"You're a violin teacher?" someone asked Tilly Starblanket. "I thought you were Native!"
Tilly Starblanket has a story about being slapped in the face by her white teacher when she was in grade I . That would make her, what? Five or six years old? When the teacher hit her, she fell on the floor. This happened in the classroom, in front of all the other students.
Smithers, British Columbia. I was maybe in grade I. My dad was a janitor at Muheim School and my mom was walking me there, it was autumn I remember, up a winding path through the trees. A shortcut! We passed a group of Native men, all resting or sitting by the side of the trail. One of them, possibly to explain their presence there, spoke to my mom. She may have been frightened, this young white woman with her little son, suddenly bumping into these strangers in the forest. I can’t recall why I thought she was frightened, but I do remember that when the man spoke to my mother, he said: “We’re getting a suntan.”
Tilly Starblanket worked in a coffee shop. She has a story about two white women who came in and ordered drinks. One of them mumbled, and Tilly couldn’t understand the order. “Pardon me?” asked Tilly. “You have to speak louder,” hissed the woman’s friend. “She doesn’t speak English.”
Once my friend Patrick and I returned from a school field trip and we were thirsty, so we went into Northern Drugs on Main Street to buy something to drink. The man at the checkout counter stopped us and asked to look in our school bags. There he found wet swim trunks, and towels gritty with sand, and big black rubber swim fins, but nothing more. We hadn’t robbed his store. Patrick was an Indian. And the man who checked our school bags was a white man, who happened to know my dad and attend the same church my family did. My white friend Sean and I had shoplifted Playboy magazines from Northern Drugs on numerous occasions, right under this same man’s nose, and he had never asked to check my school bag before.
Smithers is next to a reservation community called Moricetown. The people who lived there were called Carrier Indians, which we learned was because a woman carried her husband’s bones on her back after he died. I don’t know if this is true. There are small waterfalls, rapids in the river near Moricetown where tourists used to go to watch Native men spear salmon. I remember seeing those men, with dark skin and no shirts, roped around the waist to the rocks so they wouldn’t be washed away. White people in Smithers generally thought that people from Moricetown were messy and they often made fun of the colours of the houses in Moricetown. People who lived there painted their houses bright green, or purple, colours like that, instead of plain beige or grey or white.
My older brother’s wife is Indian, by which I mean her family is originally from India. Talk about a colourful family! Her ancestors were taken from India to work the British-owned tea fields of Malaysia, which is where my brother lives. He refers to his circle of Malaysian friends as “cowboys and Indians.” When my brother, who grew up in Smithers, bombarded with racism, refers to his wife and my wife, he says “dots and feathers.” Last time I saw him, when we had gone for a hike and left them far behind us, he said: “Where are the dots and feathers?” Dots and feathers! Both kinds of Indians! That joke never grows old.
Some of the Native people who lived in Moricetown drank too much. You could occasionally see them making a scene at the SuperValu, or passed out on the lawn of the public library. This is a common enough story. The irony is, most of the white people who told these stories got so drunk themselves every weekend that they forgot who they were married to. Meanwhile, their high-school kids, also white, were at the local gravel pit, listening to AC/DC blaring from the stereo in someone’s truck, and guess what they were doing? Drinking!
Q: Why did the Indian cross the road?
A: To get to the other ditch.
The implication being that Native people spent time in ditches, because they were very, very drunk. Why else would a person be in a ditch? In fact, sometimes there were people in the ditches of Smithers. They were either blond Christian Reformed schoolkids picking up empty cans and bottles for some fundraiser or another, or else Native people doing the same thing.
Both my sisters were born in South Korea. They’re Korean, in fact. Talk about a colourful family! Who knows how many times, growing up in Smithers, my little sisters heard this: “Who’s that Chinese kid?”
Another reason residents of Smithers, who were mostly white people, didn’t like the Native people was something called land claims. I heard about these a lot before I ever knew what they were.
Q: What’s the most popular wine in B.C.?
A: “Give us back our land.”
Tilly Starblanket talks about all the times people try to guess her ethnicity. They’re always wrong—for two reasons, Tilly says. One, people only see what they want to see. Two, Natives aren’t exotic. One creepy white man apparently used the word “exotic” as part of a pickup line. “You look really exotic,” he said. “Are you Hawaiian?”
Once I took an anthropology course from a professor who had been doing field work in South America. They were unearthing an old settlement that had been buried under layers of sand and soil. “What happened to these people?” one of the students asked the professor, referring to the people who had once lived there, whose homes and belongings they were now digging up. “Where did they go? Where are they now?” The professor gestured with his head around the circle: “What do you notice about all these archaeologists and labourers?” The answer was that the workers were all Aboriginal people. What had happened to these people? Nothing! Where had they gone? Nowhere! How embarrassing.
“You can’t be Native,” people tell Tilly Starblanket. “You don’t have a strong enough accent!”
One of Tilly’s brothers got married last winter to a girl from Winnipeg. Tilly will be doing the music for the wedding. The pianist is going to be none other than Tilly’s former teacher, the white lady who all those years ago slapped her in the face and knocked her down! What are the odds?
Tilly Starblanket talks about her travels and the way people react to her in other places. When her singing group was in South Africa, for example, a white man from that country grabbed her arm, quite excited, and demanded: “Are you an Indian squaw?” She tells another story about a musical performance in Edmonton. White hippies and drum-circle types, by the way, are always ecstatic to see a performance of real Indian music. After a song was finished at one of these shows, someone from the audience asked Tilly: “Were you praying to your gods?”
When I lived in Kelowna, B.C., my friend Glendon and I thought it would be a good idea to go up to northern Saskatchewan. Glendon’s parents and ancestors are Mennonite. My parents and ancestors are English and Irish. People say we look alike, Glendon and I, but the chances of our being related are statistically quite low. There were summer camps in northern Saskatchewan that needed counsellors, and Glendon and I had both worked at summer camps, so it seemed like a great idea.
On our first evening in Signal River, Saskatchewan, after a momentous drive, we sat down for coffee in a Chinese restaurant. The white lady working there saw our long hair and Glendon’s earrings and asked if we were in town for the folk music festival. We replied that no, we were in town to work at Signal River Bible Camp. She sure looked surprised. She said, “Well, it’s a good thing the Lord looks at what’s on the inside.” This white lady turned out to be the mother of one of the other white counsellors at Signal River Bible Camp.
The camp was a dump. Everything was old and worn out. Glendon and I had worked at some fancy summer camps in B.C., camps for wealthy white church people mostly, with waterskiing and horseback riding and conference centres. Signal River had some musty old cabins and a trampoline. The lake was beautiful, but there were certainly no waterskiing boats.
A cousin of mine recently adopted two girls from the United States. She did this because she was fed up with the bureaucracy in Canada, where there is a ridiculous number of Native kids who need homes, but those homes have to be Aboriginal ones. Fair enough—unless you happen to be one of those kids. They just need a home. And if you haven’t yet learned which colour you are, it shouldn’t matter, one tends to think. But don’t worry! They’ll learn soon enough. My cousin also adopted these girls from the United States because she could afford to. My new cousins are African American. Talk about a colourful family! But this serves no purpose in the story whatsoever. It is nothing more than name-dropping—or ethnicity-dropping.
The camp’s director, let’s call him Paul, was an energetic fundamentalist Christian white man with thick glasses and a tremendous moustache. He was thrilled to have us there, all the way from B.C. “What do you know about Native spirituality?” he asked us on the first day. “Not much,” we replied. “Well, you have your sweat lodges,” said Paul, “and you have your sweetgrass ceremonies, and you have your powwows. And basically,” he concluded, “we can’t have any of that around here.”
Tilly Starblanket has a story of the mostly Ukrainian community she grew up in: one older woman, hearing that Tilly was Cree, expressed disbelief. “All this time, I thought you were just a dark Ukrainian!”
Paul’s wife was white, but her face was always bright red. We didn’t know if she was in a constant state of anger, or embarrassment, or what. Can you blame her? In reality it probably had more to do with her capillaries, the tiny blood vessels close to the surface of the skin. Her capillaries seemed to be working overtime. Can you blame them? “The kids don’t need showers,” Paul’s wife said, giving us the grand tour. “They go swimming in the lake every day. They can brush their teeth in here,” and she pointed out a row of sinks in a dingy hallway. There was swallow crap in long white streaks down the walls. “If this was B.C.,” Glendon said later, “this place would be shut down.” I agreed at the time, but now I’m not so sure. In southern B.C., places we had worked like Kelowna and Salmon Arm, that would be the case. But if it was up north, a summer camp solely for the use of Indian kids? I don’t know.
The kids themselves were a gift. With almost nothing these children came, big school buses from remote communities full of laughing, yelling and shrieking, black hair and brown hands blowing and waving out the windows. If these kids were offended by the fact that they didn’t have proper shower facilities, they certainly didn’t show it. If they were disappointed or insulted by the fact that half of their meals were leftover porridge and bologna sandwiches, they never told me.
After one concert, a white woman from the audience told Tilly: “I could see spirits of animals dancing around you while you were singing!”
Glendon and I were shuttled around to several different camps in Saskatchewan. Because we were “expert counsellors”—meaning we were older than fourteen and we had actually worked with kids before—we had the opportunity to see many places: Stony Lake, Beauval, Meadow Lake, Prince Albert.
For some reason, the Cree kids in Saskatchewan called us white people “square-heads,” which was funny. “Do I really have a square head?” I asked one time, which just made them laugh even harder. Another was “Casper,” which is what the boys in my cabin called me. “Turn out that light,” one of them would snap when another woke him up in the middle of the night with a flashlight. “It’s not me,” would be the reply. “Tell Casper to zip up his sleeping bag!” Everyone would laugh and laugh.
At White Sand Bible Camp, an aggressive boy maybe sixteen years old, named Alfred, confronted me and asked if I was Cree. “Do I look like I’m Cree?” I asked him. He responded with another question: did I speak Cree? No, I didn’t. “Then why are you here?” he asked. “This is the Cree Nation.” I said, “You’re right, it is the Cree Nation.” I said I was from such a different place, I hadn’t known before about these things. I said I was surprised to see that so many of these young kids spoke Cree better than they spoke English. I told him that I had assumed only old people would speak Cree, that the language would have been almost completely replaced by English. Alfred laughed in my face. All his friends, who enjoyed breakdancing and dressed like the black hip-hop artists on TV with baggy jeans, bandanas and NBA jerseys, even though they were thousands of miles from New York or L.A., laughed at me too. Alfred’s friend DJ laughed at me. His pretty girlfriend laughed at me. I played basketball with Alfred every day that week.
Most of the other counsellors were barely older than the campers. And the white men who were the directors and caretakers and church board members were busy raging against the folk music festival happening nearby, because of the presence of evil music there. The music in question was rock ’n’ roll. Country music, according to Paul and therefore according to God, was just fine. And many of these grown men continued to be offended by Glendon’s pierced ears. No, we were all alone there.
The White Sand Bible Camp director, who was white, who was not Paul but who resembled Paul in every important way for the telling of the story, gathered his staff together and told us there was some alcohol on the premises. He said some teenagers had smuggled beer into camp, and we had to find it and get rid of it. In my own cabin, with the boys I had been with and laughed and joked with and played basketball with for a full week, I walked over and took the can of Pepsi out of DJ’s hand and sniffed it to see if there was liquor inside. Of course there wasn’t. That was possibly the most shameful and terrible thing I’ve ever done in my life. I saw it in the eyes of Alfred, who never played basketball with me again.
In Edmonton, I took a job for the Alberta government’s Children and Youth Services. Actually it was a private company that was contracted by the government. Not too many people know that that goes on, the private contracting of things like youth work. I was a “Crisis One-on-One Worker.” A One-on-One Worker has a cellphone, a car with a child seat and a lot of paperwork to back him up. He is a highly mobile, always-on-call youth worker. Counselling troubled kids? Supervising visits with parents? Transporting apprehended children? You name it! Most of those kids are actually apprehended through no fault of their own, but because their parents are deemed by the government to be unfit.
Another thing many people are unaware of, even though once in a while some intrepid newspaper reporter “discovers” it, is that the Alberta government uses motel rooms to house the children under its care and supervision. That is because there is no other place to keep these kids. Group homes and foster homes are almost always filled to capacity. So I spent a lot of time in motel rooms, all over Edmonton and St. Albert and so on, alternating twelve-hour shifts with another worker, supervising a little kid or occasionally a teenager. Sometimes the child had privileges, such as going on outings, and then we could go to West Edmonton Mall, or to a movie theatre or a swimming pool. Some children were so bad that they had no privileges, in which case I had to keep them in the motel room. And sometimes they didn’t want to stay there.
In Korea, Tilly Starblanket always had to explain herself. She wasn’t Korean, but she wasn’t Canadian (white) either. What was she? She resorted eventually to the childish hand-to-the-mouth “wah wah wah” Indian war whoop that we’ve all seen on television. This did the trick. Telling Korean schoolchildren you’re an Indian is like telling them you’re one of the Knights of the Round Table, or a Martian. Or a pirate.
Once, working some shifts at a group home in the south of Edmonton, I was shocked to see two of the larger and more aggressive teenaged residents playing with a baseball bat. Seeing the danger, and knowing that my name would be on the record if anything horrendous were to happen, I talked to my supervisor in the central office. She pulled the case file. “They’re allowed to have the bat,” she informed me. “It says here they like to go to the park and play baseball. Their social worker has granted permission for that.” “But they don’t have baseball gloves,” I said. “There’s no baseball.” She told me her hands were tied. It wasn’t her decision, and it certainly wasn’t mine. The boys with the bat were free to go.
“You’re a violin teacher?” someone asked Tilly Starblanket recently. “I thought you were Native!”
One boy, I’ll call him Donny, was from somewhere in the far North. He was polite and quiet and perfectly behaved. He was clean-cut and well-spoken. For some reason, he was taken from his parents by the government. Donny’s new white foster mother treated him as if he were a serial killer. She shouted at him and criticized him for everything he did. I wasn’t sure if this was because she didn’t like Native people, or didn’t like her job, or what. He had done nothing to deserve this treatment, in fact he reacted to the trauma of being taken from his family and community with a rare and almost beautiful grace. But this foster parent punished Donny constantly. She deliberately tried to humiliate him. Whenever I was called to take him on an outing, I’d try to make it up to him by spending my own money on his snacks and letting him do whatever he wanted to do.
I took Donny to the coffee shop where my wife Tilly worked, only she wasn’t my wife then, she was my girlfriend. She tried to make Donny feel at home as well. She always asked her boss for a break when we came in, and sat with us and gave Donny free stuff. I always appreciated that she did that. I guess those are the kinds of things that make one person want to marry another one.
One day I walked in on the white foster-parent woman insulting Donny. He sat, as always, meekly at the table. She felt he was drinking too much of her tap water. At least that’s how she explained it to me, with a slightly embarrassed look on her face, when I walked in and surprised her. I caught her in the act of shouting at Donny. She had been threatening him with being sent to a secure-treatment facility, which is basically a prison for kids. In reality he wouldn’t ever be sent to such a facility, not in a million years, not unless he either tried to murder that woman or succeeded at it. But he didn’t know this, and I think he was terrified. He never made eye contact, and he didn’t show his emotions to us—why would he?—but this time she was really frightening him.
This job as a cog in a big rolling wrecking machine, this robot with no sense of the damage and scars its own limbs were creating, this was too much for me.
In Malaysia, Indian people thought Tilly Starblanket was Malay. And Malay people thought she was Chinese. And Chinese people thought she was Indian. (Which she is, but not the variety they meant.) I thought this would be annoying to her, but I was wrong. She told me she loved being in a place full of brown people. What do I know?
Donny drank too much of her tap water, the white foster-parent woman said.
Using every channel and resource and connection I had, and throwing away my blossoming career in the process, I reported this white foster-parent woman and had her investigated. Last I heard, she was being charged and would never care for children again. This is another story that might make me cry if I had to tell it out loud. It fills me up with rage and horror and shame and, I suppose, tears.
I came up with a string of words that was going to be the title of this story. Then I relegated it to subtitle, and then I thought it might be the moral of the story, which would put it at the very end. Here is the string of words: “If you think Canada is an enlightened country, marry an Indian.”