On a Sunday morning I liked to put on my tan linen suit and take quietly to the French quarter. “That kind of suit, you can just pull it on and go,” Bert used to say. “You can toss it in the corner for a week and when you need it you just pull it on. That cut of that cloth, it’ll still look good.”
I traded a painting for that suit, perfect for those Sunday mornings I was drawn down to Bourbon Street. I liked that notorious street at its most quiet. It would be emptied of tourists, they’d still be sleeping it off in their hotel rooms. The pimps would be showing the new girls around.
I’d eye gaunt shadows in ornate side streets. I liked the garish bar lights, the humming neon on Sunday morning with nobody much around but men of middle age or later like myself, a lot of them in suits just worn to church that morning or home from all night gigs. We’d be having coffee or drinks in a place that never closed. They’d be regulars, mostly black, incurious faces. Beyond a discrete quick appraisal I would be ignored. I pass for white so it does me good to be the only one of my colour in a room. A black man doesn’t have that mobile privilege. I’d find a seat where i could watch out the window but not be on view to the street. Stillness, poise. Ignorance. Anonymity. My own devices. The discipline and tension of otherness. A little peace and quiet, a private view. Heady times.
I’d think about small ponds, old lovers. Old enemies too. It is informative to see crimes and caresses at a country’s remove, to add miles to the years in air-plane mode. Sooner or later, K, you end up at the ends of the earth all alone and yes, (in a way that is almost preening) in seeking solitude there is the act of embracing the inevitable.
I felt I could stay, that I could internalize a new descriptor.
I’m an Algonquin first nations man . I guess I always was . The terminology changes. In polite circles right now I’m “Aboriginal”, which sounds like a gimmicky exercise machine to me. They always come up with something polite in French or English. I rather favour indigenous, that is until today i heard an Indian use the word indiginaity (not yet in spell check)someone who had taken a course in native studies so they spoke the academic dialect. Parse every mountain, I always say.
Most of the family, full or half bloods I know are all right with “Indian” among ourselves. White folks think they wouldn’t feel discomfort if they could just find the right word – their discomfort being more the issue. They’re always earnestly trying ‘to frame the important conversation we need to be having as Canadians about racism at this moment in time so we can move forward together”. Ah predictable hackneyed words. Ah clumsy usage. Honouring treaties and land is not an academic parlour game of name the Indian.
There’s a light, gentle snow fall this morning, permeated with the internet and the viral up our backroad. I enjoy isolation, we’ve settled comfortably in two snug little cabins side by side. Lad cut his own timber to build the place and so much work into the driveway you can see it from space. I have coffee breaks with a little twitter gang like Im just running across the street to the cafe. Settled. Chickadees at the feeder. Gardens pretty well established. Off grid. Gentle hum of the solar system. I haven’t flicked on the kitchen radio once I got the fire roaring in years but I do and catch a bit of the news.
“This is a landmark ruling that will have broad consequences and impacts,” said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, adding that the government will need to study what those impacts might be.
“But I can guarantee you one thing: The path forward will be together as we move forward.”
The usage is clumsy. “Impact.” For those who can’t spell the difference between effect and affect. We’re going to move forward together. Time works like that. Yep, unless there’s like another genocide to unpack, dude. And there are still those who say genocide is too harsh a word for what happened here.
I guess you need to find the ruins of Nazi gas chambers in Sioux lookout to satisfy some with evidence; that whiter genocide seems to be the defining one. My family is part of a group with status let alone personal identity as a local tribe only in my generation, so deftly were we dispersed, so deftly did we disappear. There’s still bickering about bloodlines, as if we’re going to get rich somehow on recognition , pedestrian or official. People didn’t invent sleeping around in the sixties. Kids were shuffled around to families, schools, reserves, made whitening marriages. There are people in my family who still want no part of being Injun. They’d rather let it slide . Sometimes I feel that way too. Not out of internalized racism, but out of boredom with having to fill out papers, a repugnance for official recognition of the little handmade mocasin I keep, that my grandmother made me when I was born, and tucked inside it the lineage written in a crude, but clear English script, all in capitals
IGNACE JOHN BAPTISTE KIJICHO MANITO
JOHN BAPTISTE KIJICHO MANITO
MADELINE CONSTAU PININSI
JOHN BAPTISTE DESFONDS
MADELINE BENOIT KONINI
SUSAN BAPTISTE (LOCKPINE)
MY BROTHER AND ME
When I was a kid I hated for anyone to know where I was all the time. I’d take off somewhere so that I might rest assured of the unimportance of my utterance in the babble. I’d take off with my satchel. I always wanted to just disappear.
“That’s the Indian in you, that’s your father,” my mother would exclaim, explain, smiling with her musical, teasing voice that makes me feel at home but wreaks havoc if employed in my own voice. Not so musical in me. For all the trouble they gave her she was happy to see his traits replicated in me, or her own for that matter. It always seemed a miracle to her. When I was a kid nobody ever told me my dad was an Indian. My mother and I can laugh about how these days being red is all the rage, a good thing, a rich cultural heritage to recover and share, especially tearjerker narratives of brown/red survival or murder because narratives, our stock past suffering stories are what make us, define us, are the important things to get on air, Unless we make a rap album., even if most of the reserves are still boiling drinking water.
“We didn’t talk about it.”
“You didn’t talk about it back then.”
“What do we say now then?”
“In a way it isn’t important I know”
“But I think about it all the time sometimes.”
Ah family, you and I are lucky from such large broods. On a good day life is all a miracle, K. Other days you want to be an expat. I felt that an understanding could be accepted, reached if not grasped by a few affectionate and snowbound attachments and my self. They would confess to one another in time that they had always been surprised I had stayed here in Canada so long anyway. I brought the detachment home to the middle of nowhere and I still can’t quite shake it, can’t write through it. Too solitary for words.
I’m a lucky man up on the hill needlessly cranking out the luxury objects behind no trespassing signs in austere times, the numinous objects for very occasional rich people. Something for the heritage hucksters. I’ll have to come out with some identifiably Indian art I guess now I’m legal. Shaman it up a bit. Learn about ancient acrylic woodland palette knife technique. I wish dad had taught me more about that and less about trapping and skinning and Johnny Cash, that’s for sure.
Right now my painting feels very decadent, luxurious, to me, all just a little too precious, the personal subject matter, the long detailed process, the vacuous staring by me. The fact I’m still at it is my artist’s statement. I’m painting old and ornate gardens, shotgun streets battered and revived. Or I paint my own yard here. Unpeopled places, but prepared for people. A table and chairs waiting. Or relieved of people for a bit. Imagine how tired of us chairs might get. That’s how I feel, hiding out in embarrassment at my own good fortune, by nature never entirely in any camp, doomed to diplomacy, like it or not. The half breed as “Know it all know nothing.”
Lately I think about Van Gogh and Lautrec while I paint, because they used brushes that make marks like these Japanese calligraphy brushes I’m torturing. I don’t think of native north American artists much, let alone many American or Canadian white ones. I write in a white settler’s precious journal form, taking notes in a strange land, eyeing, wishing, regretting. I paint at a little French easel. I paint places trying to communicate more the feeling of the remembering the place than the place itself.
Yeah, welcome to evolution, kid. You transcend and disappoint your way out of old affiliations. You’re vermin one day and a heritage moment the next.
You feel guilty for not writing letters or calling, for letting things slide, you don’t give a fuck. Ah people may be sensitive but they are not fragile. You are stuck in observance, shy and lazy and fixedly wry. Dry as a pillar of salt. Writing and reading backward through a blog. Cranking out the approximations. You sit alone staring into space, feeling for a little inspiration, reason to rise. Vision. Acedia is my problem, A vice no longer noticed, even by spell check.
Stillness, poise, I suppose I wanted those things for myself. and made of them a painterly observation point, a part of the kit. I’m snapping out of it.