Walking Back the Cat


William Safire in Sleeper Spy defines ‘walking back the cat’
as using what we know from the point of discovery to reveal who knew
what prior to the point of discovery.


Let’s walk back the cat, to a time when life was simpler, the forest pristine, the water clear, talking leaves yet to come and you-know-who, far away across the sea. Indians didn’t exist then; Haudenaushonee did, Anishnabe did, Tubatulabel did, Ani Yunwiya did. Hundreds of our nations lived, worked and played across the continent.

Our stories were us, what we knew, where we came from and where we were going. They were told to remind of us of our responsibility, to instruct, and to entertain. There were stories of the Creation, our travels, our laws. There were legends of hard-fought battles, funny anecdotes – some from the smokehouse, some from the trickster – and there were scary stories to remind us of danger, spiritual and otherwise. Stories were our life and they still are.

Then came the Indian. Whether it was Columbus’s utterance In Dios, implying native people were a people in God, or his supposed destination, the Indies, that caused him to call Natives Indians, is now unimportant. Whatever it was, from that point on, our individual Native nations, our celebrated differences, ceased to matter. We were all, all Native peoples of the hemisphere, called Indians.

Our long-told stories were declared relics by missionaries and adventurers, and were eventually replaced by Indian stories. They filled the non-Native readers with a sense of adventure and a longing to come see for themselves. And come they did. Native people became spies in the imaginary landscape of the Indian. Chief Broom, in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, summed up more than two centuries of Indian stories with his insistence that, “it’s the truth, even if it didn’t happen.”

In their Indian stories, Rousseau and the Romantics depicted Indians as Noble Savages, closer to Nature and somehow more pure. But the Noble Indian alternative lifestyle depicted in their romances couldn’t prevail without undermining the Christian European society from which Rosseau and the Romantics were escaping. If Natives were so noble, then they couldn’t justify stealing land, killing, or converting them. This created the Good Indian and the Bad Indian, both of whom populated the frontier wherever it was for whatever purpose the writer desired. As recently as Michael Blake’s Dances With Wolves, we read that the Lakota were good Indians, embodying the good in all people, including Dunbar; while the Pawnee were evil, killing with “psychotic precision.”

In Canada, there were no Indian wars, no bad Indians, just victims of expansion and greed. A. M. Klein’s lines from “Indian Reservation: Caughnawaga” where ‘Indians dance for bribes and with bedraggled feathers welcome a white mayor to the tribe’, epitomize the Indian as victim.

The literature of dominance produced the stereotypes:

Noble savages, bad Indians, and victims.

They are constructs, red silhouettes dancing on a white page, designed to illustrate the author’s moral tale. It is the hollow-eyed context of dominance — the Indian forever losing to the cowboys, selling their land for whisky, killing with psychotic precision — that reduces and defines Indian literature in the stories of Hiawatha, Chingcachook, Kicking Bird, Pocohantas and others.

Tom King developed a bush-wise Native narrator in his “One Good Story, That One.” The narrator subverts the Christian Genesis story for three white anthropologists demanding a good Indian story. By the end of the story, god is seen as selfish and uncaring, Eve is strong, and Adam is stupid and whining. The narrator has moved from victim to victor. It is a humourous reversal of expectations, and the pay- off is a story of survival, which brings us to walking back the cat.

There are two worlds:

the New World with its Indian stories,
and the Native world alive with our stories.

The new world is:

empty materialism, full of decay, fear, alcohol, longing, death and a remote uncaring God.

The waters are brown, the forests gone, life is hard and the dream of peaceful homogeneity has become a nightmare.

In contrast, we see the Native world, our world, filled with laughter, family, love, life, and the Creator. We celebrate our differences and find beauty within; but it hasn’t always been so. We were temporarily lost in the untamed land of the imaginary Indian. We were Native peoples playing an Indian roll, seeking recognition and respect defined by non-Native expectations. We wanted to be Indians in the New World.

Over time, we saw that Indian stories weren’t our stories, they weren’t even about us, they were about non-Native writers and their worlds. We threw away our beer bottles and Redskins hats, reclaimed our history, our stories, our identities and entered the Post-Indian world. In the process, we confirmed who we are, where we’ve been and where we are going.

Beth Brant, a Bay of Quinte Mohawk writer, dips into the Indian-landscape’s colors and creates a complex tapestry, taking readers to unexpected vistas using the well-defined Indian story expectations against the reader. She tells Anna May’s story of survival in Swimming Upstream. Anna May’s son has drowned and she is speeding to one last rendezvous with the bottle and then who knows what. But we know what.

We know death — a drunken death, warm and tingling–is her final method for coping.

She stops by a waterfall and watches the salmon climb, one cascade at a time. She sees her son as a salmon and chants his name, “Simon, Simon,” willing a wounded fish over the last hurdle. She has found her spiritual center and the Post-Indian world of survival. Spiritual health is the greatest concern of Post-Indian writers. It is a manifestation of the Post-Indian world. Characters are born into the Indian landscape and survive it, but not without great pain. There are no Castenada peyote-dreams, no walk-on shamans to dull the torment. There is no forgiving Creator to pass sin onto, just ourselves working on ourselves. It is that work, which is at the core of Post-Indian literature. It is that work, which transforms multi-generational anger into a commitment to the people. It is that work, which allows us to reclaim our stories and our lives.

The Post-Indian world is a different world than the one taken from us five hundred years ago, but it is our world and in it we are free.


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