Monday, April 26, 2010

Inner City East Side Red Man's Blues...

It’s been a helluva couple weeks, pages turning, doors closing and opening, milestones reached and I gaze down at my guitar…and fall in love every time. It’s never an exaggeration to say I don’t know what boredom is (certain people notwithstanding) if there is a guitar within reach. I’m no virtuoso by any means. I know several chords, mostly major but a few minor ones and with a capo I am able to access the entire musical scale. I’m working on song that’s so much fun to try and finish I’ll almost be sad when I do. I’ve got a catchy chord progression and melody that’s carved in stone and the lyrics consist of a conversation with the city, god (aren’t they ALL conversations with god?) and a girl (aren’t they all conversations with a girl?...well, they should be) – Inner City East Side Red Man’s Blues…

My father passed away some years ago and I was not able to be at his funeral and I spent many punishing nights bleeding over this and other life circumstances well beyond my control. I never knew the man and based on all the wildly different stories I’m told about him I have found I can take none of them for granted. The truth lies somewhere between some of my earliest hazy memories, some biased second-hand accounts (good and bad) and half a dozen brief exchanges I had with him as an adult after I had made my way back to my reserve and when he was still alive. I was an Indian baby caught up in the “60’s and 70’s scoop.” In those days, it was policy to apprehend first and let the chips fall where they may. I was taken when I was not yet two years old and did not return until my mother’s funeral. It was at this point, in most real ways, that I met my people. But I do remember things from my time before I was taken. There was me eagerly balanced at the knee of a seated fat man in a green shirt, playing a red guitar. There was a lightning storm and me carried in the arms of a young boy older than I through a field as the brilliant strikes tore though the sky. There was a woman lying face down in a kitchen in a widening pool of blood as a man stood above her kicking her again and again in the face and head. It took me a long time (that is, years and years) to understand that I could not say for certain who those people were. I assumed they were my mother and father but I have only the memory of it and no other accounts from anybody else (I had lots of brothers and sisters). Today I look at it as something I merely witnessed and I will not say that either person was my mother or father because I honestly don’t know and it is tortuous to think otherwise. This is my life and it’s what I have chosen. It is wrong for me to ascribe blame or guilt to anyone or to cast a mantle of victimhood on people I’m not sure of because it diminishes all of us. I can only pray there is peace for anyone involved in what I saw.

When I was 12 or 13 years old, my dad appeared at the front door of the house where I was fostered in the city and it was expected I would go out to his car parked across the street and speak to him. I knew the white people who kept me were peering through the curtains to see what he would do. By that stage of my life I had been fed a steady diet of rhetoric and stereotype (bullshit, is what it was) about what Indians were like but because I was the only Indian I knew I was terrified at what might happen. They spied on us because surely he would try something. I was terrified because I wore the unbearable weight of expectation of what he might do, of what I was supposed to say to this strange (and dangerous) man, of asserting some type of undefined loyalty for the people who kept me but who I also lived in constant fear of.

What happened?


He held me to him, kissed me, offered me his watch and a wad of cash (I declined both) and then he took a guitar out of the back seat of his car and handed it to me. Our visit was brief and I was unsure how I was meant to feel. I was painfully shy in the presence of adults back then so the visit and the de-briefing with my foster parents afterwards was the height of anxiety for me. I had never played guitar up to that point and in fact I was all about drummers back then. I would not see him again until many years later at my mother’s funeral but, one day, when I was eighteen, I had a friend tune that guitar for me and I learned my first song. Learning that song transformed my life and it’s became a seminal and profound part of the ongoing adventure that is my life.

As I sit alone strumming and singing my own song in a downtown apartment beside the ocean I do so in reverie. I have played and sang Woody Guthrie’s, This Land Is Your Land, in Cree, at my reserve for an oral assignment when I took Cree language courses there. I sang and played with the (indigenous) Sami people at one of their settlements in the far North of Norway. I played one of my songs at an aboriginal literary event in the Okanagan for some of the most respected and revered writers in Indian country (a couple of them personal heroes of mine) and they genuinely seemed to dig it. I have played and sang in Sty-We-Tan, “The Great Hall,” on Musqueam territory, here at Vancouver. I have played on assorted street corners and stoops all across the land. I’ve made songs for a friend’s wedding and for another friend’s first baby and for a friend who passed away. I have no real aspirations with music beyond recording a few for posterity. I would be lost without music. I still have desert island songs that year after year continue to inspire me, move me and still give me chills when I’m in the right frame of mind. Music has this effect and I haven’t even mentioned the drum!...

We were never more than strangers to each other, really, but during what was to be the next to last conversation with my father I told him my girlfriend and I were expecting and that I had completed my first year of art school in Penticton BC. He raised his eyebrows, nodded slowly then asked if I remembered his and my trip to Penticton when I was a baby. Of course I didn’t but he just laughed and told me how much I cried and how we hitch-hiked the whole way. He didn’t give any details only that it was Penticton and it was just him and me. When I think of it today I can hardly comprehend an Indian man with a newborn or one year old baby tucked under his arm, in 1970, hitching through the mountains from Alberta to BC. But I don’t doubt it in the least. It is just one among the countless strange but true stories I have become aware of during the ride on this big old merry-go-round (don’t be surprised to read my version of this story someday).

Today when I work with people who are like I was, sick with their experience, I try to help them locate choices. We work to find useful patterns in their lives that have gotten them here from there. I try to help form a perspective that the worst is over and anything that happened to them or that they may have done will never be that bad again. We help each other become aware of the strength inherent in the daily struggle to transcend the experiences that hurt us. I use my teachings and understanding as a Cree man. I (we) come from a long, long line of powerful and hearty people. The ancestral history of my people, though unwritten, exists and is confirmed by the very fact that I write this. My family’s troubles, in the historical sense, are relatively recent. That I should be constantly struggling to make a good life for myself and my loved ones makes more sense to me than it does to grieve and suffer day in day out. Suffering has never been the way of my people and will not be. We are Nehiyaw.

The guitar I currently play is the thirteenth I have owned. I’ve owned a few beauties but like women, I never seemed to be able to hang on to the good ones. The next one though, will be my last…guitar, that is. The guitar has allowed me to sit in some amazing circles and no man could be this lucky. As I get older, I find it is enough for me to sit alone with a six string, make this medicine and raise spirits.

This is what my father gave me.

© 2010 Champsteen Publishing

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