A Short History of Indians in Canada

BOOK: A Short History of Indians in Canada
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A Short History of Indians in Canada
Stories
Thomas King

For Floyd O’Neil and Leroy Little Bear,
who took the time

A Short History of Indians in Canada

Can’t sleep, Bob Haynie tells the doorman at the King Eddie. Can’t sleep, can’t sleep.

First time in Toronto? says the doorman.

Yes, says Bob.

Businessman?

Yes.

Looking for some excitement?

Yes.

Bay Street, sir, says the doorman.

Bob Haynie catches a cab to Bay Street at three in the morning. He loves the smell of concrete. He loves the look of city lights. He loves the sound of skyscrapers.

Bay Street.

Smack!

Bob looks up just in time to see a flock of Indians fly into the side of the building.

Smack! Smack!

Bob looks up just in time to get out of the way.

Whup!

An Indian hits the pavement in front of him.

Whup! Whup!

Two Indians hit the pavement behind him

Holy Cow! shouts Bob, and he leaps out of the way of the falling Indians.

Whup! Whup! Whup!

Bob throws his hands over his head and dashes into the street. And is almost hit by a city truck.

Honk!

Two men jump out of the truck. Hi, I’m Bill. Hi, I’m Rudy.

Hi, I’m Bob.

Businessman? says Bill.

Yes.

First time in Toronto? says Rudy.

Yes.

Whup! Whup! Whup!

Look out! Bob shouts. There are Indians flying into the skyscrapers and falling on the sidewalk.

Whup!

Mohawk, says Bill.

Whup! Whup!

Couple of Cree over here, says Rudy.

Amazing, says Bob. How can you tell?

By the feathers, says Bill. We got a book.

It’s our job, says Rudy.

Whup!

Bob looks around. What’s this one? he says.

Holy! says Bill. Holy! says Rudy.

Check the book, says Bill. Just to be sure.

Flip, flip, flip.

Navajo!

Bill and Rudy put their arms around Bob. A Navajo! Don’t normally see Navajos this far north. Don’t normally see Navajos this far east.

Is she dead? says Bob

Nope, says Bill. Just stunned.

Most of them are just stunned, says Rudy.

Some people never see this, says Bill. One of nature’s mysteries. A natural phenomenon.

They’re nomadic you know, says Rudy. And migratory.

Toronto’s in the middle of the flyway, says Bill. The lights attract them.

Bob counts the bodies. Seventy-three. No. Seventy-four. What can I do to help?

Not much that anyone can do, says Bill. We tried turning off the lights in the buildings.

We tried broadcasting loud music from the roofs, says Rudy.

Rubber owls? asks Bob.

It’s a real problem this time of the year, says Bill.

Whup! Whup! Whup!

Bill and Rudy pull green plastic bags out of their pockets and try to find the open ends.

The dead ones we bag, says Rudy.

The lives ones we tag, says Bill. Take them to the shelter. Nurse them back to health. Release them in the wild.

Amazing, says Bob.

A few wander off dazed and injured. If we don’t find them right away, they don’t stand a chance.

Amazing, says Bob.

You’re one lucky guy, says Bill. In another couple of weeks, they’ll be gone.

A family from Alberta came through last week and didn’t even see an Ojibway, says Rudy.

Your first time in Toronto? says Bill.

It’s a great town, says Bob. You’re doing a great job.

Whup!

Don’t worry, says Rudy. By the time the commuters show up, you’ll never even know the Indians were here.

Bob catches a cab back to the King Eddie and shakes the doorman’s hand. I saw the Indians, he says.

Thought you’d enjoy that, sir, says the doorman.

Thank you, says Bob. It was spectacular.

Not like the old days. The doorman sighs and looks up into the night. In the old days, when they came through, they would black out the entire sky.

Tidings of Comfort and Joy

It was beginning to look a lot like Christmas, and the winter storm that drifted through the Caledon Hills during the night should have raised Hudson Gold’s spirits. Winter was, after all, his favourite season, and he was always delighted with the first snow, with the way it lay on the dense firs thick as frosting, with the way the bare branches of the birches and the maples wrapped themselves in ice and flashed like cut crystal in the cold light. Even the dark, dank beaver ponds that Eleanor had imported all the way from Cleveland looked crisp and festive.

And Hudson was especially fond of Christmas, looked forward to the clamour of roasts, mashed yams, and pies, to the sharp taste of bittersweet chocolates from Belgium, to the tart and juicy clementines from Morocco, eagerly sought the hearty and well-met company of friends and neighbours, waited anxiously for the ritual give and take of gift-giving.

Hudson was, in fact, an especially skilled and considerate gift-giver. Year after year, he took great delight in
surprising Eleanor with thoughtful presents. A fur stole. A cruise to St. Croix. An eight-piece set of hand-painted antique wine glasses. A designer raincoat.

“Well Hudson,” Eleanor would say each time she opened a present, “you’ve done it again.”

And he liked to receive gifts, could remember what someone had given him years after the fact. When he was four, his parents put a red and yellow train under the Christmas tree. When he was five, they came home with a puppy. He could still remember that.

But, today—the day before Christmas—as Hudson stood by the bay window and looked out at the trees and the ponds, and the tipis in the small valley below the main house, he was harassed by a growing feeling of unease.

Hudson had read about people who became depressed in December, who were so overwhelmed by the expectations of the season and of their families, were so convinced of their own worthlessness, that they either went on a killing spree or strung themselves up by their belt in a closet. Rich, poor, it didn’t seem to matter, though Hudson guessed that rich people, in general, coped with Christmas better than poor ones.

But Hudson knew it wasn’t the season and it wasn’t the weather. It was the Indians.

During the sixties and seventies and for the first half of the eighties, collecting Indians had been the rage with most of the families in the Caledon Hills. And while most everyone had since moved on to newer enthusiasms such as exotic pets, rain-forest acreages,
and internet stocks, Hudson stayed the course and had, over the years, put together one of the more impressive collections of Indians east of Saskatoon.

It was Eleanor who bought him his first Indian, a Seminole that she had run across in a small shop in Clinton, Oklahoma. The next year, Franklin Spense, of all people, his neighbour on the other side of the ridge, a gun enthusiast and a stickler for the sanctity of property lines, gave him an Ojibway shaman. The year after that, Vince Muir, whose family at one time had owned all the land in Caledon Hills, brought over a Mohican that he had picked up at a yard sale.

“I thought Mohicans were extinct.”

“That was the rumour, but they found a bunch of them in northern Massachusetts a couple of years back,” said Vince. “Don’t worry, he’s authentic.”

Hudson hadn’t really planned to collect Indians, and he had never really gone out of his way to locate new pieces, at least not the way Jack Cartier and his wife Bridget chased after Hummel figurines. It was true he had travelled all the way to Quebec City to purchase a set of four Cheyenne Dog Soldiers, but that had been more for investment than for mere collecting.

Eleanor, at least in the beginning, had been the real force behind the collection. For his fifty-sixth birthday, she bought him seven tipis and a video on how to set up an authentic Indian camp. And then, last Christmas, she had come back from Alberta with a matched drum team—eight singers, a buffalo-skin drum, and a pow-wow song book with a CD, so you could learn the
songs and sing along if you felt like it. The singers were an absolutely stunning gift, even better than the Dog Soldiers.

Of course the singers weren’t perfectly matched. The lead singer was a little on the heavy side and two of the Indians didn’t look as Indian as Hudson would have hoped.

“I raised that question with the dealer,” Eleanor told him, “and he said that every one of them has a status card.”

“Those two aren’t quite as dark as the others.” Hudson felt bad about raising the matter. “And only three of them have long hair.”

“Honey, be reasonable,” said Eleanor, “it’s almost impossible to find a matched set of full bloods, anymore.”

Hudson enjoyed listening to the drum, but, so far as he could discern, Indian music had only two kinds of beats, a regular four-four beat and a slightly syncopated one-two rhythm that sounded a little like someone shuffling along on a bad leg. Both of these, Hudson suspected, could become monotonous.

The voices, on the other hand, were anything but monotonous. They were high-pitched, energetic, and shrill, almost irritating. Franklin said it brought to mind Eastern Orthodox chanting, while Vince’s wife, Edna, said it reminded her of the Maori in New Zealand. Except the Maori did more shouting. And stomping.

Hudson found that if he listened to the drumming and the singing too long, the music gave him a headache.

“Still,” Eleanor told him, “I wouldn’t dismiss it out of
hand. Remember you didn’t like progressive jazz at first, either.”

Almost before he knew it, Hudson had acquired several dozen Indians. Most of these had been gifts. A few such as the Dog Soldiers were purchases, while four or five—he forgot the exact number—had been dropped over his fence in gunny sacks. Not that he minded. It had been fun playing with the Indians, placing them around the property, figuring out where each grouping should go. Lakota in the open. Cherokee in the hills above the house. Mohawk down by the pond. Chicka-saw and Choctaw in the trees.

Mind you, maintaining the collection hadn’t been cheap. Even though he had encouraged the Indians to augment their diet through gathering, the cost of the food alone had been an unpleasant shock. Hudson considered allowing them to hunt, but Vince had talked him out of it.

“In the first place, there’s nothing left to hunt,” Vince told him over a glass of wine one evening. “And if your Indians go wandering over to Bob Philips’ place and mistake one of his prize sheep for a large dog or butcher one of Arthur Dobbs’ cows because it looks like a buffalo, you’ll never hear the end of it.”

And there were the grooming costs—he had been lucky to find someone who would come out so he didn’t have to take the Indians in to town—and the clothing repairs—even the buckskin that the Indians came with wore out over time—and cords of firewood—Hudson couldn’t have the Indians chopping down his trees—not
to mention the nutritional supplements needed to keep the collection healthy and alert. He’d considered renting half a dozen porta-potties, but, in the end, decided that letting the Indians dig their own holes was more authentic, wouldn’t harm the environment in any noticeable way, and gave them something to occupy their time. For a brief period he had worried about the amount of exercise the Indians were getting and had dragged an old NordicTrack out of the basement and left it at the edge of the valley, but so far as he knew, none of the Indians had ever given it a try. In the end, he reasoned, living outdoors and foraging was probably exercise enough.

The problem, and Hudson wasn’t sure this was the right word to use, had surfaced the day before. He was having breakfast in the kitchen when he noticed an Indian down by one of the beaver ponds. Hudson walked to the window for a better look. From a distance Hudson couldn’t be sure, but the binoculars that he kept on the window ledge in case the Indians did anything interesting confirmed what had been, up to that moment, unthinkable.

A woman. He couldn’t tell if it was one of the two Blackfoot that he had picked up at auction on the internet or if it was the Cree maiden that his brother Bert had sent them for their thirtieth anniversary.

What he
was
sure of, now that he had the binoculars in focus, was that the woman was pregnant. Not a little pregnant. Very pregnant. So pregnant in fact that Hudson was obliged to pull up a chair and sit on it before he fell down.

He lowered the binoculars and practised rhythmic breathing until the lightheadedness went away. Then he slowly raised the binoculars to his eyes. It took him a minute to find the woman again. But, yes, damn it, she was pregnant all right. Hudson put the tips of his fingers in his nose and tried to think. How in the world had she managed to get pregnant? What kind of reputable dealer would sell an Indian who hadn’t been fixed? God, if he ever figured out where this particular piece had come from, there would be hell to pay.

“Eleanor!”

Hudson called his wife four times, annoyed that she didn’t answer, and it was only when he opened his mouth a fifth time to really shout at her that he remembered that she had gone to Toronto to spend Christmas Eve with her sister and wouldn’t be back until late Christmas Day.

“Great,” Hudson said to no one in particular. “Just great.”

That night the Indians began singing. Hudson tried listening for a while, tried for the hundredth time to catch a glimpse of a recognizable melody in the drumming, but, in the end, gave up and turned on the television. The golf channel had an interesting show on short-game shots and lag putts, and there was a James Bond movie he had seen six or seven times before but which was still entertaining. He thought about phoning Eleanor, but she would only worry and insist on coming home.

The next morning he called Vince and told him what had happened. “Jesus, Hudson,” said Vince after Hudson
had told him the story for the third time. “You haven’t been…you know.”

“Of course not,” said Hudson, trying to sharpen his voice, but finding himself pleased, in a small way, that Vince would even think such a thing of him.

“Then you could have a serious problem,” said Vince. “You ever see
Jurassic Park?

“So, what do you think I should do?”

“I’ll swing by and pick up Franklin,” said Vince. “Just don’t go down there alone.”

Hudson busied himself for the next hour or so, laying out the Christmas treats that Eleanor had made in case company came by while she was gone. Miniature pumpkin pies, mincemeat tarts, fruit cake, chocolate cherry cordials, mulled wine, and Italian salami on Wheat Thins. He loaded the CD player, sprayed the pine scent around the doorways, and turned up the heat just a little so that, when Vince and Franklin finally arrived, the house had a warm and festive air to it.

“Since neither of you knows how to shoot,” said Franklin, dragging the black, ballistic-nylon bags into the kitchen, “I brought the shotguns.”

“Here you go,” said Vince, and he handed Hudson a gift-wrapped package. “Merry Christmas. It’s golf balls. I never know what to get you.”

“Have some tarts,” said Hudson, humming along to the music. “The wine’s on the stove.”

Franklin walked to the window and looked out. The sun had settled in behind the edge of the escarpment and
the light slowly disappeared. “You say you saw her down by the beaver ponds?”

“That’s right.”

“And she was pregnant?” Franklin kneeled down and unzipped the gun cases.

“Very.”

“You think it’s one of those parthenogenesis things?” said Vince.

“Only happens with plants and certain insects,” said Franklin, “You want the double barrel or the over-under?”

The trail down to the Indian camp was clogged with ferns and nettles and cedar bush. Hudson suggested they use flashlights, but Franklin argued they should maintain the element of surprise.

“They’re friendly,” said Hudson. “No one sells hostiles anymore.”

“I don’t know,” said Vince, “remember that Haida that the Ruperts bought.”

As the three men reached a stand of trees just above the camp, the drumming started up again as it had the night before. “This is good,” said Franklin. “They won’t hear us over that noise.”

Hudson could see the camp clearly now. The drummers were singing. The women were sitting on the grass at the edge of a fire, their blankets pulled around them for warmth. It was a peaceful scene, thought Hudson, like something you’d see in a painting. Or in a department store window.

“Christ,” said Franklin, “are those Bob’s sheep?”

“Holy,” said Vince, leaning on Hudson’s shoulder, “Art’s going to blow a gasket.”

At the back of the camp, in a small corral, near a large, well-lit tipi, were several sheep and two cows. Further back in the shadows, other shapes moved.

“Deer?” said Franklin. “Where the hell did deer come from?”

“Jesus,” said Vince, “the place is a damn zoo.”

“You know what it looks like,” said Hudson who still had Christmas music playing in his head. “It sort of looks like a nativity scene.”

“Right,” said Franklin, “and we’re the three wise men.”

“You see the woman?” said Vince.

“I’m guessing she’s in that big tipi,” said Hudson.

“Okay,” said Vince. “So, what do you want to do?”

“Come on,” said Hudson, who was humming ‘Jingle Bells’ under his breath, “let’s go say, hello.” And before Vince or Franklin could stop him, he stepped out of the trees and headed down the hill for the camp.

Several of the Indians looked up when Hudson strode into the camp, the shotgun resting comfortably in the crook of his arm. “Merry Christmas,” he said, smiling and nodding his head at no one in particular. “And a Happy New Year.” Hudson could hear Vince and Franklin struggling behind him, but he didn’t wait for them to catch up. He walked straight to the tipi.

Franklin walked straight to the corral. “They’re Bob’s sheep, all right.”

“Hey, Franklin,” said Vince. “Come look at this.”

Hudson and Vince and Franklin stood at the entrance to the tipi and looked in. The woman was lying on a pile of furs, and on either side of her lay a baby.

“Twins,” said Vince. “You lucky bastard.” And he whacked Hudson on the shoulder. “Now those are collectible. ”

BOOK: A Short History of Indians in Canada
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