My grandmother on my mom’s side was a devout Roman Catholic and very involved with the church in Val Caron. When I was young my family would often attend mass out there on Sundays before our weekly visit to her big old farm a few miles away in Blezard Valley. I was a hyperactive child and going to church was painful for me.
Sit down. Stand up. Now kneel. Say what the priest says. Sing a hymn. Stand up again. Now sit down. Kneel again. Stand up.
Uuuugh…it was torture!
The only time I paid attention was when the Deacon would take the pulpit. He was fascinating to me because he was an Indian and burned sweetgrass while he preached. The air would fill with the pleasant aroma while he talked about God. Except he didn’t call God Jesus or The Lord like Father Burns who was the parish priest. The Deacon would call God the Creator.
At school, my first grade teacher would read us books about a little Indian spirit-boy named Nanabush. They were my favorite stories because Nanabush could talk to animals and each tale taught lessons about greed, lying, meanness, courage, teasing, selfishness, obedience and the thoughtless destruction of nature.
Once while visiting my Italian grandparents’ house I overheard one of my uncles saying that Indians were nothing but dirty drunks and bums and that they were lazy and none of them had jobs.
It sort of made sense. On television I’d see old black and white westerns where the Indians would ride into battle on their horses with their faces painted, screaming and whooping while attacking everyone with bows and arrows. When my friends and I would play cowboys and Indians, everyone wanted to be the cowboys. They were the good guys. No one really wanted to be Indians.
On the ride home I asked my dad if what my uncle said was true. Were Indians bad people?
“No Bobby,” he told me. “The Indians were in Canada before anyone else. This country was all their land. When the cowboys came here, they gave the Indian chiefs whiskey to get them drunk and then tricked them into signing papers giving away their land for next to nothing.”
“So Uncle Cosimo is right about them being drunks?”
My father was quiet for a minute before answering me.
“Think about it Bobby, before the cowboys came, Indians were a simple people. They hunted, they fished and they lived in tents. They didn’t understand what alcohol was because they never drank anything like it before. They thought it was magical. They called it fire water,” my dad explained.
“The cowboys, the white people who sailed here from Europe took advantage of the Indians because they were primitive. Do you know what that means Bobby? Primitive?”
“I think so,” I answered. “Like cavemen, right?”
My dad reached back from the driver’s seat and rustled my hair.
“That’s right,” he said. “You’re a very smart boy.”
“That doesn’t seem fair,” I said. "Why didn’t they just pay them for their land? Why did the cowboys trick those Indian chiefs?”
“Because they could, Bobby,” my father answered.
“Because they could.”
I didn’t understand because I was young and I believed that everyone always tried to do the right thing. Then my father said something else I didn’t fully understand, at least not then.
“Booze affects Indians differently than other folks, Bobby. They like it more. A lot of them do drink too much and that’s a sad thing.”
And then my dad got angry for no apparent reason as he so often used to do. He growled and slammed his hand on the steering wheel and raised his voice. “That doesn’t make it right for your uncle to talk the way he does. He only says things like that because he tricked the government into thinking he was hurt so he doesn’t have to work. That miserable prick hasn’t worked in twenty years and now he just sits around drinking his home-made wine. He’s shit-faced by noon every fuckin’ day so it makes him feel better to point his finger at the Indians.”
My mother told him to calm down. He told her to shut the fuck up.
“Stop listening to the adults when they talk,” my dad said sternly. “Especially your uncle. He’s an asshole. That’s what you call him from now on okay Bobby? I’m serious, you understand? You call him Uncle Asshole”
I nodded. My mother shook her head.
When we got home my dad laid down on the couch. After a while, when my mom was certain that he was sleeping, she took me in the kitchen and warned me that under no circumstances was I to do what my father said.
I was disappointed.I was really looking forward to going to my grandparents’ house the next time and saying Hi Nana! Hi Nono! Hi, Uncle Asshole!