I always remember being in school in Ponoka during role call and the big joke about our native brother, Larry Standing-on-the-Road. He was often late for class. The teacher would say “Larry?...” There would be a pause. And then...”Maybe he is still out Standing-on-the-road.” The class would crack up.
About that moment Larry would enter – humiliated again by his WASPy class. One of four native kids in a class full of whites.
Larry, my former classmate, is dead. He died young in unhappy circumstances if I recall the news.
Chief Louie of the Osoyoos Band in British Columbia is often held up as a model leader of a model, modern native tribe. He took the poorest and one of the smallest tribes in Canada from desperation in a desert, to being a wealthy, pro-active community boasting five star hotels, golf courses, vineyards and more. His mantra is “Get a job or go to school.” He still has drug problems on his reserve — and maybe alcohol problems too — maybe also from the wealthy WASPs who stay in his band’s five star hotel.
It’s common to hold out Chief Louie as an example to Hobbema. He even came to Montana First Nation and gave a talk there and it was inspiring to hear him.
However, it is important to note that Chief Louie has been chief of the Osoyoos Band for 26 years. He was very literate from a young age — he read lots of books. As chief he abandoned the common practice of asking elders about financial issues and joint ventures. Instead, he welcomed the counsel and business advice of Jim Pattison, owner of the third largest privately held company in Canada. And he was lucky. Jim didn’t screw him. And Jim was connected. The ideal mentor.
Last week editor George Brown asked, “What will it take to save Hobbema?”
Maybe that’s the answer.
Hobbema’s tribes, or rather bands, (because there are four distinct First Nation bands) need to have visionary leaders. Those leaders need to be able to be in power for a long time, a quarter of a century, to ensure the vision is achieved. They need to partner with off-reserve business people who are very entrepreneurial and who can give them the ‘in’ — whether it be in concepts, market knowledge, investment or simple mentorship. And ones who won’t screw them.
Chief Louie is very critical of ‘the rez.’ He was clear in his comments that ‘the rez’ may be where many native people live, but that it does not in any way represent native culture. It represents only ‘rez’ culture. In his view, aboriginal people who lived a nomadic life years ago, worked for a living — every day they worked hard to survive. Or they died.
Now in WASPy terms when we hear of someone being in power for 26 years, we normally cry foul. We say “Oh what a banana republic.” Or “That’s not democratic.”
I don’t know how Chief Louie managed to stay in power that long. He did. It worked for his band. He made the right connection with a smart, well-financed businessman. The band benefited.
It will take time to ‘save’ Hobbema. Only 137 years ago our neighbours in Hobbema, like most Plains Indians, had no written language and spoke only Cree or sign language. From A Winter at Fort Macleod By Dr. R.B. Nevitt. This entry was written on Feb. 7, 1874: “We then found the chief’s lodge and paid him a visit. His name is Crowfoot. He entertained us, showed us all his finery, his war dress, bow and arrows, guns and knives and then began to tell us stories of his achievements. We did not understand a word he said, but his gestures were so energetic, life-like and real that we could not fail to take in all he meant.”
In 140 years we now expect them to be fully assimilated — despite the fact that our government forcibly put their great-grandparents on reserves, forcibly separated the children from their families, forced them to abandon their roots, (the things that give a person strength and a sense of self-identity and self-worth), forced them to live separately, to shop separately (remember how they had to wait on Chicken Hill until the town siren called them down for a short Friday night shopping spree in Ponoka? I do.), forced them to ask permission from an Indian agent if they wanted to leave the reserve and then forced them into jail if they happened to arrive late for the leave permit’s curfew (in the days when there were few cars and no Greyhound), denied them the right to vote until the 1960s and denied them the right to go to university until the 1980s (unless they agreed to give up their identity) and to this day forces them to be identified only as Indians by the Indian Act. A white guy in Ottawa decides if you are an Indian or not. Not your “Indian” mom or dad.
Any of that would be enough to drive me to drink. Drugs. Violence.
I know there were the residential schools too, but we already officially apologized for that, right? So, what’s the problem? Am I right?
What will it take to “save” Hobbema? Maybe a little less hypocrisy on the part of the white man for starters. Maybe a bit more praise and awe that aboriginal people have managed to survive their leap through the ‘hyperspace time line’ of the past 140 years — and that they have also survived our ‘help’ to date.
How many of your best friends are Indians? When was the last time you saw an aboriginal person in your workplace? Did you say “Hey Chief” as a joke? Or “Here’s our little Indian Princess”? Did you joke about the latecomer and say “Maybe he’s still out there ‘Standing-on-the-Road”.
Larry was never violent in our classes. He was humiliated. Maybe to death.