In my first published book, Contrary Warriors, I have a scene where the protagonists decide on a mural to be painted on the side of their aircraft. It’s interesting because the team chosen to fly the aircraft is all Indigenous (Native Americans). In the story, they will fly around the world on a good-will tour to educate people on the culture and customs of their nation, in this case, the Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawks). When they decide to decorate their aircraft, they must choose a from a litany of work created by Native artists. The final choice is a painting, at the time purportedly the work of Norval Morrisseau, CM, called Great Voyage.
The first time I saw Great Voyage, I was confused. I loved the subject, two animals paddling a canoe on a moonlit night. My consternation came from several inconsistencies. I find it interesting that I never questioned the authenticity of the work. I wanted Great Voyage to be authentic. I wanted it to fit my prose. With that desire driving me, I asked all the wrong questions.
The pallet was wrong for a Morrisseau but instead of asking why the change, I asked where and when was it painted. Was he in residence at a University at the time? Was he visiting a studio where he had access to colours he rarely used? What about the characteristics? I immediately noted the style, while in the Woodland theme, seemed too detailed to my untrained eye. It was as if someone had worked to make it fit the style not the other way around. Then there was the matter of white space or a flat background or lack thereof. Today I would attribute this to an art scholar steeped in the work of European Masters. Only they would feel the need to fill every inch of canvas, a compulsion rarely felt by Indigenous Artist. Again, I thought of all these inconsistencies but asked the wrong questions. Was this a paid commission he finished to the buyers’ specification? Was he reworking an earlier painting? Was he at a pivot in his career or art? Was he drunk?
Norval Morrisseau, like my grandfather, was a survivor of the Canadian Residential School system. The aim of the education program was to take the Indian out of the boy or girl. In the eyes of the government and society of the day, Indians did not contribute to the Gross National Product. Removing them from their families and re-educating them to the standards set for white and black children was their solution. If you are American and learning about this effort for the first time, don’t be smug. The same thing happened in your nation only under the guise of the church or state-run programs.
An elder once shared her feelings, explaining, “They took my baby son from me and twelve years later returned an angry white man.”
They had achieved their goal, but the results would rob as many as Five-Hundred Nations of their culture, language, and purpose. Men like Morrisseau and my grandfather learned to behave like white men. They worked, they contributed, and they drank to forget the pain. Most forgot their words, they would forgo their culture to live as instructed, but they never thrived until alcohol deadened the pain. My papa was a dangerous man when sober. A Veteran and a predator, but drunk he was released from the bindings brutally instilled in Residential School and found the freedom to be himself. Sober he would work as a talented tool maker and kowtow to my white mother and her demands regarding her children. Drunk, he didn’t give a fuck.
I liked that side of him. The Christmases when he was off the wagon were the best. That seems counter-intuitive, but the booze gave him the courage to be himself. He would cook supper. Not something a white man would do but before Residential School, he had learned that preparing the meat course for a feast was a man’s job and he would revel in that role. And like his ancestors he would commit everything to the gift giving, easily spending all his pay on gifts for the family. And even drunk, he was quick-witted and inciteful. Much more than one would imagine possible of the angry unapproachable man who’s only passions when sober were Paint-by-Numbers and dime store novels.
One of my greatest memories was the Christmas when I was four, a very important age in native culture. It is the time a child begins to display their path. A time when grandparents and Faith Keepers take note of the child’s likes and begin to mentor them in their role and interests. That year, like every year, my mother gave my grandparents a list of suitable gifts. The big purchase she expected him to make for me was an Easybake Oven. Instead, he did what he knew was best, and on Christmas day ordered me to close my eyes, while he pulled my gift from the Coal Room. The alcohol had given him the courage to buy what he knew would please me, and out rolled a Radio Flyer Wagon. My mother vexed, my father apologized, and I ran with the level of excitement I wouldn’t know again until my first flying lesson.
I should have known Great Voyage was a fake. It was the painting Morrisseau would have painted if my mother had been looking over his shoulder telling him how it should be done. It was an art scholar’s misinterpretation of the Woodland Style. It was the painting of a Residential School graduate, not the survivors Morrisseau and my grandfather were. Not the seven generations of pained, broken spirits that follow. It was what I accepted, not what a needed. Was he drunk? No. Under the influence, he was free and so was papa.
The interesting thing was how I addressed the inconsistencies in my book. The protagonist takes a photo of the painting to another artist, a Mohawk friend, an intergenerational victim of the Residential School system and asks him to simplify it for their purpose. In essence, she asks him to paint it the way Morrisseau should have and now I know, the way he would have if the painting had been his.
In this season of hope, let’s all remember freedom to be ourselves may be the greatest gift.