Looking for an indigenous book or author who makes you laugh instead of cry? Who is able to poke fun at herself, her family, and life on the Reserve while at the same time so obviously showing her love and pride for the same things? This book quickly wormed its way into my heart and onto my best-of list for the year.
I thought this book was going to be fictional, but it’s actually about Dawn Dumont’s life growing up on the Okanese First Nation; her parents, her siblings, her many relatives, and Bingo.
Dumont’s father is an alcoholic, and it wasn’t uncommon for her mother to gather up the kids in the night and leave. Then days or weeks later, there would be a knock at the door, hushed discussions in the kitchen and their father would be reinstated at the head of the table.
Mom was a new woman, an independent woman. And why shouldn’t she be? Times were a’ changing. It wasn’t the seventies anymore when women took shit. It was the eighties. Women didn’t need to stick around and get beaten by their husbands; they had choices. Hadn’t Mary Tyler Moore proven this? Sure Mary wasn’t a single mother burdened by the demands of looking after four children under the age of eleven, and true, she didn’t have to contend with racism, but the message was the same: women could do things on their own.
There were a lot of nostalgic moments for me reading this book, despite the fact that I grew up in different circumstances on almost opposite sides of a big country. But it was the seventies and eighties, a time of drawing floor maps of one’s future home, dangerous outdoor games, and wood-paneled station wagons.
We loved our orange and brown wood paneled station wagon. It wasn’t just a mode of transportation: it was a bedroom, kitchen and playground. As Mom drove over the highway, my siblings and I would hang backwards over the seats until the blood rushed into our heads. From this view the world rushed towards us upside down. Sadly, like most fun things, if you did it too long, you’d end up throwing up.
Like so many of us, but unlike most of her siblings and cousins, Dawn Dumont loved to read. (“They pronounced the word “read” in the same pitying tone you might describe someone with a metal brace on her leg.”)
If the Mormon lady had handed me a copy of Satan’s Bible I would have read it. If she had pressed a copy of Mein Kampf in my hands, I would have given it a go. For me, the real reward was a book to distract myself from our ever-changing landscape. No matter where we went or how we got there, I wanted to know that I could depend on a book to centre myself. Books were my cigarettes.
A few significant things about our lives differed… one being that I didn’t grow up faced with racism and discrimination.
The Nehewin’s travelling habits were curtailed when the buffalo population, once an ocean of brown on the plains, withered to a few hundred. The Canadian government stepped in and created protected reserves for the buffalo where they now grow fat but remain wild. Then they created reserves for the native people where they grew also fat and remain a little wild.
I was instantly envious of the Bill C-31s. These girls had all the rights of Indians and because they tended to be lighter, they faced less of the racism; it was the perfect deal.
When Dawn Dumont was growing up, her hero was Conan the Barbarian. Part of the reason she (and her friends) loved Conan was because “we believed he was Native”.
The story of Conan mirrored the story of native people. Conan was a descendent of the Cimmerians, a noble warrior people who made swords yet lived peaceably. They were attacked and annihilated by an imperial army who murdered the men and women and enslaved the children. Conan… was the last of his kind. / This was exactly like our lives! Well, except for the last of our kind business. We were very much alive and well even though others had made a concerted effort to kill us off…. In Saskatchewan, most non-Native people were very much aware that nearly a million Native people still existed, mainly to annoy them and steal their tax dollars. / But someone had tried to annihilate us and that was not something you got over quickly. It was too painful to look at it and accept; it was easier to examine attempted genocide indirectly. We could read about the Cimmerians and feel their pain; we could not acknowledge our own.
Another way in which the author and I differ… my mother would never have set foot in a Bingo Hall. Dumont’s mother went to Bingo every night, along with a carload of adult relatives. One of my favourite chapters of the book is the one in which Dawn’s mother takes her along to Bingo “as a reward for being a good girl“. There she gets to witness the intense competition and the nonsensical belief that anyone had any control over who wins and who doesn’t. And it’s here we get the title for the book when Dawn starts crying over her deep desire for a bag a Cheezies, and her Aunt responds… “You’re not supposed to cry at Bingo. That big man over there will come and steal you.”
After surviving all things adolescent – awkward parties, warm beer, and frizzy hair – Dawn Dumont eventually makes it to Law School (“University was my Mecca...”). While still attending she is called on to help out when her youngest sister, Pammy, gets herself accused of witchcraft. Unlike Dawn, Pammy “immersed herself in rez culture: the accent, the clothes, the obsession with American rap and hip-hop. And she did so without one iota of shame. Because I had tried to hide everything that connected me to the reserve, I was in awe of her choice to do the opposite.”
Mostly I’m trying to recreate a place that is often limited in portrayals. As a humourist, I’m going to find the funny stuff but I hope people are also seeing enough of the challenging reality of that world. I’m also hoping that they see the truth and beauty of it.
On being an activist…
I read once that to be born Indigenous is to be born an activist – just the state of being and existing is a form of resistance to oppression. It’s unfair pressure to put on people, but as an artist I can transform that injustice into something larger than myself. Being an artist and an activist is basically being an optimist.
And for Jane Austen fans, her discovery that Austen set us up for disappointment…
Before Sedaris, I was in love with Jane Austen and Pride and Prejudice. The heroine is a pretty girl but not the prettiest and her greatest quality is her wit – c’mon what bookish girl couldn’t identify with Elizabeth Bennett? Unfortunately Austen set us up for a lifetime of disappointment – as it turns out, a great many men prefer big tits to being told off by women with intelligent eyes.