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“You’re Just a Dirty Indian”

There are horrible stories set loose in our world, stories that should not be, stories that should never have been, stories that make the eyes burn and the ears bleed simply to read or to hear them. Stories that can make one embarrassed to be a human being.

I spent this past Saturday in a comfortable church basement in Calgary where a day of workshops and presentations had been organized around the theme of “Loving our Neighbours.” I and a friend were in charge of one track of workshops geared toward raising awareness about First Nations issues and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada which will be concluding its work next March in Edmonton, AB.

The first two workshops of the day were fairly predictable. We talked about Canada’s historical treatment of aboriginal people, we looked at what the Bible had to say about loving our neighbours, we talked about some of our experiences, we examined the ways in which our privilege often served as a barrier to true understanding and action. It was all fine and good.

But the last session of the day was different. We had invited a woman named Yvonne Johnson to come and share her story with us. Johnson is the subject and co-author (with Rudy Wiebe) of a 1998 book called Stolen Life: The Journey of a Cree Woman. And what a life. What a journey. I was in the midst of reading the book, so her story didn’t completely catch me off guard, but… Christ have mercy. The violence, the abuse of any and every kind, the racist, dehumanizing treatment, the grinding poverty, the systematic erosion and starvation of hope and goodness, the damnable injustice. The pain and the sadness. Christ have mercy.

I’m not quite sure what I was expecting on Saturday. A woman whose story was “in the past,” at a safe distance from the present where it could shock and unsettle me, a person whose life has been lived at a comfortable distance from such stories? Was I expecting a calm, measured reflection on lessons learned, hope discovered, corners turned? Was I expecting a nice, clean narrative with the customary redemptive turn, rather than the fragmentary, pain-soaked meandering trail full of isolated, barely connected incidents of trauma and abuse? Was I waiting for the light that I am so well conditioned to demand and expect to follow the darkness in “stories like this?”

Stories like this?! As if there could be a category for such a story, for such a life. As if there could be anything but open-mouthed, uncomprehending silence. Or weeping. Or rage.

On the drive home, I felt pangs of guilt or unease or discomfort or something. I hope we didn’t use this dear woman for our own ends on Saturday. Was she just a prop in another story told and controlled by white people? We spent two sessions talking about First Nations people and then, for the third session—voila!—we had a real live one in the room! Did we treat her like an exotic creature in a zoo, gaping and staring and oohing and aahhing? Did we treat her story like a strange and curious artifact for us to inspect and examine and commodify before moving on?

Jesus, I hope not.

I hope Yvonne Johnson felt honoured and respected and truly heard. I hope something about what happened on Saturday afternoon communicated value and genuine friendship and hospitality to her. I hope she somehow felt that we hurt with and for her—for the awful things she has had to go through even if we can barely put words to what this might mean. I hope that she experienced acceptance, support, and love, however confusedly and haltingly these gifts may have been offered. I hope this will not be the last we hear from each other.

This morning’s reading from the Psalms in the prayerbook I use came from Psalm 72:12-14:

For he shall save the poor when they cry
and the needy who are helpless.
He will have pity on the weak
and save the lives of the poor.
From oppression he will rescue their lives,
to him their blood is dear.

These words seemed like a cruel, mocking joke as I think about the horrific story we were given a small window into on Saturday afternoon. Today, I want to say, No, he shall not, he will not, he does not. The poor continue to cry out, continue to be oppressed, continue to look in vain for pity! Today, I want to say, God, where the hell were you and are you when stories like this are carving their vicious swaths through the lives of human treasures around the world?! Where is your pity, your rescue, your salvation, when little girls are raped in grade 4, when they are wandering the streets in grade 7, when their bodies, from earliest memory, have always and only belonged to violent, greedy men who use and discard them like pieces of meat?! Today, I want to say to the Psalmist, It’s a wonderful promise and a compelling hope, but I’m afraid it just isn’t true. Not true enough, at any rate. Not yet.

Of all the horrible things I have heard and read about Yvonne Johnson’s story, one moment stands out from Saturday. She was telling the story of her childhood in Butte, MT. She was seven years old, sitting on her front step, watching all the other kids walk by on their way to a school she wasn’t yet able to attend. She was lonely. She called out to the other children, asking if they would come talk to her, if they would be her friend. Their response was pure, mocking rejection. You’re just a dirty Indian!

I looked over at Yvonne’s face, and saw the tears trickle down, mixing and mingling with snot and sadness on a face etched with pain. After all the years of abuse and violence, all the awful, barely believable things this woman had gone through, it was still this story of a little girl, alone on her front step being called names that produced the tears.

There are horrible stories set loose in our world…

Christ have mercy.

16 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ryan. thanks for sharing this. I read the book a few years ago, and it stopped me in my tracks. You’re right: Christ have mercy. One piece of inspiration I remember from the book was the quote that Rudy and Yvonne used as an epigram (I no longer have it) from aboriginal lore that somehow people with physical markings or disabilities, such as harelips, have special wisdom to offer and must be treated as holy. I remember that paradox also catching me up. If you have a moment and can find that quote, could you post or send it to me?

    November 12, 2013
    • I’m not quite done the book yet, but I did a quick scan of the back few pages. The only thing I could find that echoes the themes you mention was this short passage, written by Yvonne to Rudy Wiebe in January, 1998:

      A bear always has a fold in her upper lip. My grandma, I, my eldest child, have the gift and the legacy of the bear so strong, we have the Bear’s lip.

      Is this what you were thinking of? I’ll continue keep my eyes open for this theme as I finish the book.

      November 12, 2013
      • Ryan, that’s close, and in the same vein, but it’s not quite it. Remembering more now, I think it was closer to the beginning, in an epigram at the beginning of a chapter, or perhaps of the book. And it may have been about those who have suffered much abuse, not just people born with physical variations. And I don’t think it was from Yvonne, but drawn from aboriginal parables/ And maybe it was in an earlier edition but not a later edition. Don’t sweat it if you can’t find it.

        November 12, 2013
      • This is the epigram that begins Chapter 16:

        The old man said, to have been born imperfect was a sign of specialness […]. The old man explained carefully that in the old days, if a child came with a hare-shorn lip, it wasn’t a terrible thing or a hurtful thing; it meant the child’s soul was still in touch with the Spirit World.

        Yvonne Johnson, Journal 9, Spring 1994

        November 12, 2013
      • Ah, that’s it. Thanks! I see my memory was a little off.

        November 12, 2013
  2. Coreen #

    Ryan, thanks for summarizing that session so well, together with your feelings around it. Initially I had the same thoughts. There, at first sitting alone facing all of us white folk, was an Aboriginal woman ready to tell her story again. It did make me feel a bit uncomfortable, wishing we could be in a circle, so she wouldn’t feel uncomfortable (maybe she wasn’t, I don’t know). That changed though when you and Will went and sat with her. I thank you for that. Having you sit with her and ask her questions, engage in a conversation with her, eased my discomfort and I hope it did for her. I also wonder with you the “when?” of the promise in Psalms.

    November 12, 2013
    • Thanks, Coreen.

      Yes, a circle would have been a very good idea, in hindsight. I spoke with a few organizers after who had a chance to talk to Yvonne after I left, and apparently she felt good about how things went, so I’m glad for that.

      November 13, 2013
  3. darlene #

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts!The whole day was incredibly powerful and in many ways I wish more could have been there. It brought me back to my university classes called Understanding Diversity and Teaching Aboriginal Students.My heart breaks hearing the stories I heard then, more recently in my career and Yvonne’s. I can not begin to comprehend a God that would allow such horrific acts. Yet I see my role as one to listen and care. May all who have ears let them hear – listening is the first step.

    November 12, 2013
    • Thank you, Darlene.

      It’s certainly hard to understand how God permits the kind of things that we see so tragically often in our world. It’s important that this failure to understand the mysteries of providence doesn’t paralyze us or lead us to despair. As you say, even when we don’t understand, we still listen, we still care, we still do what we can, because, against all odds, we are how God often works (or doesn’t work) in the world today.

      Throughout the day, my thoughts returned to the song we sang in morning worship prior to the workshops…

      Christ has no body here but ours
      No hands no feet here on earth but ours.
      Ours are the eyes through which he looks
      On this world with kindness
      Ours are the hands through which he works
      Ours are the feet on which he moves
      Ours are the voices through which he speaks
      To this world with kindness
      Through our touch, our smile, our listening ear
      Embodied in us, Jesus is living here
      Let us go now, inspirited
      Into this world with kindness

      November 13, 2013
  4. Paul Johnston #

    Please forgive the awkwardness of my words…I only intend to point in the direction of grace.

    One thing I feel certain of; redemptive healing, complete and immediate, is always available to us. Unencumbered by any other attachment, relying solely on God in the moment of our greatest needs, we will be healed. That people of God would retell the horrors of their personal experiences is a brave and valuable witness to the people of God. That they should still suffer from the emotional traumas of those experiences is not ever God’s will for them. If this is still true for a very brave and courageous woman, she may well need help in extending a fuller invitation to God’s merciful healing….forgiveness is always the gateway to mercy.

    November 14, 2013
    • I don’t know, Paul, it’s pretty complicated to say such things to someone whose suffering has, at least in part, been the result of the actions of the institutional church. I don’t know how “Come to Jesus for full healing” would sound to someone whose prior experience of Jesus and those who claim to follow him was so negative. It has to be done with such care and compassion. And patience.

      Yvonne is on a journey, as we all are. Hers is quite a bit more complicated than mine, and strewn with religious, social, and personal wounds and baggage that I can scarcely imagine. I believe that God wants goodness and healing for her. I also believe that the manner in which goodness and healing make their way in to such horrible stories can and does look different for different people at different times and places.

      November 14, 2013
  5. Paul Johnston #

    I hear you Ryan, the right understanding and interpretation of “where a person is” is crucial to the usefulness of our mediation. We can do more harm than good. Even the right action at the wrong time can undermine grace. Sadly this has been true of my efforts at times and very likely true of many committed Christians and the churches we support.

    Still I remain convicted that Jesus asks me to just, “Bring them to Me” and He and they will do the rest. And therein lies the rub, “How do we bring them”,…. how do we bring them?

    So for me, I can only share what I know. I encounter Christ in the Holy Eucharist, I encounter Him in contemplative prayer….all I can tell a person then is to “go” to these places, maybe you will encounter Him there also.

    I believe so, for He has told me so….

    This much may be useful to you or others, for those heeding a call to “minister” we must make every effort to divorce ourselves as quickly as possible from emotional responses to trauma. We present ourselves to these circumstances as channels of God’s healing grace. While steeped in gentle compassion and love we must nevertheless rebuke (privately is best) any spirit of despair, anger, revenge, unforgiveness…no matter how seemingly justified. We cannot take on the armour of the enemy if we hope to defeat it. Make no mistake about it, as understandably “human” as these responses may seem, they are ultimately the enemies of forgiveness, of grace, of healing.

    The Lord our God mourns with those who mourn. For love’s sake he has blessed us all, the good, the wicked, the in between, the indifferent, with a free will that even He must choose not to transgress. For love’s sake we suffer the consequences of humanity’s choices, but only for a while. For those who persevere, for those who return love in spite of what’s given them in return, they will become children of the resurrection. They will become conscious eternal love, heirs to all creation, unified with the Father.

    It is His promise. He will keep it.

    November 15, 2013
    • The Lord our God mourns with those who mourn. For love’s sake he has blessed us all, the good, the wicked, the in between, the indifferent, with a free will that even He must choose not to transgress. For love’s sake we suffer the consequences of humanity’s choices, but only for a while. For those who persevere, for those who return love in spite of what’s given them in return, they will become children of the resurrection. They will become conscious eternal love, heirs to all creation, unified with the Father.

      It is His promise. He will keep it.

      Beautifully put, Paul. Thank you for your wise words here (and elsewhere above).

      November 15, 2013
    • Paul, you’ve said some good things, but I can’t help but notice that some of what you’ve brought is oversimplified and has hints of “Forgive and get over it already”… I know that sounds harsh, I’m sorry it does- I’m just being honest and would like to understand what you’re saying.

      Some thoughts:
      The Psalms are full of expressed grief and anger…also hope and praise.
      I believe we need the Psalms to remind us what honest interaction with God looks like. I also believe we must come to honor the reality of ‘damage done’ on our way toward healing because denial keeps us from His promises.

      Emotional responses (to our own pain or someone elses) are absolutely within the realm of godly conduct. So while I agree that God does not want us to remain wounded, He also requires honesty, because the alternative is deceit.

      Frankly, I think the church (in the West) is terrified of honest wrestling and honest expression. We’ve been trained to be as ‘together’ as possible and fear being exposed. But the stance of the psalmist is always bare honesty, and bare honesty can not be done without the crying out from pain or distress.

      Praise that is contrived comes from the practice of swallowing words about pain and suffering. Praise that touches the heart of God come from a heart schooled in exposure and truth telling. This kind of ‘being with God’ is what brings healing.
      This is messy. It’s not immediate, and it works it’s way out in community. We all suffer when one suffers. It’s the way God made it. We get stuck in pain and anger only if we refuse to give it a voice. And we can cause another to remain in pain when we won’t hear their cry.
      This isn’t laid out as well as I’d like, (so I hope this makes sense) but the tea’s ready and I gotta get my tea! 🙂

      November 16, 2013
  6. Elizabeth #

    “Stories like this?! As if there could be a category for such a story, for such a life. As if there could be anything but open-mouthed, uncomprehending silence. Or weeping. Or rage.”

    Such a thought provoking post. I’m adding Yvonne’s book to my Amazon list even though I don’t think I’m prepared to read it.

    August 2, 2021
    • It is a difficult read, obviously, but an important one.

      August 3, 2021

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