A Sunny Day in Ohsweken

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.

15 Responses to A Sunny Day in Ohsweken

  1. Shelley says:

    Whether or not the blood is in your veins, is a matter of your beliefs.

    I too am very drawn to Native American culture (have you noticed the mirror of my van?) and feel that there is something there. Coming from immigrant Russian and Polish ancestors I am pretty sure there is not a blood connection but a spiritual one.

    And if there is such a thing as prior lives, perhaps you and I were both part of the culture lifetimes ago.

  2. goodbear says:

    so well written. when i did a cross country road trip of the u.s. i remember driving through the navajo nation and being speechless…for hours. how? how do i have so much and they have nothing? how was someone living without lightbulbs in the 20th century. it tossed me off balance a bit…

  3. eyegillian says:

    This is beautifully and thoughtfully written… your description puts the tourist trinkets and other stereotypical goods in context. So many people want to “be” like the First Nations, but so few of them want to let them be!

  4. lavenderbay says:

    Thank you all for your comments. This “part one” was just there, and flowed out before I knew I had that much to say; I even had to find another photo to replace the one I had started with.

    I especially like your first sentence, Shelley. Have you read Thomas King’s The Truth About Stories? It has greatly influenced my thinking, something along the lines of, “It doesn’t matter if it’s fact, it’s still true”.

    Up here, Goodbear, I’ve known I was travelling through reserve land when all the houses are about the size of lawnmower sheds.

    There’s that problem that you’ve worked with, Eyegillian: solidarity versus appropriation. At least imitation is a flattering form of sincerity.

  5. Alyson Hill says:

    A very thought provoking and well writen first part – I really felt it in my solar plexus. It draws some great parallels with Australian indigenous people.

  6. lavenderbay says:

    Most of what I know of Australia’s version of it, Alyson, comes from the film, “Rabbit-Proof Fence”. The opening slide show where the government agent (or whoever he is) blithely outlines the latest policy is particularly chilling.

  7. jamesviscosi says:

    Very well-written piece. The history of our treatment of the indigenous tribes is pretty shameful, which is one reason it baffles me that people seem to be so vindictive toward them when they try to make the best of what they have (e.g., casinos, low-cost gas stations, etc.).

  8. lavenderbay says:

    Or, hey, cigarettes. We’re the ones who turned their sacred tobacco plant into junk food in the first place; the least we could do is not begrudge their selling smokes at competitive prices.

  9. themarvelousinnature says:

    I’m a bit torn about the whole First Nations situation, and it may just be that I’m not sufficiently educated on the different sides. On the one hand, it’s pretty appalling what happened when the Europeans moved in, and over the following couple centuries. On the other hand, you can’t tell me that if given the choice and a great expanse of land, that these communities would prefer to go back to being hunter-gatherers, paddling down the rivers in their birchbark canoes, swathed in furs and leather, giving up their TVs, telephones, ATVs, modern clothes and housing. So it’s kind of like they want to have their cake and eat it too – please, give us free land and government subsidies and lots of privacy, but we’ll take your technology and modern advances as well, thanks; they’re no longer the same people who were abused centuries ago, they’re moving with the times – but only where it suits them. I appreciate that they want to maintain their culture and heritage, but the immigrants in various Chinatowns or Little Italys or other city suburbs manage to do so while still being contributing members of society. Soooo…. again, I will admit to being very ignorant on the details of the situation on each side, but that’s my point of view based on what I do know, and it’s open to change if I’m offered further information that makes a good case.

    On a tangent, I agree with what jamesviscosi says. Where the people are actually making an effort to go out and earn honest income it’s a shame they should be derided for it. I suspect part of the reason that so many Native peoples remain on the reserves is the prejudices they face when they come off them – and it’s hard to say how to get around this. Non-Natives need to be more open and understanding, but Natives as a group need to also make an effort to dispel the myths. It’s kinda like the situation with black culture – on the one hand, you have the people fighting to change prejudices, but then on the other you have aspects of black culture, such as rap artists, calling themselves “niggers” and various other things they’ve been fighting so hard to get the rest of the population to stop saying, and it undermines their whole effort.

  10. eyegillian says:

    I sense myself nodding in agreement with what themarvelousinnature says. At the same time, your questions remind me of that frustrated shrug that goes with the question, “and what do women want, anyway?” Well, I certainly can’t speak for First Nations people, and I can’t even speak for women. That’s because “women” aren’t a monolithic singleperson, and while there might be some women who want roses and frills and a handsome man to hold every door, that’s not me.

    My feeling here is that many First Nations leaders believe that a stronger connection to their cultural practices will counter the uprootedness and help heal self-destructive habits caused by centuries of second-class status in our society. By participating in pow-wows, speaking their own language, and re-remembering their history and relationship with the land, for example, Indigenous peoples can perhaps regain some of their self-respect and overcome some of the negative stereotypes.

    That being said, the Indian Act is still in force here in Canada, which means that Natives living “off reserve” tend not to have any support systems to help them survive in urban centres. And if you’ve grown up in a community with substandard housing and schools, how are you going to survive in a big city? Yet many First Nations people are surviving, they are reaching out and helping each other, trying to build bridges and dedicating themselves to educating them and us.

    At some point, I hope, there won’t be such a “them” and “us” distinction. After all, most “normal” (ie, white european english) members of society see themselves (ourselves) as autonomous individuals, with the confidence and ability to learn new skills and work at productive jobs. We’d hate to have people telling us what to do and where to live, etc. I wish that was the case for all people.

  11. themarvelousinnature says:

    That’s a good point, eyegillian, about the leaders believing that their culture and heritage will counter the self-destructiveness. When I visited a reserve in the US, the shuttle bus driver who took me out to the birding spot talked to me about their culture, traditions and various practices, and they seemed to be a very with-it, involved group, and they seemed to be doing well for themselves, taking advantage of the ecotourism potential of the area they happened to live in.

    I suppose the challenge, then, is to make the younger generation care about their culture (both of that bus driver’s children were dancers and participated in their regular festivals). It’s pretty easy to lose this if even one generation doesn’t learn it and pass it along. I’m only 2nd generation Canadian on my mom’s side – my grandparents were both born in the British Isles and moved here as children – and yet I know nothing of the Scottish or English heritage that I’m not so far removed from. I think it was with them that the link was broken.

    I understand it can be tough for older generations to leave the reservation, but the younger generations have a future full of opportunity if they choose to take it. There’s no need for them to move to the “big city”, necessarily, but they could still move to small towns where it’s not such a big leap in standard or style of living, but where they’d be able to start making their own way. I think lots of them do do this. But I think more of them perhaps need to, or otherwise find a way to be productive on the reserve, through promoting tourism like the bus driver’s tribe has done, or selling arts and crafts (even possible for distant reserves through the wonders of the internet), or etc.

    My sister’s boyfriend was, for a time, a pilot for one of the charter airlines in the north that catered especially to native communities, and he’s got some rather sordid tales of the people from there that just uphold all the stereotypes that’ve been slapped on them. Part of it I think is boredom – miles from anywhere and disconnected from their land, etc, such that there’s the “nothing to do” that one hears from suburban kids these days if the power’s out and they can’t walk to the mall.

    And I’ll admit I am sort of painting everyone with one broad brush, and there are many individuals who do take the initiative, but I think it needs to be a trait of the group as a whole. As you suggest in your last paragraph, do you think it merely comes down to a matter of confidence? And that as white people in a white society, you and I don’t face the same prejudices and so therefore have that confidence to be who we want to be?

  12. TheAgedCat says:

    Lovely writing, lavenderbay. I often have the “interloper” feeling (in various situations) myself. Sometimes it’s daunting, and I try to tell myself that if the door’s been opened for me, I should try to think of myself as a welcome and respectful “guest,” rather than an interloper — maybe an ambassador of sorts. Hospitality is something many folks are proud of.

    A lot of thoughts flitting through my head as I read the other comments here. One is, that people who are already uprooted and mobile don’t fully understand attachment to place. It isn’t so easy to tear oneself away, even if one has the means to do so. Opportunity, often requires that one uproot oneself. It can be a painful thing to do.

  13. themarvelousinnature says:

    AgedCat, I can totally understand that sentiment. My parents have been in their current house since 1978, and although it’s obvious that the house is no longer a good fit for them since their children have moved out, it’s taken them about four years to finally work up to the point of actually listing the house. On the other hand, for us children, while we’ll be sad to see it sold as it’s the only home we’ve ever known, it’s much easier for us to move on. It was tough for me to move out to attend university, and later to pursue work opportunities, but I did it because I knew it was necessary for furthering myself. In general, the people you hear of who’re still living with their parents in their 30s or 40s don’t have especially fulfilling lives. I understand the elders in Native communities might have more trouble leaving the reserve, but the young generation, who are already the most disconnected from the land and their heritage, should find it much easier. And as I also said, it’s not strictly necessary that they leave the reservation in order to be productive and prosperous.

  14. lavenderbay says:

    Oh, dear. I don’t know if I’ve succeeded or failed.

    I’m not mentally or emotionally equipped for political debate; I just hope that my writing is good enough that people feel what I feel. A number of you — including you, Aged Cat, bless your fur and whiskers — have told me what I wanted to hear.

    I couldn’t begin to answer your first comment, Marvelousinnature, so I asked eyegillian, who has been working in gender- and racial justice for nearly a decade, to respond to you. I get the sense, though, that you want to understand more. Since my way of understanding usually begins with reading materials, I will suggest two places that I know of where you might start.

    1. You can drop a line to the Women’s Inter-Church Council of Canada, housed in the Toronto School of Theology at the U of T (or hey, drop in during business hours), and request a copy of their “Still Walking: Aboriginal women lead the struggle against violence” issue of Making Waves. wicc@wicc.org

    2. You can use the following link to read a goodly chunk of Peggy McIntosh’s piece called “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”. In this PDF are listed 50 ways in which we are privileged without necessarily even being aware of it. Apparently Peggy lists even more, but 50 will do for a start.

    If either of these links don’t work, google “WICC” for the one and “invisible knapsack” for the other, and you’ll find the pages soon enough.

    Okay, my head’s going back in my shell now. Turtle wishes peace and sweet slumber to you all.

  15. themarvelousinnature says:

    Thanks for the links! I’ll check them out. Yes, I think part of my confusion on all of these very political issues is simply wanting to know the truth. What god (in the metaphorical sense) observes. There is a truth, but it’s highly coloured by our own personal viewpoints and experiences, and it can be very hard to get at. Hopefully your two suggestions will perhaps help lend some clarity to the issue.

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