When a war between nations is lost
The loser we know pays the cost
But even when Germany fell to your hands
Consider dear lady, consider dear man
You left them their pride and you left them their land
And what have you done to these ones
– Now That The Buffalo’s Gone
When I was a young boy growing up in Toronto I became fascinated with the mythology of the old west – the whole cowboys and Indians fantasy world that was so popular on television at the time. I had little plastic models, a gun belt with a six-shooter, and of course the requisite black hat. Based on old family photos from the time, I used to rope everything in sight with my homemade lariat.
It didn’t take me long to figure out that the power dynamic was rather skewed in the cowboys vs. Indians relationship. I have always had an affinity for the underdog, or the outsider, and I soon came to see that the Indians were at a decided disadvantage in this tug of war between “progress,” as represented by the cowboys and settlers, and an older, simpler way of life as represented by the Indians. Before long my fascination with cowboys and Indians had morphed into a full-on obsession with the North American Indian. I read every book I could get my hands on, starting with a book my parents had called Native Tribes of Canada. I spent hours poring over the pages of the book, soaking in every detail. The Cree, the Algonquin, the Iroquois and Mohawk nations: even the names summoned up images of a better, more idealistic time.
To my eight-year-old mind it was unbearably romantic—the notion of living off the land, riding horseback across the prairies. And they lived in tepees! How cool was that? My heroes were people with names like Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and Chief Joseph.
These were leaders, I came to see, though, who struggled to lead their people against an unstoppable force. My reading gave rise in me, for the first time, the concept of injustice. As I dug deeper into the history of the American Indian I learned about the systematic wiping out of a whole way of life, of the relegation of bands to reservations, the broken treaties. I read books like Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee that documented the genocidal forces at work on our continent.
Even at so young an age I knew there was something deeply wrong with the story the history books told, the way we had come from across the sea and essentially pushed them off their lands, stripped them of their identity, their pride, and way of life. Yet it was still mostly abstract to me and I retained the romantic image of the Indian as an iconic, somewhat tragic figure, someone outside my sphere of understanding.
It wasn’t until we moved to Vancouver in the late seventies that I came face to face with the reality of First Nations people in Canada. There had been no Indians in Etobicoke, but here in Vancouver—at least on the east side where we lived—there were lots. At eleven and twelve years old I used to take the bus down to Main and Hastings to watch second run films at the City Lights Theatre (formerly The Pantages). The downtown eastside was nowhere near as desperate then as it is today, but it was still pretty rough and there were then, as there are now, many First Nations people living on the streets. Any ideas I had of the “noble” Indian were soon put to rest. I remember it as a time of shattered illusions, of facing up to the reality of the urban Indian—the visible manifestation of displacement and disenfranchisement. I remember feelings of helplessness, of guilt and a deep sense of sorrow that I was unable to articulate or even process. Of course, what I saw was only part of the reality, but it still made a big impression on me, and it left me shaken. These feelings stayed with me for years.
Ironically, it was discovering and embracing my own Japanese roots in my early twenties that brought home to me the critical nature of identity. And I came to see that none of us can ever understand the reality of growing up unwanted in one’s own country, of being stripped on one’s identity. It is the fate of indigenous people around the world, and there are no easy answers.
There are steps, though, towards understanding, and through understanding there is hope.
Last week I attended a show called Storyweaving at the Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Centre on East Hastings street, not far from the old City Lights Theatre. I had done the graphic design for the show so was familiar with the concept and content. I was unprepared, though, for the powerful feelings it brought up in me. It was not entertainment, but nor was it didacticism. It told no one “story” but it told a thousand stories. It was not linear, but it led somewhere—and that place was, for me anyway, the beginning of understanding. Of seeing that all is not lost, and that there is strength and determination that can be tapped into. It was deeply moving, and part of that was the realization that this is a Canadian story, and beyond that a human story, one that needs to be shared and witnessed by many more people. Grace Thomson attended Storyweaving the day after I did and I asked her to write a response. Her words are deeply personal and eloquent. You can read them on page 10.
This month we say goodbye to Ron Nishimura, who has stepped down from the Board of the JCCA to deal with health issues. As President of the JCCA for many years, Ron has guided the society, sometimes single-handedly it seems, through challenging times. Through all our years working together I have been impressed by Ron’s dedication and tireless work on behalf of the organization and will miss his calming, steady presence. I know you will join me in thanking him for all that he has given to the community. For his sake and for ours, I hope he can get his health issues resolved and rejoin us in the future. Stepping in to the role of President is Gary Matson, who some of you will know from Keirokai, where Gary has been the MC for the past several years. Welcome Gary!