Village People

👤Charlynn Toews 🕔Apr 01, 2012

“Why you paint your hair like that?” the elderly man demanded of me as I rang up his purchases at Reimer Pharmacy.

“I…I don’t!” I stammered, then: “You can ask my dad!”

What’s wrong with this picture? Nothing—if you grew up in a village culture.

Although Steinbach, Manitoba was a town of 5,000 when I was growing up, it still embodied the original Mennonite settlement of 1874, a small village. The elders of the church were the elders of the village. Culture and government were one and the same, and the patriarchs were in charge of it all. Thus my appeal not to ask my mom, not to “ask anybody,” but to ask my dad.

They probably knew each other at least two ways: through a neighbour’s cousin or a cousin’s neighbour, or both.

The Canadian federal government that set that land aside for my people called it the East Reserve. More families immigrated there, but many soon drifted off to the better soils of the West Reserve, across the Red River. Steinbach blogger Lisa Vogt says, “We were told that those people lived on YON SEED (the other side), while we lived on DITZ SEED (this side). However, the people over there had it all backwards. To them, we were YON SEED and they were DITZ SEED.”

I was in Gitlaxt’aamiks recently and a guy I was talking to made a joke about how those people on the other side of the Nass River, in Gitwinksihlkw, were kinda funny, strange, opposite. “Same people, right?” He nodded. “Across the river?” Again a nod. Hmm, I thought—a bunch of yon seeders.

I was doing some work in the Hazeltons and had just toured the ‘Ksan museum, with those authentic longhouses. One of them had a really small doorway, which our guide explained was a means of defence from invaders.

Soon afterward, I received a gift from my friend Mary, who mailed me a piece of cloth embroidered in a familiar-looking pattern of red and black from an indigenous tribe in India, the Toda. It looked, to me, like northwest BC textile art. I googled the people and found they lived in remote villages and had a traditional dwelling that was a long, narrow house with a very small door. The website explained the small door was a defence from neighbouring settlements.

Near Old Town Hazelton a few years ago, I was told of an excellent program where Gitxsan elders would drive around at night to check on any youths at large. The elders would stop, question the youngsters, then report them to their parents, as a step before calling the RCMP.

Why do I find this to be an excellent program now, when as a youth I found the elders’ questioning so nosy?

I moved from small-town Steinbach to small-town Terrace, with a few big cities in between. I was walking across the playground at a schoolyard one Saturday, just after moving here, when I spotted some kids in what looked like a serious physical altercation. “Hey!” I yelled, before thinking. “What are you doing?”

They stopped immediately and looked at me. They were maybe 8, 10, 12 years old. I stood up to my full height, put my hands on my hips and yelled, “Do you want me to call the cops, or what?” They scattered.

It takes a village to raise a child, that’s for sure. At the same time, we Village People can be so intrusive and suspicious and even upside-down. Well, at least we’re not like those people over there. See them? Those yon seeders!