Legends of Myself–an Aboriginal autobiography–1

Posted on June 22, 2010


I can’t say that everything which I am going to write about my life is true.  I can only say that it more or less seems that way to me.

1. Origin Story: Inverness

This is how I usually begin it:

I was born in 1950 in Inverness Cannery, the second cabin from the right looking from the water.

My father gave me the particularities of my birth in 1965 as he rowed us over the water to Inverness from where we were then staying on Smith Island.  The cabin which he pointed out to me, one of a cluster of joined cabins, looked the same as any other cabin in any other row in any other cannery town along the north coast of British Columbia.  My memory of that moment—sitting in a skiff and looking from the water—is almost the only connection I have to my birthplace.  Inverness was still a place you could visit in 1965.  It had floats where fishing boats were docked, occasional habitable buildings where people still lived, and it even had a little store.

But Inverness was shut down as a cannery almost as soon as I myself was up and running in 1950.  My mother had been working and living there when I was born, cutting fish on an assembly line.  My father rented a gillnetter and fished for the company.  I myself came along late at night and sent no calling card ahead of me, arriving two weeks early, curly haired, light skinned (I was called a little White baby) and in good voice.  I have been told my arrival was premature; others have said—considering that I weighed nine pounds when born—that somebody merely miscounted my arrival.

If I did come two weeks premature, that was a courtesy to my mother.

There was no doctor present at my birth.  My birth attendant was a crusty nurse—my father’s adjective—but no samples or examples survive to tell us what my father meant by that.  I imagine that a direct manner of speech is an advantage, though, among midwives and others who attend at births.

They shut down Inverness Cannery as a business operation in 1950.  In 1973, what was left of the place burned to the ground.  The provincial government had been planning to turn the plant into a museum at the time, but that fate then devolved upon North Pacific, about two miles away, south towards the Skeena mouth.  In 1975, the Highways department erected a sign commemorating where Inverness used to be.

It reads,

If you walk down from the sign, down from the road and past the railway tracks, you can find what remains of the cannery machinery rusting in the bush.  Further down, among the pebbles on the beach, you can find evidence of the people who operated that machinery.

Cannery towns stride above the beaches where they are located, walking stiff-legged on pilings and stilts which support railed wooden sidewalks.  And boardwalk litter is rare, because it soon and handily sifts downward and becomes beach litter.  When cannery towns depart, rainforest vegetation moves in, and after awhile all that remains to remind us of the towns are weathering, translucent pieces of glass in various colours scattered among the pebbles on the beach.

Old broken glass, rust-red machinery among the berry bushes, and a highway sign are all the evidence of my birthplace I could find the last time I visited Inverness in the late 1980s.  If there is a community called Inverness now where the old community used to be, then it has arisen since and is a new place entirely.

2.  Grandfather Hammond

Inverness Cannery could be found, one of a row of canneries—south to north, Cassiar, North Pacific (NP), Sunnyside and Inverness—situated along a stretch of water called the Skeena Slough, across from Smith Island and just north of the mouth of the Skeena River itself.  The Skeena, and–continuing many miles north from the row of canneries–the Nass River, define the places where much of my ancestry has lived for thousands of years.

The ancestry on my aboriginal side derives primarily from Kitsumkalum and Kitselas, Tsimshian communities on the Skeena located close to the present town of Terrace.  My mother’s parents were therefore Tsimshian also, but they had migrated north at some point from Kitselas on the Skeena to Aiyansh on the Nass River—Nisga’a territory—possibly to be near a priest, because that was the kind of thing which happened in those days.

Aiyansh, now recalled as Old Aiyansh, was where my mother grew up.  Many parts of my family now regard themselves as Nisga’a, but I have always thought of myself as Tsimshian simply because I have passed my entire life outside of Nisga’a territory.  However, through my mother, I belong to the Nisga’a Nation

The European part of my ancestry, flowing through nature and through nurture, and deriving only from my father’s side, came from the United States and from France.

My father’s mother was Alice Kennedy from Kitsumkalum, a village which she herself referred to simply as “Kalum”.  His natural father was a man named George Hammond.  Aside from his country of origin–the United States–almost nothing is known about him.

Grandfather Hammond had three children with Granny Alice, beginning with my father George in 1920, followed by my aunt Grace and my uncle Jim.  As to Hammond’s own genetic origins, we suspect some Irish blood because of the name, but that is only speculation.  Sometime in the mid-1920s he came into an inheritance and departed for the US, offering to take Granny Alice with him.  She declined, not really wanting to leave her homeland on the Skeena.  He went away and was never heard from again.

Apart from his three children, Hammond left nothing behind except a single line of reputation.  Granny Alice said he was kind of lazy and would rather sit on the porch plunking away at his guitar than do any kind of work.

I’ve almost no Calvinism in me at all, I’m afraid.  And I didn’t have to put up with him like Granny Alice did.  So I’m inclined to withhold judgement about the laziness thing.

And I don’t know whether we can actually blame Grandpa Hammond for it, but there’s been bushels and pecks of guitar picking and porch-sitting going on in the generations of my family since.  Not all of it was done in avoidance of work, but inevitably some of it was.

No one can convince me that I have to work so hard

I don’t need a Cadillac in my back yard

I got no itchin’ achin’

For no movin’ or a-shakin’

The world’s so shook up now… some parts are comin’ loose.

Father Theo’s Talking Blues

I sometimes wonder what happened to George Hammond.  Did he start another family somewhere?  Is there another parallel family in some town in America, one that is entirely White?  Are there rumours, I wonder, of Grandpa’s other family, of us, his American Indian family with his American Indian wife, drifting about in that family’s secret history?

I doubt that I will ever know.

3.  Tauber/Collins

After Grandpa Hammond left, Grandpa Collins moved in and took over as parent to Hammond’s children.  Collins fathered a son of his own with Granny Alice, my uncle Gus.  Grandpa Collins was the grandfather I knew, and I knew him as Pop or as Old Pop.

Old Pop was born in 1887 in France, I believe in the Alsace-Lorraine region where France borders on Germany.  When he talked about this, he was telling about a France whose geography was entirely unknown to me, so I could be wrong.  However Alsace-Lorraine would make sense in terms of Old Pop’s original name, Georges Tauber.  As a name, Tauber is much more Germanic than it is Gallic.

The reason that Old Pop adopted the name Collins when he already had a perfectly reasonable name in Tauber is that he was an outlaw.  More specifically, early in the twentieth century when that sort of activity was almost considered treasonous, he was a union organizer for the International Workers of the World, known as the I.W.W. or more colloquially, as the Wobblies.

The Wobblies and organizations like them—almost unheard of now except by people learned in labour history—existed and organized at a time when ordinary workers had almost no rights.  Old Pop said that workers couldn’t even take a coffee break.  Workplace injuries from exhausted workers were common.  And sometimes fatal.  In those days to arrange a work break someone would drop an occasional and literal wrench into the machinery.  Everybody could then relax while the machinery was being repaired.

My grandfather was a part of the movement to give workers rights, and because of it he got deported repeatedly from Canada.  When the First World War came along, he had one of his frequent run-ins with the authorities.  They offered him a choice that particular time–because they knew what to do with anarchists and commies in those days, by God!–and the choice was whether to rot and die in the trenches for Canada, or to rot and die in the trenches for France.  He chose France, did not in fact rot and die, and after the war returned to Canada once more.  Once more illegally.

Somewhere along the line he had a motorcycle accident which left him with a game leg.  I always knew him with a cane.  And he solved the problem of being deported decisively and finally by assuming the name of a dead man.

Georges Tauber, union instigator, illegal immigrant, agnostic flouter of authority, became George Collins, nobody who anybody knew.  Became George Collins Sr., Old Pop, patriarch of the Collins clan of Port Essington

The Collins name which Old Pop passed on to my father and uncles, and so to the subsequent generations of our family, was simply a fiction.  I always thought it was a bland name growing up.  I made frequent literary plans to abandon it.  Collins?  How could that compete with a glorious name like JRR Tolkien?  I was dissatisfied until I found out, much afterwards (for M. Tauber knew how to keep a secret) where the name came from, .

Why not Tauber? I always thought.   But to realize that my family name was an alias assumed to avoid the authorities—how delicious is that?  Like discovering a secret door behind the library which leads to Tuesday afternoon.


Continues here Legends of Myself 2

Posted in: autobiography