I grew up in a family that was narrow-minded toward natives in a very innocent way, simply because our experience with native people was incredibly limited. As a small child I idealized in the traditional buffalo hunter warrior notion of what an Indian was, a notion fostered primarily by black and white dusters where whooping Indians on painted horses attacked hapless settlers. My brother and I used to dress up as “Indians” and slaughter great numbers of cowboys. Or, we’d dance around the living room, in costume, while beating on my mother’s pots. Later, when I moved from the large city where we lived and too a smaller Manitoba town, my opinion about aboriginal Canadians changed abruptly.
The few Indian people whom I saw at this time were usual emaciated drunks. I’ll never forget the sight of an old woman sucking Kiwi shoe polish through a sock. Her face was stained brown, her eyes glazed, and she was oblivious of everything and everyone around. At this time my parents used to attempt little “mission” efforts, where my father would bring home neglected native children from the school where he was an administrator, and my mother would bath them and give them a warm meal. I remember it taking 3 changes of bathwater to get the filth off of these kids, who were covered in dirt and excrement. There was no social assistance support to speak of. I’m not sure why my parents did what they did, because the little waifs would simply go back home and reenter the cycle of abuse they’d come from. I think my mom was washing her own conscience away as she washed these little kids. As for my attitude at the time; it was a sort of morbid fascination. My mother made sure we were at school during her little missionary efforts, so I only heard the stories, but never really saw the deed.
So, my attitude, based on experience and ignorance as I entered University was that “all” Indians were filthy beggars who deserved much pity, but who had chosen their existence. It didn’t help that the one Indian boy whom I knew well went wacko one day and tried to kill his friends. He ended up shooting and wounding a man who was just a bystander.
Now, let’s leap forward about 10 years from the time I graduated from high school, to a time that I was at my most intolerant towards natives (the reasons for which I’ll explain in another post). I was on a little nature adventure outside my home town and decided to venture out to a reserve that I knew only by name. It was the same reserve that had produced the human wretches I had dealt with as a boy. I was utterly shocked by what I found. The reserve was located on an Island in a vast delta. The roadway to the reserve was in fact, a narrow levee through swampland which opened out onto a sandy Island on the edge of a shallow swampy lake. The entire Island covered perhaps 40 acres. All band buildings were shuttered with metal panels. Dozens of burned out houses were dispersed among inhabited homes in varying states of disrepair. And, there was absolutely nothing else. No school, no store, no playground; accept a metal shuttered administration building which for all intents and purposes looked unused. At one glance I realized why its inhabitants were so culturally, morally, and psychologically degenerated. They lived in a prison.
Who had put these people onto this godforsaken peace of real-estate? How could they survive intellectually, psychologically, and culturally on what amounted to a sandbar in the middle of nowhere? I was disgusted as I contemplated the answers.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but my experience became a turning point. Ironically, it made me far less tolerant of the natives I was dealing with on a daily basis many miles away in Saskatchewan. I became in fact, more biased, yet less bias, at the same time. For the first time I began to understand aboriginal people as a collection of individuals, each with unique experiences. I think I was just beginning to see just how complex anything to do with natives actually was and that anyone, native or non-native, who tried to reduce issues surrounding Canada’s aboriginal people into simple theories, was off the mark. It was also at this time that I was running head on into native individuals who were as racists towards me, as I had ever been toward them. And worse yet, I had in Saskatchewan discovered the corrupt well-to-do elite natives who were just then becoming a force.
Philosophical Statement: It is bigotry to lump all natives together and apply to them universal characteristics. It is equally bigoted to lump non-natives together and apply to them universal characteristics. In my experience both aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians are guilty of bigotry in equal quantity.
Cowboys and Indians: Introduction