We have been doing a mini-project on Native Americans and today was the Big Event. A real Indian (!!) came to the school. He is from the Tsimshian Tribe - so actually Canadian, and he has been living in this country for years so actually a very modern and worldly person. But in the morning when the littler kids were in attendance, he pulled out all the kitsch and put on a great show. The drumming and dancing and chanting and feathers and masks and baby seal furs and bone necklaces and leather moccasins - it was all there to both wonder and laugh at. We learned the moves of his tribes four clans and danced like ravens, eagles, wolves and orcas.
I enjoyed the show but still wondered how it must be for him. One part of him cares deeply about keeping his people’s culture alive - it was a severely threatened one. At one point in history there were fewer than 900 people of his clan left. The other part of him has to make a living here and the European fascination with Native Americans gives him an opportunity. I wondered how it felt to turn his own deepest treasure into a spectacle. At least, I thought, in the second half of the school day he would be with the older kids and have a chance to present us a more real version of his story and his tribe’s – the past atrocities and the current issues they deal with . . .
After the break I went up to the classroom of 13 and 14 year olds. We sat in a circle on the carpet and waited for the arrival of our guest who, by the way, was no longer an “Indian” now, but a “Native Person” or a ”First Nation Citizen”. The kids were very quiet for a change. Suddenly we heard a loud farting noise coming from the stairwell followed by a loud and long belching sound. Then our guest walked through the door and said, “Ooops! I hope you all didn’t hear me farting.!” Then he joined the circle. He leaned over to the boy next to him, grabbed the sleeve of his T-shirt and blew his nose into it. Then he spotted one boy’s cell phone and launched into a tirade about kids-these-days and how the only body parts they use anymore are their thumbs. He looked straight at the boy and said “You know, moving your thumbs like that isn’t going to help you get any girls.”
He had their attention.
”So when I was your age and in school on the reservation, we weren’t allowed to speak our native tongue - actually there were only two of us who even could speak it anymore - we had to speak English. It was the law. If we got caught speaking our language we had to hold out our hands and they hit us with big sticks.”
Over the next hour he covered the wildest variety of subjects in no particular order: from building canoes to fixing old cell phones, from the many uses of baby pee to fracking, from burying the dead to politics . . .
At this point two boys started getting fidgety and were playing tug-o-war with a sweatshirt. Our guest reached over and grabbed it from them. He wiped his forehead with it, and then under his armpits. Then he wiped his butt with it and handed it back.
He talked about how hard it still is for the tribe to protect their land even though they had been living continuously on it for 13,000 years. Then he moved to hunting, killing, gutting, and eating beaver (in gruesome detail). That got some of the girls to react loudly so he looked at them and said “Well somebody has to kill the animals that you eat! How do you think they do that?”
“Actually,” I said, “a lot of these girls are vegetarians.”
”We Indians have an old joke that a vegetarian is just a bad hunter.”
I asked him quickly how beaver meat tastes. He said its a little pungent and that dog meat is better. This brought another reaction from the kids. He asked them if they had dogs at home and one girl said yes. “Male or female?” he asked. She said female and added that her dog was really fat. Our guest responded “Good! The females taste better.And the fat makes them juicy.”
Unfortunately, he was talking to the one girl in the group least likely to understand his sense of humor. She looked like she was going to cry. I assured her that her pet was safe and quickly asked our guest another question to change the subject . . .
The presentation ended a while later and a bit abruptly. While our guest was talking about his Urban Indian grandchildren, we all were increasingly distracted by a ruckus outside. We finally all had to get up, go to the windows and see what was going on. It turned out that my colleague was trying to put up a teepee with the younger kids and it wasn’t going well. Just as we looked out the window, the wobbly structure of poles and tarp started crashing down around them. They were all ducking and shielding their heads and running for cover. Our guest sighed and said “Those people need an Indian.”
He left us and went down to help them.
Later, I thought about the whole presentation experience. What in the hell was that all about?? Slowly it occurred to me that our guest had completely defied all my own expectations. In the second half, I had pictured a moving story of trials and tribulations and trails of tears. And maybe that would have been as much of a cliché as the costumed raven dance drumbeat chanting . . .
In the afternoon there was a totem pole carving workshop for adults and I got the chance to talk to our guest privately during a short coffee break.
“Can I ask you directly? That whole start - the thing with the farting - did you do that on purpose?”
He smiled and said, ”Yeah. You know. It’s just human stuff. Puts ‘em at ease. Opens them up.”
I realized that after the morning’s show, it must have felt really great to him to simply be himself. No tragic stories though he certainly knows many. No inspirational tales of survival against all odds. Though that is not unimportant to him.
Turns out, my kids didn’t meet ”an Indian” today. They met a person. An unusual person of interesting descent.