The Republic of Tricksterism
We were urban mixed-bloods. Shopping malls and beer parlors were our sacred grounds; as we reached adolescence in the ‘70s, the Sex Pistols and the Clash provided the tribal drums. Fallen between the seams and exiled from the reserves we were the prisoners of bureaucratic apartheid, of red tape and parliamentary decrees.
Our tribal links were obscure, our colonial banishment confirmed by the Indian Act. White bureaucrats and tribal politicians alike were our oppressors. "We are heading toward self-government," proclaimed Tobe, the Grand Chief of the Fermentation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN) as he shook the hand of then Saskatchewan Premier Allan Blakeney.
In his hands Tobe, the Grand Chief, held a paper promising tens of millions of dollars; but that money and power were destined for only a select few. The Grand Chief's vision was obscured by power and long-legged blondes. He denounced Indian women who married white men, while blond secretaries and assistants crossed their legs in his plush office at the FSIN.
Mary Seesequasis, a.k.a. Ogresko, was born on Beardy's Reserve in central Saskatchewan on January 20,1934, the first child of Sam Seesequasis, of Beardy's Reserve, and Mary Rose Nahtowenhow, of the Sturgeon Lake band. Sam, my nimosom, danced through life with gentleness and humor and became a leader in the community. Mary Rose, my nohkom, was large and became a bear when she laughed. She hunted rabbits, decapitated chickens, and farted in the direction of bureaucrats and posers.
They made love, had nine children, and seven lived to adulthood.
The Grand-Chief-to-be and his family lived downwind from my grandmother's farts. He was born the same day as my mother and they played together as children; they fell asleep infused with dreams of Wesakaychuk and Pakakos; they hid under the covers from the wetigoes and hairy hearts.
But their lives were destined to take far different paths. Tobe was born mixed-blood; his father Cree, his mother white. But the irony and humor of being mixed-race was lost on Tobe. He would grow up as a mixed-race "pure-blood"; purer than thou and given to exaggerating the quantity of his half-cup of tribal blood, Tobe lived in denial of his white parentage.
The Indian Act enabled Tobe to imagine himself a pure-blood. With Indian father and white mother, he was allowed to stay on the reserve. In 1950, my mother met and fell in love with a white man, Dennis Ogresko, and because she was hisqueau, she had to leave the reserve.
The hairy hearts ran amuck in 1950s Saskatchewan; cannibal spirits plagued the small towns and hid in grain elevators. It was open season on squaws, wagon-burners, and mixed-breeds. By courageously proclaiming brown-white love, my parents challenged the humorless segregational values of the time. Unable to hide on the reserve they learned to bear the taunts and jeers with laughter. That love could exist between races offended all the pure- breeds; and by making love, Dennis and Mary parented two cross-breed mutts—my brother and me.
We experienced childhood between the seams, spending summers on the reserve, winters in the city. We played without leashes; without pedigree, we learned to live with our genetic-mixture coats and our lack of papers. We pissed on the city trees, marked our traditional urban territories, and barked ferociously at the white poodles. It was the 1960s and my mother, now a registered nurse, worked at the Community Clinic in Prince Albert in northern Saskatchewan, where she healed the urban orphans and mixed-bloods who were now entering the cities in increasing numbers.
Tobe, the mixed-blood pure-blood, had grown up too. He became a tribal politician, a chief of the reserve, and a wearer of suits and ties. His hair was short and his speeches were long. He spoke of self-government and economic development, but his mind was focused on attending conferences and getting laid in hotels. With enthusiasm he joined Wild Jean's Indian Affairs Bandwagon and Wild West Show; and with conferences here and there and blondes to his left and right, he lived the modern-day chief's delight. Tobe sold his Pontiac—the Poor Old Nechee had thought it was a Cadillac—and actually bought a real Cadillac. He hired a blond chauffeur. But while Tobe played the colonial game, a revolution was brewing in Prince Albert.
Malcolm Norris was a Metis trickster, a rigorueau, and a shit-disturber and activist par excellence: a cofounder of the Metis Association of Alberta in the 1930s and an urban activist who cut through the lies of white bureaucrats and tribal politicians alike. Fate had landed him in Prince Albert and, in 1965, he and my mother became friends.
As a rigorueau, Malcom Norris was hated by the hairy hearts and the cannibal spirits. They envied his power, his ability to turn into a dog, a bear, or almost any kind of rodent he chose. From Malcolm, I learned to see the evil spirits around me. I felt the disapproving glares of the police, farmers, tribal politicians, and store owners. They were everywhere in the city and their numbers were increasing.
The cannibal spirits and the hairy hearts ruled the cities and reserves. They fed on both Indians and whites. "There just aren't enough of us rigorueaus left to stop them," Malcolm once told me. "These evil spirits," he explained, "feed on souls that are empty, rub against their bodies, and penetrate the skin. Sometimes a person can repel them if he is strong enough, or he can call on a rigorueau to drive the spirit away. But most people succumb and the cannibal spirits continue in their goal to create a world of hate. A world in which they can proliferate."
Then one day, Malcolm was missing. Search parties were organized and the mixed-bloods and urban orphans looked everywhere, but it was the squirrels, the rodent friends of the rigorueau, who led us to him. He had been dumped into a grain chute and his body was badly beaten. While the crows cawed mournfully and the stray dogs howled their lament, our procession carried Malcolm back to our house. He was laid on a bed and a group of women healers worked with him; after a few days, his heart began to beat again. Time passed and Malcolm cracked a smile. "My spirit has tasted life again, though parts of my body never will," he said. True he was now paralyzed from the waist down.
But being confined to a wheelchair didn't slow Malcolm down. He wanted to take over the Prince Albert Friendship Center and remove the metal detectors from the door. Those detectors beeped a warning any rime someone without an Indian-blood status card tried to walk past them. He called a gathering of mixed-bloods and orphans, at which he spoke passionately about uniting all urban skins, mixed or full. "Burn your status cards!" he proclaimed. "And throw away your colonial pedigree papers. Don't let the white man define us. Let's define ourselves." The mixed-bloods and urban orphans from the streets cheered and, with Malcolm leading them, they grabbed trees as battering rams and forced their way into the Friendship Center as the suits and ties, panic-stricken, climbed out the back windows. Leaving in such a rush, the suits didn't have rime to shred their Indian Affairs hit list or their sacred status-card membership rolls. The Republic of Tricksterism, where humor rules and bureaucrats are banished, was proclaimed. "All skins are equal" was the first constitutional decree and a pair of red drawers became the new flag. Skins from the street came in to help the social workers heal themselves and tribal lawyers were deprogrammed.
The Prince Albert Regional Tribal Council was in a panic. They passed resolutions and sent ultimatums to the Republic of Tricksterism, demanding that it abdicate power. "We are the chiefs," they reassured themselves, "the big white men in Ottawa say so." "Ah—go on," replied the Republic of Tricksterism. When even memos from the Department of Indian Affairs failed to dislodge the trickster upstarts, the Tribal Council called in its heavy: Tobe.
Tobe, now the second-in-command at the FSIN in Regina, arrived in Prince Albert with a hundred tribal goons. They were armed with baseball bats, dog repellent, and mace. "When we talk about self-government we mean it for us, not for them," Tobe proclaimed as the chiefs cheered, patted their beer bellies, and licked their fat lips in anticipation.
The assault came at dawn. Calling in the mounties, who donned full regalia and did a musical ride alongside them in honor of the chiefs, Tobe and the goons marched in a column toward the Friendship Center. But the urban animals, the squirrels, raccoons, and foxes, ran out ahead of the approaching army and barked out a warning to the citizens of the Republic of Tricksterism.
"We must avert bloodshed," Malcolm observed to the citizens. "Violence is the tool of fools. It is with humor and irreverence that we urban animals must survive. Let them have their building back; let them issue their proclamations with dead trees; let them have their dubious titles like national chief; let them become the media stars: we'll find our humor back on the streets."
And so it came to be that Tobe and his goons recaptured the Prince Albert Friendship Center without bloodshed. "These mixed-bloods are cowards," Tobe proclaimed. The joke was lost on him.
Malcolm Norris was captured by the tribal goons and brought before the Prince Albert Regional Tribal Council. "He must be punished as an example," proclaimed Tobe. "He has committed blasphemy and challenged our noble and sacred institutions."
"Spare him!" yelled the urban orphans
and mixed-bloods but, as always the chiefs were deaf to the sounds of
the streets. On a Sunday, surrounded by a procession of goons, Malcolm
was forced to wheel his chair to the highest hill in Prince Albert.
There he was nailed to a metal medicine wheel, his arms and legs spread
in the four directions. Malcolm died soon after, and his body was taken
by the goons and buried in an unmarked grave. The mixed-bloods and urban
orphans mourned. Crows flew high and cawed his name to the clouds. A
wake was held, and for four days the memory fires burned from street-corner
garbage cans. On the fifth day the crows told the people that Malcolm
had been resurrected but that he had come back as a termite.
Rumor has it that even today Malcolm, the termite, has led an army of termites into a certain national chief's organization where he is currently munching away at the legs of a certain national chief's chair. Meanwhile with the retaking of the Friendship Center as another dishonorable feather in his war bonnet, Tobe ran for national leader of the FSIN and won the big chief position at that fermenting organization.
"Who better to speak the politicians' garble? Who better to hide the truth between platitudes of self-government and economic development than Tobe?" proclaimed the FSIN in their press release announcing his victory.
Then in May 1987, despite the opposition of the FSIN, C-31 became law. With the stroke of a bureaucratic pen, status was restored to those long denied, as if the government could, with a decree, instantly undo a hundred years of damage. "Hallelujah, we're Indians," was the ironic response of the mixed-bloods. Our hearts soared like drunken eagles. We donned our chicken-feather headdresses, our squirrel-tail bustles, and fancy-danced around the Midtown Plaza.
For my mother, a fall-blood Cree woman, the seemingly gracious convening of status was a double irony that could be dealt with only with humor. In the FSIN offices, Tobe, the mixed-blood pure-blood, and his Indiancrats, were having a bad day. They grumbled, drank double shots of rye, and hit their blond secretaries.
But C-31 was only a temporary irritation for Tobe. He remained focused on his career. He wore blinders whenever he entered the city so as not to see the urban orphans. He talked about First Nations as if the cities did not exist. He became bloated with his power and gained weight by the hour. As the Honorable Heap Big Chief, he increased his salary and his belly respectively. Meanwhile Mary Seesequasis moved to Saskatoon and worked at the 20th Street Community Clinic where she administered to the mixed-bloods, the whores, dykes, queers, street people: everyone.
"We are not victims. We are survivors," was the motto she lived by. Tobe was a survivor too, but in a more dangerous game. My mother saw the Indian Act as a bad joke. Tobe embraced it as a career. His sense of humor was lost in the shuffle of colonial cards and his heart was hardened by the cannibal spirits.