One of the many decorations in the background of the bar in the TV sitcom Cheers is a wooden Indian affectionately known as Tecumseh. It’s been a long time since I’ve watched the show, but to the best of my recollection, the only time it’s really brought to the forefront is one of the episodes after the bar burns down. Part of the renovations involves having Tecumseh refinished and there’s a brief moment of celebration when the bar’s mascot returns from being restored.
It’s basically a harmless scene, and as far as I can remember there’s no other episode that mentions it, but there’s still that mild awkwardness seeing Sammy cry out with joy ‘Hey! Tecumseh’s back!’
Times change, and a harmless joke becomes a little bit squicky. But there’s no real malice involved so it mostly falls into the category of ‘Huh. Well that’s a bit fucked.’
So let’s continue with Uprising:
Bill and Al walked up to the base of the church steps and stopped. A large, round man dressed in jeans, a deerskin jacket, and a war bonnet waved to them. “Hey you guys in the nice suits, come on in, you’ll learn something. Maybe you’ll even come back to your people. Come on, nothing to fear here.”
The doorman’s wearing jeans, a deerskin jacket, and a warbonnet. There’s no mention of his nationality, but a majority of the Indigenous people in Winnipeg are Cree, Ojibway, & Peguis (a nation that combined both). I googled ‘Manitoba Cree headdress’ and came up with this:
Try and picture this. Now try and picture this guy telling a couple of Cree wearing business suites to come back to their people. Now consider that this was written by a ‘white’ guy.
And we’re not even a paragraph in.
[Bill, reading the mood of the crowd] Bill suspected that many, like him, were eager simply to see in person this radical native debater made famous by television – an outspoken, uncompromising critic of nearly every public leader, native and white. Here tonight the “talking head” would finally become a real, live person. Would she, he wondered, seem smaller than she appeared on the tube? He expected little from the evening except a diversion from his immediate worries: a review, now two weeks late, of a case study into how the media distorts the reality of urban native life.
Made famous by TV? I thought little was known about Molly Grace so much that Gabriel had been unsure of her actual existence? Editing and proof reading. It’s your friend.
Molly Grace strode through the door and down the long aisle, reaching for hands and nodding to familiar faces. The cheers grew louder and louder as people looked over their shoulders, trying to catch a glimpse, then joined the welcome with claps, whistles, and shrieks. Bill turned and observed that she seemed more ordinary than on TV. Almost embarrassed by the thought, he searched for some distinguishing feature. Molly looked to be mid-thirties, dark hair worn in a long braid, a classically native, strongly featured face. Okay, Bill confessed to himself, she had a bold, captivating smile, and there was something very alive about her eyes. As she waked, her coat flapped open, revealing a slim figure under a simple dress. Both the woman and the dress were attractive, but she was not, to Bill at that moment, remarkable.
I do want to say again that at the very least it’s somewhat progressive of Bland to have made the brilliant leader of the uprising a woman, and actually try to make her appear forceful and Charismatic. It’s also noteworthy that, given how many named characters don’t even get the most basic descriptions, we can here construct a definite mental image. Making her a charismatic speaker and expert political showman works too, at least in theory. Someone who can stoke the emotional embers into a roaring fire could prove devastating when pitted against a weaker sounding, indecisive opponent.
Here, Bland has her addressing a crowd of mostly downtrodden Indigenous people straight off the streets of Winnipeg. The poor, the desperate, and most of all, the overlooked. If Bland had made her a more shadowy figure instead of a well known TV personality, there could be a real point to make here. A rebellion born in the ranks of society’s most powerless could very well happen right under the noses of the ‘white’ majority.
But to make her convincing as an agitator, Bland has to show her speaking. Almost right away the spell is broken.
“Our people,” she began in a melodious, compelling voice, the repeated the phrased more strongly, pointing around the room. “Our people, you and me, we own the land! We own the land, not as a mere asset, but as the people of the land, a part of the whole. We own the land as the wind owns the prairie grass, the geese the sky, the wolves the forests. We are one people, the living and the ancestors, the spirits and the future. But we have been torn from the land, stripped of our heritage. We have surrendered our ancestors and ourselves. And for what?”
The congregation, utterly silent in the dim light of the crowded hall, waited breathlessly for the word. “We surrendered our land, our place in the land, to aliens, white settlers, and their destructive ideas of land as property, land as profit. Land, the whites say, is without real value, except when it is exploited, given a price. We allowed them, and yes, our so-called leaders continue to allow them, to lock up our bodies on reserves, our rights in their courts, and our spirits in a never-world, abandoned to wander far from our homes. We, the people, have become, as the land is in the white mind, without real value except as workers to be exploited, worth money or worth nothing.
Right off the bat, a bit of a nitpick. When you just spent the last chapter talking about the culture shock experienced by kids coming off the Rez and getting dumped into the big city, it might be worth carrying that theme on into the next.
Most of the people in the room are likely Cree or Ojibway, but the northern Manitoba region also include Peguis, Dene, Inuit, and many others. That’s multiple language groups and traditions. I’m not saying they’d be instantly at each other’s throats, but take the culture shock already discussed and add to that the fact that a lot of your fellow Natives on the streets of the Peg have different languages & backgrounds from yours… You’d think it’d be something worth addressing, is all I’m saying.
The faithful in the crowd, already converted by a message they had obviously heard before, joined the speaker. “Yes, they have!” “Yes, we have!” “No more!” “Never again!” “We own the land!”
Others listened, rapt, hearing the true sound of their own existence for the first time. Inside them the same cries sounded. “Never again!” “Shame on us!” “We own the land!”
So we’re clear, the cry of “Shame on us!” isn’t spoken out loud. It’s in the mind(s) of the audience. They have never heard the true sound (???) of their own existence, and their first thought is of shame.
Part of the reason I wanted to include Thomas King’s book ‘The Inconvenient Indian’ before I got to this part of the deconstruction, was because King himself had a similar moment in real life while hearing about the Wounded Knee standoff at a rally in Salt Lake City. He too had a moment where his blood was stirred, and I think that the contrast is something that’s worth revisiting here.
King felt his moment come towards the end of a rally where multiple speakers had been speaking very bluntly about a very real crisis that was unfolding at that very moment at the Pine Ridge reservation. Towards the end of the rally, an elder woman cried out “Where are the Warriors?” and King felt a desperate need to answer this call. This wasn’t some vague discussion about settlers taking the land centuries ago. The people at that rally in Salt Lake City knew the names of many of the AIM activists at Wounded Knee, and they knew about the violence that motivated AIM to act. When King got into that van to travel to Pine Ridge, he was on his way to help real life people.
What I’m saying is that it’s weird to hear Bland explain how new listeners in the audience have never heard someone talking about how whitey screwed them all before now. It’s even weirder to hear that their first reaction is to feel shame instead of anger.
On she went, speaking without notes, not missing a beat. “White academics provide new shackles, new reasons to dismiss our people. We’re the ‘fourth world,’ people lower than any East Indian ‘untouchable’ or outcast in darkest Africa. They say we’re trapped in dependency, unable to escape because we are too weak. We are doomed to indignity because we are too few. Our so-called native leaders join this self-serving white non-sense, repeating their humiliating words: ‘You are too weak…you cannot replace the alien community…you cannot free yourselves.’ These men are no longer natives like us, they are white Indians, sniffing for scraps from the settlers’ tables, working to hold us in check, preaching accommodation and delivering despair.
“We are trapped, the white academics declare, between being ourselves-unattainable because the traditional ways are gone-and being members of the community-unattainable because the white settlers won’t accept us. But it gets worse…they say we can’t even follow the example of the blacks in old British African colonies who destroyed white imperialism long ago.
Keep in mind, she’s talking to an audience whom we know from the previous chapter to be under-educated, culture shocked and out of place. Many of them are currently homeless, and presumably some are wrestling with addiction and health issues. Yet she’s invoking East Indian ‘untouchables,’ and using terms like ‘accommodation’ and ‘replace the alien community’ like she’s at a University bar at one thirty in the morning, arguing with pretentious undergrads.
Then there’s the term ‘White Indian.’
I think term has shown up before now in the novel, but Molly’s speech is the first time it’s really given prominence, so this makes for a good opportunity to examine it a bit closer.
Molly Grace is using this term to describe the current First Nations leadership, and the various members of the Band and National councils who support them. A ‘white Indian’ is a sellout. A patsy for the man who, in exchange for money and privilege, keeps their communities subservient to the settler colonial government. Now, for a radical-type character, this is a pretty workable slur to throw around, but I’m not sure that Bland fully appreciates how or why a term like this would be used.
As a contrast to this, I want to look at a real-life radical, and the device he used for framing racial oppression. Malcolm X’s concept of the ‘House Negro’ and ‘Field Negro’ goes way back to his early years of preaching for the Nation of Islam, and was reiterated often throughout his life. It drew its origins from when Brother Malcolm was still a deeply angry man, and was used explicitly as an attack upon more peaceful activists (including Martin Luther King) who’d embraced non-violence as a form of protest:
So you have two types of Negro. The old type and the new type. Most of you know the old type. When you read about him in history during slavery he was called “Uncle Tom.” He was the house Negro. And during slavery you had two Negroes. You had the house Negro and the field Negro.
The house Negro usually lived close to his master. He dressed like his master. He wore his master’s second-hand clothes. He ate food that his master left on the table. And he lived in his master’s house–probably in the basement or the attic–but he still lived in the master’s house.
So whenever that house Negro identified himself, he always identified himself in the same sense that his master identified himself. When his master said, “We have good food,” the house Negro would say, “Yes, we have plenty of good food.” “We” have plenty of good food. When the master said that “we have a fine home here,” the house Negro said, “Yes, we have a fine home here.” When the master would be sick, the house Negro identified himself so much with his master he’d say, “What’s the matter boss, we sick?”
His master’s pain was his pain. And it hurt him more for his master to be sick than for him to be sick himself. When the house started burning down, that type of Negro would fight harder to put the master’s house out than the master himself would.
But then you had another Negro out in the field. The house Negro was in the minority. The masses–the field Negroes were the masses. They were in the majority. When the master got sick, they prayed that he’d die. [Laughter] If his house caught on fire, they’d pray for a wind to come along and fan the blaze.
If someone came to the house Negro and said, “Let’s go, let’s separate,” naturally that Uncle Tom would say, “Go where? What could I do without boss? Where would I live? How would I dress? Who would look out for me?” That’s the house Negro. But if you went to the field Negro and said, “Let’s go, let’s separate,” he wouldn’t even ask you where or how. He’d say, “Yes, let’s go.” And that one ended right there.
So now you have a twentieth-century-type of house Negro. A twentieth-century Uncle Tom. He’s just as much an Uncle Tom today as Uncle Tom was 100 and 200 years ago. Only he’s a modern Uncle Tom. That Uncle Tom wore a handkerchief around his head. This Uncle Tom wears a top hat. He’s sharp. He dresses just like you do. He speaks the same phraseology, the same language. He tries to speak it better than you do. He speaks with the same accents, same diction. And when you say, “your army,” he says, “our army.” He hasn’t got anybody to defend him, but anytime you say “we” he says “we.” “Our president,” “our government,” “our Senate,” “our congressmen,” “our this and our that.” And he hasn’t even got a seat in that “our” even at the end of the line. So this is the twentieth-century Negro. Whenever you say “you,” the personal pronoun in the singular or in the plural, he uses it right along with you. When you say you’re in trouble, he says, “Yes, we’re in trouble.”
But there’s another kind of Black man on the scene. If you say you’re in trouble, he says, “Yes, you’re in trouble.” [Laughter] He doesn’t identify himself with your plight whatsoever.
To fully appreciate the sheer power of this metaphor, it’s worth taking some time to listen to a recording of Brother Malcolm using it in a speech (brace yourself if you do, it’s an experience). It wasn’t just a term he threw around, but one that he’d explain. He’d explain it because the explanation was the argument. In the process explaining and expanding upon this idea, he would lay out the argument that was central to his preaching.
Go listen to the speech. By the time Malcolm’s moved on from the metaphor to talking about the (then recent) march on Washington (where MLK gave his famous ‘I have a dream’ speech), you’re halfway onboard. Even today, with the benefit of hindsight, you can still find yourself nodding along.
Brother Malcolm was a largely self-taught man, who cultivated his ferocious eloquence by literally reading and memorizing the dictionary. He knew words and he knew their meaning and as fast as he talked, he was selecting his words and phrases very carefully with a natural born intellect.
To the average person, hell, to the under-educated person, the metaphor is powerful because it’s simple. Everyone knows what it means to do hard work in the field, and everyone knows that being in the house is better. When one person sells out the other just for a chance to live in the house…? A complex social structure of controlled participation as a means of subjugation summarized in a simple, easy to understand metaphor that hits with an emotional punch.
Simple metaphor. Powerful imagery. Delivered with passion and eloquence. That is what a radical sounds like.
 To be fair, there seems to be a pretty widespread contempt for the “suits” in First Nations’ popular culture. Consider the lyrics of Buffy St Marie’s Working for the Government:
The neighbours like him/
Think he’s a good guy/
He wears a neck tie/
He’s working for the government!/
That have been said, Al’s supposed to be known in this scene, and why would Bill the social worker be wearing a suit and tie? Does bland think social justice warriors go around looking like Bay Street execs?
 Been there, done that. Their arguments were just as bad as mine were when I was an undergrad. And they paid about as much attention to me as I did to the old guys back then.
 The source for the transcript can be found here, and comes from a talk he gave at Michigan State University on 23 Jan 1963.