Monday, March 25, 2013

Native poetry

they collect the artifacts to study the past.
out of the bone fragment, chipped stone and delicate
cedar weave is written a history long forgotten.
in all this where is the truth?
what is the history?
maybe history should not be the question,
for history is written
not passed on in a story at the bighouse,
or in a lesson to the young.

yet while the archeologist’s artifact
and the historian’s document
remain important,
too often, the record shows the history
from the historian’s own living eye.

the truth is perhaps
in elders who remember,
who are living and looking to the young.
what can be comes from
the spirit of the past,
the wisdom of the elder,
and the new strength of the young.

the history is alive,
not to be found in an old site, but
present in the people.

and when the record changes to tell
a more accurate “history”
or our people, then the true
spirit of our past, present and future
can be given,
and in return valued.

Indian Woman
I am a squaw
a heathen
a savage
basically a mammal

I am a female
only in the ability
to breed
and bear papooses
to be carried
on a board
or lost
to welfare

I have no feelings

The sinuous planes
of my brown body
carry no hint
of the need
to be caressed
Its only use
to be raped
beaten and bludgeoned
in some
B-grade western

I have no beauty

The lines
cut deep
into my aged face
are not from bitterness
or despair
at seeing my clan destroyed
one by one
they are here
to be painted or photographed
and hung on lawyers wall
I have no emotions

The husky laughter
a brush of wings
behind eyes
soft and searching
lightly touching others
is not from caring
but from the ravaged
beat of black wings
rattling against the bars
of an insanity
that tells me
something is wrong here.

Some one is lying.

I am an Indian Woman

Where I walk
beauty surrounds me
grasses bend and blossom
over valleys and hills
vast and multicoloured
in starquilt glory

I am the keeper
of generations

I caress the lover gently
croon as I wrap the baby
with quietness I talk
to the old ones
and carefully lay to rest
loved ones

I am the strength
of nations

I sing to the whispering
autumn winds
in the snow
I dance
filling my body
with powder
feeling it
knowing it

I am the giver of life
to whole tribes

I carry the seeds
carefully through dangerous
give them life
among cold and towering
watch them grow
battered and crippled
under all the lies
I teach them the songs
I help them to hear
I give them truth

I am a sacred trust
I am Indian woman.

Jeannette C. Armstrong

JEANNETTE C. ARMSTRONG Okanagan. b. 1943
Born on the Penticton Indian Reserve in British Columbia, Jeannette Christine Armstrong is a fluent speaker of the Okaganan language and a student of her community’s traditional teachings.

‘The Native people of this land developed a lifestyle through a unique worldview. I believe its underlying values and structures are important contributions to the pool of knowledge and critical factors in reversing and reshaping a worldview whose values foster an attitude of self-destruction.’

Armstrong holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the University of Victoria and is recognized as a visual artist as well as an activist and author. Her publications include two children’s books, the ground-breaking novel Slash (1987), the collection of poems Breath Tracks (1991), and the book of essays Looking at the Words of Our People: First Nations Analysis of Literature (1993), which she edited.

‘I write because it is a way to contribute to the vast dialogue of the human spirit in its course through time. It is a way to reach others I may never meet in person now and in the future. I appreciate voices from the past like Pauline Johnson and my own great aunt, Mourning Dove. They are windows into a time and place I can never experience directly myself. I write because oral literature is now extremely vulnerable.’

Armstrong is the Director of the En’owkin International School of Writing in Penticton, British Columbia, which offers Canada’s only creative writing program designed for Native people. She has also served on her community’s traditional council, and she consults with international councils and working groups on the wide variety of issues of concern to indigenous cultures.

big bear
i walked where big bear danced
i feel his joy in the wind
that carries his messages
from the past
i danced where big bear danced
his dance steps an imprint on the land
his face a shadow that calls to me
the wind whispering his name
i sleep where big bear sleeps
a prisoner with no walls to hold him
he remained a prisoner
so he danced in his mind
when he heard the steel doors slam
he journeyed on the breeze
that caressed him in his cell
he sang his songs in silence
i walk where big bear danced
i heard his prayer
i felt his pain
i am his anger
big bear still dances
on the ground where i walk

Duncan Mercredi

Duncan Mercredi Inninew/Cree b. 1951
Born in Grand Rapids, Minnesota on 17 August 1951, Mercredi moved at the age of 16 to Cranberry Portage to finish high school. After graduation he worked for twenty years in construction, most of the time as a surveyor, throughout Manitoba. He recalls the many instances of overt and covert racism he encountered during that time, including the simple surprise that a Native man might be employed with a white survey crew. On one occasion his foreman related a comment by a farmer who had been observing Mercredi working: ‘That little Japanese guy sure has good eyesight.’

Mercredi is now a researcher with the federal government, but he is also a prolific and committed writer. He recalls the influence of the stories told by kookum [grandmother]: ‘I always thought how incredible she was that she could take me places and experience events that she had stored away in her mind and heart.’ Although his grandmother gave Mercredi the desire to write, he did not pursue writing until his late thirties: ‘After meeting Maria Campbell, Jordan Wheeler, Lee Maracle, and other writers of First Nations ancestry, I began writing with a passion as I felt the need for others, meaning “white society” – or is it mainstream society? – to experience what I have and in my words.’

Mercredi has published Spirit of the wolf: raise your voice: poems (1990), Dreams of the wolf in the city : poems (1992), and Wolf and shadows: poems (1995). His next book, The Duke of Windsor – Wolf sings the Blues, is tentatively scheduled for publication in early 1998.

I am a Canadian
I’m a lobster fisherman in Newfoundland
I’m a clambake in P.E.I.
I’m a picnic, I’m a banquet
I’m mother’s homemade pie
I’m a few drafts in a Legion hall in Fredericton
I’m a kite-flyer in a field in Moncton
I’m a nap on the porch after a hard day’s work is done.
I’m a snowball fight in Truro, Nova Scotia
I’m small kids playing jacks and skipping rope
I’m a mother who lost a son in the last great war
And I’m a bride with a brand new ring
And a chest of hope
I’m a Easterner
I’m a Westerner
I’m from the North
And I’m from the South
I’ve swam in two big oceans
And I’ve loved them both
I’m a clown in Quebec during carnival
I’m a mass in the Cathedral of St. Paul
I’m a hockey game in the Forum
I’m Rocket Richard and Jean Beliveau
I’m a coach for little league Expos
I’m a baby-sitter for sleep-defying rascals
I’m a canoe trip down the Ottawa
I’m a holiday on the Trent
I’m a mortgage, I’m a loan
I’m last week’s unpaid rent
I’m Yorkville after dark
I’m a Winnipeg gold-eye
I’m a hand-made trout fly
I’m a wheat-filed and a sunset
Under a prairie-sky
I’m Sir John A. MacDonald
I’m Alexander Graham Bell
I’m a pow-wow dancer
And I’m Louis Riel
I’m the Calgary Stampede
I’m a feathered Sarcee
I’m Edmonton at night
I’m a bar-room figiht
I’m a rigger, I’m a cat
I’m a ten-gallon hat
And an unnamed mountain in the interior of B.C.
I’m a maple tree and a totem pole
I’m sunshine showers
And fresh-cut flowers
I’m a ferry boat ride to the Island
I’m the Yukon
I’m the North-West Territories
I’m the Arctic Ocean and the Beaufort Sea
I’m the prairies, I’m the Great Lakes,
I’m the Rockies, I’m the Laurentians
I am French
I am English
And I am Metis
But more than this
Above all this
I am a Canadian and proud to be free.

DUKE REDBIRD Chippewa, b. 1939
Duke Redbird was born 18 March 1939 on the Saugeen Reserve on the Bruce Peninsula, near Owen Sound, Ontario.

Redbird is a former President of the Ontario Metis and Non-Status Indian Association, former Director of Land Claims Research and former Vice-President of the Native Council of Canada. He has worked with all levels of government and the private sector to meet the needs of Indians in the fields of education, alcohol and drug abuse, economic development, housing, tourism, culture, the arts, and health care.

In the seventies he performed his poetry to audiences throughout Canada and the United States. In 1977 a multi-media musical based on his poetry was performed in the presence of Their Royal Highnesses Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh during Silver Jubilee celebrations in Ottawa. In the following year Redbird received his Master’s degree from York University.

The Beggar

i met a boozed-up, begging Indian
on the proverbial mainstreet
ten years ago
when i had no money
i would have fed him
i slinked off
in my unfaded blue jeans
harry rosen plaids
and turquoise rings.

i stole a poem.

Emma LaRocque

I was born early in the dawn of 1949 in a small log cabin in the small Metis community of Big Bay, Alberta. The midwives were nohkom (my grandmother) and my aunt Eleanor, who was felled by tuberculosis before I could know her.

Writing is the art of bringing to birth the human condition in thought form. I remember when I first announced I was going to be a writer to my grade eight classmates, and everybody but my good teacher laughed. Then again, who knew what a “writer” was? We were the offspring of a greet Cree oral literature. Writing was not what we did. Nohkum and Ama (our family term for my mother; short for Nimama in Cree) were superbly skilled storytellers. And, whenever she went to town she brought me comic books, even before I could read.

I try to do in English what nohkum and Ama could do in Cree. But I have spent many years in university, as a student and a professor. There is tremendous pressure to keep up with the academic Joneses, so I have had to read and write scholarly articles, theses, and dissertations. Unfortunately, too many scholars apparently assume scholarly writing must, by definition, be pedantic, stifling, and soul-less! But I am Metis – I refuse to let conventional dictates of Western scholarship bury me in dry dust.

In fact, I see no necessary disconnection between being a scholar and a poetic writer, or a poet. While my essays, social commentaries, and research articles have been published (in their respective eras and mediums) since 1971, only a handful of poems have been previously published. Yet, I have been a closest poet all these years. The words of poetry are closest/closeted to one’s inner being. And, just as good scholarship demands excellence, good poetry demands an excellent way with words. So, it is with some trepidation (a scholar and writer’s fear of the revenge of criticism) – and with not a small sense of exposure – that I submit my inner being words to the public.

Needless to say, my mother’s journey (as yet unwritten) has profoundly influenced mine. I am still in the process of writing a collection of “Mom Poems”; when I am finished, I hope to have them published. Some of these poems appear here, and I dedicate them to the memory of Maggie D. LaRocque, for whom there will always be an ache in my heart. Kih-mi-tat-ti-nan, Ama.

George Kenny (Ojibway)
George Kenny was introduced earlier in this anthology through his short story “On the Shooting of a Beaver.” George Kenny lived on the Lac Seul Reserve in Ontario. He left the reserve at the age of six and grew up in small northwestern Ontario towns. His writing reflects experiences in both Native and non-Native worlds. He dedicated his book, Indians Don’t Cry, to his father and mother. His father was a trapper and labourer, but he never discouraged George from becoming a writer. His mother encouraged him to finish school. In his dedication he acknowledges the contribution his parents made to his success. The book was made into a radio play and videotape called October Stranger.

Sunset on Portage
(from the bus depot)

the Winnipeg sun dies

on the blue logo

of the Bank of Montreal.

Fluorescent and neon lights,
man’s creation


God’s technology.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Moose meat and wild rice

Johnston, Basil. Moose Meat and Wild Rice. McClelland & Stewart, 1978.
The Moose Meat Point Indian Reserve is populated by about 700 Ojibway. The reserve is like many other Indian Reserves; neither prosperous nor severely impoverished; westernized in outward appearance but in soul and spirit very much still Ojibway.

Near by, that is, about twenty or so miles away, is the town of Blunder Bay, a town that once had reason for its existence. Its chief claim for recognition today is its unsurpassed understanding of and goodwill toward the natives of Moose Meat Point. Town and reserve are united by a neglected dirt road that is almost unfit for passage by car. 
Moose Meat Point with its 30,000 acres, is isolated, unprepossessing, somewhat less than paradise, but it is home. Since its founding in the 1840s, Moose Meaters have gone from the reserve for various purposes and for varying lengths of time. They have always returned, as they will always return, no matter what. Moose Meat Point is home.

By the time Moose Meaters were herded onto the reserve they had already adopted a number of Western European customs, techniques, and approaches into their way of life. Some were imposed upon them. Once incarcerated on the reserve, Moose Meat Indians were expected to advance even more quickly. Missionaries came and government agents were assigned to assist in, hasten, and ensure the success of their advance.

As eager as they were to acquire what the white man had to offer, Moose Meaters had difficulty understanding and deciding upon the relative merits of “Brand X” religion and “Brand X” politics. They espoused as many religions as were available to them, only to find that the different faiths were as divisive for Moose Meaters as they were for the white man. Politics produced the same results. Moose Meaters tried to abide by the laws, moral and civil, general and special that were enacted and administered for their own good while trying to keep some of their customs and values alive. However, Moose Meaters could observe one and find themselves breaking another.

As time went by, game diminished and Moose Meaters were forced to go outside the reserve more frequently to seek employment. In their excursions into the white man’s world, Moose Meaters discovered more about the white man and his new and startling inventions, which they eagerly imported to the reserve upon their inevitable return.

But many, like the oyster in “The Walrus and The Carpenter” who chose not to leave his oyster bed, were content to remain in Moose Meat Point where they could live without interference, and in their own fashion, deal with the white man and his peculiar ways: accept, reject, or modify whatever was brought into the village.

More years passed during which the Ojibway in the isolation of Moose Meat Point made little headway. Moose Meaters remained on the reserve and they remained unpolished and unlettered. A school was built and a teacher was hired. With fine manner, acumen, and a good command of English, young Moose Meaters and Moose Meat Point could expect better things.

But things did not get better either on or off the reserve. Better English, service in wall, correct deportment, the right to vote, proper dress, social graces, and even new insights did not enhance conditions or the circumstances of the people of Moose Meat Point, nor improve their relations with white people.

Instead, matters seemed to get worse. Unemployment was high, housing poor, general health was bad, and education eschewed.

Something had to be done. In recent years, the Indian Affairs Branch devised all sorts of programs and handed out grants, left, right and centre to remedy the ills. The provincial government, too, tried to horn in by offering formulae and prescriptions for progress and success. Universities and museums began research in earnest and offered courses. Citizens began clamoring for abolition, education, integration, solution, assimilation, co-operation, and of course, damnation.

While many aspects of Indian life changed over the years, the basic nature of the Ojibway of Moose Meat Point remained essentially the same. They were individualistic, resourceful, informal, proud, impulsive, imaginative, practical, independent, perceptive, patient, and above all, possessed a wonderful sense of humour. As long as they retained their language, they retained their sense of fun and wit. Unhappily, the language is vanishing.

During the same time, the white man also has remained unchanged.  Though he may intend good, the white man has too often allowed his sense of order, organization, superiority, his fondness for paperwork, efficiency, convention, ceremony, change, his penchant for formula, prescription, solution, and his haste, overbearing, force, and decisiveness to negate his intentions.
Such then is the background and the setting for the events that make up the story of the Ojibway of Moose Meat Point in their relationships with the West Europeans and in their attempts to adopt some aspects of West European culture and to keep alive some of their own.

In one sense this story is a kind of history although it is not intended to be such. Rather, it is intended primarily as an amusing account of Indian-white man relationships.

We are indebted to Tom McCue, Albert Belleau, Harold Belleau, Fred Green, Xavier Michon, Rufus Johnston (my father), Norman Jones, Victor Johnson (deceased), Mike Trudeau (deceased), Eugene Keeshig, Jean Shawana, Joe Peter Pangwish, Gregor Keeshig, Lillian Nadijiwon, dear friends and fellow Moose-Meaters, and to the Ojibway for these accounts.

I dedicate this book to story-tellers, listeners and to all good Moose Meat Point people; to those with a sense of humour; to Anna Porter and my editor who can smile and giggle; I dedicate this book especially to the white man, without whose customs and evangelistic spirit the events recounted would not have occurred.

The Kiss and the Moonshine
“Leave women alone and don’t drink. Those things can wait. That’s how to get an education. That’s how the white people do it.” Such was the admonition and advice that I received from the elders when I declared my intention to go to school. And so scrupulously did I follow their words that I graduated from Loyola College in Montreal without serious entanglement from either menace.

But it was not always easy to abide by the injunctions of the elders or always to stick to noble resolve especially at a college in Montreal. Abstaining from drink was easy enough; my depleted wallet prevented me from joining the hordes of students who crowded to the bars every Friday afternoon. Women were another matter. And the fact that the faculty members of the college were more anxious to have their first two pet Ojibway students acquire some social graces and refinement complicated matters that should have been simple.

Induction into white man’s ways and customs began almost as soon as my friend and I arrived in Montreal. The first Friday evening we were there, an enterprising faculty member conducted us to the school auditorium where a dance was held for the benefit of in-residence students and the local girls.

We were ushered into the auditorium, introduced to a couple of girls who giggled, and then left to our initiative and devices. My friend, Al, endowed with more initiative than I charged in. I held back to admire the sights. Never had I seen so many young and beautiful women assembled in one place. There must have been two hundred and fifty girls and only about sixty resident freshmen. A man’s paradise. Several agonizing foxtrots disclosed to me that most of the women, for that was what I had assumed them to be, were in either grade nine or ten, and by age, just entering puberty.

They had nothing to say to me, nor I to them. They were absolutely disinterested in mining, fishing, timbering and farming. I equally was indifferent to the latest songs, movies, fashions or fads. At age twenty-one, I was too old for them. Deciding to abandon the whole business, I sat down intending to sneak away soon.

My acculturation might have ended then and there had it not been for a very attractive young lady, Jennie by name, who invited me to dance with her.

“Where did you go to school?” she inquired as we floated over the floor.

“In Spanish,” I replied.

“Isn’t that marvellous! How wonderful!” she cooed.

I was puzzled by her comment, for it had never occurred to me that the little Ontario town of Spanish might be extraordinary or exotic.

“What else did you do, while you were at school?” the young thing asked looking into my eyes.

“I worked in the mines and lumber camps,” I offered, twirling the young damsel around.

“Oh! you must be strong!” she gushed, looking into my eyes once more, and squeezing my arms. I flexed my muscles, the better to show my prowess.

And so the conversation went-she asking questions-I replying. She listening, while we twirled, skipped, spun and floated around the floor.

“You’re a marvellous dancer,” she whispered almost breathlessly.

I decided to hang around. There were things I could learn from Miss Charming, even if she were only fifteen and in grade ten. Besides that, she was gracious and gentle.

She took possession of me by seizing my elbow and clinging to me for the balance of the evening. Nor was that the only tangible way she demonstrated proof of her claim upon me. During the course of the evening, my charming companion brought me cakes, cookies, and soft drinks; she even made a lei from the coloured decorative streamers, which she pulled down from the ceiling and wound around my neck. Just the thing I had been warned against, “watch white women, possessive as anything.” I did not mind being possessed, wondering what was so objectionable about it.

Before the dance ended, she asked me to escort her home. I was elated and mote than glad to oblige. Out on Sherbrooke Street, we proceeded in an easterly direction toward Girouard. The walk was leisurely and pleasant. But I was startled when my lady-friend quickened her pace, flitted in front of me and veered to my left. But I was just as quick. I too zigged hard left leaving her still to my right side. I was puzzled by this strange manoeuvre, but I promptly dismissed the incident from my mind when she resumed her normal pace and position. We had not gone far when my friend darted behind me, emerged on my left and clutched my left elbow from behind before I could recover my senses. I was alarmed and disturbed by this erratic conduct. “What’s the m-m-m-matter?” I stammered.

“I didn’t know how to tell you. I didn’t want to hurt your feelings, but in our country, the man always walks on the outside,” she purred, squeezing my elbow. I was immediately soothed by her purr.

“Why?” I asked, astounded by a custom about which I had never heard.

“It goes a long way back,” she gurgled. “Generations ago, men used to wear swords on the left side. When danger came up, the man simply whipped out his sword with his right hand. If the woman was standing to his right, the man might accidentally strike her and put himself at a serious disadvantage.”

The explanation was logical but not convincing.

“But men don’t wear swords anymore,” I muttered.

“Maybe not,” Miss Charming countered, “but there was another reason for this custom. A couple of hundred years ago the second floor of houses used to jut out, over and above the street. The occupants of the second floor sometimes threw out their garbage to the street below. Ladies had to walk under the ledge of the second floor to avoid falling refuse.”

I was convinced from examination of the architecture of the buildings on Sherbrooke St. That there was no sound reason to perpetuate the custom of a woman walking between escort and building. I desisted from telling her about the Indian custom which required women to walk behind men. I let the matter drop and the rest of the walk passed without incident.

At the doorway of her house on Marcil Avenue, she turned and asked me if I would like to come for dinner on Sunday. Gladly and willingly I accepted; and gallantly I shook her hand. While I was shaking her hand she leaned forward and kissed me on the cheek. Overcome, I seized her hand harder and pumped it passionately and romantically. Then I skipped back to the college. This business of getting acculturated was fun.

On Sunday I went to Jennie’s house for dinner. She met me at the door, escorted me into the parlour where I met her parents and sister. A maid in a black uniform and white apron appeared with a tray of glasses.

Jennie’s father inquired, “Would you like a drink?”

“Yes, please, I’m thirsty,” I replied. The maid brought the tray over. Jennie’s father took a small goblet from the tray and handed it to me.

“To your health,” he commented, extending his goblet toward me. Not knowing exactly what to do but assuming that he was offering me a second glass as a test of my health and fortitude, I instantly raised my own goblet to my lips, tilted my head back and drained the contents in one draught.

I felt triumphant and I looked to Jennie for some sign of approbation. She only looked aghast. I looked at her father but he had turned his head away slightly and was sipping the wine. Jennie, a glass of orange juice in her right hand, took my elbow with her left.

“Come, I’ll show you our library. Father has a large collection of books,” she said guiding me around the corner and into a room, where shelf upon shelf sat books on mining and mineralogy.

“He’s a mining engineer. I’m sure you’re get along well with him.”

“Baz.” she said, touching my arm and looking into my eyes, “In our country we sip wine; we don’t drink it down like miners or farmers, or Indians.” She paused. “You don’t mind if I tell you these things. I’m sure you do things differently in your country. But I’ll teach you our customs; I’ll show you how we do things.” She looked at me warmly. I melted.

“No; I don’t mind,” I assured her. But I was perplexed by her use of the term “our country.” Surely I had equal claim.

The maid came in and announced that “dinner is being served.” Jennie conducted me to an elegant dining room which was located opposite the parlour. On entry into the dining room we did not sit down immediately but stood behind the chairs. Jennie’s father intoned a prayer first. Only when he was seated did the rest of us, as if by signal, sit down.

After I was seated I noticed the disconcerting assembly of brightly polished cutlery surrounding each plate. While I had read of dinners during which one used a startling variety of flatware, I had dismissed such practices as improbable. Now I was confronted by the fact. While I was pondering the order of use, the maid returned pushing a cart and set a bowl of clear soup in front of me. Not knowing precisely which spoon to use, I watched Jennie. It was easy; watch and do the same thing. I picked up a round-headed spoon, bent my head over the bowl, and began to scoop out the soup into my mouth.

Jennie placed a hand on my shoulder, whispered softly into my ear, “Watch me.” I watched. How graceful and elegant she rendered the act of transferring soup from bowl to mouth. She, like the rest of her family, sat erect, not bent over like me.
In this position, she deftly dipped her spoon into the soup, daintily skimmed the spoon outward and away from the lip of the bowl nearest her, and raised the spoon to her delectable mouth. So simple; and I was a fast learner. I too tried the method. A little awkward perhaps, but I managed. Jennie glanced at me approvingly.

Nor did I realize, until the next course was placed on the table, that meats and roast beef, which were served, were to be eaten with the same flourish and ceremony. Flourish I possessed; ceremony I had not previously observed. 
I stabbed a slice of roast beef, cut it violently, shovelled it into mouth and chomped on it vigorously a few times before swallowing it. As I skewered the next portion, Jennie turned to me whispering in my ear,

“In our country, we chew beef fifty-eight times.”

Wanting to please her and show that I could adjust to any situation, I promptly began counting with each clamp of my jaws. By this time I had learnt to sit upright.

One; two; three; four; five; six; seven...

“Mr. Johnston,” Jennie’s father intoned, “I understand that you went to school in Spanish. Is that the town near Blind River, Ontario?”

Not knowing which was the greater offence, talking while one’s mouth was full or swallowing meat before it was masticated the proper number of times, I was still counting; ... fourteen, fifteen ...

“Yes it is, sir,” I replied.

“My company, Normanda Mines, is doing some exploratory work in that area. The surveys and core samples are encouraging. You must know the area quite well?”

“Yes, Sir. I worked in lumber camps, just north of Blind River.” I mumbled through a mouth filled with roast beef. I was about to resume chewing the roast beef when I realized to my dismay I had masticated; I could not recall whether it was nineteen or twenty-nine. I wondered what would happen if I underchewed or overchewed the meat. I did not want to start over again; so I started at fifteen.

“Mr. Johnston, I also understand from Jennie that you worked in the mines. Is that correct?” He said.

Twenty-seven, twenty-eight...

“Yes sir! I worked for the Algoma Ore Properties, a subsidiary of Algoma Steel.” I carefully mouthed my words around the now completely shredded and dry roast beef.

“And what did you do?” He pressed on.

“I worked underground,” I rolled the answer over a couple of strands of roast beef.

“Mmmmm, very interesting.”

I wanted to eat. I wanted to chew. I wanted to swallow. I forgot how many times I had chewed the beef. With all the questions directed at me, it was impossible to keep count and to think of my answers at the same time. How my hosts managed this, was a wonder to me. White people never ceased to amaze me.

But I gave up; I chewed as discreetly as I could.

“Where were you born?” Jennie’s mother asked.

“On the Moose Meat Point Indian Reserve,” I replied.

“You’re an Indian then!” Jennie’s mother said, horror and astonishment in her tone.

“Yes, Ojibway.” I answered proudly.

The rest of the meal took on the aspects of an inquisition, but at least some etiquette was forgotten and I was just as glad. I passed the cross-examination with flying colours. So much interest was shown in me that the dinner had become pleasant.

After dinner I lingered another hour answering questions before I excused myself to return to the College and to my studies. I virtually skipped and frisked on the way back like a spring ram.

Next Friday evening I went down to the college auditorium as soon as the doors were opened at 8.00 o’clock. There were crowds of girls, but Jennie was not there; she would, I was certain, arrive later. While I waited, I danced with some of the girls who commented wonderingly upon my Spanish origin. A couple of them even gave me their phone numbers asking me to call them. I accepted the information politely without intending to use it. I much preferred Jennie.

I waited all evening for Jennie who did not arrive. Nor did she ever return to the school dances after that. I wondered why. But all was not exactly lost. During the next few weeks I collected some twenty or twenty-five phone numbers of girls which I dutifully inscribed on the legs of the double decker bed which I occupied. 
And just as the faculty members and the local girls were anxious to impart to my friend and me some polish, so were our colleagues. Many of my fellow boarders suggested that I purchase a small black book and write therein the phone numbers and the names of the girls that I had collected. Willing to please and get cultured, I brought one, carefully writing down phone numbers only, but not deliberately omitting the names. It was simply a question of economy. I saw no point in depositing all the information especially when I knew which name was associated with which telephone number.

I soon caught on to why my classmates and fellow resident students were so inordinately interested in my book. To confuse them I deliberately set down the names of girls beside the telephone number belonging to other girls. I even added ten or fifteen other fictitious names and numbers to the list. In the end I confounded colleagues and even confused myself.

The girls were possessive as geese, the young men acquisitive as squirrels. But I learned.

I acquired not only some polish and refinement but knowledge over and above the academic. Listening to my colleagues who expounded upon sex once in a while, I came to realize the magnitude of my ignorance in such matters; my inexperience; and the vast knowledge of my colleagues.

Four years at Loyola College went by during which I avoided and evaded women and desisted from alcohol. I became acculturated without catching “cultural shock,” more or less. I was ready, more or less. I knew something of the theories of romance, and dining and talking more or less.

Even after graduation I was not particularly interested in women nor they in me. Whether they grew weary in the wait or were simply disinterested, I was unable to say; but it was probably for the latter reason.

After I started to work in Toronto, I began going back to the reserve at Moose Meat Point at fairly regular intervals. And I eventually formed a liaison with Early-In-The-Morning, who possessed among other attributes an automobile. She was an Indian girl, in all probability less possessive than her white counterparts; and much less pretentious. Just the girl for me. The elders would approve too. Keep the race pure that way. Each return to the reserve was more pleasant than the last; each held out more promise.

The association with Early-In-The-Morning began innocently enough; but, as I got to know her better, my affection for her grew. So did my resolve to kiss her. However, not knowing precisely how she would respond to my advances, and my amorous fibre being weak and static, Early-In-The-Morning remained unkissed. 
I had to do it right. Having learned something about pitching woo and the theory of sex not from gutters or behind bars but from the mouths of the college intellectuals, in sanitary seminar rooms, and in comfortable recreation lounges, I determined that I was well able to apply West European kissing methodology upon Early-In-The-Morning. No more erotic handshakes. But it was rather difficult to decide which approach would best please and most excite Early-In-The-Morning, there being so many ingenious variations to the art of romance. I considered each in turn and dismissed them as somewhat inappropriate. The “Blood-letter,” otherwise known as the “hickey rouser” was not the kind of kiss to be rendered at the initiation of a romance. It smacked too much vampirism and violence. Moreover, Early-In-The-Morning was on the anaemic side. She would not hickey. The “nipper” was too inconstant, missing the point, too birdlike. Besides, Early-In-The-Morning was ticklish; she would probably go into convulsions and terminate the business before it got underway. Then there was “the butterfly” which because I wore glasses would not work. Most intriguing of all was the “French kiss.” Were I to try jamming or ramming my tongue into her mouth, Early-In-The-Morning might not be ready for this refined and advanced way of kissing. In all likelihood, she would bite, scream and cause a huge commotion. 
While I knew the theory of kissing, I had no real practical experience. Having fastidiously avoided women and girls during my high school and college days, my proficiency in the craft of kissing was deficient. To go out to practise at this point was out of the question.
So I planned a plain simple kiss. Under the circumstances, the gradual approach, as recommended by some of my college contemporaries, was the best. All that remained was the style of kissing. I tried recalling Tom Mix, Hoot Gibson, Roy Rogers and John Wayne, but they were not very illuminating. I went to a few movies and watched Allan Ladd, Glen Ford, Walter Pidgeon and Humphrey Bogart. Of all the kissers I saw, I was most impressed by Humphrey Bogart. His was the technique. It was manly, nothing weak about it; it was honest, nothing deceitful; it was direct, no beating around the bush; and it was forceful, no one could resist it. Early-In-The-Morning would like that. I shivered in excitement. The next time, for sure.

The opportunity came several weeks later, when I again returned to Moose Meat Point ostensibly to visit my parents and relatives. On Saturday I sought out Early-In-The-Morning by walking five miles to her parents’ home. She too had come home for the week-end. I was in luck.

That evening we went out to Blunder Bay, and though it was warm I shivered. At the bowling alley, I was unable to hold the ball properly because of the clamminess of my hands. I shivered. Afterwards we went out to a restaurant where I showed her the proper manner of consuming soup, the civilized number of times beef was to be masticated, and the correct posture for dining. For all my guidance Early-In-The-Morning continued to dine without regard for posture or manners or decorum.

“You eat the way you want to eat. I’ll eat the way I want to eat,” she said. I shivered again. I had but one purpose, one resolve, the kiss. For it, I overlooked her ill-manners and forgave her surliness.

Later that evening Early-In-The-Morning took me home, to my uncle’s place, where I was staying. All was quiet and in darkness. She stopped at the gate but kept the motor running. We talked. At least she talked; my mouth was too dry for my talking, and I shivered. I moved closer, perhaps a few inches. She talked on, I moved over. She did not seem to notice. Good. She talked on, I moved over again, until I was as close as I could possibly be without sitting on her. Again she did not appear to notice. I took this to mean that she had no objection. So I placed a friendly shivering hand upon her right shoulder. Early-In-The-Morning did not resist. I moved my friendly, shivering, clumsy hand to her other shoulder. She did not protest ... she did not wince. She was ready. I was ready. She talked on. 
I gazed at Early-In-The-Morning. She looked lovely, tempting. She looked at her watch and announced. “My God. I didn’t realize it was so late, I’d better be going.”
I made my move – manly, direct, forceful and swift – but I did not quite complete the assault for the car horn blasted the stillness of the night and disrupted my ecstasy. I tore myself loose from Early-In-The-Morning, knocking off her hat and getting a button from my coat sleeve entangled in her hair. She screamed. The car horn promptly stopped. The door of the cabin flew open with the reverberating crash of a rifle shot. From the interior, like a bull burst the gangling shape of my uncle, his form made ghostly by his white long johns. On his feet were rubber boots. A cap was jammed over his ears. With a galvanized pail clasped tightly in each hand he scudded across the open field into the mist. Miraculously the light in the cabin was on. I disentangled my button from Early-In-The-Morning’s hair. Then she exploded into gales of laughter, rocking and rolling in her seat, while I skulked on my side realizing that I had placed my elbow upon the car horn in my eagerness to kiss her. I slunk out the car door.

I stood unsteadily beside the car, Early-In-The-Morning’s peals of laughter stinging my ears. I sort of lurched away. She was still roaring. My ears burned but I no longer shivered. Disconsolately and dejectedly I shuffled toward the cabin. 
Early-In-The-Morning tooted he car horn, and then drove off with a roar in a cloud of dust. I was too ashamed to turn around and wave her on her way.
At the door, I waited for my uncle, who emerged from the mists bearing the pails. He was puffing when he came up. 
“Oh, it’s you. Holy Jeez, you scared me. I thought it was the police.” Puff, puff, puff. “I just threw out two pails of good moonshine,” He said mournfully, puffing and wheezing some more. I dared not disclose my own misadventure. 
“We would’a had a nice drink,” he grumbled. 
“Yeah; too bad,” I commiserated. 
As it was there was no kiss and no moonshine.

All the stories recounted in this book are true: all are based on events that have occurred. (The names of the principals in the stories have been changed.) If the accounts sometimes appear to be far-fetched and even implausible, it is simply because human beings very often act and conduct their affairs and those of others in an absurd manner.

Some of the events recorded are the products of Ojibway impulsiveness; others are the result of misunderstanding , or imperfect communication of information; still others are the consequence of the application and clash of different cultural approaches.

Ojibway and other native North Americans will readily recognize and appreciate the stories for what they represent. In order for those with different cultural backgrounds to grasp the substance of the stories, they must understand the influence and role of missionaries and bibles upon Ojibway belief; comprehend the power and force of the Indian Agent and the Indian Act upon the life of the Ojibway; know the attitudes and the character of the English-speaking West European and his regard for other peoples; and finally be aware of the ever-shifting trends in policies and practices of governments in their dealings with the native peoples.

A case in point is contained in “A Sign of The Times.” Prior to the 1960s, all decisions respecting policy and program were made by the Indian Affairs Branch and presented as fait accomplis to the native peoples. Commencing around the 1960s, a new approach, reflecting an enlightened attitude and a more generous spirit was injected into government-Indian relationships. Indians were consulted on many matters concerning their well being before decisions were rendered. Whenever a new program was to be instituted or some important issue to be resolved, general meetings were convened, to which all sorts of officials, chiefs, delegates, and interpreters were invited, equipped with cameras and tape recording machines. There were no real pattern to the meetings; the course of many meetings followed the order described.

The few accounts recorded in this book have for years amused the Ojibway of Moose Meat Point. The events and their repeated telling can reflect and reveal only one aspect and only a small portion of the Ojibway sense of humour. The stories as written cannot adequately convey the real nature or impart the scope of that sense of wit and humour that forms an integral part of the Ojibway peoples and their character. The limits of translation act as an effective bar to a fuller exposition of Ojibway humour.

Monday, March 11, 2013

The one about Coyote going west

This one is about Coyote. She was going west. Visiting her relations. That’s what she said. You got to watch that one. Tricky one. Full of bad business. No, no, no, no, that one says. I’m just visiting. Going to see Raven.

Boy, I says. That’s another tricky one.

Coyote comes by my place. She wag her tail. Make them happy noises. Sit on my porch. Look around. With them teeth. With that smile. Coyote puts her nose in my tea. My good tea.

Get that nose out of my tea, I says.

I’m going to see my friends, she says. Tell those stories. Fix this world. Straighten it up.

Oh boy, pretty scary that, Coyote fix the world, again.

Sit down, I says. Eat some food. Hard work that, fix up the world. Maybe you have a song. Maybe you have a good joke.

Sure, says Coyote. That one wink her ears. Lick her whiskers.

I tuck my feet under that chair. Got to hide my toes. Sometimes that tricky one leave her skin sit in that chair. Coyote skin. No Coyote. Sneak around. Bite them toes. Make them jump.

I been reading those books, she says.

You must be one smart Coyote, I says.

You bet, she says.

Maybe you got a good story for me, I says.

I been reading about that history, says Coyote. She sticks that nose back in my tea. All about who found us Indians.

Ho, I says. I like those old ones. Them ones are the best. You tell me your story, I says. Maybe some biscuits will visit us. Maybe some moose-meat stew come along, listen to your story.

Okay, she says and she sings her story song.

Snow’s on the ground the snakes are asleep.

Snow’s on the ground my voice is strong.

Snow’s on the ground the snakes are asleep.

Snow’s on the ground my voice is strong.

She sings like that. With that tail, wagging. With that smile. Sitting there.

Maybe I tell you the one about Eric The Lucky and the Vikings play hockey for the Oldtimers, find us Indians in Newfoundland, she says. Maybe I tell you the one about Christopher Cartier looking for something good to eat. Find us Indians in a restaurant in Montreal. Maybe I tell you the one about Jacques Columbus come along that river. Indians are waiting for him. We all wave and say here we are, here we are.

Everyone knows those stories, I says. Whiteman stories. Baby stories you got in your mouth.

No, no, no, no, says that Coyote. I read these ones in that old book.

Ho, I says. You are trying to bite my toes. Everyone knows who found us Indians. Eric The Lucky and Christopher Cartier and that Jacques Columbus come along later. Those ones get lost. Float about. Walk around. Get mixed up. Ho, ho, ho, ho, those ones cry, we are lost. So we got to find them. Help them out. Feed them. Show them around. Boy, I says. Bad mistake that one.

You are very wise grandmother, says Coyote, bring her eyes down, like she is sleepy. Maybe you know who discovered Indians.

Sure, I says. Everyone knows that one. It was Coyote. She was the one.

Oh, grandfather, that Coyote says. Tell me that story. I love those stories about that sneaky one. I don’t think I know that story, she says.

Alright, I says. Pay attention.

Coyote was heading west. That’s how I always start this story. There was nothing else in this world. Just Coyote. She could see all the way, too. No mountains then. No rivers then. No forests then. Pretty flat then. So she starts to make things. So she starts to fix this world.

This is exciting, says Coyote, and she takes her nose out of my tea.

Yes, I says. Just the beginning, too. Coyote got a lot of things to make.

Tell me, grandmother, says Coyote. What does the clever one make first?

Well, I says. Maybe she makes that tree grows by the river. Maybe she makes that buffalo. Maybe she makes that mountain. Maybe she makes them clouds.

Maybe she make that beautiful rainbow, says Coyote.

No, I says. She don’t make that thing. Mink makes that.

Maybe she makes that beautiful moon, says Coyote.

No, I says. She don’t do that either. Otter finds that moon in a pond later on.

Maybe she make the oceans with that blue water, says Coyote.

No, I says. Oceans are already here. She don’t do any of that. The first thing Coyote makes, I tell Coyote, is a mistake.

Boy, Coyote sits up straight. Them eyes pop open. That tail stop wagging. That one swallow that smile.

Big one, too, I says. Coyote is going west thinking of things to make. That one is trying to think of everything to make at once. So she don’t see that hole. So she falls in that hole. Then those thoughts bump around. They run into each other. Those ones fall out of Coyote’s ears. In that hole.

Ho, that Coyote cries. I have fallen into a hole, I must have made a mistake. And she did.

So there is that hole. And there is that Coyote in that hole. And there is that big mistake in that hole with Coyote. Ho, says that mistake. You must be Coyote.

That mistake is real big and that hole is small. Not much room. I don’t want to tell you what that mistake looks like. First mistake in the world. Pretty scary. Boy, I can’t look, I got to close my eyes. You better close your eyes too, I tell Coyote.

Okay, I’ll do that, she says, and she puts her hands over her eyes. But she don’t fool me. I can see she’s peeking.

Don’t peek, I says.

Okay, she says. I won’t do that.

Well you know, that Coyote thinks about the hole. And she thinks about how she’s going to get out of that hole. She thinks she’s going to get that big mistake back in her head.

Say, says that mistake. What is that you’re thinking about?

I’m thinking of a song, says Coyote. I’m thinking of a song to make this hole bigger.

That’s a good idea, says the mistake. Let me hear your hole song.

But that’s not what Coyote sings. She sings a song to make the mistake smaller. But that mistake hears her. And that mistake grabs Coyote’s nose. And that one pulls off her mouth so she can’t sing. And that one jumps up and down on Coyote until she is flat. Then that one leaps out of that hole, wanders around looking for things to do.

Well, Coyote is feeling pretty bad all flat her nice fur coat full of stomp holes. So she thinks hard, and she thinks about a healing song. And she tries to sing a healing song, but her mouth is in other places. So she thinks harder and tries to sing that song through her nose. But that nose don’t make any sound, just drip a lot. She tires to sing a song out her ears, but those ears don’t hear anything.

So, that silly one thinks real heard and tries to sing out her butt hole. Psst! Psst! That is what the butt hole says, and right away thinks don’t smell so good in that hole. Psst.

Boy, Coyote thinks. Something smells.

That Coyote lies there flat and practice and practice. Pretty soon, maybe two days, maybe one year, she teach that butt hole to sing. That song. That healing song. So that butt hole sings that song. And Coyote begins to feel better. And Coyote don’t feel so flat anymore. Psst! Psst! Things smell pretty bad, but Coyote is okay.

That one look around in that hole. Find her mouth. Put that mouth back. So, she says to that butt hole. Okay, you can stop singing now. You can stop making them smells now. But, you know, that butt hole is liking all that singing, and so that butt hole keeps on singing.

Stop, says Coyote. You are going to stink up the whole world. But it don’t. So Coyote jumps out of that hole and runs across the prairies real fast. But that butt hole follows her. Psst. Psst. Coyote jumps into a lake, but that butt hole don’t drown. It just keeps on singing.

Hey, who is doing all that singing, someone says.

Yes, and who is making that bad smell, says another voice.

It must be Coyote, says a third voice.

Yes, says a fourth voice. I believe it is Coyote.

That Coyote sit in my chair, put her nose in my tea, say, I know who that voice is. It is that big mistake playing a trick. Nothing else is made yet.

No, I says. That mistake is doing other things.

Then those voices are spirits, says Coyote.

No, I says. Them voices belong to them ducks.

Coyote stand up on my chair. Hey, she says, where did them ducks come from?

Calm down, I says. This story is going to be okay. This story is doing just fine. This story knows where it is going. Sit down. Keep your skin on.


Coyote look around, and she see them four ducks. In that lake. Ho, she says. Where did you ducks come from? I didn’t make you yet.

Yes, says them ducks. We were waiting around, but you didn’t come. So we got tired of waiting. So we did it ourselves.

I was in a hole, says Coyote.

Pssst. Pssst.

What’s that noise, says them ducks. What’s that bad smell?

Never mind, says Coyote. Maybe you’ve seen something go by. Maybe you can help me find something I lost. Maybe you can help me get it back.

Those ducks swim around and talk to themselves. Was it something awful to look at?

Yes, says Coyote, it certainly was.

Was it something with ugly fur?

Yes, says Coyote. I think it had that, too.

Was it something that made a lot of noise, ask them ducks.

Yes, it was pretty noisy, says Coyote.

Did it smell bad, them ducks wanted to know.

Yes, says Coyote. I guess you ducks have seen my something.

Yes, says them ducks. It is right there behind you.

So that Coyote turn around again but she don’t see anything.

Psst! Psst!

Boy, says those ducks. What a noise! What a smell! They say that, too. What an ugly thing with all that fur!

Never mind, says that Coyote again. That is not what I’m looking for. I’m looking for something else.

Maybe you’re looking for Indians, says those ducks.

Well, that Coyote is real surprised because she hasn’t created Indians, either. Boy, says that one, mischief is everywhere. This world is getting bent.


So Coyote and those ducks are talking, and pretty soon they hear a noise. And pretty soon there is something coming. And those ducks says, oh, oh, oh, oh. They say that like they see trouble, but it is not trouble. What comes along is a river.

Hello, says the river. Nice day. Maybe you want to take a swim. But Coyote don’t want to swim, and she looks at that river and she looks at that river again. Something’s not right here, she says. Where are those rocks? Where are those rapids? What did you do with them waterfalls? How come you’re so straight?

And Coyote is right. That river is nice and straight and smooth without any bumps or twists. It runs both ways, too, not like a modern river.

We got to fix this, says Coyote, and she does. She puts some rocks in that river, and she fixes it so it only runs one way. She puts a couple of waterfalls in and makes a bunch of rapids where things get shallow fast.

Coyote is tired with all this work, and those ducks are tired just watching. So that Coyote sits down. So she closes her eyes. So she puts her nose in her tail. So those ducks shout, wake up, wake up! Something big is heading this way! And they are right.

Mountain come sliding along, whistling. Real happy mountain. Nice and round. This mountain is full of grapes and other good things to eat. Apples, peaches, cherries. Howdy-do, says that polite mountain, nice day for whistling.

Coyote looks at that mountain, and that one shakes her head. Oh no, she says, this mountain is all wrong. How come you’re so nice and round. Where are those craggy peaks? Where are all them cliffs? What happened to all that snow? Boy, we got to fix this thing, too. So she does.

Grandfather, grandfather, says that Coyote, sit in my chair put her nose in my tea. Why is that Coyote changing all those good things?

That is a real sly one, ask me that question. I look at those eyes. Grab them ears. Squeeze that nose. Hey, let go my nose, that Coyote says.

Okay, I says. Coyote still in Coyote skin. I bet you know why Coyote change that happy river. Why she change that mountain sliding along whistling.

No, says that Coyote, look around my house, lick her lips, make them baby noises.

Maybe it’s because she is mean, I says.

Oh no, says Coyote. That one is sweet and kind.

Maybe it’s because that one is not too smart.

Oh no, says Coyote. That Coyote is very wise.

Maybe it’s because she made a mistake.

Oh no, says Coyote. She made one of those already.

Alright, I says. Then Coyote must be doing the right thing. She must be fixing up the world so it is perfect.

Yes, says Coyote. That must be it. What does that brilliant one do next?

Everyone knows what Coyote does next, I says. Little babies know what Coyote does next.

Oh no, says Coyote. I have never heard this story. You are a wonderful storyteller. You tell me your good Coyote story.

Boy, you got to watch that one all the time. Hide them toes.

Well, I says. Coyote thinks about that river. And she thinks about that mountain. And she thinks somebody is fooling around. So she goes looking around. She goes looking for that one who is messing up the world.

She goes to the north, and there is nothing. She goes to the south, and there is nothing there either. She goes to the east, and there is still nothing there. She goes to the west, and there is a pile of snow tires.

And there is some televisions. And there is some vacuum cleaners. And there is a bunch of pastel sheets. And there is an air humidifier. And there is a big mistake sitting on a portable gas barbecue reading a book. Big book. Department store catalog.

Hello, says that mistake. Maybe you want a hydraulic jack.

No, says that Coyote. I don’t want one of those. But she don’t tell that mistake what she wants because she don’t want to miss her mouth again. But when she thinks about being flat and full of stomp holes, that butt hole wakes up and begins to sing. Pssst. Pssst.

What’s that noise, says that big mistake.

I’m looking for Indians, says that Coyote real quick. Have you seen any?

What’s that bad smell?

Never mind, says Coyote. Maybe you have some Indians around here.

I got some toaster ovens, says that mistake.

We don’t need that stuff, says Coyote. You got to stop making all those things. You’re going to fill up this world.

Maybe you want a computer with a colour monitor. That mistake keeps looking through that book and those things keep landing in piles all around Coyote.

Stop, stop, cries Coyote. Golf cart lands on her foot. Golf balls bounce off her head. You got to give me that book before the world gets lopsided.

These are good things, says that mistake. We need these things to make up the world. Indians are going to need this stuff.

We don’t have any Indians, says that Coyote.

And that mistake can see that that’s right. Maybe we better make some Indians, says that mistake. So that one looks in that catalog, but it don’t have any Indians. And Coyote don’t know how to do that either. She has already made four things.

I’ve made four things already, she says. I got to have help.

We can help, says some voices and it is those ducks come swimming along. We can help you make Indians, says that white duck. Yes, we can do that, says that green duck. We have been thinking about this, says that blue duck. We have a plan, says that red duck.

Well, that Coyote don’t know what to do. So she tells the ducks to go ahead because this story is pretty long and it’s getting late and everyone wants to go home.

You still awake, I says to Coyote. You still here?

Oh yes, grandmother, says Coyote. What do those clever ducks do?

So I tell Coyote that those ducks lay some eggs. Ducks do that you know. That white duck lay an egg, and it is blue. That red duck lay an egg, and it is green. That blue duck lay an egg, and it is red. That green duck lay a egg, and it is white.

Come on, says those ducks. We got to sing a song. We got to do a dance. So they do. Coyote and that big mistake and those four ducks dance around the eggs. So they dance and sing for a long time, and pretty soon Coyote gets hungry.

I know this dance, she says, but you got to close your eyes when you do it or nothing will happen. You got to close your eyes tight. Okay, says those ducks. We can do that. And they do. And that big mistake closes its eyes, too.

But Coyote, she don’t close her eyes, and all of them start dancing again, and Coyote dances up close to that white duck, and she grabs that white duck by her neck.

When Coyote grabs that duck, that duck flaps her wings, and that big mistake hears the noise and opens them eyes. Say, says that big mistake, that’s not the way the dance goes.

By golly, you’re right, says Coyote, and she lets that duck go. I am getting it mixed up with another dance.

So they start to dance again. And Coyote is very hungry, and she grabs that blue duck, and she grabs his wings, too. But Coyote’s stomach starts to make hungry noises, and that mistake opens them eyes and sees Coyote with the blue duck. Hey, says that mistake, you got yourself mixed up again.

That’s right, says Coyote, and she drops that duck and straightens out that neck. It sure is good you’re around to help me with this dance.

They all start that dance again, and this time, Coyote grabs the green duck real quick and tries to stuff it down that greedy throat, and there is nothing hanging out but them yellow duck feet. But those feet are flapping in Coyote’s eyes, and she can’t see where she is going, and she bumps into the big mistake and the big mistake turns around to see what has happened.

Ho, says that big mistake, you can’t see where you’re going with them yellow duck feet flapping in your eyes, and that mistake pulls that green duck out of Coyote’s throat. You could hurt yourself dancing like that.

You are one good friends, look after me like that, says Coyote.

Those ducks start to dance again, and Coyote dances with them, but that red duck says, we better dance with one eye open, so we can help Coyote with this dance. So they dance some more, and then, those eggs begin to move around, and those eggs crack open. And if you look hard, you can see something inside those eggs.

I know, I know, says that Coyote jump up and down on my chair, shake up my good tea. Indians come out of those eggs. I remember this story, now. Inside those eggs are the Indians Coyote’s been looking for.

No, I says. You are one crazy Coyote. What comes out of those duck eggs are baby ducks. You better sit down, I says. You may fall and hurt yourself. You may spill my tea. You may fall on top of this story and make it flat.

Where are the Indians, says that Coyote. This story was about how Coyote found the Indians. Maybe the Indians are in the eggs with the baby ducks.

No, I says, nothing in those eggs but little baby ducks. Indians will be along in a while. Don’t lose your skin.


When those ducks see what has come out of the eggs, they says, boy, we didn’t get that quite right. We better try that again. So they do. They lay them eggs. They dance that dance. They sing that song. Those eggs crack open and out comes some more baby ducks. They do this seven times and each time, they get more ducks.

By golly, says those four ducks. We got more ducks than we need. I guess we got to be the Indians. And so they do that. Before Coyote or that big mistake can mess things up, those four ducks turn into Indians, two women and two men. Good-looking Indians, too. They don’t look at all like ducks anymore.

But those duck-Indians aren’t too happy. They look at each other and they begin to cry. This is pretty disgusting, they says. All this ugly skin. All these bumpy bones. All this awful black hair. Where are our nice soft feathers? Where are our beautiful feet? What happened to our wonderful wings? It’s probably all that Coyote’s fault because she didn’t do the dance right, and those four duck-Indians come over and stomp all over Coyote until she is flat like before. Then they leave. That big mistake leave, too. And that Coyote, she starts to think about a healing song.

Pssst. Pssst.

That’s it, I says. It is done.

But what happens to Coyote, says Coyote. That wonderful one is still flat.

Some of these stories are flat, I says. That’s what happens when you try to fix this world. This world is pretty good all by itself. Best to leave it alone. Stop messing around with it.

I better get going, says Coyote. I will tell Raven your good story. We going to fix this world for sure. We know how to do it, now. We know how to do it right.

So, Coyote drinks my tea and that one leave. And I can’t talk anymore because I got to watch the sky. Got to watch out for falling things that land in piles. When that Coyote’s wandering around looking to fix things, nobody in this world is safe.

King, Thomas. The one about Coyote going west. Harper Collins, 1993.

Notes about Canadian Native literature


“A Canadian is someone forced to choose between being an American and being an Indian.”

- Dave Godfrey
  • What do these terms mean?
  • Indian
    • Childhood, innocence, nature
    • Romantically indigenous
      • Grey Owl
    • Culture is pure, true, static
    • Frozen in time
  • American
    • Power, civilized order
  • How do we define this literature?
    • “Native literature is literature written by Native people.”
  • European’s view:
    • “They’re all the same.”
      • Failure to recognise
      • Distinctive cultures
  • But - is there a PAN native voice?
    • No, each bond is different
  • Tribes separated by
    • Language
    • Geography
    • Customs
Part of Canadian culture
  • No Canadian literature truly representative without
  • (old) tendency to look to white writers is disappearing
    • Poets: E. J. Pratt
    • William Kinsella
      • Fence post in time, inappropriate voice because he was white
  • Now can look directly for native writers
A bit of history
  • Major burst of creativity in Canada
    • Began in 1980s
    • Behind the states, which began in 1970s
  • Margaret Atwood in Survival (1972)
    • Looked at how non native writers used native motifs
      • Little native writings
    • But
      • Folk tale translations
Reasons for neglect
  • European cultural arrogance
    • British
    • French
    • Spanish
  • Appropriation
    • Cultural imperialism & paternalism
      • Much of our history written from viewpoint of conquering Europeans
    • Suppressed traditional literature, songs, dances and other rituals
    • Should anybody be able to tell anyone’s story?
      • Writing in the voice of a person that you’re not, e.g. a male writer writing in a woman’s voice
    • One view:
      • Co-option of voice
      • Keep it marginalized
      • Response: “native censorship”
    • Another view:
      • Stop and listen
      • Ask permission
      • Otherwise you are stealing
    • Acknowledge source
      • Basil Johnston
  • “doomed race” theory
    • Disappear, die out or be assimilated
    • National policy
    • Not effective
    • Political will for change?
  • Translation
    • Problem:
      • Impose your own culture, values and literary structures
    • Solution:
      • Learn the language
    • How do you include...?
      • All the nuances?
      • All the shadings?
  • Stereotyping
    • Literary stereotypes
      • Men: as savages
        • Drunk
        • Barbarous
        • Courageous brave
      • Speaking ability
        • Stoic and mute
        • “many moons” phenomena – Victorian minister spoken words
      • Women: two roles
        • Princess
        • Squaw
      • Some historical depictions would qualify as hate literature today
  • Oral culture
    • European antipathy towards oral cultures
    • Writing preferred by mainstream
      • Can be quoted
      • Individual, signed
      • Linear
      • Infinitely repeatable
      • Under control of the past
    • Does not conform to traditional (European) literary criteria or values
      • Collective experience
      • Auditory
      • Oriented towards the present
      • Might be told differently next time
    • Oral is fluid
      • May change with every telling
    • Some adjectives
      • Primitive, pagan, curious, quaint, collectible
    • Once viewed as not intrinsically artistic
      • Not real or sacred
    • Requires a change in perspective
    • Most people aren’t sensitive listeners
      • Hinders ability to tell stories
    • Must be aware of values carried in story
      • Often perceive only what relates to our own culture
      • Affects retelling

“Don’t tell our stories, change them, pretend they are what we’re about, because they’re not.”

David Daniel Moses

Oral literature
  • Some criteria
    • An event, performance
    • Meaning resides in the context
    • Interaction between storyteller and audience
    • Absence of European style and form
  • Does this mean that oral literature is inferior?
  • Not static
    • Some stories may be over 1,000 years old
    • If they are told properly
    • Don’t have to explain meaning after
  • Traditional literary analysis doesn’t work
  • Offers an alternate way of telling stories
Defeathering stereotypes
  • Need to see beyond our history and the stereotypes
  • Many native writers feel a double burden
    • The need to “educate” audiences first
    • Before they can write or speak
  • We must all deal with prejudices and politics
    • Acknowledge the pain and guilt
    •  Incorporate/validate native literature
      • On its own terms
    • And move on...
  • Development of a native literary culture
    • Many writers ... more on the horizon
    • Literature being taught in schools
    • Publishing houses
    • Criticism
    • Anthologies