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European trip had distinctly Native flavor
The Urbane Indian
When Europeans first landed on these shores so many years ago, it has been estimated that there were approximately 100 million Native people waiting here to welcome them with local delicacies like tomatos, potatoes, tobacco and corn. And in the intervening 500-odd years, our effects on the land across the big pond known as the Atlantic is often thought of being limited to just produce. And canoes and kayaks.
So imagine my surprise when I found myself on the shores of Italy at the Turin International Book Fair on what turned out to be a positively Indigenous travel experience.
Since Canada was a featured exhibit at the fair, I was one of 21 Canadian authors (with a heavy focus of Italian-Canadian writers) who were invited to introduce Italians to the wonders of Canadian literature. Nino Ricci bought me a cappacino. Steven Heighton, Jeffrey Moore and I gossiped about our lovely writer wrangler. John Ralston Saul asked what one of my books was about, and I answered to Canada's resident philosopher, "John, what's it ALL about?"
As usual, I was the only First Nations author at the fair, and the only writer not translated into Italian. Evidently, Native theatre and humor are not of particular interest in the land of Columbus and Cabot (born Coboto in Venice). I was there for color.
Or so I thought. During the seven days I spent in Italy, I was absolutely overwhelmed by the amount of intentional and surprisingly random amounts of Aboriginal influence and representation in Turin. At the book fair itself, home to three huge venues of publishers' exhibits, amounting to thousands of different Italian books for every taste, I found one book titled Guida alle Riserve Indinae di Stati Uniti E Canada, evidently a guide to every Native community in North America. I doubt if it was a best seller, but it was still a shock. I'd expect this from the Germans, but the Italians?
One night I was asked to attend a book launch, an Italian translation of a Canadian book. I was shocked to discover it was Racconti Eroti Ci Degli Indiani Canadesi, or better known to thousands of Native readers across Canada, Tales From The Smokehouse. This book is a collection of supposedly Native erotic tales compiled by a not-so-Indigenous-sounding gentleman named Herbert T. Shwartz, and published way back in 1974. Its pedigree as a respectable source of authentic legends is suspect though, since one of the "tales" takes place during the 1967 Montreal Expo.
During the launch itself, an Italian anthropologist came out and delivered a quick lecture on the nature of First Nations erotic storytelling. I sure wish I could have understood the man. It sounded... interesting. Then a professional storyteller was introduced and proceeded to read one of the "tales." Again, it looked interesting. I had read the book many years ago, but it sure looked and sounded different in Italian.
The book was translated and published by an organization called Soconal Incomindios, a non-profit organization whose goal "is to unite all those who are interested in the Aboriginal Peoples of the Americas-in their cultures, as well as in their various political, social and cultural conditions." Located in downtown Turin, they even have their own magazine, called TEPEE: Comitato Di Solidarieta Con Popoli Nativi Americani, which has been around since 1984.
In the current issue, No. 28, topics explored include Culture Native Ed Ecosistema and Philippe Jacquin, L'Indiano Bianco Dell'Universita' Francese. A few nights later, Soconal Incomindios presented a reading by Lakota poet Gilbert Douville, originally from Rosebud, South Dakota. He now lives in Turin with an Italian wife he found while on tour with an American Native dance troupe. When not writing poems, he makes jewelry and, ironically, teaches English as a second language. Evidently I was not the only moccasin on the boot.
Even more surprising, a week prior to the book fair, the Universita' Degli Studi Di orino had invited me to a conference titled "INDIAN STORIES INDIAN HISTORIES: Storia e Storie degli Indiani d'America", but due to other issues I was unable to attend. It looked like a fascinating conference with such topics as "Framing the Text: Bill Miller, Buffy Sainte-Marie and Modern Native Visualisation Imagery," "Trickster Shift: Art and Literature (from the University of Helsinki!) "Contemporary Tales among Cree and Blackfeet" and "The Early Collecting Practice of the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia"... maybe I'm glad I missed that last one.
And this European journey just got stranger and stranger. After the book launch of what are now Italian/Aboriginal erotic tales, a young Turin lady drove me back to my hotel. Along the way we chatted and I asked her if she was a student. Through her makeshift English and thick accent, she managed to convey that she got her degree last year. In Native studies. I wanted to make sure I understood her correctly, but indeed, she got her degree in Native studies. In Italy. I guess that proves the belief that anything is truly possible.
On a walking tour of Turin, I was further inclined to wonder if these awesome adventures were some sort of practical joke. Too many things were proving to be a tad too coincidental for your average Native tourist to believe. I submit for your opinion: Our tour guide told us that before Italy had consolodated into the present country we all know and love, it was a collection of city states, of which Turin was a particularly important one. It was run by the House of Savoy, which has close connection to the French Crown. So as a sign of solidarity and support, the city of Turin sent 1,200 of its best soldiers in 1666 to Quebec to help the French fight the Iroquois.
Rumor indicates only about 800 returned home, several hundred electing to stay behind in this new country, explaining why there are many French Canadians with Italian last names. But also, local fable ha it the soldiers brought back an unknown number of people of an Aboriginal nature who were curious to see this strange new world where all these strange folks were coming from. They ended up settling down and were absorbed into the population and disappeared into legend.
Several years later, when the new palace for the House of Savoy was being built, the architect wanted to honor those soldiers that went off to battle the savages. So above all the first floor windows in the new palace were built large brick images of Native people by an architect that had never been out of Europe. About eight of them in a row, all with four brick feathers standing straight up, smiling sadly down at the Turins, as if to say "I only came for the Gelato." One of my fellow writers came up to me and said "this must be quite surreal for you." That's putting it mildly.
But I guess the best and most indicative observation to top off this so-called surreal trip was on the way to the airport, to return to the land where I thought Native people lived. The taxi stopped at a red light and I gazed out the window, pondering my transcontinental Native thoughts. In the car right next to us, waiting patiently, was a small Fiat, with a dreamcatcher hanging from the rearview mirror.
Why did I bother leaving Canada?
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