A heartbreaking love story set against the beauty of the north.
In 1972, John Daniel, an eleven-year-old Blue Indian from Aberdeen in Canada's Northwest Territories, and his six-year-old sister, Eva, were brought to live with a white couple in Alberta, having been removed from their parents by the Powers that Be. John promised he'd never go back. But in October 1984, at twenty-two, he broke that promise. A job with a drilling company brought him back to the land of his people, and Tina Joseph, to whom he was deeply attracted, encouraged him to confront the sad truths of his parents' lives.
In a compelling combination of storytelling and truth-telling, The Pale Indian recalls the power and passion of its predecessor, Porcupines and China Dolls. It is a novel of secrets, lies, and madness written with power and eloquence.
About the author
Robert Arthur Alexie (1957–2014) was a novelist and land-claim negotiator. Born and raised in Fort McPherson in the Northwest Territories, he became the chief of the Tetlit Gwich'in of Fort McPherson, served two terms as vice president of the Gwich'in Tribal Council and helped obtain a land-claim agreement for the Gwich'in of the Northwest Territories.
Excerpt: Pale Indian (by (author) Robert Arthur Alexie)
The land is located in Canada’s Northwest Territories to the west of the Mackenzie River, a few hundred miles south of Inuvik and a hundred years northwest of Yellowknife. It is a beautiful land with tall-standing trees, wide open valleys, low rolling hills and majestic mountains. It is also harsh and unforgiving; temperatures can rise to thirty-five degrees Celsius under the midnight sun and drop to forty-five below during the long, dark winter months.
The most prominent feature in this land is the Blue Mountains—tall, dark and foreboding. From deep within these fabled mountains the Teal River gushes, and then meanders through low rolling hills and boreal forest before merging with the mighty Mackenzie River.
This is the land of the Blue People, or Indians. Prior to European contact they were hunters and gatherers, and did not have an easy life. Theirs was a daily struggle for survival, and starvation was not uncommon. They fished along the rivers in the summer, then moved into the hills to harvest caribou in the fall. Theirs was a nomadic existence: moving from the mountains to the rivers, from where game was scarce to where it was plentiful. For thousands of years, the People lived in the Blue Mountains, usually undisturbed. But things were about to change; the future was unfolding as it should.
The future arrived in the form of intruders, or newcomers. The first of these arrived in the summer of 1789: a white explorer by the name of Alexander Mackenzie. There were other explorers, but they are not important to our story.
The fur traders arrived soon after and brought goods that made the lives of the People easier. This group set up a trading post on the Teal River that would later become the community of Aberdeen. The traders also brought something else to the People: the fiddle and dances called jigs, square dances and waltzes that the People would soon adopt as their own, and for good reason.
That reason arrived in 1850: the missionaries. This group would have the greatest impact on the People, but no one knew it at the time.
In 1903, another group of people arrived: the North West Mounted Police, now called the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. They established a post in Aberdeen, enforced the white man’s law and have never left.
In 1921, the last of the newcomers arrived: the Treaty Party. There’s a lot of controversy about what was or wasn’t in the Treaty, but most of this is not important to our story. What is important is that the government and the People agreed that the Treaty contained a clause that states: “His Majesty will pay the salaries of teachers to instruct the children of the said Indians in a manner deemed advisable by His Majesty’s government.”
Even back then the People realized the value of the white man’s education and didn’t make a big fuss about it; they just didn’t realize how it would be done. They put their faith and trust in His Majesty and His Majesty’s government and believed that their “said children” would be cared for; they had no reason to think otherwise.
It should be noted that the missionaries, who had gained the trust of the People, were influential in persuading them to sign the Treaty despite the fact that none of the People knew how to read or write. What the People didn’t know was that the church would be given the responsibility of educating their “said children.” It sounds like patronage and is now a contentious issue, but that’s beside the point. The point is that the lives of the Blue People, like the lives of all indigenous peoples in the North, were about to take an ass-kicking not seen since Custer got his kicked at Little Bighorn. Some say it was retribution for Custer’s demise. Some say it was Manifest Destiny. Others say it was just the way things were.
Soon after the People put their Xs on the Treaty, the first mission boat arrived in Aberdeen and thirty-five children were herded out of the Blue Mountains and dragged off to mission school. It had begun, but no one knew what it was. It was a time of mission schools, residential schools and hostels. It was a time of assimilation, integration and cultural genocide. It was a time of change and a new and emerging North.
In this new and emerging North, another community—Helena—was established in the 1930s on the Mackenzie River to the east of Aberdeen. By the mid-1950s, Helena had a population of fifteen hundred and boasted a new hospital, a radio station, two hotels, two bars and two retail stores. The government also built a high school and two hostels: one for Catholics and one for Anglicans. Hostels—that’s what the government decided to call the residential schools, which used to be called mission schools.
By this time, Aberdeen had two stores, a nursing station, a small government office, a three-man RCMP detachment, a power-generating plant and not much else. Tugs and barges still plied the Mackenzie and Teal rivers each summer, bringing in the annual supply of goods. Air travel was still a novelty, and the mail took a few weeks to get to and from Edmonton. Some say it still does.
There were fifty white people living in Aberdeen, and more arrived every year. They lived in stick-built houses with running water, washing machines and electric lights. They associated with the People, but only if absolutely necessary.
There were between four and five hundred of the People living in the Blue Mountains, hunting, fishing and trapping. They stayed in extended family units and looked after their parents and grandparents, and only came to town during Christmas, Easter and for part of the summer. They lived in log houses with wood stoves and had no running water or electric lights. They didn’t associate with the whites and were never invited to.
In 1959, the government built a school and a hostel in Aberdeen. The school was separated from the hostel and administered by the government, which brought in white teachers from the south. It would be another ten years before the first Blue Indian became a teacher, but in Indian Time that’s a million years.
The hostel, despite having a new name, wasn’t very different from the mission schools and residential schools in that it was funded by government and administered by the church, which still brought in white people from the south to supervise the boys and girls. No one thought about hiring one of the People to supervise; instead, they hired them to work in the kitchen and clean up: menial work.
The People still brought their “said children” to the hostel in September. The children, like their parents and grandparents before them, were still herded into dorms where their hair was sheared and cut so they looked like porcupines and china dolls. They were still deloused, given identical clothes to wear, forced to line up for meals, for school, for bed and for almost everything else. They were also still forced to pray and forget what their parents had taught them about the Old People and the Old Ways.
For the record, another thing remained unchanged: In the dark recesses of the hostels, some things still went bump in the night, but no one talked about it. Talking about it meant talking against the men and women of God, and that’s something you never did.
Something else also happened in the early 1960s in Canada: The government bestowed upon its status Indians, and that included most of the Blue People, the honour of becoming Canadian citizens in their own land. This meant, among other things, that they had the right to vote, hold public office, own property, own a business, serve in the armed forces and consume alcohol without fear of losing their Indian status. The government was right: The newly acquired rights did not take away the Indians’ status. They took away a whole lot more.