Over the past couple of decades as a book editor I have come to specialize in the editing of manuscripts by First Nations authors. It has been an interesting journey, what with native culture becoming prominent as residential school survivors find their individual and collective voices.
The first First Nations book I edited was Inside Out by James Tyman. It was subtitled, “An Autobiography by a Native Canadian,” and the bulk of it had been written while the author was in jail.
Jim Tyman was a pimp, a thief, a drug dealer, an addict and an alcoholic. He was also something of a character. He once put his fist through the windshield of a Ford Mustang, from the inside, just to see what the driver would do. When I began to work with him he was trying to rehabilitate himself as an author. The publisher had taken pains to get this book out of him, and had even visited him in jail to keep him motivated.
“Write from your gut, Jim,” the publisher advised him, and sure enough, when I got the computer disk the files were labelled GUT-1, GUT-2, GUT-3, and so on, all the way up to GUT-12.
It was forceful stuff, but there was hardly a publishable sentence in the manuscript. The “f” word, for example, appeared 237 times. What’s more, Jim had no more idea of nêhiyâwiwin or nêhiyawêwin — Cree-ness or Cree language — than I did. He had been adopted by a middle-class white family and raised as a middle-class white child. He had no knowledge of his culture, his language, or his birth family. His knowledge of pimping, crime, and the drug scene, however, was extensive.
When I went to meet him for our first conference, I took a couple of Valium and drove over to his house on the west side of Saskatoon. To my surprise, I met a young man who was articulate, soft-spoken, clearly intelligent, and obviously aware that there was something missing in his life. He didn’t really know who he was. His search had taken him into the sex trade and the world of crime because that was the only place he could achieve some sense of purpose and affirmation. He was just beginning to learn about the elders who could tell him stories about the nêhiyawak — the Cree people — and set him on a different path.
Working with Jim was an interesting experience, to say the least, and when his book came out it was a great success. Unfortunately, Jim wasn’t. His motto was, “Life is great when you’re full of hate.” He had the ability to polish off a 40 of scotch, sober up, and then polish off another without having slept in the interim. He once went for a week without sleep. He died more or less of old age on an Edmonton street at the age of 35. His body had just worn out.
If I learned one thing from the experience of working with Jim Tyman, it was this: you cannot turn an Indian into a white man. You can take away his name, his family, his faith, his history and his language — all these things had been done to Jim, as they had been done to thousands in the residential school system — but he is still not going to be a white man.
The ancient bards of the Celtic tradition spoke of how, as you learn the ways of words, you begin to see the world more clearly. The better your vocabulary, the better you can frame your thoughts, the more vivid your thoughts become, and the better you are able to express them. Fundamentally, Jim Tyman had no language. If language is the mother of thought, then he was handicapped from the moment he was taken from his birth family.
I am rather stunned that I managed to figure this out in a few months, when it’s taken governments and churches several generations to begin to arrive at the same conclusion.