When I was a kid, growing up in a tiny community in Newfoundland, I thought the world was a great place. I was raised to believe that if you were honest, believed in God, went to church, and listened to your parents, your teachers, the police, and anyone else who were supposed to be telling you the truth, you would be a good person.
I was a curious kid, always asking questions like “Who are we?”, “Where did our family come from?”, to “Why is our skin so dark?” and the biggest of all, “Grappy, are you an Indian?” Which was quickly silenced by my Grappy, who got very insulted by my question. I really didn’t want to hurt his feelings, I just wanted a simple yes or a no. He could give me neither.
I used to wonder why these questions were so bad. Why was it so bad to ask if we were indians? I know in the westerns we watched on Uncle Roddy’s tv, the Indians used to scalp innocent cowboys, kill their kids and do bad things to their wives, so I guessed that was why my grandfather didn’t want me asking him, or accusing him of being a savage like them people in the westerns.
Still, I couldn’t help but wonder how he was so good at doing stuff. He farmed cattle, pigs, chickens. He had horses, planted gardens, cut and harvested hay. In the fall he would slaughter the pigs, and a cow or two, so he could provide fresh meat for his now grown adult kids. He would waste nothing. He used the skin, to make hides, which he sold, the bones to make handles for knives, he even used pieces of cow hide to make hinges for the shed doors. He made all his own farm equipment. He hunted rabbit and moose, and partridges and other animals to provide food. I used to wonder how he learned all this stuff. he would always say he just knew how to do it.
As my curiousity about indians grew, I asked him more questions, to the point I think he drove me away. “You must be an indian, Grap” I would say. I remember his response was to warn me to never ask those questions, and most of all, never tell anyone he was an indian.
What great shame it must have been for this man, so skilled at so many things, secrets passed down from his father and mother, them from theirs. Secrets of how to live off the land, how to survive the impossible. The stories of his forefathers, their struggles, all in his mind, too shameful to share with his kids and their kids. He was ashamed to even believe they could be true. All because of one man. A man who claimed he saved the province from poverty and how just one little lie meant the province could join a nation called Canada. No sacrifice too large to ask, just deny who you are, who your parents are, where you came from, and in some respect, where you are going.
When Joey lied to the Canadian Government, and told them there were no indians in Newfoundland, this lie caused a ripple effect across the province. With that little ‘white’ lie, everything about my family’s past was swept under the carpet, so to speak. Being indian meant a great shame, as indians were portrayed as lazy drunks, instead of the hard working people they really were. I wonder if, before 1949, if someone looked at my grandfather and asked if he was an indian, would he have been proud to say he was, brag about his skills and his love of the land, instead of hiding his head in shame?
Could he have given me better answers about who he was, and who I was? Could he have shared those skills with me, and even more important, could he have shared the secrets with me? The stories passed down through the ages, of a time when his people lived off the land, and survived on their own without government handouts and government lies?
I wish my grandfather was alive today. I wish he could witness the pride felt by his descendants, knowing we can hold our heads high, knowing we are