The other day while in the car, I was listening to a performance of First Nations drumming on the CBC. Caught up in their cadence and the sound of their chants I began to recall the first time I had attended a Pow Wow…
When I knew him, Bill was a tall, thin man in his fifties. He had long, slender, almost delicate fingers and smoked long, slender menthol More cigarettes. He was two-spirited of the turtle clan and was my hairdresser.
Every few weeks I’d visit him at his apartment and we’d drink instant coffee and smoke cigarettes while he cut my hair at the kitchen table and we’d shoot the breeze. After trimming my thick, curly tresses, he’d carefully sweep each severed strand into a paper bag and give me my hair. “A woman’s power is in her hair” he’d say. “Never leave your power behind.”
One Saturday he invited my children and I to join him at a local Pow Wow. Having never been, and being curious, I accepted. Apart from the blur of vendors, silver jewelry and food kiosks what I remember most were the dancers, the drumming and the singing. Young girls whose costumes were adorned with little bells that jingled with every step. Young men resplendent with capes of feathers, whirling and dipping in time to the drummers’ beat.
As the drummers played for the dancers they sang. With each dancer, I noticed, the song was different. I had no idea what language they were singing in so I turned to Bill and asked him, “What are they singing about?”. “Eagles”, he replied. I turned back to watch the dancers. Yes, the dance the young men were doing did look like eagles dancing. “But what are they saying about the eagles?”, I asked. Bill looked uncomfortable under my questioning gaze and finally confessed, “I don’t know.”
In that instant I felt three things: disappointment, sadness and shame. I was disappointed because having felt a connection to the drumming and the songs I felt a need to know the words. I wanted to understand and I was disappointed that my friend could not tell me what they meant. I was sad because Bill did not know what the words meant. I felt a terrible sense of loss that residential schooling had robbed my friend of his language. And I felt shame. Shame of my ignorance and that like a lot of non-native people, I unconsciously expected Bill to act as some sort of ambassador for me.
Later, as we drove back to the city I apologized to Bill and we discussed the consequences of a lost language and culture. He told me that he had been spending a lot of time back on the reserve with his elders. He wanted to re-learn his language and hear the ancient stories of his people. He said he wanted to learn this so that he could impart this knowledge to kids. Bill believed that if young First Nations children knew who they were and where they came from; if they understood the journey they, as a people had endured, perhaps their lives could be better.
I watched the flat, southern Ontario landscape pass by as Bill drove and soon he asked why I had grown silent. “You are so lucky”, I told him. Bill was puzzled, lit another cigarette and then it hit him. “Yes, I see. You too are descended from tribal people.”, he nodded in recognition. “Yeah, and I wish I knew where I came from and what language was mine.”, I said. “I wish I had elders who could tell me the ancient stories because there are some times when I just need to know the words.”
Bill flicked his cigarette out the window, reached over and all the rest of the way home I let his long slender fingers entwine mine.