A Sunny Day in Ohsweken

May 22, 2008

blue view

A few years ago, E.g. and I were down in Port Dover, visiting a classmate. The weather was good, so our friend suggested we go over to the Six Nations reserve at nearby Ohsweken. Penny, an immigrant from northern England, had frequently visited the reserve with family and friends over the years. She told us she always felt an inner peace when she went. Okay, we said, let’s go.

In contrast to Penny, I have North-American-settled ancestors on both my mother’s (Mennonites) and father’s (United Empire Loyalists) sides, stretching back nearly 300 years each. Love being what it is, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a bit of unrecorded First Nations blood in me.

What I’m certain of, however, is not the blood in my veins but that on my hands, as the descendant of intruders to this continent. My European ancestors stole a people’s land, and then called them “poor”. They curtailed their means of livelihood, and then called them “lazy”. They banned their language, and then called them “uneducated”. They destroyed their culture, and then called them “uncivilized”. They took away their children, and then called them “drunkards”. The peoples of the First Nations have been struggling with might and main to restore their heritage, while the federal government gradually concedes an acre here, a protective law there, a little restitution, a little respect.

So here we were in the public park in downtown Ohsweken, where there was some kind of celebration going on, with tables and barbecues set up to sell hot dogs and cobs of corn. I was too shy, too guilty, to partake. I felt like an interloper. I hung back while Penny and E.g. loaded up their ‘dogs and brought me a ginger ale.

Then Penny guided us across the street to some tourist shops. Ah, shopping, the great leveler. Here was my place — except my bank account was nearly empty at the time. Still, it wouldn’t hurt to look.

The first store held the wide variety of trinkets one expects from tourist shops the world over. Here were necklaces, dream catchers, moccasins, T-shirts, souvenirs with beads, wood, and feathers. There was an interesting mix of items for white tourists and gear identifying different indigenous nations or clans. We flitted about the shop, and I relaxed a little.

The place next door was smaller, quieter, sparer. We crossed a worn wooden verandah to an old screen door, and entered a large dusty room lined with shelves on its left- and right-hand walls, and a table and counter in front of us. We were the only shoppers. A man, presumably the clerk, sat behind the counter, simply nodding to us and saying nothing.

The shelves held sculptures. Now, I was raised not to go into a store if I didn’t intend to buy anything, and part of me wanted to exit now; but the sculptures were beautiful. I paused at each one of the dozen or so there, wondering at their symbols, gingerly touching a few of them, although most of them could probably tumble down a staircase without sustaining any damage. One in particular arrested me completely. I didn’t understand, but I was drawn to it. Finally, I asked the man its price. When  he told me, I nodded appreciatively, regretfully, and walked out of the store.

Tomorrow: Part II.