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Lyrics and Life

 

By Caitlin Ward

11/09/2016

My Country Tis of Thy People You’re Dying
Buffy Sainte-Marie

Now that your big eyes have finally opened
Now that you’re wondering how must they feel
Meaning them that you’ve chased across America’s movie screens
Now that you’re wondering “how can it be real?”
That the ones you’ve called colourful, noble and proud
In your school propaganda
They starve in their splendour?
You’ve asked for my comment I simply will render

My country ‘tis of thy people you’re dying.

Now that the longhouses breed superstition
You force us to send our toddlers away
To your schools where they’re taught to despise their traditions.
Forbid them their languages, then further say
That American history really began
When Columbus set sail out of Europe, then stress
That the nation of leeches that conquered this land
Are the biggest and bravest and boldest and best.
And yet where in your history books is the tale
Of the genocide basic to this country’s birth,
Of the preachers who lied, how the Bill of Rights failed,
How a nation of patriots returned to their earth?
And where will it tell of the Liberty Bell
As it rang with a thud
O’er Kinzua mud
And of brave Uncle Sam in Alaska this year?

My country ‘tis of thy people you’re dying

Hear how the bargain was made for the West:
With her shivering children in zero degrees,
Blankets for your land, so the treaties attest,
Oh well, blankets for land is a bargain indeed,
And the blankets were those Uncle Sam had collected
From smallpox-diseased dying soldiers that day.
And the tribes were wiped out and the history books censored,
A hundred years of your statesmen have felt it’s better this way.
And yet a few of the conquered have somehow survived,
Their blood runs the redder though genes have paled.
From the Grand Canyon’s caverns to craven sad hills
The wounded, the losers, the robbed sing their tale.
From Los Angeles County to upstate New York
The white nation fattens while others grow lean;
Oh the tricked and evicted they know what I mean.

My country ‘tis of thy people you’re dying.

The past it just crumbled, the future just threatens;
Our life blood shut up in your chemical tanks.
And now here you come, bill of sale in your hands
And surprise in your eyes that we’re lacking in thanks
For the blessings of civilization you’ve brought us,
The lessons you’ve taught us, the ruin you’ve wrought us
Oh see what our trust in America’s brought us.

My country ‘tis of thy people you’re dying.

Now that the pride of the sires receives charity,
Now that we’re harmless and safe behind laws,
Now that my life’s to be known as yourheritage,
Now that even the graves have been robbed,
Now that our own chosen way is a novelty
Hands on our hearts we salute you your victory,
Choke on your blue white and scarlet hypocrisy
Pitying the blindness that you’ve never seen
That the eagles of war whose wings lent you glory
They were never no more than carrion crows,
Pushed the wrens from their nest, stole their eggs, changed their story;
The mockingbird sings it, it’s all that he knows.
“Ah what can I do?” say a powerless few
With a lump in your throat and a tear in your eye
Can’t you see that their poverty’s profiting you.

My country ‘tis of thy people you’re dying.

I am writing this at the tail end of Dia de Muertos — the Mexican holiday better known in English as the Day of the Dead, or re-translated into Spanish as Dia de los Muertos. I mention this not because I observe Dia de Muertos, as I am not a Chicana Catholic, but because it’s got me thinking. Like Halloween, Dia de Muertos is a mash-up of pre-Christian and Christian traditions. Unlike Halloween, though, it’s a holy day commemorating the dead that is specific to a particular faith expression embedded in a particular culture.

Like Halloween, though, it’s more than a little fraught, culturally speaking. How and if people participate in Dia de Muertos has become something of an issue as people paint their faces as sugar skulls for Halloween and use the aesthetics of the holiday for non-spiritual reasons.

This particular tension is new in the last year or two, but it’s not without precedent. For the last 10 or 15 years, the lead-up to Halloween has been punctuated by articles, conversations, and arguments about what is and what isn’t an appropriate costume. I’m thinking specifically of how members of ethnic minorities ask people not to dress up as some stereotypical version of their culture, and people who aren’t of that ethnic minority receive this request with varying degrees of grace. Unfortunately, many people receive this request with no grace at all. They demand to know why they can’t dress up as an Indian brave, or a geisha, or wear blackface.

Of course, there are compelling historical and cultural reasons not to do so on every one of those counts, but I’m just going to take one, here, and it comes from a recent experience of my own. I was lucky enough to go to the installation of Archbishop Donald Bolen in Regina. I went as the guest of a good friend of mine who was once his student at Campion College. The night, which was beautiful and life-affirming in so many ways, for me was punctuated by the manner in which members of the First Nations of Treaty Four territory welcomed Archbishop Bolen to his new position: three men smudged, sang, and drummed.

Drumming always brings tears to my eyes, the same way that listening to certain hymns and spirituals makes me cry. I cry easily, I know — a trait I inherited from my father — and in the case of hymns, spirituals, and drumming, the tears come from recognizing the intensity of emotion behind the sound, and the spiritual power of that sort of invocation. There is a profound solemnity in it, and it was a profound respect conferred onto Archbishop Bolen through the offering of that blessing.

I mention this particularly because for this prayer, one of the men donned a war bonnet — the many-feathered headdress worn traditionally by male leaders of First Nations tribes. The war bonnet holds a place of special significance and power for many First Nations. Simultaneously, a war bonnet is something that lots of white people wear to music festivals because they think they look cool. Which, let’s face it, they totally do. War bonnets are beautiful.

But that’s not really the point, is it? The point is that a war bonnet is a sacred and culturally significant thing that is neither a costume nor a fashion accessory. It’s not meant to be worn to a music festival or a ball game, and it’s not meant to be part of a Halloween costume.

At this point, someone will usually point out that lots of people dress up in costumes that others find offensive, but freedom of expression! You don’t hear Catholics complaining that people dress up as demonic priests and sexy nuns for Halloween. You don’t see Catholics whining that people wear rosaries as necklaces and holy medals on bracelets.

Well, first of all, you definitely do hear Catholics complaining about those things. I am one of the Catholics who does complain about those things. But in the second place, let’s not pretend these things are the same. In one sense they are quite similar: people donning spiritually significant symbols in order to make a superficial fashion statement.

In another sense, they’re entirely different. Anyone who pays attention to alternative media sources will know that a huge stand-off between police and protesters has been going on in North Dakota for quite some time. Energy Transfer, a Texas-based company, is trying to build an oil pipeline through a sacred burial ground at Standing Rock. The land, by many accounts, is treaty land, and those trying to build the pipeline have no rights to it. Indigenous peoples from across North America have converged on this spot to peacefully protest. Tribes who traditionally war with one another are working together for the first time in human memory to preserve these burial grounds. A wild eagle perched in the camp and let protesters come up to it. A herd of wild buffalo showed up at the site. It’s a stand-off of epic proportions with profoundly mystical elements shadowing it. These peaceful protesters have been consistently assaulted by a militarized police force.

Now tell me. When was the last time your church was in danger of being bulldozed so that crude oil could be pumped through the property? Oh, right. It wasn’t. Most likely, no one’s questioning the ownership of the land on which your church sits. Your worship might not be universally liked and respected, but you’re pretty much allowed to practice in peace. Your high holy days are national holidays.

And you know what? There is nothing wrong with that. It’s fantastic that we are allowed to do that. But we have to acknowledge that not everyone is afforded the same rights and respect, and we need to hold ourselves accountable within that. In this case, wearing a war bonnet as a fashion accessory is a small and individual disrespect that is part of the larger historical disrespect an entire people suffer at the hands of an unfeeling society and a self-interested corporate world. Is choosing not to dress as Pocahontas for Halloween going to prevent a pipeline from being built? Probably not. But it’s a small stand against a culture that allows it; it’s cultivating a small piece of respect in our hearts. And how else do things ever change?

Ward is a Saskatoon-based freelance writer who spends her days (and most nights) working at a small Catholic college. Her less eloquent thoughts can be found at www.twitter.com/newsetofstrings