Register Sunday | June 16 | 2019

First Contact

The author remembers the first time he saw a white man

In Kahnawake, where I grew up, on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River just outside Montreal, white people used to dump their garbage on the reserve. I’m not talking about the toxic waste that the Indian Affairs Department buried in our ground, though there’s plenty of that. And I’m not talking about the corpses the Montreal mafia buried at night in the woods at the edge of the territory, though there are plenty of those too. Those are stories for another time.

I’m talking about how white people had the audacity to get out of their cars in broad daylight and dump their rotting garbage in our yards—then light up a cigarette and drive away, thinking about nothing but whether the traffic on the Mercier Bridge was going to make them late for work that day.

Once, when I was still small enough to be sitting on my dad’s lap in our old red Pontiac, “steering” while he worked the gas and brake pedals and sipped on his bottle of beer, I heard him say, “Son of a bitch.” Then he grabbed the steering wheel and pulled the car to a stop on the side of the road.

“Stay here,” he said, getting out of the car.

I stood up on the bench seat of the old Pontiac, peeked over the dashboard and, for the first time in my life, saw a white man.

I knew he was a white man because I didn’t recognize him as one of my relatives, or one of my dad’s drinking buddies, or somebody at church, or the old men who sat around on the grass and told stories at my grandma’s restaurant in the village.

It felt strange. This man, who I didn’t know and had never seen before, was taking bags of garbage from the trunk of his car and throwing them in the ditch in front of my cousin’s house.

My dad walked up to him and shouted, “You got a goddamn hard face,” and without waiting for the man’s expression to change from a belligerent “Tu dis quoi, maudit savage?” to a fearful “Tabernac,” my dad punched him right in the face. And when the man went down on one knee, crying, my dad grabbed him by the neck, dragged him over to the ditch and, the way you rub a dog’s nose in his mess to teach him a lesson, made him pick up his trash and dump it all into the back seat of his own car. Then my dad kicked him in the ass and stuffed him into the front seat and told him to “get the hell out of town.”

My dad slid into the driver’s seat, lifted me back onto his lap and took a swig of beer. As he was about to start up the car, he paused to let out a deep, slow breath.

“You see what happened there, Rocky?”

“Yeah,” I said as I turned my head around and looked up at him.

“Don’t be scared, son, you’re a Mohawk,” he told me. “And don’t you ever take any shit from a white man.”

I never have.