In The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America
, Thomas King begins Chapter 2 with words that sent me to my childhood photo album. “When my brother and I were kids, we would dress up and play cowboys and Indians with the rest of the kids,” he writes. “I have a photograph of Chris and me in our leather vest, leather chaps and cowboy hats, looking laconic and tough as cowboys looked . . . Now that I think about it, I don't remember anyone who wanted to be an Indian. Not my brother. Not my cousins. Not even the girls . . .”
Well, Mr. King, I’m sorry that we didn't live in the same neighbourhood. I'd have played with you. I had a feather headdress, and worked hours and hours trying to make bows with butcher string and lilac saplings. One particular photograph shows a shy, 6-year-old me in such dress, but I played Indian for years after that. During this time, my television hero was Tonto. While the other kids wore black masks and reared up on pretend white horses, calling, “Heigh ho, Silver,” I preferred quietly sleuthing through the forest. I even practiced walking through the bush without making dried leaves rustle or dead cedar twigs snap like gun fire. I also wanted to be able to follow the bad guys' trail, track animals and whistle like a song sparrow to signal my people beyond the trees.
So I’m sorry you didn't get to play Indian, Mr. King, but then, maybe, it kind of balances out. You got to be a pretend white guy, and I got to be a pretend Indian — the original little wannabes. That term came up while I facilitated a recent workshop at Calgary’s Alexandra Writers' Centre. Someone in the group used it; another asked its meaning. A wannabe is a person of settler descent, who dresses more like an Aboriginal than an Aboriginal. We've had a few in the church over the years, but wannabes are everywhere. It's contrary to being "authentic to ourselves.” But I don't believe wannabes mean harm. I suppose that one of the best examples of a wannabe would be Grey Owl
Grey Owl, whose real name was Archie Belaney, was an Englishman who grew up on grand stories of “red Indians.” The stories were so wonderful and powerful that he came to Canada and decided to recreate himself as Ojibway. But for all the years of fakery, he did some wonderful conservation work for Canada, especially in northern Ontario and in Prince Albert National Park in northern Saskatchewan. His preserved cabin is worth the canoe trip; I've been there twice. You can see exactly how he constructed it so that his pet beavers had easy access to the home he shared with Arahareo. He was the classic wannabe who became a Canadian icon. In fact, he's on a postage stamp this year.
Incidentally, the workshop in which we discussed wannabes was called “Writing for Reconciliation.” In it, we used freefall writing as a tool to open memories of how we learned — and are relearning — Canadian history. We wrote and talked deeply about this post-Truth and Reconciliation Commission era. Reconciliation, we decided, begins with each of us. In our new Canada, we can be our authentic selves. No one will need to be a wannabe cowboy or a wannabe Indian anymore.