Author: Robert Brandon Henderson
Location: Missoula, Montana
Robert Brandon Henderson grew up in Magrath, Alberta, Canada. He has been published in past and upcoming issues of Cezanne's Carrot, Front Range Review,
was a featured reader at the National Undergraduate Literature Conference, and is the author of the children's book, The Legend of the Kukui Nut,
published by Cedar Fort Inc. He received a B.A. in English from Utah Valley University and is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Montana. Brandon currently lives in Missoula, Montana, with his wife and daughter.
Highway 5 divides Magston from the Blood Indian Reservation. Its two lanes are traveled mostly by commuters from the city and farmers moving grain. The sprawling Alberta prairie gives the driver a generous view of the road ahead. For miles one can see an oncoming vehicle, its inevitability certain, but so slowly approaching that by the time it arrives, it has been forgotten.
Magston was built on a grid by Mormon pioneers under the direction of Brigham Young, the once virgin prairie divided into squares, creating the illusion of ownership and boundaries. They worked for the Alberta Railway and Irrigation Company, and built a dam and a temple.
I grew up hearing stories about these brave pioneers, their sacrifices and faith. Mom loved to tell about Grandma Thomas, who gave birth in the middle of the barren grasslands of the Midwest, "on a pile of hay she thought fit for a queen," she would say.
The Reservation held a similar lure for storytelling. I heard about dancing for rain, wild dogs stealing children, and Mom's childhood friend and former Blood Chief, Harley Frank, who was almost murdered by some of the elders because he tried to "clean up the Reserve."
My childhood is defined by roads and borders, where destinations are final and segregation maintained an ideal. When I was eleven, my Uncle Carl and his family moved into a small farmhouse twenty feet from Highway 5.
We spent nearly every Sunday afternoon at the farm. Aunts and uncles sat in the living room talking about one another to one another, while the kids systematically destroyed the basement.
My cousins played games I never wanted to be involved with, games like Calf Rope, Chair Rope, and in particular, Steer Wrestle — where two opposing members tried to bring the other to their knees by headlock. During the weekdays, I wore enormous wide-leg jeans, Vans and t-shirts displaying Robert Smith's made-up face, while they
vacuum-packed themselves into Wranglers and wore cowboy boots and collared shirts that had snaps in the place of buttons.
My older brother, Ryan, was even more out of place. While he was similarly alternative, his fashion sense wasn't the only thing that made him different. It was the fact that Ryan is M'tis, his father being French and his mother Cree. He was adopted at the age of one by our parents who, after Mom gave birth to our older sister, Trisha, were unable to have any more children. I was also adopted, but my English birth parents made my physical transition into a western Canadian milquetoast farming family relatively seamless.
Mom was a member of the Relief Society of the LDS Church, the largest and oldest continuing women's organization in the world. Besides meeting every Sunday, the Relief Society met during the week to bake, sew, or fundraise for a group or individual in need, and since Mom was at the head of the pack in spending long hours making quilts or canning pickles, we ended up at Uncle Carl's while she was away.
She dropped us off without getting out of the car and waved goodbye as Ryan and I stood at the edge of Highway 5, looking as though we knew she was never coming back.
The old farmhouse had been in the family for generations and sat on the outskirts of town. It was perfectly rectangular in shape, and after Uncle Carl's addition of a second floor, looked like one shoebox on top of the other. The yard was large — two long acres straight back, with only one knotted maple tree wedged between the house and a dirt side road.
Across the highway, the Blood Indian Reservation looked mostly empty; only an abandoned gas station and a handful of wood-framed houses stood amidst the miles of wild grass and coulee. Ryan was the first to step toward the farmhouse.
It only took Tim a few seconds to pick up our scent. Of all the cousins, none was further from what I considered a normal human being. He once came up with a "game" in which I was supposed to punch my cousin Sam in the face, which would be followed by a punch to me
in the stomach.
Tim came running and tackled both of us to the ground. While it was possible for one of us to try and make a run for it, experience had shown that it was better to just let him finish. This was only the beginning. Tim was a creature of habit, and we were all too aware of what came next.
"Com'ere Freckles!" Tim's latest dog jumped into his arms and they rolled around on the ground while Tim spoke to him in baby talk. Tim had a new dog almost every time Ryan and I visited. They would regularly die from "random" accidents (such as a cinder block falling on the dog's head in the middle of an open field), and since Tim was the only boy, his parents always bought him a new one. He named every dog Freckles.
One afternoon, after the dog ritual, Ryan and I followed Tim into the house to watch the latest episode of Road to Avonlea,
a spinoff of Anne of Green Gables.
This was his favorite show. I had just settled into the numb feeling of defeat, trying to enjoy myself as much as possible, when I noticed the torso of a man standing in the large bay window next to the couch.
"Who's that?" I asked.
Tim's eyes narrowed as he looked at the man. "Those damn Natives are always gettin' loose and coming over here," he said. "I'm calling my dad."
The man in the window was young, but his face was weathered and dry. He just stood there and stared. Tim began to call for his dad on the CB radio in the kitchen. "Carl, come in," he said. While waiting for a response, he got a look on his face as though he'd just solved some great mystery and, looking at Ryan, said, "He's probably your uncle or something." Ryan shook his head and turned back to the window. Tim was laughing as Carl's voice crackled from the radio.
"Go ahead," Carl said.
"There's a damn Indian in the yard again," Tim responded, taking on a serious tone.
"Damn it," said Carl, "I'll be right there."
Tim hung the mic on the radio and walked back into the living room. Ryan and I were still staring at the man, trying to follow his gaze, which seemed to end somewhere we couldn't get to. Tim glanced his way indifferently and sat back down on the couch.
"It's over!" he whined, "I can't believe I missed the Road
for a damn old Indian."
"GET OUT OF MY HOUSE!" We all jumped as the man began yelling and banging on the window. "GET OUT OF MY HOUSE!" He was almost screaming, his voice ready to crack. He stumbled around the corner of the house when Ryan yelled, "Lock the door!" Tim sprinted towards it but the man already had it open.
"GET OUT OF MY HOUSE!" he yelled again. Tim yelped and ran the other way, his hands flailing in the air. Ryan and I followed through the front door and into the yard. Tim turned left, running around the house, while we crossed Highway 5 and stood, panting, facing the house from the Reservation side.
Ryan silently pointed to the front door and I looked to see the man standing in the doorway. We stared at each other for a moment. The man was proud and clearly drunk; he tripped and fell down the front steps. With great difficulty, he used the handrail to pull himself up. A few minutes passed before he was completely on his feet again. The low rumble of Carl's truck could be heard coming down the street.
He pulled into the driveway and walked stiff-legged, like a middle-aged woman with hand weights, to where the man was standing. Carl spit out a few sunflower seeds as he dragged the man by the back of his shirt across the lawn, over the road, and onto the Reservation. Ryan and I remained still and watched as Carl pushed the man, his body nearly colliding with ours, into the open field. He stumbled dangerously, but didn't fall.
"Get out of my house," he whispered, looking Ryan in the face.
The man was left alone as Ryan and I followed Carl back to the house.
"Where's Tim?" He asked.
"I think he went around back," said Ryan.
After about five minutes, we found Tim in the doghouse with Freckles, crying and covered in dog hair.
"Damn prairie niggers," said Carl, under his breath, as he helped Tim to his feet.
It was as though Carl saw this man the same way Tim saw his dogs; that he should be defined by one very inaccurate name, and that he should stay within the borders set for him. If this was the case, what boundaries should Ryan stay within?
Perhaps social and racial nomenclature is in the eye of the beholder. To me, Ryan is my brother; he is also Cree, French, Canadian, culturally Mormon, and the guy who gave me a wedgie and hung me on a nail in my bedroom closet by my underpants when I was five. Today, when I ask him how he defines himself, he says, "I don't."
A couple of hours later, Mom came to pick us up. Her face beamed with the satisfaction of service but her voice was grim as she explained the sorry economic and spiritual state of our neighbors. When she was finished, she asked Carl about the crops and offered Ryan and me as volunteer laborers. He politely declined but offered to walk us to the car.
We kept a close eye on the Reservation side of the road as we climbed into the back of the Aerostar. Mom and Carl continued to talk as Ryan and I sat, searching for movement.
"Can you see anything?" I asked.
"No. And stop touching me!" he responded, grabbing my arm and twisting the skin. "Indian Burn!" he cried.
"Thanks for watching them, Carl," Mom said finally.
"Don't worry about it." He gave Ryan and me a knowing look. "They were no trouble at all."
In 2004, the state of Illinois gave a public statement of regret for expelling the Mormons over 100 years earlier. And on February 4, 2008, former presidential candidate Sam Brownback called for The United States to officially apologize for past "instances of violence, maltreatment, and neglect" inflicted on Native Americans. It is time, says Brownback, to "begin healing the wounds of our Native American brothers and sisters." It has been over 500 years since Europeans first crossed Native American borders.
As Mom drove us home, the quiet humming of the tires and low rumbling of the partially paved road made me sleepy and I dozed. The last things I remember were the passing homes and fields. I didn't know which side I was looking at, the Reservation or Magston, but Ryan was already asleep.