Saturday, June 11, 2011

Two books I've read

I found this draft posting from a couple of months ago and thought it was still kind of interesting so I upgraded it from Draft to Published. These are books I read in February that I really enjoyed.

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, by Laura Hillenbrand (2010).

This is the story of Louie Zamperini, who lived quite the amazing life as he moved from being a juvenile delinquent to Olympic runner to warplane crash survivor in the middle of the Pacific Ocean to Japanese POW. The story is absolutely rivetting, I lost a night's sleep because I couldn't put it down at bedtime.

This guy, born in 1917 and still alive, lived through the most harrowing life-threatening experiences, first floating over 2,000 miles in a life raft during wartime and then surviving a Japanese prisoner of war camp where they thought the Geneva Convention was for sissies. He returned home to the United States at the end of the war, an emotionally scarred man who scared the heck out of his beautiful new wife with his terrible nightmares and heavy drinking. Fortuitously he went to a Billy Graham revival and turned his life over to God, which apparently saved him, allowing him to forgive his worst POW camp tormenter and move on in life without terrorizing the people who loved him.

As an enthralling true-life adventure story, this book takes the cake. The author, Laura Hillenbrand, previously wrote Seabiscuit: An American Legend (2001), so she is no stranger to best seller lists. Once I picked it up I couldn't put it down until I finished it, losing a night's sleep in the process. The librarian also couldn't resist it either when it arrived at the library as the result of my interlibrary loan request. She borrowed it after I returned it.

Occupied Canada: A Young White Man Discovers His Unsuspected Past, by Robert Hunter and Robert Calihoo (1991)

This is the amazing story of Robert Calihoo, as told to Robert Hunter. Hunter was (he died in 2005) a journalist and one of the founders and the first president of Greenpeace; Calihoo is a First Nations man who for the first ten years of his life was raised by his white grandmother and did not know of his Indian heritage. On the death of his grandmother he was quickly returned to his birth mother, a woman he never knew until then. She also was white but had had three children by an Indian man on the Calihoo Reserve.

Life with his birth mother and her current partner (a white man) was a rough shock for the young boy and things quickly deteriorated for him. Eventually, as a teenager he sought out his birth father. He called 411 from a public phone booth and asked for him by name, but he didn't know his location so the directory assistance woman spent a good long time searching for the name in the listings for the entire province. Several hours later his father drove up to the public phone booth where Robert made that fateful call. For the first time in his life Robert realized his father was an Indian.

For a brief period Robert lived on the reserve with his new found father. It was an extremely rough life in the dire poverty typical of such reserves, but the highlight for Robert was going hunting and fishing in the bush with his Dad. Hunting and fishing in the bush was a wonderful life, and doing it with his father was icing on the cake. A far cry from his middle class upbringing in his grandmother's suburban house.

Through a bizarre turn of events Robert and all of the other Calihoos lost the reserve and ended up on the streets of Edmonton. Robert soon found that the only way to survive was through a life of crime, and the next dozen years or so were spent in and out of prison. However, during that time Robert pursued an education, eventually graduating with a university degree.

One life project Robert took on was to regain the old Calihoo Reserve that had been lost. By the end of the book we still don't know if he was successful in that project, but in the process he found out a lot about his ancestry and how exactly the reserve was lost. In essence it was stolen from them illegally.

The history of the Calihoos was fascinating, they were actually descended from Iroquois who migrated to Alberta in search of land. Two brothers, Louis and Bernard Karhiio, travelled all the way from what is now Quebec to the Rockies in search of unclaimed land, that is, land that no one, not even the native First Nations, had ever laid claim to. They actually managed to find a large parcel of land that fit the bill, in the Rocky Mountain foothills of modern day Alberta. So far as anyone knows this is the only piece of land on the entire continent that had never been claimed by any nation or tribe as part of their territory up until that time (the 1790s). The brothers returned to their village of Kahnawake just outside of present-day Montreal and convinced some family members to return with them to settle that piece of land.

The Karhiios (their name eventually changed to Calihoo) settled there, built log homes and proceeded to hunt, trap and raise crops and livestock. Unlike the Plains Indians, the Iroquois were ancient farmers. They were very successful in their new setting. Unfortunately they got caught up in the troubles that Plains Indians and Metis faced at the hands of the Canadians seeking to expand westward to the Pacific. When the Canadians made treaties with the Indians, it was assumed that the Calihoos were local Crees. To the Calihoos there was no advantage at the time to setting the Canadians straight on their identity. They took their treaty settlement and returned to farming.

But then the bison were hunted out and plague came to the Prairies. The Iroquois Calihoos were not dependent on the bison and had acquired some immunity to European diseases, but not enough. In the end they were just as ravaged and destitute as the rest of the Plains tribes, vastly reduced in population and ability to support themselves.

The duplicity of the Canadians who negotiated and enforced the treaties, who changed the terms of the treaties without notice and who created the Indian Act to further oppress native First Nations is described and documented in this book, as well as the racial discrimination and abuse heaped on the lazy drunken Indian. It is not an easy book to read, but Robert Calihoo's struggle to rise above all that is inspiring.

With a little research on the web, I found the website for the Calihoo Band, now called the Michel Band (after their first chief Michel, son of Louie Karhiio). Reading on this website, it would appear that the fight to regain government recognition as a bona fide Indian band is still in litigation.

What struck me about this book was both the personal struggle of the author and the peek into an aspect of history I would never have been aware of otherwise. When we think about the history of exploration of North America, we automatically assume the explorers were white Europeans, it never occurs to us that there might have been aboriginal explorers and settlers too. The Karhiio brothers knew a lot more about the lay of the land than the white explorers they guided, but they had the same curiosity and sense of adventure in exploring new territory. Their superior knowledge of the aboriginal peoples already occupying the land they explored helped them find what they were looking for, a bit of land to claim for their own.

1 comment:

Wisewebwoman said...

Thanks for the reviews Annie, I am particularly intrigued by the second, and must seek it out. I have many native friends so have heard some astonishing stories.