Posts By: First Nations Drum

Drumbeats of the Heart – A short story by Bill Peacock

Her feet touched the ground in an explosion of dust and joy. Crow black hair, long and straight, cascaded past her shoulders waving as she twirled and leaped to the beat of the drums. It was her day; it would be her dance.

Earlier, in the mist of the morning, Old Joe spoke to her. She did not know how he came to be standing outside of the door. He only appeared this way if a grave misdeed happened in the village, or if it was a time of deep sorrow. Sensing this, he spoke to her of her loss. The husband who had just left for the city, quietly, in the middle of the night, leaving only a chaste note that said good-bye. He had taken with him his guitar, and a younger, new woman. He left behind a young wife and a broken heart. The old man knew of the midnight departure, the growl of the motor and tires spinning in haste over a corrugated road. He knew the different sounds of good-bye and abandonment.

“You must be brave now, strong for the young one inside you,” he said. “You must not waste or hurt yourself.” She knew he was thinking of the suicides in the village. His eyes, soft and brown, crinkled in wisdom, caressed the coldness she was feeling, warming her instantly. “Today is Powwow. You must dance, not for the past, but for the new life in your belly. You must dance with joy till the child within you hears the beat of the drums. And someday, many years from now, they will remember the day that you danced just for them.”

She twirled and leaped as a ballerina, majestically, and with joy as the drums reached ad thunderous crescendo. The sun sparkled her eyes as they lit on an older man watching her. He gazed at her as though captivated, while his thoughts raced back to a time long ago; to a woman that he was separated from early in life. To a mother he never knew.

He smiled widely as the dancer spun before him. The drums softened, hauntingly, becoming a whisper as the man’s ile sagged. Unleashed emotions and memories of a child’s loneliness flooded his face in a rush of tears. He did not know his Mother, he could only imagine her beauty, but he knew there was a day that she had danced with the world around her and insider her. The day that she had danced with pure joy “just for him” and had imbued his small body with the beat of the drums. The drumbeats of the heart.

Bill Peacock – A Eulogy

R.I.P. Bill

Bill Peacock passed away last September. He had been suffering from cancer of the liver for the past six months. It was a painful time made worse by hepatitis C and Bill knew that his chances of survival were not good.

He had survived life on the streets of Montreal as a young man and was able to dry up in Calgary after years of drinking. Bill never backed down from a fight, unfortunately no one has gone the distance with the Big C.

He will be remembered by many native writers as a pioneer who published one of the first aboriginal newspapers in Canada. In the early seventies with no financial support from either banks or government; Bill started publishing a native monthly newspaper in Calgary. It was a project long overdue and he showed the way for many native publishers who were inspired by his example.

He moved to Vancouver in the eighties. Now a seasoned AA member, he devoted most of this time to helping people with alcoholic and drug problems working at the recovery club in downtown Vancouver.

Inspired by his own experience and the people he had met from the program, Bill started writing about the ravages caused by alcohol and drugs among the First Nations. His stories written under the pen name Elmer Wildblood appeared in the First Nations Drum and were destined for a book until the cancer became so painful he was unable to continue.

As a tribute to Bill, readers will find reprints of selected stories that have appeared in the Drum over the past few years, in the Culture section of this Web site, starting with ‘Drumbeats of the Heart’. There are touches of humour and a sense of compassion that contrast with the plight of many of his characters.

Native Designer Makes Art out of Fashion

Dorothy Grant is a Kaigani Haida of the Raven clan from the Brown Bear house of Howkan. Among her family crests are Two-Finned Killer whale, Shark, Berry Picker in the Moon and Brown Bear. Grant is a fashion designer and traditional Haida artist. Her garments, ceremonial button blankets and spruce-root hats are treasured by Haida people as expressions of living culture.

A sense of Haida identity is the creative force behind her fashion labels Feastwear and Dorothy Grant.

The first to innovate a new style in Northwest Coast Native fashion design, Dorothy came up with the idea in the early 1980’s of melding her artistic talent with couture, her work has been embraced by local and international fashion circles.

A high fashion interpretation of traditional Haida ceremonial regalia, Dorothy Grant’s “Raven Creation Tunic”, was presented at a dignitary feast hosted by the Canadian pavilion at Expo ’86. The tunic’s artwork depicts the Haida myth in which Raven released Haada Laas – Children of the Good People – from the clam shell. Today, the garment is part of the Canadian Museum of Civilization’s permanent collection along with her “Hummingbird Copper Panel Dress.”

Grant’s second Feastwear collection was featured in “Panache: 200 Years of the Fashionable Woman,” a highly publicized exhibition documenting two centuries of international fashion at the Vancouver Museum. Her “Raven Greatcoat” was prominent as the final piece and was later purchased by the University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology. Following this presentation, Grant’s designs were exhibited in several art galleries across North America including The Meridian Gallery in San Francisco, for the show “Haida Ritual Art: The Insistent Present.”

“Land, Spirit, Power” a touring exhibit of works by Canadian Aboriginal artists featured Grant’s “Seven Raven Button Blanket.” The National Gallery of Canada has since purchased this series for their permanent collection.

At the 1993 “Winds of Change” design competition, organized by the Canadian Council for Native business, Dorothy received the Best Professional Designer award. The award included an invitation to attend one of Paris’ most exciting fall events “Les Vendages Sur La Montaigne.” Dorothy was the featured designer at a special reception sponsored by the Canadian Embassy in Paris.

In July 1994 Dorothy Grant’s first retail store in downtown Vancouver’s prestigious Sinclair Centre opened. The design of the boutique successfully combines the Edwardian character of Sinclair Centre with the purity of line and form found in Haida architecture. This boutique is the first of its kind in Canada and is exclusive to Grant’s Feastwear and Dorothy Grant collections, along with her casual line of clothing. It also features gift items with a Northwest Coast flavor such as hand carved silver and gold jewelry and framed limited edition silk screened prints. Select garments are also available through Dorothy Grant’s “Virtual Boutique” on the Internet at:

Showcasing her fall 1995 collection, Grant participated with thirteen other Vancouver designers in Apparel B.C’s “Cultural Wealth,” a tribute to the Commonwealth Games. Her “Raven Takes the World” Haida wedding dress was chosen as the grand finale piece. Made of white deerskin, with original Dorothy Grant artwork screened down the center, this wedding dress was also shown in the gala opening of the new Design Exchange Building in Toronto, Ontario.

The Smithsonian Institute and the National Museum of the American Indian invited Dorothy to donate a garment for their fundraising auction. Her “Raven Creation Tunic” stole the show, going to a private collector it captured the highest bid at $8,300 US.

During the University of Northern British Columbia’s June 1, 1998 graduation ceremony, Dorothy Grant was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Law in Prince George, B.C. Grant was recognized for her talent and perseverance in maintaining her cultural integrity, as well as being an “outstanding” role model for First Nations people.

Clients such as Robin Williams, Peter Coyote, Marie Osmond, Richard Thomas and Susan Aglukark appreciate Dorothy Grant’s attention to detail.

Upon Dorothy Grant winning Business in Vancouver’s “Forty under Forty” award, Lisa Lisa Tant, fashion columnist for the Vancouver Sun said, “While so many other people are chasing the sportswear market, she has taken something from her ancestry and brought it into modern clothing. Her clothing is striking and dramatic but not costumey. It’s wearable art.”

Haida Fashion Designer Receives 1999 Achievement Award

Haida artist, fashion designer and businesswoman Dorothy Grant is recipient of the prestigious National Aboriginal Achievement Award for 1999. The National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation is an initiative of the aboriginal community and represents the highest honor the community bestows upon its achievers.

Grant, who is the owner/operator of a thriving boutique in downtown Vancouver for the past four and half years, was recognized for her business acumen. The recipients were honored at a gala awards ceremony in Regina on March 12, 1999 at the Saskatchewan Centre of the Arts.

Against the Odds – The Life & Trials of Freda Ens

R. Stewart

When Freda Ens was nine years old, her mother – drunken, broke and broken – sold her to a man in a Prince Rupert bar. The price for one neglected and suffering girl child? One bottle of beer.

The man who ‘rescued’ Freda, took her home with him to Masset in the Queen Charlotte Islands – to a childhood of poverty, sexual abuse and virtual slavery.

From such adverse origins, she grew up to a triumph over racism and victimization; to become a powerful force within the criminal justice system. Freda Rosa Ens is now the executive director for the Vancouver Police and Native Liaison Society.

“I came to a place where I could let it destroy me or I could go on and fight,” she said. “I made a choice that I was going to come out the other end.”

Rejected by her mother, infant Freda arrived in Haida Gwai to be greeted with horror and more rejection. Malnourished and covered with sores, wrapped in a hotel towel, she frightened her purchaser’s wife, who feared she might die. Her ‘rescuer’ gave her away, to a woman who regarded her more as chattel than child. Freda grew up as the oldest of 10, with six sisters and three brothers. Drummed into her daily life was the idea that her destiny was to a domestic, a mere maid to the natural daughters of the family, who were Haida princesses.

“Don’t get me wrong. I was really very close to my sisters and brothers. And we’re still very close. But, growing up, I was never allowed to defend myself, like if I got into fights with my sisters or my brothers or my cousins or whatever.”

Yet even before Freda reached an age where she could be capable of defending herself, a nightmare ride of constant abuse began. She was but a diapered toddler when her ‘father’ sexually abused her for the first of countless times. She suffered beating, verbal bullying and the mental and emotional anguish of being involved by the adults in their life. Rape and sexual assault were her constant lot at the hands of three men: a cousin, her father and the man who paid for her, whom she now knew as ‘grandfather’.

“For years I was angry and bitter toward my adopted mom because of what I had gone through. I was very young when my mom and my grandfather caught my dad molesting not only myself, but also my cousins. She never did anything. And for years I blamed my mom until later I found out she had tried to get help.”

“She’d gone to the minister, the nurses, the doctors we had, but was always told it was a family problem and had to be solved within the family. And so, having ten kids in a remote reserve – what are you going to do? I can honestly say, at that time, she did the best she could. The police were not interested in child abuse in those years.”

With what might seem surprising empathy, Freda speaks with a deep and sincere compassion for her tormentors.

“As much as I despise what happened to me and what I went through, I had to stop and realize that, when you look at our communities and our native people, many of them are the product of residential schools. My dad went to a residential school. He was a victim; my mom was a victim. The same thing with my uncles and cousins.”

“So the whole thing, as it happened, was a continuation of what they had gone through. I guess, in a way, it was them getting their power back by victimizing kids in the same way they were victimized.”

Freda ran away from home, at 14, to live with a foster family in Seattle for two years. She then went to bible school in South Dakota. But the sexual abuse she suffered had left its mark. On tour with the school choir and billeted in the homes of strangers, she would wake up screaming, “Help me. Help me!”

Nightmares were only a part of the scarring that marked her. “I knew as I got older that it affected my life, that it was hurting my relationships. I would get just so far in a relationship. Then I’d start thinking that the man was going to find out about my dirty little secrets and not want me. So then I would get cold. I would just push, push away.”

But a man came along who did appear to want Freda. She lived with him for two years and married at 21. He was white, five years older.

“My husband seemed to be the knight in shining armour at that time; I knew he was going to rescue me. But as time went on I became ‘damaged goods’.”

He would sneer at her, “Look at you! Who else is going to want you?” She had two children with him but the marriage was bad and getting worse.

“Look at you,” her husband would shout. “You’re crazy. You’re really crazy! Your dad may have given you away when we got married but he only gave part of you away. He’d already taken your virginity!”

Finally, at 30, with her son and daughter in her hands, Freda left the marriage. She joined her sister in Vancouver; lived on welfare; graduated from the Native Family and Community Counseling program with an Outstanding Achievement Award.

Her volunteer work with the Native Education Centre and the Justice Institute was instrumental in getting her recommended for a job as victim assistance worker with the Police/Native Liaison Society. Thirty months later, the director’s job became vacant.

“I felt strongly that anybody who did the job had to believe in the people, in the work we were doing. I didn’t want to see somebody coming in whose heart wouldn’t be in the work, who’d just regard it as a stepping stone to another job,” Freda said.

“Just because you have credentials coming out your ears, degrees and everything, it doesn’t mean that you can work with the people. I watched and realized that there were practicum students and volunteers coming in to the society who were nothing more than professional students. They had degrees but just couldn’t fit in. They just could not work with our people. And clients were very quick to pick up on it, very quick.”

“I thought I would just throw my hat into the ring and see what happened,” she said. “I was shocked at the number of applications from highly educated people. Doctors, psychologists, lawyers, you name it.”

There is still a distinct catch of surprise in her voice. “I was shocked that they chose me.”

Nightmares end when father jailed

Along the way, Freda laid charges against one of the men who had abused her.

“I want it to be really clear: my whole court thing charging my dad, was not revenge. My grandfather had died but my father was living in Vancouver and there were still other children at risk. He was babysitting at the Carnegie Centre for mothers who wanted to have an evening out; also for my brother. And kids were getting abused by him.”

The man was convicted and sentenced to nine years; he spent six years in jail.

“There were 12 victims in the family. Four of us testified against him. But the most important thing was the sense of validation I got from the court case; the recognition that what had been done to me was really a crime. After he went to jail all my nightmares stopped.”

As head of the Police and Native Liaison Society, her achievements are recognized. Justice system worker Romola Trebilcock said, “Freda Ens is a remarkable Aboriginal woman who has triumphed over poverty, abuse and adversity to become a powerful voice in the criminal justice system, advocating tirelessly on behalf of the disenfranchised, marginalized and powerless, affirming in their work and presence the dignity and strength of the human spirit.”

The accolade Freda cherishes most is the one offered by her daughter Juanita, then 10 years old. “Look at you, Mom. Look at where you’ve been and where you are now. When life gave you lemons, you didn’t just make lemonade, you made a lemon meringue pie.”

Dolly Watts: Woman Warrior

R. Stewart

Dolly WattsPer Ardua Ad Astra is the motto for the warriors of Britain’s Royal Air Force. The language is Latin, the dead tongue of the old Romans; it means ‘Through hardship to the stars.’ Such a sentiment makes an appropriate motif for the life of Dolly Watts, who regards herself as a woman warrior and whose son is a flight captain for United Air Lines.

Dolly’s entrepreneurial savvy and determination have brought her to the point where she owns her own restaurant. Dolly has been nominated for the Canadian Women Entrepreneur of the Year Award, in the start-up division.

“I gave lots of thought to how one becomes a warrior. The myriad accounts of male warriors are etched on our totems and in the stories told at feasts. The tales that I heard when I was a child said that warriors rose while it was still dark and bathed in the river. They prayed. They used cedar branches to pummel their bodies for spiritual cleansing. They paid heed to the teachings of their parents, grandparents and ancestors. Even the spirits.”

I met Dolly Watts amid the cedar columns and pebbled floor of the Liliget Feast House; the 52-seat restaurant designed some twenty years ago by Arthur Erickson. She is a woman of much presence. Softly spoken and looking a good 15 years less than her age of 63, she radiates centeredness and serenity.

“The family into which I was born was strong. I am Git’ksan from the house of Ghu’sen, at Gitsegukela, B.C., the 10th of 14 children. My mother, Chief Mel’hus, late Martha Morgan, married Chief Axtl-hix Gibu, late Wallace Morgan, from Gitwangk (also know as Kitwanga) village. His parents, who lived in Gitsegukela, were Chief Wi’get, late Stephen Morgan and Chief Ten’im’get, late Sarah Morgan. They lived during the time change. The government had set boundaries around their village and made laws that forbade the celebration of their culture. They and others from the village fought to keep our culture alive. They continued to hold feasts despite the threats of imprisonment. I saw the great dances, reenactment’s of stories and heard chiefs speak.”

The Git’ksan live on Gitwangak Reserve in northern B.C., along the banks of the mighty Skeena River. “It was our food basket,” said Dolly. “The animals and birds, berries and vegetables offered us a variety of food. Tem’lax’amt or ‘Sitting on something nice’ was really paradise.”

Dolly was barely walking when her mother spoke to her about the future. They were alone in a field where Mother was planting seed potatoes. It was lunchtime and she spread some food on the grass. As they ate, she said: “When you grow up like your sisters and brothers, you will go to school. You will go to school for a long time. When you finish, you have to leave home to work. There is no work in the village.”

As she grew up, her mother’s advice remained with Dolly. “Every time I wanted to quit school, I remembered her words. When I became rebellious in my teens, my older brothers helped mother by forcing me to return to the boarding school. During the summer, she kept reminding me “school” was important and I must keep on until I graduated.”

Yet circumstances seemed to conspire to block her mother’s plan for Dolly. When she was seven years old, she contracted tuberculosis and landed in hospital for over two years, where she saw many of her people die. When she was 10, she made the long trip to the Alberni Indian Residential School in Port Alberni. Upon arrival, she was stricken with rheumatic fever and spent the next year in the infirmary. It was then that Dolly displayed the innate initiative and spunk that would serve her so well in life.

“Not wanting to waste precious time, I learned to knit and crochet. I sold hats for 25 cents and diamond-patterned socks for 75 cents. The following summer, I felt better. I went to a cannery close to home and worked all summer. I wanted to earn money so that I would not be a burden on my family. I was 11 years old. I was tall. At the conclusion of the summer, I brought mom a beautiful coat and paid my boat fare back to school.”

The next term Dolly went to school for the first time since she was seven. Classes were from 1 to 3 p.m. and the courses included English and math. The morning was spent teaching the children how to mend, sew and clean. “Teaching” meant that they darned piles of socks, mended clothes on the sewing and scrubbed floors. “My attitude was that this confinement will come to an end one day,” said Dolly. “Do whatever I am told and I won’t get in trouble.”

“There were some horror stories, however none of the incidents killed me. Some of the boys and girls were molested by supervisors. Somehow, I was spared. I was lonely but I could live with loneliness. I kept busy reading and knitting.”

It is obvious that Dolly acquired her entrepreneurial spirit early in life. She also displayed an inherent generosity.

“I credit some of that spirit to an older brother who ordered drink crystals and tiny bottles of French perfume from The Winnipeg Daily Free Press. He would give me a box of the products and I sold them to the people in the village. I collected the money and gave it all to him. Mother carved small wooden items and we sold them to tourists during their walkabout. Again, I gave all the money to her. So when I knitted and crocheted at school, selling was easy, only this time, I kept the money. When sales dried up, I ironed shirts (10 cents each) or painted posters ($10 each).”

“I learned that it took constant physical and mental training right from childhood to become fearless. I learned that warriors made snap decisions took risks based, of course, on their training. I also learned that various people trained the warriors. Warriors are focused.”

Dolly remained in Port Alberni for high school and married Thomas Watts from the nearby Tse-shaht village. She had three children and worked in the Woodwards store as a part-time sales clerk. She also attended night school. When the children were grown, she decided to leave the marriage and pursue her lifelong interest in education and native culture. She went to college and then, at the age of 49, she entered the University of B.C.

Dr. Michael Kew, now retired associate professor of anthropology, recalled how Dolly, along with some other women, persuaded the department to create a special course for them, saying: “Here we are, First Nations people and we don’t find anything of meaning to us, so why don’t you do something?”

A course was set up for the women on how colonial oppression constructed and manipulated the image of Native peoples.

“She succeeded in passing that and doggedly went on from there,” said Kew. “It was not easy for her to complete a Bachelor’s degree.” But complete it Dolly did, graduating with a degree in Anthropology. “Practically all my life has been devoted to learning. Some of it willingly and some most unwillingly. My parents were my role models for parenthood and keepers of our culture. Teachers, regardless of where I was, taught me coping skills in my new world.”

After graduation in 1989, Dolly returned to Kitwanga to be band manager. She noticed a minimum of a half dozen tour buses in the village everyday during the summer and saw the potential for a small restaurant beside the gas station. She also saw the opportunity to sell native crafts. “I did a study for the village on tourism but my people couldn’t follow up on it. They just don’t have the initiative. It’s been whipped out of them. They want to do something but they don’t know how.”

Discouraged, Dolly moved back to Vancouver, took post-grad courses and worked part-time at the Museum of Anthropology. She interrupted her studies to take a year of creative writing and is now just one year away from a Masters’ degree in anthropology.

In an effort to raise money for a native youth education program, shed set up a stand to sell Indian bannock bread in front of the museum. The bread smelled so good that everything just sold. People kept saying: “It’s just like Grandma’s.” In 1992, Dolly formed her first company, Just Like Grandma’s Bannock and began catering for profit. She never looked back and in 1995 opened the Liliget restaurant, deep in Vancouver’s West End, using the Git’ksan word for ‘place where people feast.’

“I knew it was going to be okay because the previous owners had been there for ten years each. If they could last for 10 years then surely I could be there for another 10 years,” Dolly said. “I had wanted to be a writer but the bannock got in the way.”

With no support from there, Dolly had obstacles to face. Once again, her courage and determination took over. She turned to one of the brothers for a partnership. Her son Wallace, the flight captain, kicked in start-up money.

Dolly learned to be strict and self-disciplined, paying bills in ash, re-investing in the business, contributing to savings, and rewarding herself for her own creativity.

Today she serves an array of First Nations’ foods, such as wild Arctic caribou, venison stew with seaweed dumplings, rabbit with rosemary compote, hazelnut rainbow trout and duck breast with cranberry chutney.

“In Git’ksan culture, parents or those who assumed t hat role were the fist to train the child. Children learned life skills. As they grew older, extended family members (aunt or uncle) were chosen to bring the training to the next level. So if the young person showed signs of being a warrior, he was assigned to someone knowledgeable in warfare. Elders empowered young people by sharing their experience.”

In the beginning, many nights saw the Liliget nearly empty and Dolly worried about the years of lease payments she had committed herself to. “I had no-one to fall back on. My rent depended on how well I did.”

But she kept going with dogged persistence, doing her own kitchen prep work, all cleanup and her own catering deliveries. She worked 14 hours a day, seven days a week. With word spreading that the native restaurant was open once again, revenues rose to $400,000 a year ago – break even costs.

With financial success achieved, Dolly has shown that the difficult transition from reserve to urban enterprises is indeed possible.

“Today, we have our parents, extended families and elders. We (male or female) also have teachers in our schools; colleges and universities who have specialized in areas that can bring us closer to our goals. We have many resources, such as the Native Investment and Trade Association, where we can turn for help along the way to become warriors.”

“The best thing is that I have been able to employ our Native people.” Her three kids and a granddaughter work in the restaurant, as do six other natives and two non-native people.

A woman of deep compassion and liberality is Dolly Watts. “I’m community-minded. I have a soft for teens and people with AIDS.” Many folk in the West End do suffer from this debilitating disease. Dolly donates dinner and coupons for dinners; she holds draws for coupons. “I try to do as much as I can, I donate here and there.”

“Have aboriginal women responded in a way that warrants the name warrior? Do aboriginal women want to become warriors? Of course. Not for war, but as trail blazers for self and others. They’re proving to be courageous, willing to take risks, empowered through improved self esteem in the face of competitive forces all around. Armed with knowledge and skills, standing beside our helpers (resources) and our spirit helpers. I can say that many of use have become warriors, not for militancy, but for personal challenges.”

In 1996, Dolly received the Native Investment and Trade Association Entrepreneur of the Year Ward. This year she completes with three other outstanding businesswomen for the national honours, to be presented in Toronto on November 6.

Yet she is still full of dreams and ambition. Her next project is to build a longhouse beside Vancouver’s Trade and Convention Centre. She has applied to the City for permission for a 300-seat structure that would include a restaurant, performance stage and art gallery. “I want to host a conference there but the city is trying to discourage me. It seems they only want to give permission for 150 seats.

Dolly invited Arthur Erickson back to the restaurant he designed to tell him of the concept. “He seems interested. And he ate everything on his plate.”

Ever the visionary, Dolly looks beyond her hoped-for conference centre to a restaurant at Ottawa’s Canadian Museum of Civilization.

Dolly watts continues the tradition of her strong and independent family. When “government officials” tried to pressure them into calling their children by the more conventional name of Dorothy, her parents stood their ground and named their daughter Dolly because she had been born so small she fit in a little doll box.

“I am a warrior. I became a fighter in order to keep afloat in the competitive world. I became fearless when faced with a real threat of losing my business. I remind myself to remain focused. I get up early to bathe and pummel my body with Dove on my sponge. I leave my home armed with years of training.”

Reconstructing Aboriginal History

Richard Wagamese

At a recent conference on indigenous knowledge I heard speaker after speaker refer to the tremendous spiritual heritage from which aboriginal people spring. While, as an Ojibway, such sentiments raised feelings of pride, esteem and self-worth, I was left troubled. Bothered not so much by the more aboriginally evangelical of the speakers, or by what was said, but rather by a sense of the value of the unspoken.

As aboriginal people, we are taught by our elders, academics, and each other, that our pre-settlement lives were guided by a profound sense of the sacred. I have no argument with this, and in fact, would defend it rigorously. However, we have become somewhat spiritually self-righteous through the years and often overlook the fact that pre-colonial Canada was not all sweet grass, sweat lodges and sunsets. Life was hard. Difficulty brings its accompanying ills. So that no matter how much we espouse the view of ourselves as staunch spiritual tribes and critics it could not have been possible.

Or, at least, contrary to what we tell ourselves – a perpetual condition.

In any human group there are always those less traditional, tribal or true. Our circles at that time – just as now – included thieves, liars, back-sliders, murderers, the immoral and the disbelieving. There were territorial conflicts, wars, civil disputes, arguments and resentment. There had to be. The day in day out life among a kinetic group of people virtually predicates the presence of minor or major inter-personal strife of some kind.

That is not to disrespect the traditional values on which our cultures thrive today. Nor is it to denigrate the incredibly empowering teachings tribal elders and wisdom keepers continue to pass on to new generations. And it is certainly not an attempt to down play the role of ceremony, ritual and spirituality in our homes and communities. Rather it’s an effort to redirect the way in which aboriginal people regard themselves and their histories. Because denial is a degenerative disease that in the end results in a distorted reality, a false perspective, and a less than spiritually enhancing condition.

For us to continue to romanticize our past is to create grave dangers for the generations to follow. As long as we continue to perpetuate the belief that we were perfect spiritual nations until the invasion of North America we continue to inculcate the belief amongst ourselves that we need to be perfectly spiritual today. Such idealism has provided us with a foundation for the establishment of powerful healing circles, centers, practices and organizations but it has also created a potentially harmful cultural mythology. A mythology that states that anything less than purely traditional is not traditional at all.

To deny the fact that our pre-settlement lives were often less than perfect creates the illusion that in order to truly be aboriginal today we need to assume the same emotional, intellectual, physical and spiritual personas.

Such is not the case.

You do not need to wear braids to qualify as aboriginal. You do not need to be able to dance pow wow, drum, sing or make a dream catcher to qualify. You do not need to own a traditional name. In fact, because of history and its effects, you do not even need to be able to speak your language, know your tribal lineage, or have been to a sweat lodge, sundance or pipe ceremony to count either. More importantly, you do not need to completely understand the traditional underpinnings of your particular culture to be an aboriginal person. All you need is the belief. Being Indian, like being Sikh, Maori, Serb or Canadian is an inside truth you carry with you always.

When we insist that our tribal lives were models of purity, morality, dignity and the profound we place incredible pressure on our contemporary lives. We create a deep sense of cultural guilt. To fail short of the ideal, to make mistakes, to not know certain things, to not know how to do certain things, raises feelings of unworthiness, defensiveness, anger and guilt. Behaviors arise that are less than culturally positive.

We create disillusioned youth. We create ambivalent communities. We create politicians motivated more on proving their aboriginality than the political agendas they are elected to carry out. We create a professional elite more intent on networking and displaying themselves aboriginally than effecting change in their neighborhoods and communities. We create culturally embarrassed individuals who display culture and spirituality more than actually practicing them. We create academics that would rather spend their lives studying their people than finding themselves. We create organizations whose board members spend more time squabbling over who knows more about traditional matters and approaches than performing the functions they were designed for. We create fractured rather than cohesive communities.

What we need to know and to understand is that it’s okay to admit to a less than utopian history. It’s okay to know that our pre-colonial societies had failings. Okay to make the admission of humanity that included all of humanity’s foibles and peccadilloes. Okay to say to each other privately and publicly that somewhere along our family line a member erred and was punished. Permissible to acknowledge that presence of unalterable wrongs in our clan structures and societies. When we do that we allow ourselves the freedom to be less than perfect.

Because despite the inherent failings it has been our spiritual way that has allowed us to survive. It has been our spiritual way that spared us the indignity of assimilation. Our various cultural ceremonies and rituals have provided the foundation upon which we have built our present vitality and on which we will move into a brighter future. It is the sweet grass way, the drum, and the way of the pipe that sustains us. That will always remain true.

But to be able to admit to each other first and Canadians later that we have remained strong and vital despite the shortcomings we recognize in our histories, shows a people confident, esteemed and capable of governing themselves and blazing the path towards their own future. Honesty breeds strength. Denial fosters failure. Our spiritual heritage will always remain the root of who we are but we need to practice it in the light of the truth our own histories. Histories less romanticized than realized. The image of the bronzed countenances of the native man and woman will only become true fixtures of the Canadian consciousness when aboriginal people themselves admit to the true nature of their pre-settlement lives.

The words we speak when we speak of our spiritual heritage will bear more weight and relevance when they come from the recognition of our unspoken truths. The truth of our humanity. As aboriginal people we have only ever been human – and that’s not likely to change in the very near future. We need only learn to say it.

Mishi’s Spirit Within Soars

Singer, songwriter, and actress, Mishi Donovan is a Chippewa Cree whose ancestors are renegades from the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota.

Mishi grew up as an orphan without knowledge of her past, her culture, or traditions. She has survived childhood abuses, violent relationships and many other tragedies.

In 1991, with the help of others, Mishi began her journey of healing. The songs she wrote helped her cry and feel again. Mishi’s story and music is an inspiration to all women, men and families, and her CD, The Spirit Within, is a reflection of the heart and soul of her people.

In the spring of 1993, Sunshine Records held an international contest titled The Great Canadian Talent Search. It was this contest that Mishi Donovan, an Aboriginal singer/songwriter from Alberta, entered in hopes of winning a few hours of free recording time. Upon receiving Mishi’s rough home recording demo, President Ness Michael immediately called Mishi with the offer of a recording contract.

Agreeing, Mishi ventured to Winnipeg and completed her debut album with producer Brandon Friesen. Mishi’s album titled Spirit in Flight has gained international recognition. Since its release, her single Chosen One has received heavy rotation on a number of second market radio stations. It was also used as the theme soundtrack for a CBC documentary about HIV and AIDS, directed by Ken Ward.

Mishi has performed at a number of festivals and conferences, including the Dream Speakers Festival, the White Berade 24th Anniversary and the Native Arts Festival in Edmonton, the Sagaw Theatre Presentation and the Health and Wellness Conference in Calgary. She also prepared to do a number of screen tests, after being approached by a few directors and agents who wanted her for their motion picture projects.

In the spring and summer months of 1995 and 1996, Mishi found time between her studies and performing to try her take in acting. Mishi played a support role in the Calgary syndicated TV series Lonesome Dove. These experiences have spawned other acting opportunities on ITV Edmonton as well as in live theatre dramas.

In 1997, Sunshine Records released Mishi’s second full length album: The Spirit Within. This recording has received nothing less than the best reviews and has provided a number of strong singles with heavy radio support.

On March 22, 1998, Mishi’s album The Spirit Within achieved the Canadian Music Industries highest acknowledgement, a Juno Award in the Best Music of Aboriginal Canada Recording.

Mishi will continue to tour and perform in support of her album The Spirit Within and her message of healing. The material for her third record has been written and will be recorded with Winnipeg Producer Brandon Friesen in the fall of 1998, and Mishi will work with director Cam Tjolbulton from ITV in Edmonton, on her next video for Letting Go (A Prayer Song).

Jake Thomas and the Great Law

Maurice Switzer

Beyond the borders of his beloved Six Nations territory, Jake Thomas’ death didn’t make any headlines.

When he died August 17th at the age of 76, he had been Cayuga chief for over half a century, a living archive for the Iroquois people. Chief Jacob Ezra Thomas was one of the first aboriginal people to obtain tenure as a university professor in Canada on the basis of his great wealth of traditional knowledge, and for 14 years he taught languages, culture, and history in Trent University’s Native Studies department.

He was the last man alive capable of reciting from memory the Great Law of the Iroquois Confederacy, which has served as the constitution for the people of the longhouse since before Europeans set foot on Turtle Island. In early summer, 1994, over a 12 day period, Chief Thomas gave a public recital of the Great Law, an event that was recorded on videotape and archived by the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples.

“That peace is supposed to work,” he told an RCAP hearing. “It’s the power of the words of the Creator where they came from, of unity, being of one mind, a good mind. That’s what makes power.”

The Great Law is the type of oral Aboriginal history that is scoffed at these days by the journalistic and academic elite, the same bigots who rail against modern-day Indian milestones like the Delgamuukw decision or Nisga’a Treaty signing that uphold Aboriginal title and inherent rights. It was also the democratic model used by founding fathers like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson in the framing of the United States Constitution.

Jake Thomas was a custodian of this precious gift, one of many shared by Amerindian people with European newcomers. Typically, neither the gifts nor their givers receive much credit from the beneficiaries.

Ironically, the most attention ever accorded Jake Thomas by mainstream society came during the last year of his life, when he agreed to participate in a recording by rock star Robbie Robertson that celebrated his Mohawk heritage. The Cayuga chief gave his blessing to Robertson’s Musical return to his roots, understanding better than most people the ability modern art forms to help ancient cultures survive.

I spotted the soft-spoken Elder standing by himself at a noisy reception following this year’s Aboriginal Achievement Award ceremonies, where he had chanted and played a turtle rattle to provide the native context for Robertson’s contemporary lyrics. In the middle of a forest of tuxedoes and glitzy evening gowns, this simple but profound man taught me how he honoured the handle of his turtle rattle with tobacco each time he used it.

Jake Thomas lived his culture, whether teaching Six Nations youngsters about nature in his sugar bush, or carving hickory condolence canes, traditionally used in the longhouse at the installation of a new chief, upon the death of his predecessor. His teaching will not end as long as visitors tour the Jake Thomas Learning Centre at Six Nations, or Trent University continues to incorporate into its annual convocation ceremonies the condolence cane he presented to the Native Studies program on the occasion of its 25th anniversary.

If Jake Thomas was a cultural icon for his people, the same cannot be said for the names on which the media focussed during the week of his passing. The attention they received — and Jake Thomas didn’t — speaks volumes about the priorities of “civilized” society. It was the usual cast of media celebrities — politicians doing about-faces on their principles, millionaire athletes using performance-enhancing drugs, a mobster gunned down in the driveway of his respectable suburban neighbourhood.

A lot of ink and air time that week was dedicated to a mounting scandal in Alberta, where senior officers of a provincially-owned bank were being accused of accepting huge bribes in return for approving multi-million dollar loans to prominent businessmen. The bank would also be writing off almost half a billion dollars in taxpayers money used to fund the business operations of Peter Pocklington, former meatpacking and hockey team tycoon.

What was so incongruous about this scandal is that it has been years in the making, escaping the scrutiny of Alberta politicians and journalists, who had been too busy focussing on the alleged financial difficulties of one Indian band which had run up a $3-million operating deficit.
Maurice Switzer

Chief Jacob Thomas is in a better place today, but only after dedicating his life to making this place a better one for all his people.

“We release you for we know it is no longer possible for you to walk together with us on earth.” (Wampum, The Great Law)

Maurice Switzer is a member of the Mississaugas of Rice Lake First Nation at Alderville,Ont. and director of communications for the Assembly of First Nations in Ottawa.

Buffy Sainte-Marie

Buffy Sainte-Marie received her Ph.D. in Fine Arts from the University of Massachusetts, and also holds degrees in Philosophy and in teaching. These combined interests are clearly evident in her music, her visual art works, her writing, and her life.

She won an Academy Award for writing the song, Up Where We Belong (from An Officer and a Gentleman), but has also scored movies, ducked bullets, raised a son, and spent five years on Sesame Street teaching little kids and their caretakers that, “Indians still exist.”

Her electronic paintings on her Macintosh computer have been exhibited in both museums and galleries as well as online. In March she was inducted into the Canadian music industry’s Juno Hall of Fame. The versatility in all this work is a reflection of her own life and is best described as extremely varied, both universal and unique.

As a college student in the early sixties, Buffy Sainte-Marie became known as a writer of protest and love songs. Her songs have been performed by hundreds of artists including Elvis Presley, Indigo girls, Barbara Streisand, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Chet Atkins, Bobby Darin, Donovan, Glen Campbell, The Highwaymen, Roberta Flack, Neil Diamond, the Boston Pops Orchestra, and Janis Joplin.

The folk-scene in those Greenwich Village days was a mixture of preservationists and originals. Buffy was of the latter group, and a loner. Having written Universal Soldier, which became an anthem for the sixties’ peace movement, she still was absent from the mass protest marches in favour of shedding her unique light on Indian rights and environmental issues, which she continues to do today, “…because nobody’s covering those bases.”

Her musicianship was and is a reflection of her curiosity about sound. Even in the beginning, she strung and tuned her guitar in all sorts of unusual ways and played a mouth bow, which relies on harmonics and a remarkable ear. But what Buffy Sainte-Marie is best known for is song writing. From her first record to the present time, her songs have been meaningful to other artists and to audiences as well, making sense to both the head and the heart. She is a real original.

The songs she wrote were varied. Some music lovers might think of her as a writer of country songs of protest songs, but her big financial successes (which allowed her to remain an artist instead of having to work in some other field) were her love songs; particularly Until It’s Time for You to Go and Up Where We Belong. She had a string of country hits as well, including The Piney Wood Hills, I’m Gonna Be a Country Girl Again, and He’s an Indian Cowboy in the Rodeo. The protest songs she’s written are scathing and pointed. There is no counter argument that holds up against Universal Soldier, Now That the Buffalos’ Gone, of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.

Buffy went from Greenwich Village to Europe, Canada, Australia, Hong Kong, and Japan, and had a unique career outside of the U.S. She scored movies, wrote essays, worked with early computers, presented a colloquium to Europe’s philosophers, established a scholarship foundation to fund native studies painted huge pictures, spent time with indigenous people in far away countries, received a medal from Queen Elizabeth II, and won an Academy Award. In 1976, when her son was born, she quit professional recording to become a mother and an artist. For the next five years, was a cast member of Sesame Street and she continued to be a student of experimental music for the next sixteen years.

In 1966, Buffy had made the first ever electronic quadraphonic vocal album, and she has continued to cut across musical stereotypes, scoring movies and blazing a personal trail through digital music, while never straying far from the heart of intimate song writing. Whereas in the seventies she used a Boucla synthesizer, and later a Serge, creating electronic soundtracks for songs and movies, during the same period she made rare appearances at huge European music festivals, using the early Roland MIDI guitar. In the later seventies and early eighties, she worked at home with a Fairlight and a Synclavier. When the Macintosh computer came out in 1984, Buffy was at the head of the line.

Today, her digital home studio is as personal and hands-on for her as a guitar was in the sixties. Her come-back CD, Coincidence and Likely Stories, was made at home in 1991. Using her Macintosh as a recording instrument, she played most of the parts herself. When it was just the way she wanted it, she dialed the number of her co-producer in London, England, and sent the music down the phone lines via modem, bounced it off the satellite, and it went onto tape in London.

Upon the release of that album, France named her Best International Artist and presented her with the Grand Prix Charles de Gaulle Award. In Ottawa, newspapers reviewed her performance with the 85-piece electronic band for 20,000 people last summer at Big Sky in Alberta, as well as for tiny Reserves and fly-in communities across Canada.

Today Buffy teaches at colleges, and lectures in a variety of fields including digital art, philosophy, film scoring, electronic music, song writing, Indian issues and the Native genius for governments. Most importantly, Buffy teaches to remain positive amidst tough human realities. Her digital paintings vary in style as do her songs, speeches, classes and essays, each reflecting her lifelong wish to empower creative people’s multifaceted individual potentials “…because we need fresh alternative ideas from every direction…students, artist, women, and indigenous people.”

Her latest single and video Darling Don’t Cry is a “Pow-Wow love song.” It was released in 1996 followed by another CD, Up Where We Belong. The album features fifteen recordings including some of Buffy’s most beloved classics: Universal Soldier, Until It’s Time for You to Go, The Piney Wood Hills, Soldier Blue, God is Alive, Eagle Man, and Indian Cowboy, as well as her own version of Up Where We Belong. Chris Birkett, who co-produced Coincidence and Likely Stories is once again her co-producer for Up Where We Belong

Band Claims Right to Run Casino

R. Stewart

The Beecher Bay Band will gamble in court that it has the right to build a casino on reserve land between Metchosin and East Sooke.

Band lawyer Rory Morahan recently said that bylaws covering gaming were submitted to the minister of Indian affairs in 1995. Under Indian Act
provisions, unless the minister specifically rejects bylaws submitted to him within 40 days, they go into force, Morahan said.

That means the band has had the right to govern gaming on its reserve since 1995 and the province’s rejection last week of a band application for
a gaming license was irrelevant, Morahan suggested. He’ll take that argument to either the Federal Court or the B.C. Supreme Court within a month.

“I estimate we’ll be filing within a month to six weeks and we could see a decision within about six to eight months…A lot of this is affidavit evidence — this is a document case — and those kind of cases can proceed fairly quickly.”

Band representative Pat Chipps said all the documentation is ready to go. “This is plan A for us, not plan B — this is the way we intended to go
originally, so the research has already been done,” Chipps said. “We think we have been very politically correct in this by trying to work cooperatively with the province. But this is economically very important to us, so we are going ahead.”

Morahan said he plans to introduce evidence that gambling is a long-held cultural tradition among the Coast Salish.

Linda VanderBerg, a cultural anthropologist who works extensively on behalf of First Nations in B.C., said the tradition of gambling goes back
thousands of years and that artifacts of s’lahal — or bone games — are often found in archeological digs.

“Blankets, copper, any number of things considered valuable would change hands,” she said. “There was even one Clallum chief (from Washington State) who lost his wife in one of the bones games, so the stakes could get pretty high.”

Band chief Burt Charles displayed his modern bone-game implements, made from wood and deer horn. Bands would gamble for blankets made from
mountain-sheep wool or other goods, though now cash changes hands, he said. Traditional tokens would have been made from whale bones, VanderBerg said.

Morahan stressed that the major goal of the casino proposal was to provide jobs and economic benefits for the Beecher Bay Band. But the economic spin-off would also benefit neighboring communities, he said.

“Portions of the revenue from the gaming would be set aside to pay for things like improving the infrastructure and the roads and so on,” he
said. And with 200 to 1,000 jobs expected as the project builds to completion, there would also be work for people outside the band, which has
fewer than 200 members, he said.

Chipps said the band would meet today with other First Nations to try to arrange joint funding for the court process. But Morahan said the legal gambit would continue even without support of other First Nations.