Our American Cousins – Short Story by Charlie Chin
By Charlie Chin. Posted December 8, 2022.
There was a popular and very well-known folk singer in 1977, you might know his name. He wasn’t very good, but he paid well and was easy to get along with. He got booked in big venues but needed a sideman musician to make his show work. I was eking out a living as a guitar accompanist, so I took the gig.
We had a job up in Canada, which I had been to several times before, but this time I wasn’t going to visit family members living in the Maple Leaf land, but to play at the national Canadian Folk Festival in Toronto. I told my father that I was going north to Canada on a music job, and he asked,
“Nei Hoy Hong Mo Gor Ma?” Meaning, “You’re going to the Red Fur country?” The old time southern Chinese people like my dad, referred to foreign countries by the name that Cantonese people had given them back in the 1700s. Descriptions that were an adaptation of the country’s name, or a description of one of its main products. Canada was the “Red Fur’ country, because that was where the luxurious fox, ermine, and beaver skins came from.
Back then in the 70’s it was no problem to get into Canada, if you had a work permit, they welcomed anybody who wasn’t an obvious criminal or a crazy person. So, as a Chinese American I breezed in with the rest of the band. Coming back to the States was always a hassle, because the border guards always questioned Asians more intensely than others. Strangely Americans fear immigrants when they first arrive but proudly display them if they succeeded against the odds in the “Land of Opportunity.’
Mariposa Folk Festival, 1970. Photo from York University Collection.
We arrived at the Mariposa Folk Festival in Toronto. After checking in at the hotel and finding a pay phone, back then phones were attached to the wall, I made some calls. My mother had insisted I call her brother-in-law, Uncle Johnson Lum, as soon as I got to Toronto. He was pleasantly surprised that I was in Canada. But he was mildly insulted that I was “throwing money away” by staying at a hotel, instead of saving money by sleeping on his living room couch. He still acted like we were all back in the village. I explained that the festival was paying for the hotel, not me. He accepted it but with the suspicion that maybe I didn’t want to stay with my relatives
The gig was interesting. There were folk music acts from Canada and the United States, also from Ireland, Scotland, and Nova Scotia, and there was a very big Indigenous section. Not the usual tourist stuff I had seen in the States, but people still living on their ancestral lands and directly in touch with their culture.
Alanis Obomsawin, Abenaki singer, at Mariposa Folk Festival. She later became a renown documentary filmmaker. Photo from the York University Collection.
The folk festival during the day was predictable. There were popular singer song writers, blues artists, both older Black guys and the younger White guys imitating them, and a lot of Scot Irish Anglo musicians playing the fiddles, banjos, and the bagpipes of their people. They apparently believe that there can never be too many bagpipes. The Native Peoples were given their own section. Of course, the First nations people were in the Americas before the borders were drawn, so there were participants from all over.
Mi’gmaq/Scots/Irish singer and poet Willie Dunn. He was also an acclaimed filmmaker.
After the day’s concerts and demonstrations, the different groups had been assigned to different sections of the hotel that we were staying at and that’s where they held the after-performance parties. The Irish/Scots/English had their section, the blues singers another, one for the Bob Dylan wannabe singer/song writers, and the Indigenous people had another. Native people were near the basement section.
I went downstairs and the first thing I was told when I entered through the door was that there was no alcohol allowed. Believe me, I could see that, whiskey was a relief and happy tradition for the Scots and Irish, but a crippling curse for the Indigenous People.
Being a typically Asian, I just sat quietly on the sidelines and watched while trying to make sense of some of the stuff I was seeing. Nobody gave me a hard time or any evil looks, so I tried to blend in. The Inuit people were in one section of the room, and they were doing something very simple musically. They held hands and formed a circle, then then began to breathe deeply, they exhaled with the sound, “Haa”, and stepped to the left, and then did it again. I thought that’s rather basic, probably some stone age ritual, maybe tens of thousands of years old, nothing special there, so I moved on to another group.
There were some Southwestern Pueblo People, mostly Navaho, Zuni, and Hopi and they were doing a simple but very nice couple’s dance. The women would ask a man to dance, stood side by side, and then you held both hands with the woman. As the drum music started, you did a sort of soft sliding step forwards. A rather healthy woman wearing a lot of silver and turquoise jewelry, and wearing a shirt that said, “Don’t worry, be Hopi, “spotted me and ask me to dance. I didn’t want to insult her, so I danced.
I circled around with everybody else but one of the Hopi guys signaled me that I was smiling and using too much Latin movement in my hips, so I had to wipe the smile off my lips, standup straight, and act with dignity. These Indigenous men are supposed to be dignified, serious, and dance as if they were at a funeral. He nodded at my corrections, and he went back dancing. It was nice for the for first two dances, but then I learned very quickly that at the end of the dance, the man was supposed to give the woman a “token,” perhaps a ring, a bead, or a nice handkerchief. When the drumming stopped, the very stern looking Hopi woman I was dancing with held out her hand and before I knew it, by the second dance, my hippy silver mood ring and Hawaiian puka shell necklace were gone. I got taken and shorn like a blind sheep.
As an act of self-preservation, I moved on to another group. I heard a fiddle, and it sounded like Scottish music. I thought maybe some of the UK guys had come down, but I saw a group of obvious not Scottish people fiddling and dancing a sort of jig on the basement floor. I asked a man next to me,
“Where are you guys from?” He looked at me, then used his hand to make a sweeping gesture with the comment,
“Meti, we are all Meti.” I heard about them before; along with the First Nations people and the Inuit, one of the three major indigenous groups recognized by the Canadian Government. They are the descendants of the French and British fur trappers that came to Canada back in the 1700’s. Those trappers lived and inter-married with the native people. The French speaking guy Toussaint Charbonneau, the scout for the Lewis and Clark expedition back in 1804 was one. He was Sacagawea’s husband, and their son, Jean Baptiste was a Meti. These folks had their own music and traditions, a blend of their Native and European forebears. It was very interesting. To me they look like Hapa people from the Bay Area.
Photo from Eastern Woodland Metis Nation website.
I decided to move on and see what some of the other guys were doing. I saw a bunch of men sitting on the floor and throwing what looked like small sticks towards a small rock placed on a tanned buffalo hide. The deal was simple, you threw the four sticks painted with colored bands, against the stone, and the way the sticks landed, bands up or bands down, determined if you lost, won, or if you’re got to go again. This game looked easy, or at least that is what I thought. After an hour of making some very bad throws, listening to a bunch of jokes in Lakota that I didn’t understand, and all the Canadian money that I had was gone, a guy named Wind Dancer said, “you can still bet your shoes.” I guess it’s a big joke among the Plains Nations people, that a real loser walks home without his shoes. But I was having a good time and I thought, my luck has got to change.” Yes, you guessed it, I lost a nice pair of Coleman loafers on two throws and had to walk back upstairs to my hotel room in my stocking feet to find my sneakers. As I left the main room, nice Huron woman offered me a discount price on a pair of handmade moose skin slippers, but I declined. I was embarrassed enough.
I came back downstairs and some of the guys I had just been gambling with smiled in anticipation. They didn’t hide their disappointment when I shook my head and moved on to another section of the room.
I went back to the Inuit section and saw some older people in fur parkas now seated in a circle chanting and clapping their hands in rhythm. To be polite, I began to clap in time with the others. I sat down next to an Indigenous woman with three blue strokes tattooed on her chin. I introduced myself,
“Hi, Charlie Chin, Chinatown, New York City.” She answered,
“Autumn Moon, Haida Nation.” I watched as a little old man in a fur parka and pants came out holding a miniature bow and arrow.
“What’s going on?” She explained as the group kept singing and clapping.
“He’s looking for the seal.” Each line in Inuit was repeated in unison several times by the group. The man in the parka stopped and focused his eyes on something in front of him, the chanting became more measured. Autumn Moon leaned forward in her seat and controlled her excitement as she said,
“He sees the seal” This was getting interesting. The grey-haired man in fur eased down to his knees and hands and began to crawl forward in slow motion. Autumn Moon lowered her voice and whispered confidentiality,
“He’s creeping up on the seal.” Keeping the rhythm of the chant, the man pantomimed the actions. The chanting voices became hushed.
“He is taking aim at the seal.” He drew the tiny bow string back and sighted the arrow at his imaginary target, the tension in the room was building and I was getting excited.
At this point several people began to get up onto their feet and sway in anticipation as they chanted. Then the guy released the bow string and shot the miniature arrow across the room. It was like a soccer game when your team scores a goal. Everybody began laughing and screaming,
‘He shoots the seal!” The group began to join hands and shuffle dance to the left. Autumn Moon was jumping up and down and shouted,
“The seal is killed. Everybody eats!” We both got up and joined the line. As we held hands with the people on both sides, we took deep breaths and exhaled the word, “Ha,” and stepped. It was one of the most exciting things I’ve ever done in my life.
Two Inuit women. Photographer unknown.
When I got back home to New York City, I went to see my parents and give them some gifts my Canadian relatives had sent. When I gave my father the precious Chinese herbs that Uncle Lum had sent him, he asked me how things went up in the “Red Fur” country. I told him I spent a lot of time with the Indigenous people there. He nodded and said,
“That’s good, you know the Indian People are our cousins.” I looked at him quizzically and wondered if there was some ancient Chinese legend about this,
“Dad, how do you know the Indians are our cousins?’ He looked at ceiling for a second and commented,
“Look at their faces.”
Author’s Bio: Charlie Chin is an author, singer/songwriter, and master storyteller. He served as the Community Education Director at the Museum of Chinese in America in New York City and as Artist-in-Residence at the Chinese Historical Society of America in San Francisco. He is the author of several children’s books, including China’s Bravest Girl (1992) and Clever Bird (1996).