Monday, 21 July 2014

Amerind Peoples

By no means am I an anthropologist nor an expert on ethnicity. I am merely a person who likes people and, therefore, a person who notices others - and I become upset when I witness incidents of bias.

I am the son of a man who was a 'hard worker' and who provided for his family as best as he could. However, there was one point upon which I disagreed with him - he thought that the local band of native people were lazy and shiftless because they continued to live in shacks along the river bank and always looked dirty and squalid.

I loved my Dad but I disagreed with him there. In all fairness, I had the good fortune to live close to First Nations people for a summer or two thereby getting a very different perspective.

When I was young I learned a jingle which went something like this:-

                 "In 1492
                  Christopher Columbus
                  Sailed the ocean blue..... and so on".

As we all know from our history lessons, the Geno-an citizen did sail from Spain across the Atlantic and finally sighted land in what is now known as the Caribbean Islands. There he was greeted by dark-skinned people and - since he knew that the people who lived around the Indian Ocean were dark-skinned - he assumed that the greeters were 'Indians'!

No - they were not. They were people of other nations with no known connection to the people of the Indian subcontinent. While being known as 'Indians' the people native to this continent have many different backgrounds. As we Caucasian people like to generalize we - unfortunately - look upon the first settlers of this continent as a homogeneous grouping. Actually - they most definitely were not!

Yes - at school - there were a few children who were 'Indians' but from the Asiatic sub-continent. Nor should they have been referred to as 'Indians' as some were Sikhs and the others Hindus. Now there are Tamils here as well which is yet another distinct grouping.

Growing up during the 1940s and '50s I saw many motion pictures in which 'Indians' were the bad guys - another error. When our Caucasian ancestors began to populate this land they encountered other people who were living here already. Naturally, there was conflict which became a bonanza for Hollywood - 'White Guys' (looked upon as the 'good people') in conflict with those who lived here before which became fodder for the Saturday afternoon matinees - the Indians ('the 'Bad Guys').

Anyway, I am digressing. I planned to write about the 'First Nation' people whom I have encountered and not digress into a historical rant on a topic about which I am merely an observer.

I remember one Saturday afternoon when I was about 13 or 14 years old. Dad liked to fish and - as we were a relatively impoverished family - he was hoping to provide some food for the table. We walked down to the Colony Farm (the Provincial Agricultural Station which was on the 'flats' below Essondale - the Provincial Mental Hospital). The eastern boundary of the farm is the small Coquitlam River. Along the bank of the stream was a tiny reservation for the Coquitlam First Nation  and we went there to rent a rowboat. That was the only time that I was there and, while I was still relatively young, I was appalled by the sight of the group of squalid huts in which a number of people seemed to be living. I understand that, when our Caucasian ancestors first settled the area, the Coquitlam people lived in shelters created from the wood available in the forest plus the hides of animals which had been slaughtered for food. Not shacks!

Also I remember the matriarch of that local community coming by our - and our neighbor's - homes asking for hand-me-down clothes for her people to wear. We were poor ourselves but Mom always had something to give.

About a half mile upstream from that tiny Indian community is Red Bridge which crosses the Coquitlam River. On the bank of the river below the bridge was a sandbank where we went for a swim on warm summer days. What we did not realize at that time was that the newest building in the  mental hospital complex (which had been erected on the west bank of the river) had its sewer overflow go directly into that little river. Therefore - those of us who were at 'Red Bridge' for a swim - as well as the inhabitants in the tiny Indian settlement - were in peril of contracting diseases! That danger has now been corrected - thank God!

Movies gave us a false image of our First Nation people as well. In the majority of the Hollywood movies the 'Noble Redskin' was usually the 'Bad Guy' with no attention being paid to their side of the story. Of course - the history of 'White' interaction with the Indians usually make the latter the 'Bad Guys' instead of showing them as the encroached upon. The first Caucasian settlers arrived on the East Coast from where they journeyed up the rivers and settled upon land belonging to those who were here first. The 'French/Indian' wars were the first and - when the French and the English settlers were at odds - the natives (Iroquois, Algonquin, Huron and numerous other groupings) were used as fodder for the guns of their enemies.

And - as Europeans settled further west - the 'bad guys' became the Cherokee, the Arapahoe and many other First Nations who objected to their lands and their hunting grounds being encroached upon by the 'Pale Face' settlers. Unfairly have they become the 'bad guys' while our Caucasian ancestors are looked upon as the heroes.

Up until I was in university my contact with Amerind people was mainly restricted to the Coquitlam - as well as the First Nation people who were seen lolling on the streets of Mission - who my elders described as being 'lazy and shiftless' and not being viewed as people who were forced off of their territories and forced to live in a way that was foreign to them. One summer between university years my 'summer job' was at a fish cannery up the B.C. Coast north of Vancouver Island. Most of the  employees at that cannery were First Nation people - mainly (but not exclusively) of the Bella Bella Nation. I wrote about living among them in the blog titled "Namu".

Since then I have met many people who are 'First Nation' and - except for the big bruiser of a drunk on the street - I have found them to be wonderful people. Believe you me - I have shared many a laugh with my First Nation brethren!

Now I look upon them with a great deal of respect and I hope that - when we encounter each other - they look upon me the same way.

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