his sons endearing monologue. The son continues with his family updates.
''You know son. You should not try so hard. I am old and I am weary. My health not so good these days but my body has served me well. Better than many of my family and clan. And I know that you sometimes feel you turned your back on your people. But you are muck like me. You wanted a fair and just chance for your children. To embrace our way that would not been possible. We were misunderstood and this did not change for centuries or more. Now they want to celebrate our ways. Now they want our heritage but for what. To give them some right to this land. To what ends?''
He looks out at the distance. As if waiting for some sign on the horizon. Maybe the return of loved ones and lost ones.
‘’When your mother died. She was too young and I was not sure what purpose I had anymore. I promised I would keep going. That while she waits for me and she said she would wait an entirety as long as I stayed to make sure you were safe and that your brother would somehow come home. So here I am. I know you have done well and that you have the resources to keep safe. To bring up your children good and honest and with humility. But I fear your bother will never come home. He sees me as someone who failed our people in the same way my own brother felt betrayed by those of us who would not fight back. When cultures collide they talk about assimilation, adaption or annihilation. I felt as if I was adapting but my bother and your brother they see annihilation''.
The two of them eat their food but the father is slow and circumspect in his eating as if his interest is not in eating and that he is more drawn to his thoughts. He draws his glass of water slowly to his mouth. His son watches discretely. Taking a pause from eating the son moves the monologue along.
''So I am going have another go at smoking fish this summer. I have lots of half-filled jars. I thought I would do a bit of fishing with Dan when he is home. You know how we use to go. Down by the bridge……what year did we catch that salmon?......that…''.
''Its probably true. I did not have any fight in me. My name could have been Scared Crow not some name depicting bravery or courage. Maybe seeing my bother taken when he was eight and with all his might he could not escape the stark reality. That my parents had no power to stop it. The might of the Government, with the sanction of the people and an Act of law said we Indians had to be schooled in these special places with their reprogramming. To train us Natives to be human, like them. Knowing that I had two years and that would be me, bleed me of any rebellion. He fought them like a wild pony. Within two months he was back. He crept into my room like a cat in the black of the night. ''Billy, Billy, wake up. I need to collect some bits and then I am out of here. I am going be ok. I will come for you soon’’. Then he was gone. But they caught up with him. When I had to go to the Indian Reservation residential school I had already rehearsed my script of obedience. We all knew it was not a good place for us Indians and especially resistant ones. My brother was still there. Beaten but battling. At night he would be brought back to the dorm through the blackness. Held up by two orderlies and thrown on the bed. His body a silhouette. It lay there. Still. Frozen. I can still hear his pride shattering under the weight of muffled tears. His body bruised but in the morning he would hide every bruise as he would hide his pain. A distance grew between us. I adapted and he wreaked more and more anarchy. I was being assimilated and he was being annihilated. Every Sunday I would pray for him. Asking my new God to help guide him''.
When you hear a a son talk. In the way he did. Where a son plays out his role and shows no reluctance to engage in the seemingly banal. Not crushed by the father’s silence but respectful of him. You can't help but think there is always something that is unsaid. As with many a conversation.
''I guess you have not heard from Ted. I let him know you, you know, had been…back in hospital but it was fine. You had recovered well. That you were doing well. Of course I have not seen him myself in a year or so (more like two to three years). I think he is still up on the Reservation. Working welfare now. They have some difficult cases to support. I guess you know all this''.
The silences always get longer. Not matter how hard you try.
''Dad…I am…I mean…I never thanked you. At least I don’t think so''.
The father and the son finish up their food. The father pushes his plate to one side. The son will have to come around the table and help guide his father to his feet but there is one last silent pause. Both looking at each other.
''Your mother and I were proud of both you and Teddy. I should thank you Son. I abandoned my ancestors. I took a white woman who was kind and accepting and her family let this little Indian prosper. Gave me a $1000 dollars to set up a garage and spray shop. That woman supported me all the way. I turned my only gift, of drawing to an advantage early on at the residential school. I would sketch the Nuns and the visiting priest. Then later I would paint them in all their colourful glory. That kept me free of the beatings and also from the other privileges they would bestow on the little Indian boys and girls. My brother disappeared at the age of 14. I eventually dealt with it by believing he had finally got far enough away this time for them not to bother fetching him back. What did it matter if there was another homeless Indian teenager on the highways to hell? I prayed to my God but it never brought him back. He did not bother to come for me. I was a lost cause. I didn’t hide this from you or your brother. I told you all about my father and mother. About their parents and back and back through the generations. I still had the stories in me but I had long forgotten how to re-enact them. But these were not fairy tales with happy endings. From generation to generation the story becomes one of battling and bitterness, loss, betrayal and eventual hardship. I chose, or was chosen, to break this cycle. I wanted to prosper and be safe. I saw no riches in the old ways. You, you carried my way on Daniel. I thank you for that. It makes an old man believe that he did something good. I don’t feel betrayed by your brother. He looked past me and he can see the ancestors waiting. They still have the spirit inside them. They hope that maybe one day this land can be returned to them and their ways. Not for it to be raped and stripped bare, like so many of my friends in those schools they sent us to. That we will live again in co-existence with nature.’’
They both linger at the table. After the long silent pause the son smiles at his father.
'’So was that sandwich good for you. Good that you can eat a bit better now. How about when you get home. What’s that? Next week the Doctor said. I think I heard him right. Well what about Dan and I coming over. Let’s see if you're ready for watching some Sunday league baseball. Bart gets his pool sorted. We could take a ride by his. I know how you like put few lengths in still. Get the boys over. Its BBQ weather. Bart would like your company Dad. He always had a soft spot for you and you know…since…hmm…Doreen passed away. He does not have the company anymore.’’
From a few feet I can see this boys, sons tender love for his father and while I do not have a full view from here of his father. I think he is proud of his son.
''You know Dad I still miss Mom. Twenty-five years. She should not have been taken from you. Not when you had lost so so much already. I know you did you what you felt you should or only what you felt you could do. But to lose a Nation, to lose the lands that your family had so well cared for. That was awful and that woman was your refuge, not the reservation.’’
The man stands up. The waitress brings over the walker and the son helps the father steady on his feet. He holds the walker. They seem to chuckle to each other. I hear the fathers voice for the first time and see his magnificence. He must be 6’ 4’’ with piercing eyes and soft lips.
''Did you say you going to smoke some fish. How many times I heard that Dan" He carries on chuckling.
'’ Well maybe some old boy I know who has a secret recipe for smoking fish might want to lead a hand’’.
The son draws back the door and they make their way out. I see them step slowly up to a Silvarado pickup truck with the most colourful painting along its side of what seems like a 1000 Indians riding into a parched valley which turns green as they thunder on through, howling and singing.
The sons words are practically verbatim. I made notes so there is little embellishment. I did not hear him say the mother bit. His father said hardly anything. I was attracted by the endearing effort of the son. However my visit to the Indian Centre left me shocked at the cruelty still being dealt to these original settlers of the land and caretakers of it. When I went to School in 1966 Ted who we meet at the Centre went to an Indian Residential school in 1968 run the the Church on behalf of the Government. These schools operated up to the late 70's. They were not on the whole good places. The Church and grave yard was significant as we could not understand why it had no be burned down and why so many First Nation were buried there and had European names. So rather than blog about this I have tried to weave it into this short story. It seems to me this must have been and still is a story about assimilation and annihilation. Conrad Black wrote a piece in the national paper that the Indians needed to get over it and that the law suits that state their was a genocide going on are nonsense. I had never heard about the schools and I can't help think that it might not have been genocide of the people but it did have a stated aim to wipe out their culture and roots. To train them in proper ways.
We meet a modern day gold digger. Well it was nickel but gold was a by-product of the mining. He bemoaned the fact he had deal with so many bureaucrats to get mining licences. He also said as we talked about the immigration issues and you wander on to the subject of First Nations people.
"it is not as if they built any pyramids or anything".
In another town I meet another man. Very informed. I was watching a Sunday league baseball game and he invited me to have a beer. I enjoyed the jocular nature of his friends and for a moment touched on a cultural artefact of the settlers first hand. But I was intrigued about his job. He worked for the last 15 years with a Company that needed access to the land. His job was to negotiate with the First Nation peoples because in BC the state signed no treaties with them when the land was being taken by the settlers and Government of that time. So every-time it went to court they would win the right to the lands that they had originally roamed (it now made sense why the Centre we visited had made such a deal of tracing the original plots of land they lived and hunted on). So he said " they could end up with the whole of BC ". So his company was at the forefront of negotiation with them. He knew all about the Schools and the legacy of hardship that had left. The social problems that faced so many of them. He looked out at the people in attendance at the Sunday league. He said " of all the people here today maybe one or two might not this story ".
But hey, what does it really matter. If they built no pyramids they were not really a nation.
Rachel meet an Australian Farmer. He said " in two hundred years we European settlers have destroyed the land. The aboriginals had it for a thousand years and kept it in good shape".
I am not an anti-progressive and I have no real credentials as an environmentalist. We don't know for sure what would have happened if we Europeans had not sailed onto the high seas. If two or three hundred years had passed and that maybe the aboriginals from the far centres of the earth would have come sailing up to our coast lines with guns and germs that would have matched us for our guns and germs.
If you want an interesting read on global history try this book.
I retired about 5 years ago. I had been in the Mental health industry for my whole working life. I put my spare time into art, writing and photography with mixed success. I found that I had a great capacity to be idle and I would love to teach this to other people. The opportunity to spend this amount of time together as family in these modern times is rare. I will miss my older kids and Buddy and my close friends.