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.
Introduction by Robert Bensen
The assimilated boarding-school graduate is epitomized in Stiya: or, a Carlisle Indian Girl Home (1891), a work of fiction that provided Carlise graduates with model attitudes and behaviors for returning home as educated young people. The novel also reveals what Leslie Marmon Silko (Laguna) called the “white perspective of Pueblo people” and the author’s “projected […] fears and prejudices.” At first disgusted with her parents and home and everything Indian (chapters 1 and 2), Stiya decides to change them (chapter 3). Her project meets with success, as her father ges a job with the new railroad that brings tourists and business to the Southwest (chapters 15 and 16)
[ADailyRiot disclaimer: Though these excerpts of Stiya, found in Children of the Dragonfly, do speak well of the boarding school Carlisle and the experience there, I would encourage people to read this critically and/or as they said in school “read between the lines” to see the devastating effects that the boarding school’s assimilation process had on people whom were forced to attend those schools and the communities of the people whom went to them in turning native/first nations people from their traditional ways and rejecting their own culture. Remember while reading this, that this is literature that a non-Native person wrote and that this was the literature that was being given out to people graduating Carlise to encourage them in further assimilating their culture to that of the Euro-American dominate culture. This document does not provide an accurate representation of the Pueblo Native cultures and people. It holds racist stereotypes of Pueblo and Native people in general. I would encourage folks reading this, perhaps those of you browsing the #Native American tag whom have never heard of Carlisle or other Boarding/Residential Schools or the general Boarding/Residential School Era to go to research it.. google, youtube, or books are good resources for that.]
by Embe (Marinna Burgess)
Chapter 1: Disappointment
When I was told at Carlisle that I could go to my home in the West –a place I had not seen for five years –I was truly delighted; and all the time I was packing my trunk, and all the way while we, a merry party of forty Indian girls and boys, all going home, were laughing and having a good time, at every thought of home and mother and father and he friends I should find on my arrival, my heart gave a great thump of joy.
After five days and nights of travel, every mile of which I enjoyed, for we were so very comfortable in the cars, and we saw so many interesting things which then I could understand about, in the middle of one hot afternoon the train stopped at the station at which I was to get off, and I realized that I was at the end of my railroad journey.
My father and mother, who were at the station waiting for their daughter, rushed in my direction as soon as they saw me, and talking Indian as fast as they could tried to help me from the train.
My father took my valise, and my mother, seizing me by the arm, throw her head upon my shoulder and cried for joy.
Was I as glad to see them as I thought I would be?
I must confess that instead I was shocked and surprised at the sight that met my eyes.
“My father? My mother?” cried I desperately within. “No, never!” I thought, I actually turned my back upon them.
I had forgotten hat home Indians had such grimy faces.
I had forgotten that my mother’s hair had always looked as though it had never seen a comb.
I had forgotten that she wore such a short, [strange]-looking black bag for a dress, fastened over one shoulder only, and such buckskin wrappings for shoes and leggings.
“My mother?” I cried, this time aloud.
I could not help it, and at the same time I rushed frantically into the arms of my school-mother, who had taken me home, and I remembered then as I had never before how kind she had always been to us. I threw my arms around her neck and cried bitterly, and begged of her to let me go n the train again.
“I cannot go with that woman,” I pleaded.
My school-mother, in a voice so tender I shall never forget, said, “My dear girl, you must stop crying. You u must not feel in this way towards your own parents. This is your mother. She loves you. You will get used to her and her ways by and by. Come, now,” she continued, trying to withdraw from my embrace, “be a woman! Make the best of these people, and go to your mother. Go, now, to your mother. Shake hands with her as a dutiful daughter should.”
Almost broken hearted, I did as I was bid, for I knew nothing else than to obey my school-mother.
I also took my father’s hand, and through my tears smiled as best I could; but he never shall know how I suffered with mortification and regret that he was such an Indian.
Somehow, I had my mind made up that my parents would be different, and it was hard for me to realize that they had been going backward while I had been going forward for five years.
By this time the locomotive been began to ring, and my school-mother stepped aboard the train.
Soon she and the coach full of school companions I had left passed out of sight, and as I gazed after them, my eyes thoroughly blinded with ears, my heart felt heavy with sadness.
“Oh, my! Oh, my!” I sighed; “what have I come to?”
Chapter 2: My Home
The landing at the op of the ladder was the flat roof of the house underneath ours.
This roof had been covered with dirt, which had in time become thoroughly packed and almost as hard as flagging, so it really formed a stone-like balcony to our house.
There was no railing around it, and I don’t see how the Indians manage to keep their babies from falling from the tops of these houses. There are many in the village just like ours, and in many there are more children than at our house.
There were only six of us children, everyone of whom, except myself, died when quite small of the small-pox and diphtheria, and at the time of which I am writing I wish I had gone with the rest.
“But you, who are wise, must know that different nations have different conceptions of things; and you will therefore not take it amiss, if our ideas of this kind of education happen to not be the same with yours. We have had some experience of it; several of our young people were formerly brought up a the colleges of the northern provinces; they were instructed in all your sciences; but when they came back to us […] they were totally good for nothing. (qtd. in Franklin 10: 387)”
In 1784 Benjamin Franklin may have concurred with this assessment of colonial education by the Iroquois leader Canassatego, who spoke to commissioners from Virginia at Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in 1744 (Baker 47). On behalf of the sachems who refused the Virginians’ offer to educated twelve young Iroquois men at the College of William and Mary, he offered instead t host twelve sons of Virginia’s gentlemen promising to “take great care of their education, and instruct them in all we know, and make Men of them” (qtd. in Franklin 10: 386-87). As a revolutionary with a sense of humor, Franklin must have admired the Iroquois’s satiric send-up of the Virginians’ arrogance and ignorance.
Within twenty years of Franklin’s writing, however, a competing conception of Indian-white difference would gain ascendancy in the young republic, one which asserted parental authority over the Native nations: “Children […] the great Chief of the Seventeen great nations of America has become your only father,” wrote William Clark and Meriwether Lewis to the Ote in 1804, addressing them as “children” eighteen times, e.g.: “Children. -Do these things which your great father advises and be happy” (qtd. in Carrol 16) Thomas Jefferson’s seaboard America looked west at a continent-wide “Indian problem.” It sought to reduce by reducing Indians to children. Jefferson held contradictory views of Indians, using their physical, intellectual, linguistic, social, and political equality with whites as evidence against the environmental degeneracy theory that was popular in Europe, by calling them “children” when perceiving them as impediments to expansion (Grinde 197, 208).
Such opportunistic paternalism “required children to have no independence or life of their own,” according to Michael Paul Rogin in his study of the Jackson-era subjugation of American Indians (10). Since Columbus, Europe had conceived of indigenous people as having child-like qualities (Todorov 34-40), but the United States and Canada transformed them from children of nature to children of the state, and gradually assumed parental authority over them in matters of territory, commerce, and religion. The metaphor of Indians as children was soon placed at the enter of the legal definition of Indian status, when Chief Justice John Marshall wrote that tribes “are a people in a sate of pupilage. Their relation to the United States resembles that of a ward to his guardian” (The Cherokee Nation v. The State of Georgia, 1831, qtd. in Norgren 101). Marshall’s figure of speech justified subjugation and relocation of the Cherokee and others. Describing the Cherokee removal in his 1838 report, Secretary of War Joel R. Poinsett asserted that “Humanity, no less than sound policy, dictated this course toward these children of the forest” (qtd. in Rogin 247).
In Canada, the original partnership between Crown, Indian nations, and colonies was expressed in the Royal Proclamation of 1763 as a nation-to-nation relationship hat protected Indian sovereignty (Canada, Report 1.9.2). The next century of frustrated legislative efforts to civilize and assimilate Indian people led Canada to create a framework of political, social and cultural jurisdiction through the Indian Act (1876) that has persisted to the present. The Interior Department’s report for 1876, written under the same theory as the Indian Act, repeats Marshall’s language from forty years before, revealing that Canadian Indian law “rests on the principle, that the aborigines are to be kept in the condition of tutelage and treated as wards or children of the state” (qtd. in Canada, Report 1.9.8).
And if Indians are reduced to children, then their parental role is debased, and their children will be raised by some agency of the parent-state. The metaphor of custodial paternalism presaged the development of Indian education and child welfare as instruments within the larger effort to eradicate Indian culture. The effect of other efforts, such as the end to government-to-government treaty-making in the United States in 1871 and in Canada in 1876, and the US General Allotment Act of 1887, was to further erode Indian sovereignty and disrupt the passing of Native ways from parents to children, interrupting family, clan, and other relations (Priest 96; Canada, Report 1.9.2). According to Robert Berkhofer, the 1870s saw US federal assumption of “full responsibility for native education” through actions that moved Indian tribes from “being domestic dependent nations […] as utterly dependent wards in order to prepare them for American individualism” (White Man’s Indian 171).
In Lewis’s terms, the less the great father’s adult Indian “children’ followed his advice, the more his government believed that future accommodations for Native Americans depended on children. In his 1831 report, Secretary of War Lewis Cass wrote that “Our hopes must rest upon the rising generation,” a hope that would be renewed each new generation, as each grown generation defeated that hope (qtd. in Prucha 141) . The adult Indian, that “simple child of nature” whose mind was “dwarfed and shriveled,” the Baord of Indian Commissioners reported in 1880, was beginning to see the value of education for his children (qtd. in Iverson 20). In 1889, Commissioner of Indian Affairs Thomas Jefferson Morgan predicted that all Indian children would be in school within two or three years, but the number fell far short of his prediction. The 1892 Lake Mohonk Conference asserted that it was not “desirable to raise another generation of savages,” and that “the government is justified, as a last resort, in using power to compel attendance” when “ parents, without good reason, refuse to educate their children” (qtd. in Pruha 70)