The importance of language in the replacement of Indian culture “cannot be overstated,” according to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples: “The entire residential school project was balanced on the proposition that the gate to assimilation was unlocked only by the progressive destruction of Aboriginal languages” (Canada, Report 1.10.1). Yet in “Black Robes” (1996), her grandmother will not let the young Lee Maracle speak her own language. Her advice to the girl is to “Master their language, daughter; hidden within it is the way we are to live among them.” From that directive the writer’s work grows.
[ADR Warning: ableist language ahead]
By Lee Maracle
The children of our people must seek knowledge wherever life presents it. Black Robe was a new thing: thus, she was there in the green meadow where Mexica horses lolled about, clipping grass and enjoying the soft warmth of mother sun. Here, indeed, was something different. Wordlessly, she absorbed its newness.
Black Robe seemed agitated. He spoke fast, and later the girl learned from her father’s account to her mother that he never repeated his listeners’ words as we do (very rude). She heard everything Black Robe said only because her father spoke in the old way. He was careful to repeat Black Robe’s words verbatim, to show respect for the speaker’s vision of truth and to ensure that no misunderstanding or distortion of his words occurred. Then, her father answered him.
“There is only learning and knowledge, Black Robe. We do not deny our children knowledge. You say that you have teachers who will show my children how to live. Can you not see? Behind me sits my daughter, who is neither blind nor deaf no imprisoned. She is free to seek knowledge among whomever she chooses to learn from. Her presence among adults indicates her desire to know. Hence, are we not obligated to give her our knowledge whenever she walks among us? You see her. She will have no need of interpreters if we continue to counsel, you and I. What need, then, has she of this place called ‘school’?
“Her brothers and she can learn things that we cannot teach them, like medicine, sanitation, housekeeping and flight, you say.” Her old father laughed. “When she grows wings and learns to fly, will she also acquire the beauty and sense of freedom of the eagle, the brazenness and wit of raven? Will her eyes see at night like owl? Black Robe, show me how you fly and my daughter will fly tomorrow; then, she will have no need of canoes. It takes a long time to build a bridal canoe.
“You say she will learn not flying, but different things than her brothers; that her brothers will learn about flying in something of their own making, not by themselves. In a glider, you say. That they will not actually make such a thing but only know of its existence. Of what use is such knowledge? You will fill my young men’s minds with useless knowledge, Black Robe. You say my daughter will learn how to be a good Christian wife, to do a thing called read from deadwood leaves. What need has she to be a woman different than what she is? To kill trees and put marks on deadwood leaves o remind her of how she must conduct herself? She is not lazy, nor is she forgetful. She is a good girl and will become a good woman. She will make a good wife –maybe Pierre’s wife,” he teased. She blushed and looked at the ground. Her old father chuckled sensuously.
Black Robe sucked in his breath. (I should not say this, nor even think it, but written on his face was exasperation, like when a young girl weaves her first basket and her fingers disobey the heart and will not weave it right.) The interpreter interjected, trying to bring depth to Black Robe’s shallow vision of life. He tried to make the father and Black Robe see each other’s point of view; to make them understand hat there is no disagreement over the value of different (new) knowledge, but only a difference in how to learn –at home, or far away, with children from many different villages.
The interpreter is not speaker or listener, so neither Black Robe nor the father responded. But his words stayed with the young woman. She looked hard at the interpreter. She knew that her father would not relent. Her eyes tried to tell the interpreter that Black Robe was wasting his time. She wanted to save him more embarrassment. Soon the father would look upon his pleas as begging. No woman should sit and watch a man reduce himself to a beggar without first warning him. Black Robe was blind to the young woman’s eyes and the interpreter dared not say what he thought he saw in the young woman’s eyes.
Black Robe did not stop talking.
In the end, the father did not relent, but he invited Black Robe to counsel whomever he pleased. “Turn anyone around that you may, Black Robe.” It was for her father a great and generous concession.
His prophecy about the young woman and the interpreter came to be. Pierre Deneuve, a man whose father came from a place called France and his mother from her own people, came to be her partner.
Partner. Husband in English. She learned to understand his immodest and mean language which has so many names for the same man; as though they were the land, not men from-such-and-such a land. She never bothered to speak the language much, and by the time I came to be it was hard for her to speak English.
In the warmth of her kitchen the soft tones of her voice toughed my ears and gentled my raucous spirit. She brought me sadness but once in the multitude of after-school days I spent in her kitchen. I had learned not to query uselessly before I learned to speak. This day I mentioned all my great-grandmothers and how I would like to see them. She could not give me their presence; instead she gave me her story.
“Pierre tried to teach me all the new things he knew, but they never made sense.” She winced and laughed mischievously. “He said that he was a Christian, a Catholic, an interpreter, a Half-breed, a worker, and not just Pierre. To me, he was always Pierre. The funniest thing he said was that he was a Roman Catholic. Rome is in a place called Italy –far away. How could he be from here and from Italy?”
She stopped laughing. Silent, gentle tears flowed from her tired eyes. “He made me send my children to school. All my babies, I knew them only while they were small. They came home men and women. So different were they from me. So many of their words grated on my being, foreign words, like Pierre’s. So little did they speak their own language. Today, I am surrounded by the faces of our people speaking as the Black Robes spoke. IN the faces of the children are written the characters of the people of the Black Robes. The laughter of my ancients died in the house that Pierre built.
“ ‘My brothers, my sisters are all dead from the Black Robes’ disease or killed in their wars. How can you ask me to send my little ones to grace their presence and not shorten my own life with their smiles and their growth? Will you call me wife, yet deny me motherhood’ I asked him.”
She said that Pierre had said a lot of nice things to ease her pain, but he sent the children. “Of what use were nice words? Was he standing at the precipice of our son’s grave –my son–alcohol-crazed, screaming insane words at a room with deaf walls, in a dirty hotel, while alcohol ate the life from his body? No. The Black Robes’ disease had already taken his life and it was I who had to bury my son. All mothers ever ask of life is to die before their children. I have buried four of mine. Worse, now I must bury my tiny little grandchildren.”
She whispered in the language of the old people, a language she forbade me to speak lest the craziness of her sons and daughters who had died overtake me. Lest I have no one language but become a crippled two-tongue.
“Master their language, daughter; hidden within it is the way we are to live among them. It is clear that they will never go away. Every year more of them come. England, France, Wales –all must be terrible places, for they keep coming here to get away from there. I do not begrudge them a place here, but why do they have to bequeath to us the very things they escape from?”
It was like that in the 1950s in the wood-smoked kitchens of our grannies. I thought then that I would join the lonely march of six-year-old children going to grow up in the convent, missing my mom and unable to speak to my brothers. What a shock when school arrived and I was thrown not among Native children, but Europeans. The teacher was not a nun, but an ordinary white woman.
Back in my granny’s kitchen I was in tears, complaining about not being with the other children. She watched me weep until a deep sense of foolishness overtook me and I stopped the flow of my tears. “You are fortunate. How else will we master the language and keep our ways unless we can learn among them and still live with our mothers and grandmothers? You are fortunate. How else will we learn to master their ways and still master the ancient art of motherhood unless we are schooled by them and our mothers too? Further, it is not our way to bring misery to others. Better to teach them to treat you as a human being ought to be treated than to come here making gifts of misery to an old woman who has done you no harm.” Her silence spelled dismissal.
At age ten I stood at the edge of my granny’s grave, surrounded by Europeans, and witnessed the burial of our ancient ways. I wondered if the birth of a new world founded on the coming together of both our histories was really possible. Would Europeans ever look at me and see an equal, not an aborted cripple but a human being with all my frailties, my separate history, and our common future? I would not have had such thoughts if the grandmothers of this land had not battered themselves with the question, mused aloud in the presence of their granddaughters.
Had mass death, tuberculosis, and the loss of our grandmothers’ right to raise their young not have accompanied the development of Canada, the settlers would not have though thus. Should we have been invited not as inferior sub-humans, but as people with a great contribution to make the creation of a next nation, death would not haunt us as it does. More, our disappearance from the realm of history –the lingering realization that to most Canadians we do not exist –would not be our intimate agony.
Racism is an essential by-product of colonialism. That Europeans came her to escape something may be true, but it was not the real reason for erecting a colonial colossus all over the world. It was not the reason for he enslavement and importation of millions of African citizens to work our lands and build a meaner system than the world had ever known.
Europeans today see Natives without being able to imagine our grandmothers. They never see the old woman who shaped our lives: the ankle-length flowered and paisley cotton skirts; the warm earth colours of their clothes; the kerchiefs and laughing eyes are lost to Europeans. They can never hear the soft tones of our grandmothers’ ancient languages.
Europeans are blinded by Hollywood images. How sad. Not for me, but for them, as humanity is forever lost to those who would object to the colours and voices of the people of the past that have left their mark on the hearts and minds of the people of the present.
As a child I was humiliated by a string of teachers wearing brothel-tinted sunglasses. I was accused of sluttish behavior by a moralizing principal whose assessment of me was guided by the colour of my skin rather than my character. Now that line of teachers look pathetic and the poetry of T.S. Eliot burns new meaning into the pages of my own book: “We are the hollow men / stuffed men…”
I no longer weep for myself or the lost Europeans, but rather insist on writing myself into a new book that counts all of humanity on its tender warm and colourful pages.
We are not integrated people. We do not even co-exist peacefully. The reality of death still mangles our existence.
Death hangs over us
like a black widow-maker
on a treeless mountainside.
A beleaguered army
caught in a valley
we thought green, lush
and teaming with life
suddenly becomes a swamp
full of alligators
leeches, filth and disease
Caused more by the shame
of being fooled one more time.
In the darkness of our own
confusion we have forgotten
our reason for being.
In our grannies’ kitchens, where the scent of wood smoke and sumptuous meals cooked over a thousand fires lingered in the unpainted walls and cupboards, that is where I learned he laws which enabled me to love my children. In my granny’s kitchen, the sweet smells and gentle words soothed the aches and pains of a six-year-old growing up in a schizophrenic situation. Unlike in school, in my granny’s kitchen I as not made to memorize or even contemplate the meaning of her words.
“You will remember what you need to know when the time comes.”
Right then, it was he sunshine of her presence that I needed. Her radiance was neither finite nor momentary. It was this shower that I bequeath to my children.
Her love was not without discipline, but it did preclude violence. I searched her story for some parable, but after many years realized there was none. She could not give me my ancestors. I would have to find them myself. Not to let me walk away empty-handed, she gave me herself. She must have known I was desperate, for she never shamed me for begging. I was desperate, so desperate.
Before the fires of maddened Blacks burned their anger into the face of a frightened white America and made it forever impossible to erase African-Americans, there was sleep. The sleep of fools who know what they do but don’t think of the consequences of their actions. It was the sleep of an insipid historical continuum that repeated its idiocy, not just by force of habit, bt because no one raised any objections.
Force is the midwife of historical change.
“I was the best of times and the worst of times…” We need only add, “and the stupidest of times,” and we will have painted the prosperous ‘50s in the bleak colours of mass insensitivity and righteous, red-neck practice. In the ‘50s there was no challenge. The Red “man” was vanquished –cosigned to a kind of living purgatory in curio shops and tourist-trap trading posts. The Black “man” was reduced to a toe-tapping bundle of rhythm. (Black and Red women did not exist for anyone, yet.) All Natives were happy, and working-class European-cum-CanAmerica was movin’ up.
Before Rusty and Alexander Street,
skid row and my children
there was my grandmother.
On the shore by the lakes
and in the hills of our heritage,
our grannies sat on dead wood logs
behind the Black Robes
and their fathers.