Legends of Myself 5

Posted on August 16, 2010

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Continued from Legends of Myself 4

7. A Prehistory of My Father, Part 2

Port Essington School Days

Port Essington was served by Cunningham’s Store, and by a few other establishments less known at this distance.  In the village you could get some things reliably, some things occasionally, some you had better order in if you wanted to get them at all.  Peanut butter was in the latter category.  It was purchased seasonally in large cans.  Freshly opened the cans were oily on top, so you had to stir the oil in.   By the time you got to the bottom of the can, the oil was gone and the peanut butter was perfectly hard and dry.

Granny Alice, whose second language was English, always referred to peanut butter as “peanuts butter.”

She had a phrase, partly Tsimshian, partly English, by which she roused my aunt, uncles and father-to-be, in order to get them out of their reluctant beds and off to school.  My father repeated the whole phrase to me perhaps hundreds of times, but I never could master the Tsimshian.  It sounded to my ears—I am monolingual English-speaking, alas—a little like the skinamarink chorus from a children’s song, maybe just as musical, and a bit more guttural—and after the words in Tsimshian, the English “half past eight.”

Meaning, I guess, that, with school starting at nine, they ought to get out of bed pretty soon or they’d be late for school, sleepyheads.

And indicating also that there probably weren’t any Tsimshian words for “half past eight.”

Nor was there a need.

The notion I have of my grandmother, in her (prehistoric) role of mother, is that she did not always take everything seriously.  My father imitated her as she was when she’d forgotten to do something she was supposed to do.

“Forget,” she would say iambically musical, with a cheerful shrug. Not really much concerned, maybe.

On the darker side of things, she liked to drink.  My Uncle Jim spoke about how strong the booze was, some of it, that was available to her.  He said he saw his mother sit down with a full mason jar of some clear liquid on the table in front of her, and by the time the jar was empty, she was drunk.

One time Old Pop bought artificial vanilla instead of real vanilla, because real vanilla is alcoholic, and that meant it wasn’t always safe around his wife.  When Granny Alice found and read the label on the bottle Pop had brought home, she just laughed out loud.

Port Essington was an odd, eccentric place, as all places are which are rich in people and well away from the centre of anything.  Of course, the past is a foreign country, too.

Because my daughter wisely requested it, I visited Egypt a while ago.  I was touristing Luxor with her, an unself-conscious Westerner in t-shirt, floppy white hat and shorts.  An Egyptian remarked to me one afternoon—I suspect explaining how it looked him—that in Egypt only boys wore shorts.  Short pants made me ridiculous and unmanly in Luxor, I think he meant.

But it was hot, the long pants/short pants controversy meant nothing in my life, and wearing short pants would offend nothing but my own supposed dignity.  So I continued wearing them.

But the Egyptian reminded me that, yes, it was a real complaint I had heard my father make about his mother.  Here was my father already greatly grown.  (He reached an eventual six feet.)  Meanwhile, there were boys at school half his size already running about in long pants.  But Granny Alice still had him wearing knickerbockers like a child.

(Knickerbockers were a style of shorts, draw-stringed at the knees, which my Uncle Jim called “turd-catchers”—except that wasn’t quite how he put it.)

Another complaint that my father had:  Granny Alice never allowed him a sick day away from school.  Whether he was ill or not, he had to attend regardless.  He was famous for his sneezes, which always came in multiples, and which halted the classroom while everybody counted.

“Thirteen sneezes,” said Mr. Jones the teacher after one particularly long series.  Thirteen sneezes became my father’s record.

The fact that my father was sent to school ill meant that—insomuch as he had control of it—I never was.  And sometimes when I stayed home from school, perhaps I was not that ill, I admit now.  But my father so disliked his own mother’s policy, he was determined that the same thing would never happen to me.  If he was a little lax in the other direction, I doubt it affected my schooling any.

And my grandmother for her part was a school district’s and an epidemiologist’s nightmare.

My father at the upper left corner, a serious ten year old.

Town, time, family, sociology—and in the twentieth century where there are classrooms—historiography, are all part of Tsimshian growing up.  Historiography examines how history is told, and why it is told that way.  The way history is presented influences what meanings we take away from it, which is why historiography is at the centre of every national propaganda regime.

My father mentioned how Jones, his teacher, got righteously angry in the history lesson at Pizarro the Spaniard, who, having being paid the unprecedented ransom of one roomful of gold and two of silver for Atahualpa, still had the Inca king murdered anyway.

That was not an honourable man, oh no.

It’s a striking story, no doubt responded to with particular interest by any Aboriginal children who encountered it, just as it was by my father.

I don’t know how Mr. Jones presented his curriculum otherwise, how he taught what he was expected to teach when he had Tsimshian and Japanese children in the classroom along with the White.  Studious and able faces, like my father.

My father respected Jones.  But my father loved to learn, and children often respect their teachers, so it’s hard to say what my father’s respect says about Mr. Jones, and what relationship this obscure and backwoods schoolteacher had to the pedagogy and historiography of the era.  There is no reason to believe he wasn’t a decent man, but times and places flavour what everyone living in them accepts as normal and right.

In the social studies curriculum of British Columbia in that part of the twentieth century—and this is my point—Atuhualpa and Pizarro had standard walk-on parts.  The Inca king and the conquistador were there to fulfill a blatant social agenda, to say their lines and play their parts in an ongoing national and racial propaganda mission.  My father and children like him who happened to be looking on were merely, pedagogically speaking, incidental bystanders.  .

In the part of the twentieth century when my father was going to school, the British Empire was still a real thing, although it was starting to be called the Commonwealth.  The Commonwealth was represented by pink patches all over the map of the world.  And Port Essington, however remote it was from the centre of things, was part of that Commonwealth, that Empire.  It was there clinging to the edge of one of those pink patches.

In 1931, partway through my father’s education, as an act of letting go, the British parliament enacted the Statute of Westminster, giving Canada for instance the right to enter into international treaties without Britain.  But the Statute granted no such concessions to India which was filled with far too many brown people for that to be considered seriously at the time.  Gandhi, inasmuch as anyone had heard of him outside of India, was still a brown-skinned radical and colonial inconvenience, and had not yet assumed his honourable place in the history of Western Civilization.  Independence was then a word only for the use of White people, and it was an era when Canadian curricula were unblushingly addressed to White children, and in particular children tracing descent to Britain.

Anglocentric racism in Canada was then social commonsense.  Without much dressing up it could be brought to Sunday tea.  Hitler had not yet arrived in the Western consciousness to swastika White superiority, and to deal a horror blow to racism of every sort with his manufactories of death.

The message behind that critical episode in the conquest of Peru—with the noble Inca king and the greedy, perfidious Pizarro—the message which all the little boys and girls were supposed to take away home with them, was a tribal message:  the superiority of British over Spanish colonialism.

Temporarily the Aboriginal people were allowed to look good, but only long enough to be the object of Spanish treachery, like the walk-on blonde in a slasher movie whose only purpose is to raise the body count.

The Sioux on the cover is locked in another era.

Canadian Geography for Juniors, a British Columbia geography text for grades five and six, dated 1944, but with editions stretching back to even a year or two before my father’s time, lays out the basic anti-Spanish argument.

When these Europeans came to America they found many inhabitants to whom they gave, incorrectly, the name “Indians.”  These people were alike in colour, but differed greatly in language, in customs, and in civilization.  Some, particularly in North America, were mere savages.  In parts of South America, on the other hand, lived a people in many respects more advanced than the white men who conquered them.  The remains of their temples, their dwellings, their ornaments, and their tools show ability which even to-day we cannot equal.

The people of to-day. Spain conquered these wonderful people, killed their leaders, stole their golden treasures, and reduced them to slavery. To-day their descendents, though little better than primitive savages, form a considerable part of South America’s total population of sixty millions.

The Indian is found in every country.  Sometimes, as in Ecuador and Peru, he far exceeds the white man in numbers.  On the other hand, in such progressive countries as Chile and Argentina less than five per cent. of the people are native.  But wherever he is found the Indian is an unskilled, and usually lazy, man.  His house is a cabin, or, in the hotter districts, even less; his clothing is as little as possible, and his food is often secured from the trees growing wild, at his door. (p. 168)

A basic anti-Spanish argument is not, obviously, a basic pro-Aboriginal one.  There is no way other than racist to characterize the school curriculum in my father’s day.  But it was no more racist than the culture as a whole.  And my father was not necessarily aware of the racism as hostile per se, since social judgements are often accepted as valid by the same people against whom these judgements are made.

The Collins clan of Port Essington had a little catchphrase, “Fool!  You’re not French.”  It meant, “I fooled you.  You’re not smart enough, therefore, to be French.”  The phrase referenced Old Pop, who they were proud to have as a father, and whose glamour as a Frenchman was being invoked.

But it’s like Louis Armstrong in the 1929 song “Black and Blue” lamenting being mistreated because of his black skin and explaining that he’s “White inside.”  Well, I don’t think Louis really meant it that way.  But I think my father and his siblings meant, by their family catchphrase, that they thought the deliberate and cerebral and more legitimate parts of themselves were properly labelled White and not Tsimshian.

“I fooled you, you’re merely Tsimshian.”  They never said that, but it was the unspoken mirror-meaning to the old family catchphrase.

In 1934 my father finished whatever education was available in Port Essington.  He was evidently the first Tsimshian to do so.  According to local historian Phyllis Bowman, the first Aboriginal boy to graduate from grade eight from an Indian day school in northern British Columbia did so in Port Essington in 1935.  My father, attending a regular provincial school, predated this record by a year.

The grade eight he achieved in 1934 was all the formal education he was ever going to get.

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Continued at Legends of Myself 6

Posted in: autobiography