The sto­ries that heal colonised Cana­di­ans

Mem­bers of First Na­tions in­dige­nous peo­ples tell a his­tory of re­silience and the re­build­ing of a shat­tered com­mu­nity

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - ARTS & BOOKS - Cather­ine Conroy

Some­times the story that you set out to tell is not the one that wants to be told. On a Fri­day morn­ing in a house in Dublin, I sit down to speak with three in­dige­nous sto­ry­tellers from Canada. They are here for a con­fer­ence called The Un­told Sto­ries of the Past 150 Years/Canada 150 at UCD, about Cana­dian his­tory and iden­tity.

I am won­der­ing if we might talk about the art of sto­ry­telling, that par­tic­u­lar gift that makes one per­son re­gale, an­other bore.

In­stead, Maria Camp­bell, Rene Me­shake, and Sylvia Mar­a­cle, from Canada’s “In­dian Coun­try”, ac­com­pa­nied by in­dige­nous his­to­rian Kim An­der­son, tell me a story of pain, re­silience and the re­build­ing of a shat­tered com­mu­nity through sto­ries.

Sylvia Mar­a­cle is an ac­tivist and sto­ry­teller from the Tyen­d­i­naga Mo­hawks. She be­lieves their sto­ries will res­onate with Ir­ish peo­ple, “with colonis­ers hav­ing come and dis­rupted what was prob­a­bly the nat­u­ral or­der, and the be­lief in the broader sense of how strong the land is as a teacher”.

Maria Camp­bell is a Cree/ Métis el­der ( the Cree are one of the largest group of First Na­tions in­dige­nous peo­ple in Canada, whereas the Métis are de­scen­dants of unions be­tween the dif­fer­ent tribes). She has short lines of tribal ink­ing on each cheek, and speaks in­cred­i­bly softly. She shies away from the ti­tle “sto­ry­teller”, even though her book, Half­breed, is taught in Cana­dian schools.

‘The clan has gath­ered’

Rene Me­shake enters the room. He is an Anishi­naabe el­der – Anishi­naabe be­ing a group of cul­tur­ally prox­i­mate in­dige­nous peo­ples of Canada – and a mul­ti­dis­ci­plinary artist. “The clan has gath­ered,” Mar­a­cle says, laugh­ing.

Theirs are the lesser-told sto­ries of Canada, of res­i­den­tial schools, forced relocation, and phys­i­cal and cul­tural geno­cide. Lan­guages and cer­e­monies were banned. Cer­e­mo­nial ob­jects were burned out­side churches.

“The whole no­tion of Cana­dian cul­ture is a very pe­cu­liar thing,” Mar­a­cle says, “driven by what are re­ferred to, un­for­tu­nately, in English as found­ing na­tions – the English and French – which is just so not true since there were over 300 dis­tinct First Na­tions there.”

She tells me of a con­ver­sa­tion she had with an Ir­ish taxi driver when she ar­rived. “He asked, ‘ Are peo­ple re­cov­er­ing their mem­o­ries?’ I said, ‘ They were al­ways there, we just didn’t have the con­ver­sa­tion.’ He said, ‘ That’s what hap­pened here.’ ”

Rene Me­shake’s story is one of pain wrought by the In­dian res­i­den­tial school sys­tem where he was brought af­ter the death of his grand­mother, who raised him. The sys­tem was a net­work of board­ing schools for in­dige­nous peo­ple, ad­min­is­tered by Chris­tian churches and funded by the Cana­dian gov­ern­ment. He was abused and told by the nuns there that his Ojibwe cul­ture was “evil”.

Af­ter the res­i­den­tial school, “I never truly be­longed to my com­mu­nity again”. He be­came an al­co­holic, re­cov­er­ing only through a Mo­hawk medicine cir­cle, through “iden­ti­fy­ing your hurt, ex­press­ing your hurt, and un­der­stand­ing, and change”.

A Truth and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Com­mis­sion was set up in Canada to pro­vide re­dress to the in­dige­nous peo­ple af­fected by res­i­den­tial schools. “It was the re­sult of class-ac­tion law­suits, to avoid them and to limit them,” Mar­a­cle says.

Re­cently, how­ever, Me­shake was asked to speak in a church. “I took my cre­ation story and first read it in my lan­guage. I told them to think of lakes and rivers, be­cause our lan­guage is em­bed­ded in the land.”

Me­shake de­scribes him­self as a “funky el­der”, us­ing Face­book to “post my art, and my Ojibwe word bun­dles”, where teach­ings are packed into a word, so when you take it apart, you find lay­ers of sto­ries.

By way of ex­am­ple, he ref­er­ences the word ji­ibayamig. “Ji­ibay means ghost, gamig is a lodge. In the old days, they would build this lodge when the el­ders knew they were go­ing to die. They would pre­pare their chil­dren [by say­ing] ‘I’m go­ing away now, you can­not fol­low’. They went into this lodge to die and fed the animals that fed them all th­ese years. Then a bear would come along maybe, have a few bites. When you saw a bear, you ad­dress the bear as Nimishoomis or Grand­fa­ther. And in that way, the re­spect was car­ried on.”

Mar­a­cle be­lieves in the power of sto­ry­telling as a force for re­build­ing their com­mu­ni­ties. She feels priv­i­leged to have been “old woman raised” by her tra­di­tional grand­mother.

“We didn’t have run­ning water in our house; the kids were the run­ning water: ‘Hey kids, go run get a pail of water.’ ” She re­calls “sit­ting around a big ta­ble with no elec­tric­ity and your lamps go­ing; that kind of in­ter­ac­tion was the en­ter­tain­ment, but it was also an in­cred­i­ble moral com­pass.”

Mar­a­cle tells me that peo­ple now visit Maria Camp­bell “be­cause they want this good medicine, this tra­di­tional stuff”.

Camp­bell agrees that sto­ry­telling is medicine. “I grew up with a great grand­mother and she never spoke English, she was a to­tal ‘sav­age’ ac­cord­ing to the priest be­cause she never con­verted.”

But while Camp­bell grew up with sto­ries, she al­ways felt split be­tween her tra­di­tional home life and her life out­side. It was only af­ter she stopped us­ing drugs and at­tended her first cer­e­mony in her late 20s that she re­alised the heal­ing power of the sto­ries, which came from “the old ladies, al­ways women laugh­ing”. It was a rev­e­la­tion to re­alise “that you’d got this medicine, ev­ery­thing you need to help put your­self back to­gether”.

Camp­bell tells a story about the ef­fects of coloni­sa­tion that she learned from her teacher, the Old Man. “When I was a lit­tle girl, if I mis­be­haved my grand­mother would take me to an anthill and she’d say, ‘I’ll come back to get you but you’re not to move, and you’re go­ing to tell me what you saw’. That was like your ‘ time out’, it helped you to calm down and fo­cus, a way of dis­ci­plin­ing.”

When she had her own chil­dren, there were no anthills in the city, so she used 5,000-piece puz­zles in­stead. She’d keep it on the ta­ble, and when a child mis­be­haved, they were put work­ing on it.

Her Old Man men­tor was in her house one day and was in­trigued by this “pun­ish­ment”. He had been try­ing to ex­plain to her the ef­fect of coloni­sa­tion on their com­mu­nity’s wahko­towin, which in English means kin­ship, “but if you look at the word bun­dle, it’s all of our laws, it’s the way that we talk to each other, the way that we laugh”.

He threw the jig­saw in the air. “He said, ‘ That’s what hap­pened to us, ev­ery­thing was shat­tered and wahko­towin flew. Maybe you have three pieces, maybe she’s got half of one, if we come back to­gether and we start to re­build that, you bring your three pieces, you bring yours, and soon we’ll make the pic­ture.’

“So there’s no such thing as one per­son has more knowl­edge than the other or more sto­ries, be­cause that be­comes a power thing. Ev­ery­body is a part of re­build­ing that story.

“The door j ust opened f or me,” Camp­bell says. “All of a sud­den th­ese sto­ries all came to­gether and I re­alised the his­tory sto­ries were not sep­a­rate from the fam­ily sto­ries.” She says the idea of cat­e­goris­ing is a west­ern no­tion.

The Old Man told her how sto­ries work. “I’m telling you the story so imag­ine that you’re the com­puter and I’m typ­ing it in,” he told her. “When you need it, some­body will say some­thing to you and they’ll hit the key and it will be there.” He did not be­lieve in co­in­ci­dence. “When it’s time, some­body will push that [key].”

I ask who the Old Man teacher was. “We just al­ways called him Old Man,” Mar­a­cle says. “Even he would say, ‘ Old Man tired now. You bet­ter take Old Man home.’ When you’re 115, you get to boss peo­ple around.”

Camp­bell has a mixed back­ground with Scot­tish and Ir­ish and Mo­hawk, and as a girl her mother would read to her about the High­land clear­ances and the Great Famine. She was fas­ci­nated by other dis­placed cul­tures. The Old Man al­ways en­cour­aged her “to dig ev­ery­where”, even read­ing bi­ased ac­counts of Jesuit set­tlers, find­ing the parts that were true.

“When I started to re­ally go out and search, I did it through politics and I was very rad­i­cal,” says Camp­bell. “My thing was you go out and blow ev­ery­body up and send them back where they came from.”

There’s sur­prised laugh­ter from the oth­ers.

Camp­bell searched the world f or in­spi­ra­tion. “That’s how I dis­cov­ered Ire­land be­cause in the 1960s and the 1970s, you had the IRA. What I found in Ire­land were the writ­ers. It was very sim­i­lar to the kinds of things that this Old Man talked about. They were talk­ing about things that I could feel, not things that were in my head, things that were true.”

She saw sim­i­lar­i­ties to her own cul­ture, in sto­ries about lit­tle peo­ple, and the Trav­el­ling com­mu­nity. Real­is­ing colonis­ers “prac­tised on other peo­ple be­fore they did it to us”, she no longer felt like a vic­tim; she felt lib­er­ated.

The sto­ries they tell evolve and draw on their own life ex­pe­ri­ences. “I can’t tell my grand­mother’s story with­out telling my story.” Camp­bell says.

She de­scribes other sto­ries in their tra­di­tion, “peo­ple who would get up and chant a story and their story was like a song, and then peo­ple who only told the sto­ries of a par­tic­u­lar piece of land.”

Tra­di­tional copy­right

Sto­ry­tellers are no longer bound to oral tra­di­tion. Camp­bell is work­ing on a vir­tual-re­al­ity story of the land where she’s from, but there are still strict pro­to­cols.

Ges­tur­ing to Mar­a­cle she says, “I would never tell a story that be­longed to her un­less she gave me per­mis­sion to do it, be­cause the story is hers, or is tribal to her peo­ple. Peo­ple will some­times tell you a story and say ‘You can use that one’ but it’s like there’s a tra­di­tional copy­right.” Break­ing it is “a shame­ful thing to do”.

She re­calls one story she wanted from her fa­ther that he would not give. “Then he got di­ag­nosed with a ter­mi­nal ill­ness and I had to do the trans­lat­ing for him [in hos­pi­tal]. I kind of went to pieces when we were driv­ing home. He pulled to the side of the road, rolled me a cig­a­rette, and he said, ‘That story you want, I’ll give it to you now.’ He re­told it and she un­der­stood now that it was a story about death, not the funny story she’d al­ways thought it was.

She trans­lated and pub­lished the story. “In my fam­ily’s way, they were telling me that they trusted that I would treat it with in­tegrity. There’s rec­i­proc­ity if you mess [ the story] around. We re­ally be­lieve that what you put out comes back to you. That’s an im­por­tant part of our teaching,”

Then Camp­bell says to me, “You’re a good vis­i­tor. We are talk­ing to you be­cause you’re a good vis­i­tor, miyo keewikee kahn,” she says in Cree. “Bi­i­widewi,” Me­shake says with a smile, us­ing the Ojibwe word.

Camp­bell finds it hard to speak to jour­nal­ists. “Their en­ergy doesn’t visit with you a lot of times.”

Artis­tic jour­ney

Me­shake tells us the story of his artis­tic jour­ney. He grew up with sto­ries, too, sit­ting around a camp­fire with his grand­mother. “I’d sneak off into the woods and draw pic­tures on clay paths. That’s how I learned to be an artist. Then the nuns said I’m not sup­posed to be draw­ing like this; I have to draw crosses, Christ­mas trees, can­dles. I drew so many crosses; I got a golden star for it.”

Later, dis­cov­er­ing Dalí and sur­re­al­ism led him back “to my own way of paint­ing”.

Along with paint­ing, and flute play­ing, Me­shake writes. “What I dis­cov­ered was the more I wrote about my abuse at the In­dian res­i­den­tial school, the less pain I feel.”

Me­shake’s story of his two lives re­minds Camp­bell how the Old Man would some­times ask her if, in a given mo­ment, she was stand­ing on “your Cree foot or your English foot?”

“If you’re stand­ing on your Cree foot, the mother will al­ways be in your lan­guage, but on your English foot, the mother will be gone be­cause English comes from steal­ing from ev­ery­body else; it’s not a pure lan­guage of its own.”

English was nec­es­sary, how­ever. “You can do some­thing good with it if you learn to use it, but if you don’t, then it will al­ways be your boss.”

Peo­ple will some­times tell you a story and say ‘You can use that one’ but it’s like there’s a tra­di­tional copy­right. Break­ing it is a shame­ful thing to do The Old Man told her how sto­ries work. ‘I’m telling you the story so imag­ine that you’re the com­puter and I’m typ­ing it in. When you need it, some­body will say some­thing to you and they’ll hit the key and it will be there’

PHO­TO­GRAPH (LEFT): RAY VAN ENG

Clock­wise from main: Maria Camp­bell with a tree in Kil­lar­ney; Sylvia Mar­a­cle; a piece by artist Rene Me­shake, from the Run­ning with the Deer ex­hibit; Squamish Na­tion Youth Pow Wow in Capi­lano In­dian Re­serve Park in West Van­cou­ver.

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