So…a couple of things before we begin:
I’ve already mentioned before how I am not Indigenous (not even the proverbial Cherokee grandmother), and I am in no way an expert in First Nations history or culture. I’ve read a few books, watched a few docs, listened to some podcasts. I’d like to think this qualifies me as an educated layman, but that’s about it. I’m saying this because the next part of the deconstruction features a scene with an Ojibway shaman and in criticizing it, I don’t want to inadvertently give the impression that I’m an expert on First Nations spirituality.
I’m not. I know a couple of things and I’ve read a few books, but I am not an expert.
What I can say is that shamans, like elders, are usually highly respected individuals in First Nations communities. However, just like with the elders, it’s a position that’s not always clearly defined. Probably even more so than elders. To the best of my knowledge, there’s no formal process by which a person becomes a shaman, nor is there some official certification or regulating body as you might have in a more structured religion. It’s something you are, and the community just knows it.
Now I said usually highly respected, because there is still a pretty large percentage of Indigenous people who are practicing Christians, and many more who practice some combination of faiths. This adds an extra layer of complexity when trying to evaluate how a shaman might be received by any random group of Indigenous people. Will everybody in the audience accept him? Hard to say. What can be said for certain is that the people who accept the shaman take that person’s role very seriously. Shamans are less common than Elders, and as they don’t have official roles in day-to-day politics of their Band, they’re often seen as a sort of authority outside the regular authority structure.
That’s what makes this next scene particularly problematic. In it, Molly Grace invites ‘an Ojibwa shaman’ onto the stage with her to speak to the crowd. There’s no guarantee that everyone in the crowd will feel the same way about shamans as Bland thinks they will. More importantly though, for the people who do believe, bringing him out and using him as a political prop (which is what Molly Grace is doing) has the potential to be seen as grossly disrespectful.
To the people that believe, this guy is connected to something much bigger than our own day-to-day lives. Contrary to what you might have seen in popular media, it’s not something that you harness and control with spirit animals or nature magic. It’s something that is, and you either live with it in harmony or you suffer (and not in a vengeful spirit kind of way, but from the self-inflicted wound of being out of connection with the universe).
We’re told throughout the novel that Molly Grace is a fiercely intelligent political operator who manipulates people and events to get whatever she wants. This is why the next part of the four-years-ago flashback is so utterly inexplicable. In the middle of a rally intended to stoke rage and resentment, Molly Grace yields the floor to another speaker who will actually try to undercut her message and back everyone away from the cliff she’s led them to.
When the crowd again fell quiet, Molly beckoned to someone standing in the shadows to the right of the stage. A tall, elderly Indian stepped slowly forward, his long white hair tied back, his brown face wrinkled by age and weather. He was dressed simply, in jeans, sweater, and boots. He waved softly, almost shyly, to those in the crowd who recognized him and called out.
“Here,” said Molly, “is Martin Fisher, the Ojibwa shaman known well to you from Kenora and Grassy Narrows. Martin travels among you, a faithful leader of the people, a man of peace and love for all. He is our memory, and memory is the people’s true soul. He is shaman to the people. Martin lives in the world between dreams, connecting we the living to our ancestors, who speak to us in our dreams. Come Martin, speak to us. Tell us what they say.”
This is…I don’t even… How the hell does an experienced rabble-rouser fail to vet her guest speaker? We’ll get to Martin Fisher’s vision in a moment, but understand that mass movements like the NPA don’t happen spontaneously. The notion that some great injustice takes place and a Great Leader® hears the call and raises the masses makes for lovely propaganda, but in reality such movements are far more thoughtful, pragmatic and, dare I say, cynical?
Molly Grace is not just looking to pull down ‘white’ society, but also supplant the existing First Nations’ hierarchy. As we have already seen, existing chiefs and band leaders who refuse to join will be kicked out of power and even the ones who do sign on will be relegated to the Native People’s Council and kept out of the way. She may not be saying it openly, but anyone who doesn’t explicitly embrace her vision is her enemy. That should include this shaman. Martin Fisher clearly wants what’s best for his people, and it’s clear from his upcoming vision that he has no love for settler-colonial society, but he doesn’t share Molly’s ideology. He shouldn’t be getting anywhere near one of the Movement’s rallies.
Take this image from the classic 1925 Soviet film ‘Battleship Potemkin.’
During the final years of Tsarist Russia, the Orthodox Church was a sprawling and highly complex institution. In terms of alignment, its membership ranged form being absolute supporters of the Tsar, to moderate reformers, to the occasional radical and even revolutionary or two. To the Communists though, they were all collaborators and all enemies. If there was one thing the new revolutionary government could not afford, it was a competing vision for revolution.
So in their classic film about the 1905 Black Sea mutiny, the Soviets made sure to portray the Orthodox Church as something callous and cruel, appearing almost alien to the heroes and to the audience. Potemkin’s orthodox chaplain is a literal wild-haired mystic who looks like he should be wandering the Urals. He turns up in the film like some kind of apparition just before the cruel officers are about to execute a group of sailors. Rather than speaking out against this random punishment, he delivers a blessing, then eagerly watches as the firing squad takes aim. When the mutiny erupts, all he can do is cower impotently behind his crucifix, then later play dead and sneak away.
So Martin Fisher takes the stage to address Molly Grace’s audience. Rather than being an intruder who might ruin her plans, Bland treats this as a perfectly normal thing to do.
Strap yourselves in, this is going places:
Martin paused before the microphone, put his hands forward, and braced his body against the lectern. “Greetings to you all from the people of the land of the Ojibwa,[sic]” he began quietly. “I have a simple story of the days many years ago when the white settlers came to our land north of Superior. They made treaties with us. Only nations can make treaties with each other. So we spoke with them as a nation, one to the other.
Just as a quick side note here: Not only is this sound reasoning, but it’s actually lawful. In the Canadian Charter of Rights & Freedoms, Article 25 explicitly states that First Nations Treaties exist separate from the already existing legal framework.
Martin Fisher walked away from the microphone towards the front of the now darkened state, the one remaining soft light directly on him. He was chanting, seemingly lost in his own world of dreams. Then the melodious sound stopped and he opened his eyes and released his fearful vision in the same calm voice.
“Early in the spring, when the ice had just gone out, I took my canoe and paddled north, following the first geese. I stopped for many days beside a fast river where it emptied into a fine lake. I was alone and happy. Then one day, as I sat by the river and watched winter melt away, I had a terrible dream. I was awake, but I had a dream.” He moved ever so slowly across the platform and into the shadow of the curtains, the soft light following him.
Oh boy. He’s chanting. As far as I can tell, his chanting doesn’t actually consist of him saying things (which Ojibway speakers in the crowd might understand) but just chanting. I’m suddenly reminded of a running joke on the show King of the Hill featuring the Anasazi character John Redcorn. When he’s asked about his heritage or traditions, his voice takes on a profound, faraway quality and his hair is stirred by a convenient breeze.
Director Spike Lee coined the term ‘magic negro’ in 2001. It refers to a trope common in film where person of colour is inserted in a film to add a sense of mysticism or dispense some kind of magic-like wisdom to the ‘white’ protagonist, but doesn’t have a life of their own (Spike Lee used the examples of ‘The Green Mile’ and ‘The Legend of Bagger Vance’). They don’t have a home they go back to, with family and friends, nor do they don’t have their own hopes, dreams or aspirations. They exist for the ‘white’ protagonist-often sacrificing themselves for them-and their wisdom is to be surrendered to that person when it is required by the story. After all, they were just a caretaker, it’s the ‘white’ person that matters.
In this scene in Uprising, we got a different usage of the concept, where the ‘magic Indian’ is brought out to dispense mystic wisdom to an audience of Indigenous people.
I think the key to understanding this scene is that Martin Fisher is supposed to offer the assembled native people a fair warning. He will try to undercut Molly Grace’s message by telling the assembled natives about the dream he had in hopes of preventing them from joining her cause. Inexplicably, although they will be moved by his speech, nobody will actually heed his warning. They will all promptly fall back under Molly Grace’s spell the moment she starts talking again. In essence, Bland seems to have created a ‘magic Indian’ who’s delivering a message on his behalf.
This is meant to be an I told you so moment. From the looks of things Bland is creating the ideal character (in his mind) to try and talk some sense into this crowd of rowdy native people. When they reject him, they can then safely be condemned for the resulting violence and destruction.
After all, an Indian shaman told them about a dream and they ignored him! Serves them right!
“I was in a village of my people. There were no men left there, just children and women and dogs. The village was a blasphemy in the pure forest. Houses were dirty and unpainted, garbage littered the ground, the water smelt foul. The children stood in rags, eyes glassy. The people had forgotten how to hunt. The fish that once happily gave us life now tried to poison us.”
Bit of an awkward grouping there, with women and children and dogs. Yeah, just the mongrel dregs of a community. No potential there. Can’t expect them to get anything done without men around, am I right?
Think I’m reading too much into it? Read on:
Martin began to chant softly to himself again, perhaps summoning back this terrible dream. Then he spoke again. “The village had no elders or leaders. The people sat as always in a circle in the centre of the village, but instead of the council fire or the elders’ dance, they sat around the large rusting, leaking drums holding the fuel everyone used to heat their homes and run their machines. White men and white Indians paid by the settlers sat with them and talked with them about what they were to do about the leaking fuel. They talked for days and months and years while the fuel leaked and the ground was soaked in gas and the village smelt of gas.
So apparently women can’t be elders. So all these useless women and their useless children are sitting in a useless circle around a collection of oil drums that is slowly killing them. But it turns out that there are men in the village! Except that they’re all ‘white’ men from Ottawa and ‘white Indians’ (therefore not real Indians) and so they won’t help. Despite this, the women are just sitting around uselessly with their children. Or are they participating in this useless conversation about dealing with the fuel?
Never mind. We’ve given Bland too much credit already.
“The village was surrounded by the forest and the forest was burning everywhere. It had burned for as long as most of the people could remember. Smoke filled the air and choked the people, but they paid no attention. The white men and the white Indian paid no attention.”
The hall was still. Not a word or a cough, only an occasional low, choking moan. Martin moved back across the stage to the lectern. “In this dream,” he said more loudly, “two young men, men of the village, walked out of the burning forest. They were ugly. Their hair was long, untied, and filthy. They wore animal skins, but of the lowest animals, ragged and dirty. They stared at the villagers and shouted abuse at them. But neither the villagers nor the white men nor the white Indians could see them. Only I could see them. They had left the village as boys and returned as devils.” The crowd shifted in their chairs, appalled, some terrified, all eyes fixed on the shaman on the darkened stage.
“The two wild men walked through the burning bush, deliberately circling the village. They snarled and watched for weakness like wolves. Then they stopped and each of them picked up a burning stick and waved it in a circle over his head. They called out again, but this time with the voices of young boys. ‘We want to come home,’ they wailed. But no one heard them. The villagers were listening only to the white men and the white Indians from Ottawa. The devils beat the ground with their sticks and howled. Then they began to walk out of the fire and into the village.” The crowd stirred. A woman gasped.
Oooookaaaaay. There’s a lot to unpack in these few paragraphs.
Now, as I said already, Martin Fisher is trying to warn the audience and keep them from joining Molly Grace’s Movement. Telling them about this dream is the way he’s going about it, so I’m guessing that the metaphor here is that ‘the fire’ is the encroaching ‘white’ world, and the ‘wild children’ represent the Movement, who have been twisted and turned evil by their contact with it. Now they have returned to wreck havoc upon their poisoned and corrupted homes…
So right off the bat, there’s the fact that a huge percentage of Indigenous people in Canada don’t live on isolated reserves. Many of them are born and live in the city, and many more live in reserves that are essentially suburbs of major cities, or small cities unto themselves.
Setting that aside…(deep breath)…
Okay, so in every every major Canadian city (as well as every city everywhere) there’s what you could call a ‘predator class’ or an ‘exploiter class.’ People, groups, institutions and social forces that will mindless crush or even actively take advantage of anyone they can. Anyone can be targeted, but they are especially adept at taking advantage of children. Pimps, gang members, rapists, abusers, drugs, the law, the police, racist housing policies, an uncaring municipal government…depending on the city and the circumstances, a young person without resources or support can fall prey to any number of threats coming from any number of directions.
This can include a whole spectrum of young people, including kids from broken homes, immigrant populations, and yes, young Indigenous people coming in from isolated reserves. A city like Winnipeg is a kind of transit hub for northern-Manitoba communities, meaning that that a person could almost literally go from Rez to city in one bus ride. As a result there’s a very well-developed system that can zero in on that wide-eyed native kid who just arrived and doesn’t know what’s what.
Never mind the Sixties Scoop, there are kids in pretty much every city in Canada right now that are getting chewed up by drugs, exploitation, violence, and despair. Some cities are worse than others, but this is the reason why a good part of most city’s homeless populations are native, and why their disappearances and murders rarely get solved.
It’s also the reason why just about every major city has a Native Friendship Centre or some other organization to support and take care of kids coming in from the Reserves.
Which brings me to my point: A lot of the people in the audience are these wild children. They went into the ‘white’ man’s world and got burned…and Martin Fisher’s dream seems to imply that they are now irreparably damaged as a result. I know that’s not what Bland intends this vision to mean, the wild children are supposed to be Molly Grace’s Movement. But Martin Fisher doesn’t give any kind of qualifiers. Go back and re-read that passage and tell me if it doesn’t sound like he’s talking about every native kid who ever got screwed up by settler-colonialism.
This is all kinds of toxic characterization of some people who have been badly hurt. Not just in the story but in real life as well. The thing is, as much as I would like to ascribe this characterization to Bland’s racism, I’m actually not sure that this was done on purpose. I really can’t be sure this isn’t just some kind of horrible accident resulting from bad editing. And that’s what leaves me so stunned as I read it. Fuck.
Martin’s hypnotic voice grew louder. “The devils walked right up to the circle and shouted foul words at the villagers and the white men and the white Indians from Ottawa. Still no one saw them. No one heard them. But I saw them and I heard them and I was afraid. I trembled as the ugly men jumped into the circle and struck the fuel drums, knocking them over, then hit the gas-soaked ground with their burning sticks. Now the villagers and the white men and the white Indians from Ottawa jumped to their feet, for at last they saw the devils. But it was too late. A great flame burned up the village and all the people, and all the white men and all the white Indians from Ottawa, good and evil all burned together.”
He closed his eyes again and his voice sank low. “Look around the world, my people, and see this warning. Enter these times with dread. We cannot, will not, go back to sleep. We elders hold the circle together and speak for peaceful ways, though we are losing the arguments in the lodges of the people. But the young devils are returning. Can no one see them? The settlers must keep their promises or suffer with us if they do not.” Martin walked quietly into the shadows off stage. No one clapped or cheered. Some wept quietly.
That second paragraph emphasizes that the shaman is in fact a part of the old system of First Nations authority that Molly Grace is allegedly trying to overthrow. Whatever his connection to the people, Molly Grace should never have let this man get up onto her stage and address the crowd that she’s trying to win over. Whatever your opinion of prophetic dreams, this man is speaking out against the Movement.
The only lucky break for Molly is that Martin Fisher does it in the most obtuse way possible. Instead of maybe talking to people one-on-one or in small groups, trying to convince them that the plan to kill whitey might turn out badly for them, he tells them about a dream. A dream in which native children polluted by their contact with ‘white’ society go home to burn out their mothers and siblings.
I’m going to keep harping on this as we go forward because the implications here are legitimately ugly.
Then abruptly Martin turned around and stepped back towards centre-stage and faced the crowd. He stopped and held up a hand as if to say a final word. “Beware the wild leaders on the prairies and in the forest,” warned the shaman Martin Fisher. “They’ll only take you down their path, not yours.” But no one in the church on Westminster Avenue heard Martin’s warning because, inexplicably, his microphone had gone dead and the light had drifted away from him as he spoke his final words from the shadows of the stage.
Oh no! They cut your mic and turned the spotlight back onto Molly! Maybe you shouldn’t have trusted her to give you a platform…
So yeah…forgive me if I perceive an element of victim blaming here. We’ve already seen hints of this with the portrayal of the ‘white’ government. This is the place where the Native characters all got ‘fair warning.’ When they ignore it, Bland can safely blame them as being the authors of their own misfortune. After all, the magic Indian made it very clear in his dream vision, and if Indigenous people living on the streets of Winnipeg can’t speak Indian Dream Vision fluently, well, that’s their fault for abandoning their quaint heritage.
Molly Grace launches back into her speech as though nothing just happened, and calls upon the people in the crowd to join her! And take back the land! With her!
Bill, too, hesitated, and then stepped forward. He’s heard the message: unambiguous, forceful, filled with hope and purpose. Part of his mind called out. The words, a combination of the sadly familiar and absurdly extreme, are words he would dismiss immediately if anyone else had said them. But his native soul realized that the words weren’t the message. It was Molly. Molly Grace was the message.
I’ll say it again, Thomas King had this same experience during the Wounded Knee Standoff. Except that this was a real crisis with real people in real danger. A real woman called out ‘Where are the warriors?’ She called for help, and he answered, and it almost killed him, but it’s a story I can believe.
Bill Whitefish feels it in his ‘native soul.’ Why not just say that he felt the call of his primal savage blood and get it over with? In the next chapter we’ll see him join the Movement body and soul (and apparently without a source of income) and experience no further introspection.
He won’t have second thoughts like Thomas King did, even though there’s plenty of second thoughts for him to have. Somehow, despite being a Native success story and having nothing in common with Molly Grace, despite the fact that, until he walked into the building he had been dedicated to working within the system to help his people. Despite all this, he feels a call directly to his ‘native soul’ and he abandons everything to follow her.
For the first time in years, Bill longed for home. At last he knew who he was and what he had to do. Molly knew him, and through her he finally knew himself. And he would follow her without question.
Molly Grace has captured his heart and mind. All his prior backstory might as well be deleted. Our last several chapter’s worth of reading was wasted.
￼***Images from Battleship Potemkin is taken by the author from the 2007 Kino International DVD. The image of John Redcorn came from behindthevoiceactors.com***
 A lot of Indigenous words have multiple spellings in English. Ojibway (a Nation/language group that stretches across Ontario and Manitoba) is the most common spelling, but Ojibwa and Ojibwe is also used.
 And this doesn’t even begin to account for unaffiliated mystics like Rasputin, who were a lot more common than people think.
 John Redcorn was originally written as a generic ‘Native American,’ with his tribal heritage not revealed until Season 5. He was voiced by two Hispanic American actors Victor Aaron and later Jonathan Joss (an Italian actor named Stefano Mondini filled in for a few episodes).
 Except that they can. They can also be chiefs! Depending on the nation, a woman’s role can be surprisingly complex! Funny thing, that.
 Which is still a thing, given that the kids effected by it that survived are now reaching the age to be chiefs and elders. Kind of awkward, that.
 Turn out badly again. Historically, killing whitey has usually been a bad idea. One of the reason why some of the biggest upsets carried out by colonized people has been by movements that embraced non-violence. See also: Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, etc…