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Urban Indian 2

Thursday December 20, 2012

I met a man some years ago who was a vaunted Ojibwa teacher. He’d published books, taught at universities and been a high profile ethnological speaker. That means, he was able to talk about the entire gamut of Anishinabeg reality, both the historical and the contemporary. For the most part he was regarded as a learned, wise and pre-eminent expert on our culture.

From a podium one day I heard him say that “if you don’t speak the language, you are not Indian.” There were a whole lot of us in the crowd that day who could not speak Ojibwa. The gasp that went through that room was unforgettable.

Some of us had been part of the Sixties Scoop, that process where native kids were literally scooped out of their homes and communities and sent thousands of miles away to be raised in non-native homes. Another large segment had become displaced because of residential schools. Another group had lost contact with their people because of parental alcoholism or addiction. Some were from broken homes or inter-racial marriages. None of us had any responsibility for the hand of history.

Speaking to him later, I identified myself and where I lived at the time. He told me that I was an urban Indian and that I needed to find the language before I could find myself. That hurt. Lots. Circumstance had dictated where I had to live. Circumstance had deprived me of the ability to grow up with my people. Learning to feel Aboriginal had been a painstaking and difficult journey.

What he essentially told me was that I did not qualify as Ojibwa until I could speak the language. What he essentially said was that no matter what I did, how much I learned, how much ceremony and ritual I put into practice in my life, I would never really make the grade because of the significant lack of language. All the work of finding a native consciousness, heart and spirituality was nothing.

For a time I was ashamed of living where I lived. I was ashamed of my clothes, my haircut, the way I spoke and the way I walked. I was ashamed of my lack of talk. But a lady I met in Vancouver years ago made me proud of being an urban Indian. She lived in the notorious Downtown East Side. She didn’t drink, she wasn’t a street person. She was just old and poor and the room she lived in was all she could afford.

But she would sit at the window that overlooked Pigeon Park. It’s not really a park, it’s just a brick courtyard of sorts with benches where the drunks and junkies, hookers and the lost stop to smoke or beg or both. It’s a dim place. There are no beginnings there, only endings, dwindling, inescapable and sad.

I would visit her and I’d watch her ease the silken fringes of a shawl between her arthritic fingers. It was a fancy dancer’s shawl. It was a deep blue with the pattern of an eight pointed star embroidered into it. The fringes were yellow and orange and red and it still looked silky and shimmery in the frail light. Her grandmother had given it to her at the Standing Buffalo powwow the year before she died. It was her most prized possession.

She would talk of when she was fancy dancing in that shawl and she would smile shyly at the memory of a young native girl spinning, kicking, pretending that the drum could push her floating across the air, her feet light and nimble and quick, the powwow and all it represented like breath to her. I could feel all that.

But life was never predictable. After a range of experiences she touched down on the streets of Vancouver many moons before I met her. She was in her eighties then. When I looked at her it was though I could see the faded outline of low Saskatchewan hills sketched in the wrinkles of her brow

She didn’t dance anymore. She could barely walk. But as I watched her staring down at the derelicts and other pavement gypsies, she would sing an honour song, in the phonetics of her Cree language all soft and low and soothing. She no longer remembered the words but she still felt the song in her heart.

It was so their ancestors might watch over and protect them she said. It was the same song her grandmother taught her to sing the same year she got the shawl. The powwow, that song and the prayer it represented still the breath of her. Still the only gift she had to give away.
I never forgot that woman, never forgot her story or her song. If that’s being an urban Indian, sign me up today.

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