Our Story: Aboriginal Voices on Canada's Past
Tantoo Cardinal, Tomson Highway, et al.
When Laurel from the library emailed me and asked me to be part of Guelph Reads, I immediately experienced a couple of conundrums. First, I’m not a really big fan of everyone reading one book--I guess I’m a Darwinian at heart and love it when people read a wide range of things. But it was an honour to be asked to participate, so I told myself, get over it and pick something. The second problem was that as a bookseller, I would normally ask you, "What do you like to read? What have you read before?" but I had no idea who the average Guelph reader was, so I thought and thought and what I came up with was a book that I thought I should read but hadn’t. As it turns out, that also addressed my first problem, because the book I picked, Our Story: Aboriginal Voices of Canada’s Past, was a book of stories by nine different writers, none of whom I had read, although now there are definitely some that I will read more of.
Admittedly, I picked Our Story when the Idle No More Protest was at its height, and during those weeks of protest I kept thinking that I really needed to understand the Native perspective more fully than I did. So I started the book with my fingers crossed--so to speak.
The first thing I was struck by was the two excellent introductions.
Rudyard Griffiths tells us how each author in the book has chosen a historical event and turned it into a story, and how in the preface for each tale the story's author explains to us what the story actually meant to them. I found this exceedingly informative and now wish that many other writers would write their own forewords. Griffiths eloquently explains his take on native sensibility--how time and ownership are in conflict with the way European Canadians view the same things. Adrienne Clarkson, who visited the north so often as Governor General, speaks honestly about how Aboriginal people didn't even get the same educational or financial help after the war as every other Canadian got. This is a real example of how Native Canadians have historically been neglected.
I will just quickly give you some glimpses of what you will experience if you read this book.
Brian, who is from the Six Nation Iroquois, describes the blood feuds that happened in the beginning of the world, and through a mythological story show us how the Peacemaker restored harmony. There is no word for failure in his language--something "just does not succeed." The Iroquois in Brian's story are so people focussed; there is one word for we in English, whereas there are four in their language. The three gifts that the Iroquois were given are speech, the responsibility to give thanks, and the knowledge of how to survive.
Rachel says that if you want to understand a people, live with them. But if you can’t do that, knowing their story is the next best thing. So in her story we live with a couple of groups and a shaman who roamed the north centuries ago.
Basil says that he talked to a little guy in grade five who always wanted to be an Indian, but then he spent a month on a school project building long houses and hated it. Johnston has written a story to show the reader what it would be like to live in a Native culture. The whites worked for Cartier and then are kidnapped by a Anishinaube group. They married and became acclimatized and never wanted to go back to the serfdom of eighteenth-century Europe
Tantoo writes about a time of hopelessness: 1915-1929, when Metis jobs were filled by whites. Metis became obsolete. Her story is about someone who is forced to leave his kids behind when his wife dies due to tuberculosis.
Jovette writes an invocation of natives lost in the war and describes how all reserves were emptied and men were sent to war. Her writing is beautiful.
Tom says that he doesn’t know why he writes: "something falls into my lap." He writes coyotes stories to bite our toes. Coyote tales are fun and almost have a road runner quality to them, but they're much smarter and it's for us to chase them around.
Tomson wanted to write something that would reflect on the time when natives got the vote in 1960. His story is about a little Native boy who lives in a residential school. The details are concrete and brilliant. The boy plays Clementi on the piano and is driven to his lesson every week by a kind teacher. This is one of the best short stories that I have ever read.
Lee feels strongly that Canada should see its history through the eyes of those who have been disadvantaged by its actions. False Creek was sold by her people to Chinese billionaires to develop, which she thinks is ironic, as the Chinese were treated so badly by the B.C. government.
Drew Hayden Taylor
Drew wanted to bring Oka alive, and he did it through the perspective of a white woman who once lived with a Native man and then divorced. When she sees him on TV at the Oka demonstrations she gets worried, as there are tanks and people are shot at.
In closing, if you read these stories you will become educated and open hearted about the plot against Native peoples that has been going on for years. You will read grand story telling without any clichés, and you will certainly be enriched by all of the wonderful words on the page.