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The Sound of the Singing
That house in Manawaka is the one which, more than any other, I carry with me. Known to the rest of the town as “the old Connor place” and to the family as the Brick House, it was plain as the winter turnips in its root cellar, sparsely windowed as some crusader’s embattled fortress in a heathen wilderness, its rooms in a perpetual gloom except in the brief height of summer. Many other brick structures had existed in Manawaka for as much as half a century, but at the time when my grandfather built his house, part dwelling place and part massive-monument, it had been the first of its kind.
Set back at a decent distance from the street, it was screened by a line of spruce trees whose green-black branches swept down to the earth like the sternly protective wings of giant hawks. Spruce was not indigenous to that part of the prairies. Timothy Connor had brought the seedlings all the way from Galloping Mountain, a hundred miles north, not on whim, one may be sure, but feeling that they were the trees for him. By the mid-thirties, the spruces were taller than the house, and two generations of children had clutched at boughs which were as rough and hornily knuckled as the hands of old farmers, and had swung themselves up to secret sanctuaries. On thelawn a few wild blue violets dared to grow, despite frequent beheadings from the clanking guillotine lawn mower, and mauve-flowered Creeping Charley insinuated deceptively weak-looking tendrils up to the very edges of the flower beds where helmeted snapdragon stood in precision.
We always went for Sunday dinner to the Brick House, the home of my mother’s parents. This particular day my father had been called out to South Wachakwa, where someone had pneumonia, so only my mother and myself were flying down the sidewalk, hurrying to get there. My mother walked with short urgent steps, and I had to run to keep up, which I did not like having to do, for I was ten that spring and needed my dignity.
“Dad said you shouldn’t walk so fast because of the baby. I heard him.”
My father was a doctor, and like many doctors, his advice to his own family was of an exceedingly casual nature. My mother’s prenatal care, apart from “For Pete’s sake, honey, quit running around like a chicken with its head cut off,” consisted mainly of admonitions to breathe deeply and drink plenty of water.
“Mercy,” my mother replied, “I don’t have to slow up that much, I should hope. Get a move on, Vanessa. It’s nearly five, and we should’ve been there by now. I suppose Edna will have the dinner all ready, and there won’t be a thing for me to do. I wish to heaven she wouldn’t, but try to tell her. Anyway, you know how your grandfather hates people to be late.”
When we got to the Brick House, my mother stopped hurrying, knowing that Grandfather would be watching from the bay window. She tidied my hair, which was fine and straight and tended to get in my eyes, and she smoothed down the collar of the white middy which I hated and resented having to wear today with my navy pleated skirt as though it had still been winter.
“Your summer dresses are all up to your neck,” my mother had said, “and we just can’t manage a new one this year, but I’m certainly not going to have you going down there looking like a hooligan.”
Now that the pace of our walking had slowed, I began to hop along the sidewalk trying to touch the crooked lines where the cement had been frost-heaved, some winter or other, and never repaired. The ants made their homes there, and on each fissure a neat mound of earth appeared. I carefully tamped one down with my foot, until the ant castle was flattened to nothing. Then I hopped on, chanting.
“Step on a crack, break your grandfather’s back.”
“That’s not very nice, Vanessa,” my mother said. “Anyway, I always thought it was your mother’s back.”
“Well?” I said accusingly, hurt that she could imagine the substitution to have been accidental, for I had genuinely thought it would please her.
“Try not to tear up and down stairs like you did last week,” my mother said anxiously. “You’re too old for that kind of shenanigans.”
Grandfather was standing on the front porch to greet us. He was a tall husky man, drum-chested, and once he had possessed great muscular strength. That simple power was gone now, but age had not stooped him.
“Well, Beth, you’re here,” Grandfather said. “Past five, ain’t it?”
“It’s only ten to,” my mother said defensively. “I hoped Ewen might be back – that’s why I waited. He had to go to South Wachakwa on a call.”
“You’d think a man could stay home on a Sunday,” Grandfather said.
“Good grief, Father,” my mother said, “people get sick on Sundays the same as any other day.”
But she said it under her breath, so he did not hear her.
“Well, come in, come in,” he said. “No use standing around here all day. Go and say hello to your grandmother, Vanessa.”
Ample and waistless in her brown silk dress, Grand mother was sitting in the dining room watching the canary. The bird had no name. She did not believe in bestowing names upon non-humans, for a name to her meant a christening, possible only for Christians. She called the canary “Birdie,” and maintained that this was not like a real name. It was swaying lightly on the bird-swing in its cage, its attentive eyes fixed upon her. She often sat here, quietly and apparently at ease, not feeling it necessary to be talking or doing, beside the window sill with its row of African violets in old ginger jars that had been painted orange. She would try to coax the canary into its crystal trilling, but it was a surly creature and obliged only occasionally. She liked me to sit here with her, and sometimes I did, but I soon grew impatient and began squirming, until Grandmother would smile and say, “All right, pet, you run along, now,” and then I would be off like buckshot. When I asked my grandmother if the bird minded being there, she shook her head and said no, it had been there always and wouldn’t know what to do with itself outside, and I thought this must surely be so, for it was a family saying that she couldn’t tell a lie if her life depended on it.
“Hello, pet,” Grandmother said. “Did you go to Sunday school?”
“What did you learn?” Grandmother asked, not prying or demanding, but confidently, serenely.
I was prepared, for the question was the same each week. I rarely listened in Sunday school, finding it more entertaining to compose in my head stories of spectacular heroism in which I figured as central character, so I never knew what the text had been. But I had read large portions of the Bible by myself, for I was constantly hard-up for reading material, so I had no trouble in providing myself with a verse each week before setting out for the Brick House. My lines were generally of a warlike nature, for I did not favour the meek stories and I had no use at all for the begats.
“How are the mighty fallen in the midst of the battle,” I replied instantly.
“Second Samuel,” Grandmother said, nodding her head. “That’s very nice, dear.”
I was not astonished that my grandmother thought the bloody death of Jonathan was very nice, for this was her unvarying response, whatever the verse. And in fact it was not strange, for to her everything in the Bible was as gentle as she herself. The swords were spiritual only, strokes of lightness and dark, and the wounds poured cochineal.
Grandfather tramped into the dining room. His hair was yellowish white, but once it had been as black as my own, and his brown beaked leathery face was still handsome.
“You’d best come into the living room, Agnes,” he said. “No use waiting here. Beth says Ewen’s gone away out to South Wachakwa. It’ll be a wonder if we get our dinner at all tonight.”
Grandmother rose. “Yes, I was just coming in.”
Grandfather walked over to the window and peered at the plants on the sill.
“Them jars could do with a coat of paint,” he said. “I’ve got some enamel left in the basement. It’s that bottle-green I used on the tool-shed.”
“Is there no orange left?” Grandmother enquired.
“No. It’s all used up. What’s the matter with bottle-green?”
“Oh, nothing’s the matter with it, I guess. I just wondered, that’s all.”
“I’ll do them first thing tomorrow, then,” Grandfather said decisively.
No tasks could be undertaken today, but there was no rule against making plans for Monday, so my grandfather invariably spent the Sabbath in this manner. Thwarted, but making the best of a bad lot, he lumbered around the house like some great wakeful bear waiting for the enforced hibernation of Sunday to be over. He stopped at the hall door now and rattled it, running hard expert fingers along the brass hinges.
“Hinge is loose,” he said. “The pin’s worn. I’ll have to go down to the store and see if they’ve got one. That Barnes probably won’t have the right size – he’s got no notion of stock. Maybe I’ve got an extra one in the basement. Yes, I have an idea there’s one there. I’ll just step down and have a look.”
I heard him clumping down the basement steps, and soon from the area of his work-bench there arose the soft metallic jangle of nails and bolts, collected oddments being sifted through. I glanced at my grandmother, but if she was relieved that he was rummaging down there, she gave no sign.
I did not know then the real torment that the day of rest was for him, so I had no patience with his impatience. WhatI did know, however, was that if he had been any other way he would not have passed muster in Manawaka. He was widely acknowledged as an upright man. It would have been a disgrace if he had been known by the opposite word, which was “downright.” A few of my friends had downright grandfathers. They were a deep mortification to their families, these untidy old men who sat on the Bank of Montreal steps in the summertime and spat amber tobacco jets onto the dusty sidewalk. They were described as “downright worthless” or “downright lazy,” these two terms being synonymous. These shadows of wastrels, these flimsy remnants of past profligates, with their dry laughter like the cackle of crows or the crackling of fallen leaves underfoot, embarrassed me terribly, although I did not have any idea why. Walking down main street, I would avoid looking at them, feeling somehow that they should not be on view, that they should be hidden away in an attic along with the other relics too common to be called antiques and too broken to be of any further use. Yet I was inexplicably drawn to them, too.
A MOVE TO LONDON
During the initial debates over his band membership, Dr. Oronhyatekha moved to London in 1875 and re-established his medical practice there. He was also appointed as physician to the nearby Oneida of Thames reserve. Like his appointment to Tyendinaga, this appointment may have resulted from his friendship with John A. Macdonald, although Macdonald was no longer prime minister (after 1874). Clearly they were still friends. Dr. Oronhyatekha wrote to congratulate Macdonald on his re-election to the seat of Kingston, and asserted that his return to the office of prime minister was just a matter of time. In conclusion, Dr. Oronhyatekha said he and his family all loved the name of “Sir John.” In fact, if his recently born baby girl, Annie Edith, had been a boy, he would have named him John Alexander as an expression of his feelings.41 However the appointment arose, Dr. Oronhyatekha visited the Oneida reserve every week for over a decade42 and opened a private medical practice in downtown London. Little is known of his practice there, but he became well known in the city, attested to by his entry in a local history. The author wrote that the
pleasant results that have followed his practice warmly testify to his ability and popularity as a physician; and to his natural qualifications as a medical practitioner he brings a mind well stored with medical learning, and an experience which others might well desire. A clever student, he avails himself of the latest and most popular works of medicine, keeping thoroughly posted with the progress of this science. Not only professionally, but as a citizen, in both private and public circles, the doctor has become well and favorably known.
Another London publication stated that Dr. Oronhyatekha was “almost too well known as to require comment.”43
Part of his fame stemmed from the controversial letters he wrote to newspapers, largely in defence of First Nations culture and society. A reader of the Toronto Mail wrote a letter to the editor in November 1875 ridiculing the idea that prohibition improved society. He used native society as proof of his argument. “The North American Indians enjoyed perfect prohibition,” he wrote. “They were certainly not industrious; their morality was questionable; their treachery and inhumanity were proverbial,” he concluded.
Dr. Oronhyatekha’s response was typically humorous but scathing. He assumed the author of the letter, a Mr. R.W. Phipps, was a white man, because all the statements he made except for one were false, and “that, according to our experience, is about the average truthfulness of the average white man.” Native peoples, while not “’hewers of wood and drawers of water,’” were assiduous and perseverant in their occupations as warriors and hunters. In fact, the Haudenosaunee, he said, commanded the respect of all native groups from the Atlantic to the Mississippi and from the Great Lakes to the Ohio River. Their confederacy was an “enduring monument to their wisdom, patriotism, and statesmanship,” and their constitution “might well have been copied by the framers” of Canadian confederation. As for immorality, Dr. Oronhyatekha continued, certainly it had increased, but that stemmed from contact with white men. “Let Mr. Phipps visit the Six Nations, and he will find that a simple stick or broom placed against the door of a house, indicating that there is nobody at home, more effectually protects the property in that house than all the locks and bars, watchmen, and police are able to do for property in the city of Toronto. Then, again, an Indian cannot curse and swear till he has learned the English or some other language than his own.” Still, he didn’t think that Canadians were especially immoral, but certainly he thought that “the Indians are ten-fold better than they are, and in the earlier times … the Indians were ten-fold better than they are now.” The Haudenosaunee had a golden rule, Dr. Oronhyatekha wrote: “’Do unto others as they do unto you;’ and if Mr. Phipps or any other white man has ever suffered treachery or inhumanity at the hands of Indians, it has been in consequence of the above Golden Rule.
A further exchange appeared from “B.A.” of Peterborough, attacking native treatment of women. Both Dr. Peter E. Jones and Dr. Oronhyatekha responded. It was true that Haudenosaunee women worked while the men were hunting or at war, Dr. Oronhyatekha agreed, but they never made them “do all the drudgery while we were engaged in drinking and carousing in some neighbouring beer-shop … at any rate not till the ’average’ white man taught us their superior way of treating women.” He asked if B.A. knew that hundreds of women worked in mills and factories in England in drudgery to support their husbands. In comparison, Haudenosaunee women were the holders of political power; they determined who became chief and were consulted by council about matters that concerned the confederacy. In fact, the Haudenosaunee were “so much better than white people owing in a measure to the exalted and untrammelled position our women occupy.”
Nevertheless, Dr. Oronhyatekha was “liberal enough to admit that there are some white men who very nearly approach the high standard of morality and true nobility of the Indians.” But when he saw his people slandered in a newspaper, he was compelled to show that “the Indian has always been, is now even in his degenerate days, and ever will be, better than any white man on the face of the earth.” In fact, he offered his “cordial sympathy” to B.A. “for having been so unfortunate as not to have been born an Indian.” 44
In 1877, he drew media attention in the St. Thomas Journal for his comments on the so-called discovery of the grave of Tecumseh, a Shawnee leader who was most known in Ontario as an ally of the British in the War of 1812. In the nineteenth century, there were numerous attempts to locate and excavate Tecumseh’s bones. The idea of finding Tecumseh’s burial ground originated with supporters of William Henry Harrison, during his American presidential campaign of 1840, who wished to honour him by collecting artifacts from his military triumphs over native groups. The resulting excavation in Ontario was met with outrage, although it seemed unlikely that the bones found were, in fact, Tecumseh’s. Subsequently, various communities and historical societies took up the cause to erect a monument near Tecumseh’s grave or at a place deemed honourable for his re-interment. One of these groups was the United Canadian Association, whose general mandate aimed to boost Canadian nationalism. Members of this association conferred with Chief George H.M. Johnson, Dr. Oronhyatekha’s cousin, who apparently owned a map that indicated the location of Tecumseh’s burial based on oral tradition. These directions indeed led to a grave, which the United Canadians excavated. They called upon Daniel Wilson, Dr. Oronhyatekha’s old professor from Toronto University, to examine the bones and verify that it was Tecumseh. Instead, Wilson pronounced the bones to be an assortment of human and animal bones, likely buried as a decoy.
Not all Canadians believed that Tecumseh should be immortalized with a monument, and several wrote to the St. Thomas Journal deriding such an idea. Author “E.D.H.” called Tecumseh and other natives savage, pagan, cruel, cowardly, lazy, thieving, and dirty. Dr. Oronhyatekha answered back in anger. If some natives now possessed the traits listed, it was because of the contact they had had with white men, he wrote. In fact, countered Dr. Oronhyatekha, “many of the most cruel and diabolical outrages … are done by white men disguised as Indians — by white men who, perhaps, are able to discern only a little less between right and wrong, between justice and intolerant bigotry,” than E.D.H. himself. With another sharp dig, he said he was “quite prepared to admit that my race are not what they once were — brave, just and honest; but my only wonder is that having been in more or less constant intercourse with white gentlemen like ’E.D.H.’ for a century or so they are not ten times worse than they are.” Further, he cited prominent anthropologists of the time who argued that First Nations possessed many admirable traits. In response, E.D.H. acknowledged that there were exceptions to his characterizations, including Dr. Oronhyatekha himself who had accomplished much. 45
In 1879, Dr. Oronhyatekha again appeared in local newspapers during his temporary appointment as physician to the Moraviantown reserve during a smallpox outbreak. 46 At first, it was not recognized as smallpox, delaying the use of quarantine. Moraviantown’s physician, Dr. George Tye, began to vaccinate everyone, but when some refused to be quarantined, he resigned. Other local doctors also refused to visit the reserve. Chief C.M. Stonefish and the Indian Agent Thomas Gordon called upon the Department of Indian Affairs to ask Dr. Oronhyatekha to attend the community. Ellen and the children worried that he would also fall sick, and, in fact, Dr. Oronhyatekha did not feel safe. But he did not see how he could refuse, since all other doctors had deserted them.
Over a number of days in late May, Dr. Oronhyatekha finished vaccinating most of the Moraviantown residents, but the disease had already spread. In June, to create an effective quarantine, he established a twelve-bed temporary hospital at the home of Jeremiah Stonefish, the brother of the chief, with Stonefish and his wife as attendants. The local band council also appointed Stonefish as a constable so that he could enforce sanitary regulations and ensure that all the sick were moved to the hospital. Council also enacted a bylaw forbidding visits to homes that had sick individuals, enforced by a fine ranging from two to ten dollars. To supervise the hospital and the general disinfection of homes and the clothing of the sick, Dr. Oronhyatekha hired Dr. Kenwendeshon (John C. Maracle), a Tyendinaga Mohawk who practised in Syracuse, New York. Kenwendeshon was a nephew through Ellen’s family and had apprenticed with Dr. Oronhyatekha in London; out of desperation for assistance, Dr. Oronhyatekha asked him to leave his practice temporarily. Leaving Maracle in charge of the day-to-day hospital operations, Dr. Oronhyatekha checked in each week and also visited families who needed medical treatment unrelated to smallpox. They were afraid, they told him, to see Maracle at the hospital in case they contracted the disease. Dr. Oronhyatekha’s own practice in London suffered because his patients feared exposure to smallpox.
Even though diphtheria and tuberculosis killed more Ontarians than smallpox — there had been just over one hundred deaths in the previous two years — smallpox epidemics were met with widespread dread. Edward Jenner had invented a vaccine in the 1790s, but supplies could be contaminated or ineffective. Further, the public feared that the vaccine actually caused the disease and resisted vaccination. Without compulsory vaccination, public health authorities could only rely on the goodwill of the public and the establishment of quarantine to quell an outbreak. For those who fell sick, all Dr. Oronhyatekha could do was dose them with cream of tartar and extract of malt, typical treatments of the time. 47
Public fear meant it was impossible to get food and other supplies for the hospital or for the Moraviantown residents. Merchants refused to deliver goods or to allow residents inside their shops. In the end, Chief Stonefish donated one of his cows to the hospital to provide much needed milk for patients. By late June, local politicians were so concerned that they jointly wrote to the Department of Indian Affairs expressing their fears. These concerns made the local papers, including London’s Free Press. Little had been done, it said. The sick had not been quarantined, and Dr. Oronhyatekha only visited occasionally and then only to vaccinate those not sick. It also described how the sick washed their clothes in streams and rivers, the very same water that other communities used. Very quickly, however, the Free Press printed an apology, describing Dr. Oronhyatekha’s establishment of quarantine and his arrangement for the hospital to be under the constant charge of Dr. Kenwendeshon. The implication that Moraviantown residents had poisoned local water was untrue, it backtracked. Shortly thereafter, Indian Agent Gordon and Dr. Oronhyatekha met with local politicians to reassuringly explain their course of action.
By late July, Dr. Oronhyatekha reported that there were only six patients at the hospital, and several of these would be discharged shortly. There were no new cases, so he hoped that the outbreak was almost over. The hospital closed in mid-August, although Dr. Kenwendeshon stayed two more weeks just in case. In the end, forty-two fell ill with smallpox and of these, thirteen died, but these deaths occurred before the hospital had been established.
Even Dr. Oronhyatekha’s role in stemming the outbreak of smallpox turned political. Originally, he had quoted a fee of twenty-five dollars per visit, but when he realized he would have to continue to visit Moraviantown to treat families who did not have smallpox, he changed his price to a more affordable monthly charge of one hundred and fifty dollars. The Department of Indian Affairs questioned this change, asking why he needed to visit the community so often since Dr. Kenwendeshon was in charge of daily hospital care. This query prompted Chief Frank Wampum to write to Indian Affairs, describing Dr. Oronhyatekha as a “sharp man” who had clearly conspired with Chief Stonefish to increase his profits. Agent Gordon also reported that he had charged for visits not made and that some described him as unprincipled. In the end, however, at a Moraviantown council meeting attended by all chiefs, Gordon, and Dr. Oronhyatekha, these misunderstandings were cleared up, and the chiefs agreed to pay his outstanding charges.
It happened while walking home from the bus stop on Oak Street and it hit me like the light hit Saul on the road to Damascus. The thunderbolt, the Sicilians call it — overwhelming love at first sight, obliterating everything else. The stomach falls through your feet like an astronaut in orbit, the world drops away in a blur of colour and muffled sound, reducing vision like the pinpoint of a surgical laser focused on the object of adoration: a dingo puppy in the window of the Fin & Feathers pet store on the south side of Broadway, a store I had been in many times but rarely even looked at now. It had mostly goldfish, small lizards and tropical birds though it carried the occasional tarantula, which was always noteworthy even if five minutes of tapping on the glass and staring at it meant twenty minutes of searching the bed and shaking the covers and curtains before crawling in at bedtime.
I knew it was a dingo because the sign behind the glass in the corner of his showcase pen said “Australian Dingo Puppy — $100.” He was orangey-brown and white and roly-poly and when I stopped in front of the glass he went wild from the attention, scratching and climbing up the window trying to get through.
I stood there for a few minutes touching the glass and watching him before I realized all I had to do was go inside and I did, banging the door off the inside wall 16 and setting the cockatiels and parrots and budgerigars to terrified squawking. The hamsters took it in stride but the man behind the counter leaped up and shouted at me. I had no time for him. My hands were already in the window box. The dingo was quivering with happiness and turning frantic circles of joy, wanting to be petted everywhere at once and I tried to oblige. He nipped and licked my hands with slobbery dog kisses. He was very lonely.
Is there any other animal that is instinctively happy to see a human being? A puppy will head straight to your hands even though it’s never seen a human in its short little life. Even a stray mutt on the street who’s been starved and beaten and abandoned will look at you with hope and anticipation, his innate attraction to humans inextinguishable. Dogs have a naturally high opinion of people that nothing we’ve done accounts for; they expect and anticipate the best from us and nothing will really dissuade them of it. Not even experience.
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