I got a pendant from a silversmith and I wear it every day. Because of Gord. He writes the names of people he loves on his hands so he can remember. His memory for things close to the surface is bad. Like names of friends or his favourite place to meet for a coffee. He speaks slowly, leaving lots of space to breathe between words. You could break into his thoughts then, or you could wait and see what comes next. It takes a while for his ideas to form, each one unfolding like a flower. On the pendant, there is a heart, and inside the heart, Gord’s name. I could write it on my hand, but it would wash away, and what I’ve learned from him stays with me: how I have always been on an adventure. Tinged with the lightness of having returned from a trip where I did not worry or work too hard, where I found new things each day. I’m sure it’s sentimental, this circle of silver. But sentimentality and gentleness get confused. Anyway, Gord. This jewel is a shimmering reminder. He lost memories but still finds and keeps words: on his skin, on sheets of paper folded in his pockets, in recordings of his voice. He uses them to map all the new days of his adventure.
For such a long time, we have been doing the same things over and over. Refusing to share the land. Discrediting the other nations in our borders. Misunderstanding on purpose treaties we signed. Building our houses in disputed territories. Hiding the evidence of how we tried to wipe out the old cultures. If we can’t hide it, dismissing our ancestors, saying how ignorant they were; how much better we are now. And if we allow old songs and stories of this place, we try to orchestrate them. To show how kind and accepting we are. As much as possible, we settle differences our way, with the power of the Crown and our justice system that tips most often in our favour.
As we repeat the same mistakes we create a dystopia. The lakes and rivers, mountains and forests become places where we are lost and drown. Our maps blow away on the wind, swept out of our hands into the wild. Animals turn from us, and predators attack. This is the chasm between us. It’s spreading: the place full of thorns and dead ground.
But still, we repeat broken stories of how we triumphed; how it was all for the best, while we stand on the ground of other nations. We think, how ridiculous: Indians having countries. The Indians who could have ruled countries are long dead and gone. There are no real Indians anymore.
We think this place could never seep in and grow through us, green and alive. It could never be so vast. Starlight doesn’t sing in valleys and light up the highest leaves or turn deep green pine needles to shades of blue. If we dream in our beds of open rooms where a starry sky appears each night, then it is only dreaming. If we wake from sleep and sit by the window to smell wet earth and the perfume of summer flowers. If we hear someone else singing in a soft voice from their yard. If we see the golden square of another window lighting up. Hear the coyote breathing as he searches through our garbage. We are not the only ones awake. If we could know these things. If we wake from dreaming; if we could know what would be.
I left my country and entered another. After driving a long time on winter roads, we crossed the border. The language shifted then changed completely. When I looked out the window at endless snow, it was all familiar, roads and rooftops covered in white, but it belonged to another land. When we finished driving and stepped onto the ground, my feet sank into snow and the place joined its hands around me. We followed behind a woman wearing snowshoes until the path led us to shelter, where we sat on a bed of cedar branches and warmed ourselves by the heat of an oil barrel stove. We ate beaver, goose and ptarmigan. Beaver roasting and crackling on a spit and bannock turning golden in a cast iron pan. The Eeyou Istchee language was the lingua franca. English or French difficult to speak. Outside, winter was fierce and my coat from down south was like a sweater. I sat close to the hot barrel stove and smelled the wood smoke and fat of roasting meat; listened to the hum of people talking; felt the softness of cedar; the roar of a snowmobile in the distance. Outside, I knew the sky would be pure blue and pines and firs dark green. Elsewhere it was February, but there it was another country.
When you say you are sorry, a door opens and something new begins. The door may open to a different place where sad stories and tragedies fill only a few rooms in a great, sprawling house. A house also filled with laughter and the smells of supper cooking, the quiet murmur of voices in prayer. Someone’s fingers tapping on a keyboard, writing a story; someone else singing, another sewing. Listen to the sounds of children practicing their language. Hear them running in and out of the house, playing hide and seek in a field, gathering wood for the bonfire. They remember and dream as you do, memories and dreams of their own; mysteries falling from the stars, sparks of light shimmering among trees in summer. This house has always been here. But you belonged to a people that painted over the door. A whole other life. You never saw it until now.
Dusk was coming to the balcony of our Montreal apartment. We could see lights flickering in the windows of the city below the cliff. We lit cigarettes using the gas ring on the stove and I singed my hair. Standing way up high, I saw smoke and lights; streetlamps, flickering neon signs and high-beams of cars; me and my friend and her brother. He was visiting from his cabin in the woods near Peterborough. A small cabin with a wood stove that never gave enough heat; where one night, an owl swooped down and startled him, just after he had put the campfire out. A cabin near a place called Silent Lake; a little place not far from Curve Lake and the petroglyphs. The air is fresh up there and feels gentle and warm because summer is coming.
Back then, just after the Good Friday agreement, Ireland was on our minds; the beginning of the end of the Troubles. Mohawks from Kanehsatake invited the Nothern Irish to speak of troubles and struggles, so much like home: disputed borders and broken promises, guns threatening to fire; soldiers and police guarding all rights of way; armed checkpoints on the roads. Gerry Adams spoke in Montreal and people gave him a standing ovation, but I stayed in my seat. I knew he lived in a house surrounded by a fortress. How could he be a man of peace? I suspected him. Afterwards, we had a beer at the nearby pub, in a private room, with Gerry Adams a few tables away. The whole time I waited for an explosion.
Years later, I visited Saskatchewan and a different friend, who took me walking on a flat, silent expanse of land. He showed me a tipi ring he had found near his home, and I stood in the circle. After dark, we sat by the campfire in the backyard, such a long way from the Ontario woods. No trees blocked the night sky; it went on and on forever. Near his home, so many medicine wheels and stones mark a year’s passing. They reminded us that we were sitting under a slowly spinning night as we listened to the crackling fire. Under a wheeling sky, our thoughts turned around and around the memory of stones.
“Canada’s residential school system for Aboriginal children was an education system in name only for much of its existence. These residential schools were created for the purpose of separating Aboriginal children from their families, in order to minimize and weaken family ties and cultural linkages, and to indoctrinate children into a new culture—the culture of the legally dominant Euro-Christian Canadian society…” – Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future, the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada
Imagine a little boy or girl walking a gravel road on the reserve near home. In your mind’s eye, the Indian agent swoops down, snatches the child and spirits him away over a thousand miles to residential school. The train conductor drives the straight rail all night through bush and swamp, his cars full of children crying for their mothers and grandmothers. Their lonely voices rise and pass through the windows into the moonless sky. He remembers them always.
If such a thing happened to even one of our children we would call the police. It would be a red alert. Search parties sent out. Lights shining in dark places. Every sighting reported. Communications lines glowing red with worry and danger. Rescuers with their lights held high scouring the neighbourhoods, searching for a sign.
In the image above, you can see skelep howling. I can’t tell if he is howling in rage or joy. I think his fierceness includes both. At night, he still visits the place where they kept the children. It’s been closed 40 years, but his sensitive ears still prick up when he hears the voices. He sings with them.
Skelep is still with us, as people in their regalia still dance at pow wows. As fires that went underground rise to the surface, crackling with tobacco and cedar. The shadows of eagles’ wings brush the darkness, bringing clean, cold air to these abandoned rooms of mould and fear.
The train whistle is gone but skelep has always howled at night. He passes through backyards and across suburban streets, sending his voice over the neighbourhoods, waking people from sleep. He walks the broken railroad tracks that come down from the north, and he remembers.
Artwork above by Chris Bose of the Nlaka’pamux nation. The image includes a photograph of the Kamloops residential school building. The Kamloops Indian Residential School was in operation from 1894 to 1977.
They pull and they paw me
They’re seeking to draw me
Away from the roundness
of the life
-I Pity the Country, Willie Dunn
I picture a fine, interwoven web that begins and ends inside of a spider. The spider begins and ends in a web of life that has no beginning or end because it is a circle. Our social and blood relationships are intertwined webs, beginning and ending in each of us, who in turn begin and end in webs of life.
To our simple minds, a circle is a mystery – we can’t find its beginning or end. Circles don’t stretch out across the land as straight lines do, pinning down life with sharp edges. The circle curls up into itself and spreads out, getting in the way of our complicated systems: electrical grids, roads and bridges, telecommunications lines – strung out over the earth. Our straight lines are hard and flat as a sheet of glass pressed down onto a mystery and disturbance; freezing in place tracks of wild animals weaving through forests, running through backyards in the middle of the night; stopping in mid-air all the wings that ride the wind above our houses at dusk. We would pin it all down.
This is the place we call Canada, but this place sees Canada and laughs. The very idea. As if. This place stretches out endlessly, and I am small in it and can’t see the beginning or the end. We have drawn our lines, but we’re lost inside the circle. It’s outside of our outer world, beyond our imagination. It makes up the sky that holds our sky; all our rivers and oceans flow within its firmament of waves. It keeps spreading out every time we think we’ve touched it, taking us further into the wild.