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Urban Indian part three

Wednesday January 30, 2013

You give up everything about your identity when you’re an Indian in the city. That’s the common belief among those who never really take the time to get to know us or our lifestyles. It’s all a big negative assumption, as though urban and Indian is a heap big negative.

It’s not though. I lived in cities for years and it was that more than anything that led me to such strong reliance on my culture and traditions. It was that more than anything that taught me that my identity is, and always was, an inside job. Living in an urban setting helped me realize that.

And it isn’t just me. I’ve met a lot of urban based people over the years and they represent themselves and their people with honor and dignity. Take my friend Charlie, for instance. Charlie was from a West Coast First Nation and I met him in Vancouver years ago.

He would stare across a vacant sea of asphalt in the parking lot behind his apartment. I’d watch him as he begin to pull both hands across his belly and slanted to his hip bone in a pantomime of paddling. It was in those moments that I knew that he was recalling the great canoe

They paddled out of Kitimat then down Hecate Strait and into Queen Charlotte Sound the summer he was 12. He told me that he could still feel the muscle of the channel on his arm almost 70 years later.

He said that when he gave himself up to the memory that the smell of it all potent, rich, eternal, was like the smell he found in dreams and visions. Thunderbirds dancing orca who was chasing raven across the slick surface of the sea. He could get all of that.

When he got that vision and the feelings that came with it, he knew what he had to do. I’d watch as he crossed to his closet to retrieve the tools and wood and paints he kept there.
Then he’d bundled it in the black and red button blanket he danced in once and head down the stairs out into the street to find the inner city Haida kids he taught to carve paddles.

What are you doing, I asked him once. “Bringing them the ocean glowing in the moonlight,” he said. Identity. It’s always been an inside job.

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