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Indigenous Contemporary Fiction

“That’ll be $47.29, sir. Thank you for visiting The Manitoba Museum, and make sure to check out our Nonsuch exhibition! It’s really something.” The teller slid over the admission tickets, one adult and two children passes, as Animkii paid. 


“Thank you, we’ll try to,” Animkii smiled. He led his twin niece and nephew into the museum, checking over his shoulder frequently to make sure they were still within eyeshot. Lily had pulled out her phone and was taking pictures of everything they’d passed so far indiscriminately: the Palaeolithic era timeline, the strange bulbous turtle shell that was taller than she was, a lonely looking Inukshuk. Animkii cringed, although he said nothing. Who gave their ten year old a phone, anyway? 


Lucas, on the other hand, acted as though this whole experience was beneath him. He didn’t even bother to glance up from his phone, except to make a sarcastic comment or roll his eyes. Circling around to spy on his nephew’s screen, Animkii saw that Lucas was playing Pokemon Go. 


“No, that is not happening,” Animkii exclaimed, bending over Lucas’ shoulder to pocket the device. 


“Uncle!! Why did you do that?” Lucas wailed. “I was just about to catch a Taurus!” Lucas kicked the base of a nearby exhibit sulkily, and his hair flopped into his face. Animkii tried to search for his sister’s sweetness, or her quiet intelligence in the boy’s features, but could find only anger and self pity. In that regard, he was more like his father. 


“We’re here to look at the museum, not at your phone,” he chided gently. “Lily, you should put yours away too. Look with your eyes.” Lily looked disappointed, but she obediently tucked her phone into her backpack. 


They wandered through the museum, taking in the arctic foxes frozen in mid leap, forever pouncing on equally frozen mice because of some taxidermist’s skilled fingers. Soon, they reached the section on Inuit culture. Lucas, formerly recalcitrant and stubbornly observing the floor, touched his fingers to the glass and marvelled at the delicate kayak. Lily took off a run for the Amautik, eyes widening at the intricate beading. “Uncle, how did they make this?” she asked breathlessly. 


He came up beside her, pleased with Lily’s reaction. “Well, I'd assume with beads, and string, and leather. And a lot of time.” 


She nodded, then dug a notebook and a pencil out of her bag. At Animkii’s raised eyebrows, she said defensively, “You said no phones. But you didn’t say anything about drawings.” 


Animkii laughed and tousled her black hair. He watched her draw, rudimentary strokes that slowly and haltingly brought the Inuit clothing to life. “Good work, Lily. Now, let’s move on.” 


“Can you make one of those when we get home?” Lily asked. 


He paused mid-step, and turned to face his niece. “Now, why do you think I could do that?”


“Well … “ Lily fumbled, awkward now. “You’re First Nations. So I just thought …” She trailed off, unsure how to phrase the rest of it, or intimidated by his calm but unblinking stare. 


“That’s true,” he said, trying to be encouraging. “But we aren’t Inuit, right Lily? The Inuit are a whole different culture, language, region. They aren't actually First Nations peoples.” 


Lily chewed on her pencil. “Oh. Okay.” With that, she packed up her notebook and pencil, and walked over to get Lucas. It was a small thing, but just like the phone, it rankled Animkii that his niece couldn’t tell the difference between her own culture and someone else’s. He knew he shouldn't, but he blamed his brother in law. He knew it wasn't fair, but he'd always been skeptical of his sister marrying a white man. He'd never breathed a word of it to her, but some unspoken distance had crept between them over the years. That was part of the reason he'd been so excited to get the twins to himself for this field trip.


By the time they boarded the Nonsuch, Lucas had shed his indifferent, pre-teen mask and would have crawled all over the rigging and imitation trade goods if Animkii didn’t have a warning grip on his shoulder. “But Uncle,” Lucas whined, “why would they have it like this if I couldn’t climb it? It just doesn’t add up.” 


The twins enthusiastically regaled Animkii with stories they had learned in school about the fur trade. “… and did you know, Uncle, that the fur traders used to carry their canoes and everything in them if the rapids got too bad? Can you imagine that? I think I’d collapse!” Animkii chuckled, and waited for them to talk about something they had learned that wasn’t just about Europeans. He was left waiting. 


“Alright, alright,” he said, holding his hands up to halt their stream of facts and anecdotes. “Now, what can you tell me about the Indigenous trappers?” 


The twins looked at each other for a second, and he could literally see the gears turning in their minds. 


“Um … Indigenous women married fur traders. That’s where the Metis came from.” Lily offered. 


“Okay, that’s a good start. What else do you remember?’ Animkii urged gently. 


“They trapped the animals, like beavers and foxes, to sell to the Europeans.” Lucas blurted. “Because they wanted the metal goods. And the whisky,” he ended triumphantly. 


Animkii tried to smile, but his expression must not have been very convincing. The twin’s victorious smiles faded.


“That’s all we know, Uncle,” Lily said, her eyes downcast and refusing to make eye contact with his. “I’m sorry.” 


He pulled the twins into a bearhug. “It isn’t your fault,” he said, and he meant it. 


The mood was briefly somber, but the children quickly got over it. Oh, to be young and forgetful, Animkii thought to himself, smiling at their animated conversation to each other. They had reached the part of the museum that housed all of the Indigenous artifacts. Arrowheads, arranged by colour and size, stone hammer heads, with their smooth and perfectly encircled indentation looping around the rocks, and other relics lined the walls. Animkii wasn't sure what he thought about this. It was one thing to build a replica of a ship, but to have all of these things here? It felt too sterile and lifeless for those arrowheads to be arranged in neat rows. He thought then of the butterfly exhibits he had seen at other museums, rows upon rows of jewel toned butterflies pinned to boards. The sight had been heartbreaking to him, although his girlfriend at the time had marvelled over the beautiful wings.


The twins had gotten ahead of him when Lucas began shouting for him to come over.


“What, what is it?” he asked, amused at their excitement. It was an Ojibwa section. His breath caught painfully in his chest as he examined the exhibit. It held a birchbark basket, impossibly tiny baby shoes, a sash, everything beaded perfectly. It felt wrong. He made as if to touch the sash slung around the mannequin’s torso, his hand hitting the glass partition like a bird crashing into a window. “This doesn’t belong here,” he murmured softly, too low for the twins to hear. Here it was, his history, and he couldn’t even touch it. 


He could remember a basket, just like this one, from his grandmother’s house. It was kept tucked out of the way, along with other things like it, sashes and clothing, as long as Animkii could remember. He’d asked his mother about them once, wondering why they were hidden.


“She doesn’t like to talk about it, ever since they took her away to the residential schools. Just leave it alone, yeah? It’ll only bring up painful memories.” 


He saw his grandmother, crying whenever he tried to switch tongues from English, and how she had gagged the time he’d tried to make her oatmeal for breakfast. It was only later that he had learned what had really happened to her, and countless others, in those schools. 


He stirred from his reverie to tiny hands pulling him away from the glass, and a dull, throbbing pain. 


“Uncle, stop!” the twins pleaded, still attempting to drag him backwards. 


He looked around, saw the evidence of what he’d done. He hadn’t broken the glass, but he’d damn sure tried. His hand felt wrong, possibly broken, and the other museum visitors had backed away to give them a wide berth. One had raised their smartphone, taking pictures or video of them. Great. Surely, one of them had already fled the scene to look for some kind of security. 


“It doesn’t belong to them,” he muttered again, fully aware that he sounded like a crazy person, and yet unable to stop the seething resentment stoked by seeing those pieces of his ancestors’ history locked away. 


“Sir,” a curt, authoritarian voice barked at him. “I need you to come with me.” 


Shrugging his shoulders, he turned and grabbed Lily’s hand with his left one, and extended his right elbow to Lucas. After a slight hesitation, Lucas linked arms with him and the trio followed the security guard away. 


Animkii looked for an argument, a way out of this with his sister, and knew there was no good one. He’d probably never get the chance to visit them alone again after this debacle. 


The guard opened up door after a long trek through the museum, and gestured for them to walk in. “Sit, please.” 


Lily and Lucas sat down on either side of Animkii, and pulled their chairs closer to him. Moral support, he chuckled. Gotta love those kids. 


“Sir, do you know that you could be charged with property damage?”


Animkii said nothing. Nothing had been broken, and the exhibit was completely intact. He highly doubted the guard knew what he was talking about, but he didn't want to push his luck either.


The guard leaned forward in his chair, the table unsuccessfully hiding his paunch. “Sir, have you been drinking?” 


“Why?” Animkii snapped. “Because I’m an Indian?” 


“No, because you attempted to break the glass of an exhibit in the middle of the day, with a room full of witnesses. In front of your children, I might add.” The guard’s tone was unsympathetic.


“No, I was not drunk. But, while I’m here, who gave you permission to steal my culture’s artifacts and then charge me to come see them?” 


“I’m sure those artifacts were donated—“ 


“You’re a liar, or a goddamn fool if you really believe that,” Animkii growled. “They were stolen, just like you stole our land, our language, our childhood. There’s nothing left for you to take.” 


A tense silence filled the room at this, and the security guard looked at a loss for words. Animkii was unsure whether he was sympathetic, or just figuring out the best way to lock him up. “Just go,” the guard said, quietly but clearly. “You were never here, I never talked to you, and I’ll take care of it. But for God’s sake,” he said, exasperated, “don’t take them to another museum.” 


“Thank you,” Animkii said, getting to his feet. It wasn’t much, but he could recognize the kindness in looking the other way. It wasn’t this man’s fault that history had wronged his people at every turn. 


“C’mon guys,” Animkii said. They were escorted by the security guard, who opened the door and waved to them as they walked down the steps. 


“Let’s go home. I’m sorry I ruined your day.” He led them over to his car, unlocking it to let the twins scramble into the backseat. Turning around in his chair, he regarded them solemnly. It might be the last time in a long while he had to see him once his sister heard the news.


“Ruined it?’ Lucas asked incredulously. “That was awesome!!” 


“It was kind of fun,” Lily said shyly. “Maybe next time, we can learn more about our history too.” 


“Why wait until next time?” Animkii said, breaking into a wide grin. “Did your mother ever tell you about Turtle Island …” 


February 09, 2021 21:48

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5 comments

Rebecca Cole
22:39 Feb 16, 2021

LOVE THIS. It made me laugh, feel angry and practically every emotion on the spectrum, this was very eloquently done!

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Courtney C
22:45 Feb 16, 2021

Thank you so much!!!!

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Nainika Gupta
02:57 Feb 11, 2021

Oh, my word...Courtney. What an amazing story. I loved how you tied together with the histories of the different tribes and emphasized the difference between them - they are NOT all the same and you did amazingly pointing that out! I loved how the kids were on their phones but Animkii made them pay attention - tied modernness into it too!! And that flashback?!!! absolutely delightful!! amazing job again!! -N

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Courtney C
04:22 Feb 11, 2021

Thank you so much for the lovely review! I'm a Social Studies teacher, and I often feel a bit discouraged at how limiting and ethnocentric the curriculum seems to be. Glad you liked the story!!!

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Nainika Gupta
13:05 Feb 11, 2021

Of course!! it was amazing :D and I agree! It is very limiting and ethnocentric - especially in the US

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