Perhaps one of the biggest reasons humanity is so flawed (and one of the reasons even the most effective education fails to increase one’s awareness) is because we all believe ourselves to be the star of our very own narrative in some measure; if only others saw the world just as I do then they would suffer uncertainty no longer and all would be well. There is no such narrative and my story, albeit meaningful to me, is not the only tale to be told; we live as a collection of stories…
Stan Lee wasn’t just a storyteller or comic book artist. He was also a teacher: his lessons came in the form of characters who were super but also flawed; his work echoed G. K. Chesterton’s aphorism that faery tales aren’t important because they tell us dragons exist; rather, faery tales (or comic books) are important because they tell us dragons can be defeated.
Even the greatest obstacle can be overcome: Lee’s character Spiderman, more than any other character, had the single most important thing to teach young people thumbing through pages of colored newsprint: with great power comes great responsibility. This particular lesson, how the great have responsibility, applies equally to the small, to real people, people like you and me. Lee’s recent passing reminded me of this simple lesson: we all have responsibility—a responsibility to stick up for people who might not be in a position to stand up for themselves.
I mentioned G. K. Chesterton previously. He was a renowned poet. Poetry, surprisingly enough, can teach us a lot about standing up for the little guy. Poetry is likewise uniquely suited to provide readers with insights in to the emotional, psychological, spiritual and intellectual experiences of the poet. This is important because by getting to know others better we grow in our own self-awareness. Poetry thoughtfully considered leads us to ask such questions as:
- What makes us who we are?
- How do we define ourselves?
Questions like these are important to ask because they nudge us closer to self-knowledge. For instance, consider the following lines from the Metis writer Gregory Scofield’s poem Women Who Forgot the Taste of Limes :
ni-châpan, if I take ki-cihcânikan,
press it to their lips,
will they remember the taste of limes,
sea-salt bled into their grandfathers’ skin?
If I pull from this bag of rattling bones
the fiddle, the bow bone,
if I go down to the lazy Red,
lay singing in the grass
The first line of the first stanza is written mostly in Cree (translated into English as “my ancestor, your fingerbone”). Clearly Scofield is referencing his ancestors in Cree to demonstrate how powerfully and meaningfully he connects to his past. This idea is further developed when in the fourth line of the same stanza he refers to his grandfathers in the plural, possessive. He is not talking about only the father of either his mom or dad; rather, he is talking about all of his forefathers (a synonym for nation). Again, Scofield wants us to view the past not as some fleeting memory but as a real, living testament of the past’s importance to our understanding of the present; and finally, in the second last line of the second stanza, Scofield alludes to the “lazy Red” (or the Red River) which was the life blood of the Red River settlement (a place he considers is his ancestral homeland).
Why should Scofield’s thoughts or feelings about his ancestors matter to us? And why should we care what he remembers while lying down in the grasses by the “lazy Red”? Reading his thoughts helps us appreciate the fact human experience is a shared experience.
On the outside we might all look quite different from one another; however, on the inside we are cut from the same cloth, we are made of the same fundamental substance. Certainly, our unique experiences and perspectives make us actually quite different from one another. Yet, at the most fundamental level one thing makes us all the same: at root we are all meaning-making creatures sharing the same human nature; therefore, when Scofield feels sadness you and I can appreciate why; when he expresses joy we can experience it, too. Consider what Scofield himself says about the personal significance of his poem Women Who Forgot the Taste of Limes (Scofield (102-103)):
My claim to Manitoba as ancestral homeland dates back at least four generations, to the establishment of the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Country Wives—Cree women whose Indian names have long since been forgotten. In 1863 ni-châpan, my maternal great-great-grandmother Mary Mathilde Henderson, was born in the Red River Settlement, just as her parents and grandparents were. Many years later, my grandfather George Scofield (Cusitar) left Manitoba to escape poverty and discrimination. My mother knew little about her father’s childhood, or of the half-breed women who lived in the marrow of memory.
I recently went on a reading tour in Manitoba with seven other First Nations writers to promote awareness and appreciation of aboriginal literature to both Native and non-Native communities. I viewed the tour as an opportunity to bring y poetry “home,” to give something back to the people, land and sky of my ancestors, to honour the bones that I’ve been given to sing. When the tour ended in Winnipeg, I visited the Exchange District’s antique stores. I have a love of antiques, believing in the sharp memories of trees, iron, clay, cloth, and stones; the craftsperson’s hands; stories created from flesh and bone.
I spoke to one store’s owners at length about my collection and my desire to find a small candle table. The women were so gracious and helpful that I felt I’d found kindred spirits. They did a phone search for the table, and after finding a store that sounded promising, I asked them to call me a taxi. They grew silent, looking at me like I’d said something terribly wrong. One of the women busied herself behind the counter while the other one cleared her throat: “You may want to reconsider that. The Indians around here use taxis like public transit. They’re really dirty.”
I felt as if I’d been slapped. I often take taxis; so had my late mother. I could see her sitting in the passenger seat wearing her beat-up cowboy hat with faux turquoise hatband, arriving home with bags of groceries and her six-pack of Old Style. I was tongue-tied and tearful. All I could do was present a black and white photo of my mother, cowboy hat and all, from my wallet. I left the store in a daze, hating myself for appearing weak, for not speaking up. I wandered the streets back to my hotel, counting the cracks in the sidewalk and considering the generations of my family who had helped to create this province and country. On the corner of Portage and Main, I saw an old half-breed woman holding a bag of bones. From her bag she withdrew her finger and said, “ni-châpanis, take this and make good medicine.”
Scofield’s experience in the antique store regrettably is not unique. For whatever reason, many Canadians continue looking down and mistreating Metis and First Nations people. Although I have not personally experienced persecution or bigotry, I have seen it. I recall one afternoon many years ago riding my bike along Broadway Avenue in Saskatoon:
I stopped at a traffic light waiting for my turn to cross at an intersection. On the opposite side of the street, a First Nations man stood there quietly minding his own business. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary until a white man, safely ensconced within the cab of his pick-up truck, started yelling, “Hey Indian?! Hey Indian?!” The First Nations man kept looking forward, appearing unaffected. Undeterred, the truck driver rolled his window all the way down jutting his head out and yelling even louder, “Hey Indian?!! Hey Indian?!!”
Strangely, I did not feel anger but a sense of shame. I felt ashamed because the truck driver looked like me; and if he was capable of doing such a stupid thing then maybe I was, too.
One of the reasons we read poetry, and why reading writers like Scofield or Chesterton or Lee is important, is not only are we potentially that man driving a truck barking insults but, potentially at least, we are also a First Nations man standing on a corner minding our own business.
We have a responsibility, you and I, to not be silent. Like Edmund Burke observed back in the 18th century, all it takes for evil to win is for men and women of good conscience to stand back and do nothing. Refuse to do nothing.
 The Red River Settlement was established in 1811. This small colony was located in Rupert’s Land (Manitoba). The Red River area was continuously settled by First Nations and Mêtis before the settlement was officially established. In 1870 Rupert’s Land was purchased from the Hudson’s Bay Company by the Canadian Government. Mêtis and First Nations people suddenly found themselves becoming citizens of Canada; immigration of English and Scottish Canadians to Red River followed shortly thereafter. Consequently, many Mêtis and First Nations were displaced or pushed out (and moved west in to what is now known as Saskatchewan to “start over”).
 Scofield, Gregory. “Singing Home the Bones.” Canada: Houghton Boston, 2005.
 Many political theorists measure the health of a democracy based on how minorities are treated. The reality is the rights of the majority and minority(s) are inextricably tied, i.e. if the majority is able to arbitrarily take away or limit the rights or legal protections of a minority, what would stop a minority (if it were capable of seizing power) from doing the exact same thing? A society built on the principle of the rule of law does not give groups power but rather gives individuals protection from interference from those groups and from government.