Updated: Feb 24
I was driving through Reserve lands on the way to meet Rita and Gunnar at the Folk Fest when I saw the sign. I was late, but I’m a sucker for yard sales, so I pulled in. You might be asking: what does an Indian have that I want? Any yard sale expert will tell you - shop in an upscale neighborhood if you want to find a steal. But you never know.
Anyway, you’re not supposed to call people “Indian” any more, unless you’re talking about somebody from India. Nowadays you’re supposed to say they’re “Indigenous” or “First Nations.” Back at Medicine Meadows, though, I used to hear my native friends call each other Indians all the time. It wasn’t a bad word to them, depending on who said it and how. I’ve never thought of it as a slur. In fact, I always wished I were an Indian myself. My moccasins helped me figure out why.
Up ahead was a typical reserve homestead: a crumbling mid-70’s split-level house with blankets hanging in the windows and a patch of wildflowers where the lawn should be. Behind a table, a couple of native women with long braids were playing cards and smoking cigarettes. Meanwhile, two guys in cowboy hats tinkered with an old pick-up, periodically sipping beer and spitting tobacco juice into the dust. Britney Spears was blaring from a speaker somewhere as I stepped into the yard.
Their faces were set like stones, but they nodded politely when I said hello. It didn’t look like they were getting much business; I was the only one there. On the tables were the usual things you see at yard sales; knick-knacks, kitchen stuff, Christmas decorations. There was fresh bannock, though, as well as canned salmon in mason jars. Everything else looked pretty used up, and none of it interested me except the bannock. I asked for bagful, and passed one of the women a ten. It didn’t seem like much of a contribution. I turned to leave, and that’s when I saw the moccasins.
They were calf-high, made of deerskin, and looked like they’d hardly been worn; the leather was soft as butter, and about the same color. They had been expertly beaded across the toes and trimmed with pretty swatches of color. Furry pom-poms adorned the strings that tied them. They were beautiful, and they were my size. You can get factory made moccasins anywhere now, and they are sort of in style; you see white people wearing them everywhere. But these were hand-crafted. I asked how much they were.
There was a little silence, and then one of the women said, “Twenty dollars.”
I was absolutely delighted. Twenty dollars? She had to be kidding. I would have paid two hundred, or more, if I could afford it. I was sold, and handed over the money lickety-split, before she changed her mind. Right then, a little native girl came dancing around the corner while Britney Spears jack-hammered the summer stillness with a song about the lives of the rich and famous.
She was maybe four or five years old, wearing a bikini with mismatched top and bottom. Bright red lipstick was smeared across her mouth, outside of the lines, so to speak. She was waving a tinsel wand and swiveling her hips in a grotesque parody of the twerking sex-pot singer. “YOU WANT A PIECE OF ME? YOU WANT A PIECE OF ME?” she screamed. Her eyes were dark and hostile. The adults laughed.
I got into my truck and took off. I knew the little girl meant no harm. But I was rattled. I had a piece of her on the seat beside me; it only cost me twenty bucks.
By the time I got to the Folk Fest, the sun had dropped from the sky. I drove around the campground, dodging wayward hippies, until I found Rita and Gunnar’s site. When we were all sitting by the fire, I passed the bannock around and showed Rita my moccasins.
“Wow,” she said. “Those are ceremonial moccasins. Where did you get them?” I told her about the yard sale, and wondered what she was thinking. Rita is native, and an activist for Indigenous rights. So I felt sort of defensive, like I’d stolen the moccasins or something. But she only smiled and raised her eyebrows a little.
I pulled my sandals off to try them on. As soon as I put my foot in, I felt a sharp, stinging pain on the arch of my foot. Ouch! It was a wasp. White-hot sparks of pain went shooting up my calf as the soft flesh began to redden and swell.
“Wasp isn’t happy,” said Rita. “She’s telling you to wake up and do your own thing. Here, you’d better let me smudge those moccasins.” She pulled out a bundle of sage, lit it, and waved smoke over the moccasins. After that, I wore them all the time, and I got a lot of compliments on them. I always felt just the tiniest bit guilty wearing them, though.
I grew up on the redneck Alberta prairie. My mother was adopted, and we don’t know who her parents were, so I figured there was a chance some native blood was running through my veins. Mom had high cheekbones and dark, flashing eyes. It’s possible. I used to look out the farmhouse window, past the flagpole with Union Jack flying on it, and imagine what the land looked like with no fences on it. When it was covered in buffalo instead of grain fields.
Dad is the son of a first generation British immigrant, and a staunch loyalist to the Crown. He considers the Maple Leaf a betrayal of our British heritage. Once I learned about colonialism, though, I wasn’t so proud. It always seemed to me that the natives got a raw deal, and that we were just squatting on their land; furthermore, that we had pretty much wrecked it. Dad and I used to argue about it over roast beef and Yorkshire pudding.
He told a story about a Coast Salish friend he had when he was a boy; they used to go fishing together. For Dad, it was just a pleasant way to spend a Saturday, but Jimmy needed to bring fish home to his family for dinner. Jimmy didn’t have any shoes, and lived in a run-down shack with a dirt floor and about twelve brothers and sisters. One day, Jimmy invited Dad home for lunch, and made him a salmon sandwich. “It was foul,” said Dad. He always talks like a stuffy British gentleman, even though he was born and raised in Nanaimo, BC. He calls cookies “biscuits,” for crying out loud. We just roll our eyes.
Dad’s view was that the government did the natives a favor by rounding their kids up and putting them in residential schools. He said they needed education to survive in the modern world, and religion to get into the next. “They were practically eating each other, they were so hungry,” he said. “Whose fault was that?” I shot back, thinking of the buffalo. White people almost killed them all.
I doubt he mentions these thoughts to our friend Toby. Toby is Stoney Nakoda, an artist from the reserve out west at Eden Valley. You don’t see many First Nations people around our town – maybe nobody will hire them, so they just stay on the reserve. But Toby has his own business. He’s a stonemason, and a good one. Every year, he and his horse do the parade in full tribal gear, smiling and waving. Everybody knows Toby. He and Dad go for liver and onions at Smitty’s most Thursdays. I can’t imagine what they talk about.
When Toby got diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, Dad bought six of his paintings and hung them in the farmhouse. Most of them are pictures of the land, the way it used to be, and they’re beautiful. One is of a Blackfoot warrior with a feathered headdress. It looks a lot like Rita's dad - Caleb - and it’s my favorite.
I met Rita and Caleb when I moved to Burnsley, British Columbia, a sleepy little town on the banks of the Wellington River. I’d been commissioned to write and produce a play about the history of the area for their 150thCentennial celebration. The first thing I did when I got there was head to the museum and start researching. I found out that the place was settled when gold was discovered upriver in the late 1800’s and swarms of greedy white people showed up to cash in.
Somebody suggested that if I wanted the real story, I should talk to Rita. Her people have been living in the area since forever, and she has an anthropology degree from UBC, so I guess she’s some kind of expert. She’s got a job teaching Indigenous language to native kids, and is married to Gunnar, a tattooed Viking welder with a Harley and a bright orange man-bun. They live in a log cabin on the edge of town, surrounded by sunflowers, pot plants and a rotating crew of artists and activists camped out in their back yard. Any time of the day or night you can hear them jamming in the garage with their band, the Guru Guerillas. The band was named after Caleb - that’s one of his nicknames. The handle sort of covers the range of his personality, but I didn’t know that then.
I called Rita up and asked her to send me an email with the historical highlights in point form, but she said the story had to be told orally. I was sort of annoyed, because I was on a timeline, and I just wanted to plug a few facts into my plotline. But what the hell. I invited her over.
She walked in looking like some kind of earth goddess, dressed in a painted shawl, with feathers hanging in her braids. She sat down, started talking, and didn’t quit for about three hours. It turns out it was a good thing she did. I’d seen a picture in the museum of the early settlers with their wives, who had long black braids, dark faces and almond-shaped eyes. So I had this idea in my head that the natives and the settlers were all cozy and friendly, and I was working that angle into my story. But Rita set me straight.
It was true that the natives tried to give the settler