I suppose I have always had a bit of a thing about handwriting and English in general. At school, even secondary school, we had handwriting lessons. For the last two years of my rather average education I attended a very minor public school with eye-watering fees where we even had inter-school hand writing competitions! The importance of correctly spoken and written English was considered very important back then. This is something that seems to be lost on my two children and so I wanted to show my daughter what really good handwriting should look like. From my youth I have kept two books, both about what I think in these politically correct times should be called Canada’s First Nation. Actually, I am not sure that the country Canada should apply. In the back of the book pictured above is a pocket with a map and some of the letters that I kept from my Great Aunt who lived in Ontario, Canada who had the most beautiful handwriting that as a child I could never hope to emulate, nor now to be honest.
A voyage around my Great Aunt
My Great Aunt started to write to me when I was nine years old and over the years sent me many gifts. She was about the same age as my Scottish grandparents so would have been born in the late 1880’s or thereabouts and her children around the same age as my parents. She was First Nation, or, as we called them then, a Red Indian and was to become perhaps the greatest influence on my life although she was never to know this. The first thing she sent me was a dream catcher a few months after my mother died and the sky had fallen down on my world. It looked nothing like the one pictured above which was made by my daughter when she was in the Girl Guides. Mine was a like a wooden hoop with a red spiders web and a single feather from an Eagle. Living in the suburbs of London in England I had never seen an Eagle, only pictures of them. The letter that came with it told me that boys had an eagle’s feather because they were brave and girls an owl’s feather because they were wise. I would have to be both brave and wise. My father told me that she had lived on an island, worked for the Department of Indian Affairs and was very old and when I replied to her letters it was to be in my best handwriting and I must remember to be very polite. I did know that she wrote to my parents and my father’s sister and knew them though how or when I had no idea. In later years I would find out that she had made quite an impression on my family and relatives. I would receive presents on my birthday and at other times but never at Christmas. Each letter I received she would ask me about what I did and so so on which meant I had to write rather long letters back which had to be carefully planned before I even started to write them out in the best handwriting I could manage. This was to make writing school essays and then short stories very easy. She wrote and told me about her childhood when she was the same age as me and also stories that she had been told as a child. The 1890’s and early 1900’s must have been turbulent times in Canada as they were in Europe too but I would never have known it from anything that she wrote. It all seemed so very idyllic and rather wonderful. I was also sent photographs, some were postcards mostly in black and white. The girls seemed to have beautiful names, some of which I remember like Two Feathers and I think it was her elder sister, White Deer and another called Half Sky. I seem to remember that the name Half Sky had a special meaning although what it was now I have no idea. It also lead to a few misconceptions. I was told how they harvested rice by canoe on the lake and for quite a few years when we had rice at home I thought all rice was harvested like that. By the age of twelve or thirteen I must have been quite knowledgeable of Indian life and culture at the turn of the century but knew nothing at all about how Indians lived in the 1950’s and 60’s.
Cowboys and Indians
Like most children in the fifties and sixties in England we played cowboys and Indians, influenced by the films in the cinema and programmes on children’s television. Many of us had cowboy or Indian outfits and I even had a wigwam play tent in the garden. There was one difference with my Indian outfit. It was the real thing and I had the photographs and letters to prove it. I had real “street cred” back then. I only wore the moccasin shoes in the house or garden as they would have worn out very quickly on the concrete street pavements. My generation in England were the great plains Indians of world war two bomb sites of places like Bethnal Green in east London and I used to play on what had been a prisoner of war camp near to my house as well as the local park. I knew very well that the films we saw and the games we played had nothing to do with real Indians. I didn’t really know anything about how Indians lived in the 1950’s but I new perfectly well that my great aunt lived in a house not so very different from my own.
I seemed to have developed rather a flair for writing in my youth thanks almost entirely to my Great Aunt who managed to tell me stories condensed into just a few pages of air mail notepaper. I did suffer the embarrassment of having a few essays read out in class and at the age of thirteen was made editor of the school magazine at my first secondary school. A year later I went to another school for a commercial course. I was fifteen when, for our English homework, during the Summer holidays we were given the task of writing a short story. This was to be typed with double spacing and with a carbon copy. Children, particularly teenagers, never listen to their parents, teachers or anybody else for that matter, perhaps we didn’t know what it was for anyway. At fifteen I had better things to do than to waste my precious holidays writing what was in effect a very long essay for school. I decided to write a story based on the stories told to me by my Great Aunt. I possibly got a bit carried away with it but I handed it in and forgot about it. At least it was far too long to be read out in class and would only be read by the teacher if she even bothered to do that. Oh, how wrong I was to be. Our English teacher announced that my story, Sacred Rock, was being entered into a young writers competition. I died with embarrassment in class that day. I was to die several more deaths later on. It was duly published along with some of the other entrants. I found the whole thing totally embarrassing and it was to haunt me for some time. I really do not know what I did write but I was mindful of what my Great Aunt had told me that some of the things she had told me about were just for me to know but not to be shared with others. I remember one of the stories she told me when I was very much younger about what happened to children who tried to copy some of the sacred ceremonies and became stars in the sky. Actually, it was quite a nice story but even at a very young age I had understood the point of it.
Walking on broken glass
Some years after my great aunt died her family came to England for a holiday and I had the opportunity to meet them. I am sure that I would have liked to ask many questions about my Great Aunt but never did as I gathered it might not be appropriate. It seemed that they were not considered real Indians at all since their father was not Indian and I got the impression that they were discriminated against by other Indians. They were more interested in their Scottish ancestry and relatives in England than anything else. They didn’t do the “Indian Thing”. I should not have been surprised as I had always considered myself as English and didn’t do the “Scottish Thing” either although I had worn the family tartan to keep some of the relatives happy when I was younger. By Indian criteria then I am not English or Scottish since my maternal Grandfather was half German and half English and being second generation English counts for nothing. These days on government forms that ask for your ethnicity, I always leave that blank, they can mind their own business. What could my children put down either as their maternal grandmother is half Chinese and half Japanese. I had always wanted to go to visit my Great Aunt in Canada when I was younger but since she died in the late sixties there didn’t seem much point. From what I read nowadays I don’t think I would be very welcome or maybe even allowed on the reservation where my Great Aunt and relatives lived. I just get the impression that if you say anything about the first nations of America or Canada then somebody who either is an Indian or who has an ancestor who was will try to make out that whatever you say is disrespectful or downright insulting. Why they try to make us walk on broken glass I do not understand. It reminds of when I was a child and being careful not to get cut with all the broken glass on the bomb sites where we played. I expect somebody will read this and would like to nail my hide on the front door, so be it. Comments are always welcome but please remember I did not kill any Indians, steal their land or anything else, neither did my ancestors.