While there’s a twinge of guilt around my deep sense of affiliation with First Nations peoples in the face of my stark male whiteness, I have to attribute these feelings to early childhood.
My first memories are of living on two First Nations' Reserves in the Northwest Territories—one in Rae-Edzo (now Behchokǫ̀) and the other in Inuvik. I don't have a large portfolio of memories from those early times, and the memories blend together from both outposts, but I know from the tremors in my heart that they were formative years. I didn't understand the difference between my Inuit friends and my privileged white ass except that many of my friends seemed, at the time, to be deeply unlucky and get in all sorts of trouble. These were my only friends, and as much as my mother and the neighbours’ dog, Koomik, tried to shelter me from the dismal realities of Reserve life in the 70's, it was there, permeating everything.
I went to the same school, wearing the same kind of homemade mukluks on my feet as we walked through the crunchy snow in near year-round darkness, and I studied the same classes, ate the same caribou stew and Flinstone vitamins at lunch time, and hosted the same head lice..
We played and travelled along the massive steel pipes that spanned the community. I never gave these pipes much thought, and only years later did I question why they were there, which was to house the hydro-electric infrastructure that couldn’t be buried due to permafrost.
I walked to school with my older sisters in the dark and we returned from school in the dark, except for roughly two weeks of constant sunshine in the summer when families would be out barbecuing at midnight. In the two weeks of midnight sun I ran around the Reserve with my friends while people stayed up and socialized at all hours, soaking in as much Vitamin D as they could. I distinctly remember skidding out my Big Wheel in the cracked streets and feeling like anything could happen in a place where the sun didn't set.
Koomik was part German Shepherd and part Husky, and though he belonged to the neighbour, his food dish was at our house and he slept in my bed. I would wander around the yard when I was five and six years old and Koomik would stay with me, watching the perimeter and fencing me in with his body whenever I made a move to wander off the property. Disturbingly, the dog had been trained by a racist, which meant that if any Native men walked by our little pink house, Koomik would bark ferociously at them. The dog became so aggressively intimidating that people started to give our house a wide berth. In a way, Koomik is, years later, an appropriate metaphor for the trained cultural dichotomy of violence, privilege, fear and appropriation.
The North was a land where extreme things happened. My once father fell off a skiff in the Beaufort Sea when they hit ice. His fellow Constables couldn't hear him shout and didn't even notice that there was a man overboard. When my father reached out instinctively for the boat, he had his hand chopped to the bone by the prop. The local doctor sewed his hand to his stomach for a time as a form of skin graft. Some four decades later, the skin on my Dad's left hand still tans in blotches in the summertime.
It was a dry Reservation, which meant that liquor was prohibited. Products like Pam cooking spray. Listerine, and Lysol were sold behind the counter due to the alcohol content. The intent was to keep noxious substances away from those who’d use them, like the giant.
The giant was Charlie Bishop, and that wasn’t a nickname for him. He was a massive lamb of a man who suffered from gigantism and was feared by all in the community. His thick fingers moved like a club when he waved, and he looked fearsome not because of his flat nose and prominent, coarse jaw, but because his large lips seemed to twist into a painful grimace whenever Charlie Bishop smiled.
My Mountie father sensed opportunity and quickly recruited him as a sort of "Special Constable" in order to help police the Natives. However, like many people on the reservation (my father and, years later, myself included) Charlie Bishop had a hard time of it under the bottle. One night my father got a call from a neighbour because the usually-gentle giant was sideways on whiskey and had beaten his wife pretty badly.
My Dad was 6'2" and looked like a ventriloquist's puppet next to Charlie, who was in a drunken rage when he arrived on the scene. My father told him that there was some trouble at the jail and he needed Charlie's help. Appealing to his sense of duty calmed him, and my Dad had Charlie stuff himself into the front of the cruiser and drove him back to the Reservation's jail, which was attached to our house.
My two elder sisters and I were sleeping when my father led Charlie next to one of the empty cells. Charlie was going along with it under the false pretence that his help was needed. My father couldn't shut him inside the cell while he was still wearing his thick leather belt. Charlie hadn't had an easy existence and was a prime candidate for suicide watch.
Charlie asked what they were doing there. In mid-sentence of a response my father jumped up and wrapped Charlie into a sleeper hold with one arm while undoing his buckle with the other. My dad whipped the belt out of its loops and shoved him into the cell with all his nerve-wracked strength, and just managed to shut the door as Charlie clued into the game and flew into a mighty rage.
My father was almost immediately called out again for some other incident, so my 5'2" mother perched herself in the tiny prison on a folding lawn chair, terrified that Charlie's gargantuan hands would rip the bars right off of his cel. My mother wanted to check on me and my sisters, but didn't dare leave him unobserved, as if eyeballing him was the only way to keep him locked up.
Charlie Bishop kept screaming in a forlorn, husky lam: "MY FRIEND! RCMP! MY FRIEND!”
The next morning, a sheepish Charlie was discharged without fuss but he cast his head low in shame and from that day forward he never again made eye contact with my mother. The incident proved useful, as my father became somewhat of a legend for being the white man who subdued Charlie Bishop, and was never physically challenged again during the remainder of the time we lived in Rae-Edzo.
My father did the right thing that night, I have no doubt, but my literary mind wants to frame the incident as another metaphor of a once powerful culture becoming tainted by exposure to colonialism, and then hoodwinked into a false partnership, and finally cast into an existence of shame—shame that doesn't belong to that people but has been carried by them on behalf of the engineers of cultural genocide.
I have to believe that living on a Reserve for years just as my long-term memory was coming online would be the main reason I have felt a bashful kinship with First Nations' peoples—my whole life. Perhaps part of my felt-sense of kinship with First Nations comes from my own experience with shame, and denied rage in the face of a control system I don't recognize.
That reality during those formative years was all I knew; since then I've been romantically and ignorantly eager for all the peoples who have endured so much to boldly stand up and share from the gut what has been learned of fear, of courage, of rage, and of faith. Despite my naive magical thinking, I still know that there is a correction coming—we are in the midst of it—on planet Earth, and black folks and aboriginal folks, particularly the women, are at the heart of it.
Watch and see.
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