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Temptations Of Big Bear
Excerpt

“I see this room crowded with – handsome faces – faces handsomer than mine even when I was young. I have been the leader of People in this country for a long time; People rode from four directions to hunt with me. I never put a chain on anything. I stand here an old man, and I will be sent somewhere with this chain. No doubt these handsome faces I admire will know how to care for the land. No doubt, better than I. Perhaps they will also be able to care for my people, now that I am gone. My people are hiding in the woods, terrified – those are my children, and they are starving, driven from the land which was our great inheritance and they are running, somewhere, in the darkness, afraid to show themselves in the big light of day. Oh, when I stand on the ground with the sky over me I pray to That One whose finger drew us from Earth and spread it out for us like a big blanket, Forgive them, they are hungry and terrified, forgive them! Have you no children? Have they never asked you for food? Is there nothing but punishment in the Grandmother’s law? When a young man of the River People leads other young men rashly into a bad raid and one of them is left on the plain, that leader returns to camp and falls down before that father, that mother, and he cries for forgiveness. Then the mother touches him, the father lifts him and holds him to his breast and there is a son again in that empty lodge to make them happy, to care for them when they are old. Who can say here why the dead are dead? Who can give them life again? I say there will be a time soon when the Grandmother will be very happy for every one of my people that live in the North West. I plead with you, chiefs of the white law, have pity! Pardon the outcasts of my people!”

The judge had no eyes. On the motionless head the egg-shaped glasses sat glazed gold.

“There are only a few words left,” Big Bear said, softly. “This land belonged to me. When I had it I never needed your flour and pork. Sometimes I was stiff with Indian agents who looked at me as if I was a child and knew less than a child. Before many of you were born I ran buffalo over this place where you have put this building, and white men ate the meat I gave them. I gave them my hand as a brother; I was free, and the smallest Person in my band was as free as I because the Master of Life had given us our place on the earth and that was enough for us. But you have taken our inheritance, and our strength. The land is torn up, black with fires, and empty. You have done this. And there is nothing left now but that you must help us.

“I have heard your many words, and now you have heard my few. A word is power, it comes from nothing into meaning and a Person takes his name with him when he dies. I have said my last words. Who will say a word for my people? Give my people help! I have spoken.”

For a moment the thunder of his voice battered the room; the answering sound of River People rose behind him, almost as if for an instant the old man stood again in the strong circle of his council. Then Peter Houri’s voice spoke and the English voice came immediately, quiet as always, but now more than ever as he would not expect it from so thick a body, though covered with black; thinly hard like steel:

“Big Bear, you have been found guilty by an impartial jury. I have no objection to hear what you have to say, but on one point you must be corrected. This land never belonged to you. This land was and is the Queen’s. She has allowed you to use it. When she wanted to make other use of it, she called you together through her officers and let you decide which of the choicest parts of the country you wanted, to reserve them for yourself. Your people can live there because the Queen has graciously given it to them. The land belongs to the Queen.

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Stolen Life

Stolen Life

The Journey of a Cree Woman
edition:Paperback
More Info
Excerpt

Prefatory Note

This book is based on what Yvonne Johnson holds to be her own truths about the life she has lived. However, since there is never only one way to tell a story, other persons involved in this one may well have experienced and remember differently the events and actions here portrayed. The book is also based on my research into the circumstances of Yvonne’s life. Besides over five years of dialogue with her, this research involved travel to various places crucial to the story; interviews wherever possible; attendance at trials; and the gathering of data from court, police, government, school, and newspaper records in both Canada and the United States.

I have gathered together Yvonne’s words, as given in the present text, as she and I agreed, from various sources: largely her seventeen black prison notebooks, her letters to me, her comments on official records and documents, her statements to police, my notes of our conversations in person or on the telephone, numerous audiotapes. She has a natural gift of language, which at any moment will follow a detail and widen into incident, story, often humour. This was at first sometimes confusing, even disorienting, until I recognized that her thinking was often circular, revolving around a given subject, and her writing almost oral in the sense that I had to catch the tone of her inflection to understand exactly how the incidents she was remembering connected; where the expanding images or even parables with which she tried to explain herself were leading. These qualities can only be fully appreciated when talking with Yvonne face to face, but I hope this book will give its readers a good flavour of such a conversation.

What is remarkable and enlightening is how Yvonne’s powers of writing have expanded during her time in prison. Her first letter to me (November, 1992, quoted at length in the first chapter) was as chatty as her talk still is; her formal education could, at best, barely be called erratic and ended in Grade Eight, but even in the earliest of her writing that I have seen she had a profound ability to capture an astute perception with words. For example, during her trial in March, 1991, she handed to her lawyer a long analysis of a relative, which included this comment:

“She is a woman of many faces. . . . You know, the only feelings you get from her is one of her faces. One of her strong feelings is fear, anger. And she has a tongue like a knife in your heart.”

Reading has helped her think and write. By 1998, after years of reading widely and deeply–including the works of Carl Jung, some of whose books she read and re-read while making copious notes–and thousands of pages of writing–by pen, typewriter, computer–Yvonne’s imagistic insights have widened into longer, much more coherent explorations and descriptions. The written language of her perceptions and her natural oral story-telling ability have grown immensely, to become acute, distinctive, and often beautiful.

The selection, compiling, and arrangement of events and details in this book were done in a manner the two authors believe to be honest and accurate. Public documents are quoted selectively, but with every attempt at fairness and accuracy.

The actual names of people are used when their identities are a matter of public record; for others, and in the case of all persons at present minors, the names are pseudonyms. Also, the spelling, punctuation, and grammar in Yvonne’s letters and notebooks have been standardized.

— Rudy Wiebe, Edmonton, April 1998

***

O Creator of all, I pray you, look at me, for I am weak and pitiful.

I pray,
help me to make amends to all those I have harmed;
grant them love and peace, so that they may understand I am sorry;
help me to share my shame and pain, so that others
will do the same, and so awaken to themselves
and to all the peoples of the world.

Hai hai

Yvonne Johnson, Okimaw Ohci Healing Lodge, April 1998

***

1
Blood Runs

Thick and Long

and For Ever

Nothing just happens, my friend, unless it was meant to be. . . . If we are guided under the Bear, then even our futures can be changed. . . . You and I may have been chosen long ago to meet, and our past has given us each a gift of understanding.
— Yvonne Johnson to Rudy Wiebe, 24 December 1992

To begin a story, someone in some way must break a particular silence. On Wednesday, 18 November 1992, in Edmonton, Alberta, I received an envelope from Box 515, Kingston, Ontario. Inside, folded into quarters, was a long sheet of paper typed from top to bottom, edge to edge, solid with words on both sides. It began:

Howdy Howdy Stranger
My name is Yvonne Johnson. I am currently an inmate at the Prison for Women in Kingston, Ontario. I am thirty-one years old. I am a Cree from Saskatchewan, that is where my ancestors come from. We were accepted back into my grandmother’s rez after my mother was kicked out for marrying my father, who is a White from Great Falls, Montana. My grandmother Flora was a Baptiste, my grandfather was called John Bear, I lost him a few years back now; and my grandfather’s grandfather was the Cree chief Big Bear.

On either side of the straight Saskatchewan road, the lines of barbed-wire fence try to square the land into right angles on the curving earth. The land is white here in January 1996, prairie-snow flat, and on this morning frigid fog hides the world; I can see nothing of sun beyond the fence. At the road crossing, where I feel the pavement end, I stop, turn right, and drive south–the Cree direction of the Law of Order, which is the natural order of Creation, the order of how things will happen. I need that today: order.

The road disappears ahead into limitless mist, slopes down a little and east, then straight south again, with all the land now rising about me. Gravel clatters, swerves. White-tailed deer feed above brush on the bare shoulders of a ravine; they will look up only if I stop, probably scatter if I get out, so I continue moving, very slowly. The temperature is twenty-two below, but the deer are spaced delicately at ease, heads bowed to their feeding scrawls in the snowy earth, and when the ravine hides them again I continue my watch into the grey mist, into its brightening; waiting. And then, imperceptibly, the high hills begin to emerge.

They are very nearly upon me, their folded shapes covered with hoar-frosted trees, the mass of the Cypress Hills like immense, furry animals kneeling down tight together, brilliant as spun glass against the sudden blue sky.
The road ahead vanishes again down into mist, then reappears once more, higher, like a question mark up into the hills.

The Stoney people called them pa-ha-toonga, the Thunder-Breeding Hills.

The “Howdy Stranger” letter continued:

I was accepted by the Red Pheasant Reserve south of Battleford, but I do not know where I truly belong. As you may be aware, in 1885 my family and band were spread all over this continent after the imprisonment of Big Bear. I don’t know where to start, or where to go from here, but I have a will and hopefully you can help to guide me somehow. I have been through a lot in the last few years. I don’t have that much education, just what I’ve learned or I think I’ve learned over the years. I try to fake it a lot; sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t [. . .].

Well, once again, I am thirty-one and mother of three children and a stepson. I was born in a place called Kalispell, Montana, and raised in Butte, Montana. My brother was killed by the cops there when I was nine and my family, or what of it we had, went all to hell. My mom went on the aim [American Indian Movement] march from Wounded Knee to Washington in 1972 to see if she could get anything done about my brother’s death, but came back empty and soon filed for divorce and said she was going back to her people. I stayed with my father, as no one else would and I could not leave him alone like that. All the other kids, minus the one brother who was in prison, went with my mom to Canada. Me, I was pulled back and forth a lot, as I am born with a cleft palate and lip and only in the United States would the Crippled Children’s Fund pay for the repair I needed. I had a hard life and it keeps getting harder. I think it’s a deep sense of true justice and understanding and of true knowledge I search for that keeps me going.

And believe me, death seems a lot easier and a lot less painful at times, but I guess I truly am a sucker for punishment. What can I say? I still hang in. Well, I just wish my life would change for the better at some point. I don’t want to die this way, with nothing settled or overcome. I need to fight, I need to know where I come from and why our race suffers so from the hands of my White brothers. Just because I went through my first thirty years in silence does not mean I went through it blind and deaf as well. If anything, my silence enhanced my keen sense of observation–had to get the dictionary out for that one. All my luck, I probably copied it wrong! . . .

My mom’s a Cree from a residential school in Sask.; my father is a ex—U.S. Marine of the Norwegian race. My dad was out of the war for a short time when he met my mom, who had also just got out of a hell of her own, the Indian school. Quite a combo, hey? There were seven kids in my family. Anyways, I don’t hold it against them; they tried as best as they knew how. And I love them. I just hate reality, it’s so cruel and unkind. But I hold history responsible for that as well. You see, I’ve spent the last thirty years running from it, but due to imprisonment I was forced to stop running, and that’s so hard.

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A Widow for One Year
Excerpt

Summer 1958
The Inadequate Lamp Shade

One night when she was four and sleeping in the bottom bunk of her bunk bed, Ruth Cole woke to the sound of lovemaking — it was coming from her parents' bedroom. It was a totally unfamiliar sound to her. Ruth had recently been ill with a stomach flu; when she first heard her mother making love, Ruth thought that her mother was throwing up.

It was not as simple a matter as her parents having separate bedrooms; that summer they had separate houses, although Ruth never saw the other house. Her parents spent alternate nights in the family house with Ruth; there was a rental house nearby, where Ruth's mother or father stayed when they weren't staying with Ruth. It was one of those ridiculous arrangements that couples make when they are separating, but before they are divorced — when they still imagine that children and property can be shared with more magnanimity than recrimination.

When Ruth woke to the foreign sound, she at first wasn't sure if it was her mother or her father who was throwing up; then, despite the unfamiliarity of the disturbance, Ruth recognized that measure of melancholy and contained hysteria which was often detectable in her mother's voice. Ruth also remembered that it was her mother's turn to stay with her.

The master bathroom separated Ruth's room from the master bedroom. When the four-year-old padded barefoot through the bathroom, she took a towel with her. (When she'd been sick with the stomach flu, her father had encouraged her to vomit in a towel.) Poor Mommy! Ruth thought, bringing her the towel.

In the dim moonlight, and in the even dimmer and erratic light from the night-light that Ruth's father had installed in the bathroom, Ruth saw the pale faces of her dead brothers in the photographs on the bathroom wall. There were photos of her dead brothers throughout the house, on all the walls; although the two boys had died as teenagers, before Ruth was born (before she was even conceived), Ruth felt that she knew these vanished young men far better than she knew her mother or father.

The tall, dark one with the angular face was Thomas; even at Ruth's age, when he'd been only four, Thomas had had a leading man's kind of handsomeness--a combination of poise and thuggery that, in his teenage years, gave him the seeming confidence of a much older man. (Thomas had been the driver of the doomed car.)

The younger, insecure-looking one was Timothy; even as a teenager, he was baby-faced and appeared to have just been startled by something. In many of the photographs, Timothy seemed to be caught in a moment of indecision, as if he were perpetually reluctant to imitate an incredibly difficult stunt that Thomas had mastered with apparent ease. (In the end, it was something as basic as driving a car that Thomas failed to master sufficiently.)

When Ruth Cole entered her parents' bedroom, she saw the naked young man who had mounted her mother from behind; he was holding her mother's breasts in his hands and humping her on all fours, like a dog, but it was neither the violence nor the repugnance of the sexual act that caused Ruth to scream. The four-year-old didn't know that she was witnessing a sexual act — nor did the young man and her mother's activity strike Ruth as entirely unpleasant. In fact, Ruth was relieved to see that her mother was not throwing up.

And it wasn't the young man's nakedness that caused Ruth to scream; she had seen her father and her mother naked — nakedness was not hidden among the Coles. It was the young man himself who made Ruth scream, because she was certain he was one of her dead brothers; he looked so much like Thomas, the confident one, that Ruth Cole believed she had seen a ghost.

A four-year-old's scream is a piercing sound. Ruth was astonished at the speed with which her mother's young lover dismounted; indeed, he removed himself from both the woman and her bed with such a combination of panic and zeal that he appeared to be propelled — it was almost as if a cannonball had dislodged him. He fell over the night table, and, in an effort to conceal his nakedness, removed the lamp shade from the broken bedside lamp. As such, he seemed a less menacing sort of ghost than Ruth had first judged him to be; furthermore, now that Ruth took a closer look at him, she recognized him. He was the boy who occupied the most distant guest room, the boy who drove her father's car — the boy who worked for her daddy, her mommy had said. Once or twice the boy had driven Ruth and her babysitter to the beach.

That summer, Ruth had three different nannies; each of them had commented on how pale the boy was, but Ruth's mother had told her that some people just didn't like the sun. The child had never before seen the boy without his clothes, of course; yet Ruth was certain that the young man's name was Eddie and that he wasn't a ghost. Nevertheless, the four-year-old screamed again.

Her mother, still on all fours on her bed, looked characteristically unsurprised; she merely viewed her daughter with an expression of discouragement edged with despair. Before Ruth could cry out a third time, her mother said, "Don't scream, honey. It's just Eddie and me. Go back to bed."
Ruth Cole did as she was told, once more passing those photographs — more ghostly-seeming now than her mother's fallen ghost of a lover. Eddie, while attempting to hide himself with the lamp shade, had been oblivious to the fact that the lamp shade, being open at both ends, afforded Ruth an unobstructed view of his diminishing penis.

At four, Ruth was too young to ever remember Eddie orhis penis with the greatest detail, but he would remember her. Thirty-six years later, when he was fifty-two and Ruth was forty, this ill-fated young man would fall in love with Ruth Cole. Yet not even then would he regret having fucked Ruth's mother. Alas, that would be Eddie's problem. This is Ruth's story.

That her parents had expected her to be a third son was not the reason Ruth Cole became a writer; a more likely source of her imagination was that she grew up in a house where the photographs of her dead brothers were a stronger presence than any "presence" she detected in either her mother or her father — and that, after her mother abandoned her and her father (and took with her almost all the photos of her lost sons), Ruth would wonder why her father left the picture hooks stuck in the bare walls. The picture hooks were part of the reason she became a writer — for years after her mother left, Ruth would try to remember which of the photographs had hung from which of the hooks. And, failing to recall the actual pictures of her perished brothers to her satisfaction, Ruth began to invent all the captured moments in their short lives, which she had missed. That Thomas and Timothy were killed before she was born was another part of the reason Ruth Cole became a writer; from her earliest memory, she was forced to imagine them.

It was one of those automobile accidents involving teenagers that, in the aftermath, revealed that both boys had been "good kids" and that neither of them had been drinking. Worst of all, to the endless torment of their parents, the coincidence of Thomas and Timothy being in that car at that exact time, and in that specific place, was the result of an altogether avoidable quarrel between the boys' mother and father. The poor parents would relive the tragic results of their trivial argument for the rest of their lives.

Later Ruth was told that she was conceived in a well-intentioned but passionless act. Ruth's parents were mistaken to even imagine that their sons were replaceable — nor did they pause to consider that the new baby who would bear the burden of their impossible expectations might be a girl.

That Ruth Cole would grow up to be that rare combination of a well-respected literary novelist and an internationally best-selling author is not as remarkable as the fact that she managed to grow up at all. Those handsome young men in the photographs had stolen most of her mother's affection; however, her mother's rejection was more bearable to Ruth than growing up in the shadow of the coldness that passed between her parents.

Ted Cole, a best-selling author and illustrator of books for children, was a handsome man who was better at writing and drawing for children than he was at fulfilling the daily responsibilities of fatherhood. And until Ruth was four-and-a-half, while Ted Cole was not always drunk, he frequently drank too much. It's also true that, while Ted was not a womanizer every waking minute, at no time in his life was he ever entirely nota womanizer. (Granted, this made him more unreliable with women than he was with children.)

Ted had ended up writing for children by default. His literary debut was an overpraised adult novel of an indisputably literary sort. The two novels that followed aren't worth mentioning, except to say that no one — especially Ted Cole's publisher — had expressed any noticeable interest in a fourth novel, which was never written. Instead, Ted wrote his first children's book. Called The Mouse Crawling Between the Walls, it was very nearly not published; at first glance, it appeared to be one of those children's books that are of dubious appeal to parents and remain memorable to children only because children remember being frightened. At least Thomas and Timothy were frightened by The Mouse Crawling Between the Walls when Ted first told them the story; by the time Ted told it to Ruth, The Mouse Crawling Between the Walls had already frightened about nine or ten million children, in more than thirty languages, around the world.

Like her dead brothers, Ruth grew up on her father's stories. When Ruth first read these stories in a book, it felt like a violation of her privacy. She'd imagined that her father had created these stories for her alone. Later she would wonder if her dead brothers had felt that their privacy had been similarly invaded.

Regarding Ruth's mother: Marion Cole was a beautiful woman; she was also a good mother, at least until Ruth was born. And until the deaths of her beloved sons, she was a loyal and faithful wife — despite her husband's countless infidelities. But after the accident that took her boys away, Marion became a different woman, distant and cold. Because of her apparent indifference to her daughter, Marion was relatively easy for Ruth to reject. It would be harder for Ruth to recognize what was flawed about her father; it would also take a lot longer for her to come to this recognition, and by then it would be too late for Ruth to turn completely against him. Ted had charmed her — Ted charmed almost everyone, up to a certain age. No one was ever charmed by Marion. Poor Marion never tried to charm anyone, not even her only daughter; yet it was possible to love Marion Cole.

And this is where Eddie, the unlucky young man with the inadequate lamp shade, enters the story. He loved Marion — he would never stop loving her. Naturally if he'd known from the beginning that he was going to fall in love with Ruth, he might have reconsidered falling in love with her mother. But probably not. Eddie couldn't help himself.

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The Electrical Field
Excerpt

I happened to be dusting the front window-ledge when I saw her running across the grassy strip of the electrical field. I stepped out onto the porch and called to her. I could tell she heard me because she slowed down a bit, hesitated before turning. I waved.

"Sachi!" I shouted. "What is it?"

She barely paused to check for cars before crossing the concession road in front of my yard; not that many passed since the new highway to the airport had been built. Shyly she edged up my porch steps to where I stood. She was out of breath, her eyes filled with an adult's burden. "I don't know," she said, panting. "Maybe it's nothing."

The sweat glistened on her, sweet, odourless water, and it struck me as odd, her sweating so much -- a girl and a nihonjin at that; we nihonjin, we Japanese, hardly perspire at all, and the late spring air was cool that day. I sat down to signal calm and patted the lawn chair beside me. She sat but kept jiggling one knee. Finally she stood up again. "Yano came and took -- ," she began.

"Mr. Yano," I broke in, though everyone called him Yano, even myself. "He took Tam out of class this morning. Kimi too."

"Tamio," I corrected her, as if I could tell her what to call the boy, her special friend. As if I could tell her anything. "A doctor's appointment, maybe?"

She shook her head as a child does, flinging her hair all about. Though at thirteen going on fourteen, she no longer was a child, I reminded myself.

"Yano looked crazy," she went on. "Like I've never seen him. His hands were like this." She clenched her fists and gritted her brace-clad teeth: a fierce little animal. "He hadn't taken a bath, not for a long time," she said, pinching her flat nose and grimacing. "Worse than usual. Everybody noticed."

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