Aboriginal Community: Sagkeeng First Nation
The Authors – 2009 Aboriginal Youth Writing Challenge
My name is Maria Starr and I am a mother of two who is studying to receive my Bachelor of Social Work degree at the University of Manitoba. I am a member of Sagkeeg First Nation and lived there until I was six. That is when my family moved to Winnipeg and I was raised within Winnipeg’s notorious North End.
I have always enjoyed creative writing from a very young age. I found that when I wrote from experiences of my real life that I engaged my readers interest and got my point across in a more powerful way as opposed to voicing my opinions.
This piece that I have submitted has been a year in the making. I began writing a story inspired by my younger brother, cousins and nephew; it is because of this that I had difficulty finishing this piece. In July of 2005 I lost my younger brother Richard in a street fight gone wrong. His killer was released from custody two weeks after his death and 15 months later he killed another young man.
I was not the only one to lose a young person in my life that year. A young Matthew Dumas was also shot and killed by Winnipeg police at the beginning of that year. It seemed as if after every weekend that same summer there was news of some other young Aboriginal male being killed. I asked my nephew one day how many people that he knew who were also killed that summer and he named three young boys. If my nephew was affected by these deaths than how many other lives were affected as well?
I realize that the issue of losing our young people in violent ways is an issue worth bringing to the light and it is an issue that must be felt by others all over Canada. Personally, to write something inspired by my brother’s death seemed like a good way for me to heal. In the end I never wanted to finish the piece because to me it symbolized that I was finished mourning him as well.
I believe that this issue is an important part of our Aboriginal history because it is something that has happened in the past and I believe will continue to happen because our youth are products of their environments and since the majority of them live in poverty, poverty itself is a cycle that repeats itself over and over.
I named the story after my brother even though none of the characters bear his name. I don’t know what readers will take from my story but in the end I wish that the message of hope for a brighter future will be interpreted.
Our family had finally settled into our new house. The last of the boxes had dwindled down to one, a box full of pictures. The kids had already gone off to bed and I decided to get all of the unpacking done before joining my family and letting my tired mind and body rest for some well deserved zzz’s. As I was walking back down the hallway towards the living room the bottom of the box gave out from the weight of its contents and pictures of all sizes from about 25 years of collecting scattered everywhere creating a collage of my life.
“Damn!” I cursed. I flicked the hallway light on and bent down to begin collecting the mess I had created. The first picture that I grasped and focused on was one that I had not seen in years. The sight of it made me stop breathing and my legs go weak so that in that same moment I was on my ass.
The picture was one of four young boys. Memories of that day filled my mind; memories that I had locked away to the point that I believed I had imagined them. The boys in the picture were all 12 years old. They were standing in front of a light blue two story house that had a cracked front window and a front storm door that would not close right; the house screamed poor. These boys did not care; they stood arms linked over each other’s shoulders smiling.
These were the best friends that I had ever had, I thought. I stared at the younger version of myself unable to turn away. They were all there Ryan, Curtis and J.R; I stood on the end. Our youthful faces were tanned a dark brown by the sun mixed with a little dirt and sweat. That summer was the greatest summer ever; we had spent every day together from morning until night.
Right after the picture was snapped the four of us fell on a heap on the ground wrestling and trying to pin one another while cussing and laughing.
“Everyone gang up on Sammy!” yelled Curtis as he moved to lock my legs. J.R and Ryan followed suit, one jumping on either of my shoulders trying to bring me down. I played along doing nothing at first but building up my mental edge.
They almost had me until with one deep breath, “Rrrraaaahhhhh!” I grunted and with all my strength, I got up off my knees and stood up. With one quick lift I removed J.R and threw him to the ground. As he landed I grabbed Ryan from off around my neck and threw him on top of J.R. As they both tried to catch their breaths I bent down and grabbed a hold of Curtis’ belt as he was trying to crawl away. I picked him up and walked over to the other two guys, who looked up just in time to see Curtis come flying at them. They probably would have come back with another attack if only they could stop laughing.
“Hecken Sam just goes all Goliath on us,” Ryan joked.
“That’s all the bannock his mom feeds him” J.R explained. “It gives him his strength”.
“And his fatness” Curtis piped in. All three of them snickered so I dove into the pile of them sitting there and we began grappling once again. It was true that I was bigger and chubbier than the other three boys but I was used to their comments.
J.R was the smallest and it seemed because of this he had more to prove when we sparred. His jabs were faster and twice as hard. Ryan was the darkest out of us even though we were all Ojibway. His family had moved to the city from one of the northern reserves. His accent was difficult to ignore and yet at the same time the rest of us would try to copy it and act like that was how we always talked. Curtis and Ryan were about the same size and skinny but Curtis’ looks were opposite Ryan’s. Curtis had green eyes and light brown almost blonde hair.
Four years passed and it was the summer that we were 16. High school proved to be one of the greatest trials on our friendship. As we were introduced to a new school, new peers and new activities our individual personality traits kicked in and slowly the time that we spent together was less and less. I joined different school teams including football and basketball. Curtis became quite serious with a young girl from our neighbourhood. Ryan and J.R because they were cousins stayed close but got involved with more of a rough and tough street crowd that ditched classes and got into slight misdemeanours with the law; still we hung out at least a few hours a week.
Like the night that everything changed. We had arranged to hang out together one night and were to meet at Curtis’. When I got to Curtis’ his girlfriend’s mom told me that Ryan had already picked him up and that I was to meet them at J.R’s place; so I began the trek to J.R’s . The further south that one headed towards downtown Winnipeg, the more visible the signs of poverty became. Houses were condemned and boarded up, kids wandered the streets at all hours of the night, garbage and junk littered the streets and front lawns of properties. It was then that I noticed three people running across the street about a block in front of me. Two young boys were chasing another young boy across the street while swearing and brandishing weapons.
“Typical North Side street fight” I said to myself. From the distance I was at I could make out the voices of the pursuers and instantly recognized them as belonging to Curtis and Ryan. I began running in the direction that they had headed; if my friends were in trouble, I was going to be there to help them out. They had disappeared down a back alley and I was still about a block behind them and they were nearing a busy intersection. Suddenly Curtis tripped over something that he had stepped on and he fell to the pavement while Ryan kept close pursuit of the fellow they were chasing. I caught up to Curtis and we slowed down a little just to catch our breaths.
“What’s going on man, who are we chasing?” I asked.
“This is Ryan’s scrap, do you remember him always talking about this one guy who he kept running into and the guy would make Ryan look like a punk in front of other people? Well that’s the guy we ran into him while he was walking by himself and Ryan called him out. The guy began running so we chased him. Can you believe this, all of this over Ryan’s stupid street credit?” Curtis was breathing hard.
We watched as Ryan finally caught the guy he was chasing and the two of them stood on the corner giving each other shot for shot. Curtis and I were just arriving at the corner and the lights at the intersection changed so we had to wait as cars began to pass by. We watched as our buddy began to win the fight landing blow after blow to the guys head. Ryan’s opponent looked a little dazed for a bit and in an instant almost too quick to be seen he pulled out a knife from his back pocket and stabbed Ryan in the side. After this the guy ran began to run again, this time running through an open field.
We crossed the street and met up with Ryan; Curtis took a look at his side. “Looks like he got you there” he said as he pointed to a red spot on Ryan’s white shirt. “We should go get that looked at”.
“What are you guys just standing there for?” Ryan yelled at us. “He’s getting away. HEY! I’m not finished with you!” and with that Ryan took off after his opponent. Once again we followed Ryan until he stopped short suddenly and turned to look at us. His skin had turned a sickly yellow within that short amount of time.
“I-I don’t feel so well” he began. “I can’t breathe…I can’t breathe”.
“Well that’s what you get for trying to run all stabbed up” Curtis scolded Ryan. “Here let me help you lay down”. Ryan willingly let Curtis help him to the ground. “Come on catch your breath and then we can just forget about this and head to J.R’s”. Curtis sounded so confident in his plan until he looked down and realized that Ryan had lost consciousness. “What the hell!” He bent down and felt for Ryan’s pulse. “Sam, go get J.R, NOW!”
“What? Why?” I could hear the panic in my own voice.
“His pulse is slow. GO! Get J.R down here now! I’ll stay here until Ryan gets some help and then the three of us can go looking for that punk who did this. GO! RUN!”
So I ran. Crazy thoughts raced through my mind as Curtis’ pleas for help reached my ears. He’ll be okay…he’ll be okay; I repeated the saying over and over again in my head, allowing myself to believe it. “Call the police” I said to myself. “Call an ambulance”. No, I thought, I have to get J.R; we need J.R.
I continued running taking short cuts through abandoned yards to get to J.R’s house. I rounded a corner near my destination and what lay before me brought me back to reality. There the cops are I thought, but why are they here? Did they follow me here? Confusion set in and made me stop in my tracks. Instinct kicked in and I realized that this was a totally different scenario that I had stumbled upon; yet it involved people I knew well.
There cornered by four cop cars was J.R. From the distance I was at I could see the fear in his eyes mixed with that red glaze that let me know he was messed up. He hadn’t spotted me yet and neither had any of the police officers. I quickly stepped back into the shadows and crept low in some nearby bushes that would still allow me to see what was going on.
“Bradley Red Deer” one officer with a bullhorn announced. “We have several warrants out for your arrest”.
“That’s not who I am-” began J.R. In his right hand was a blade.
“Drop your weapon” the officer continued, “or we will be forced to subdue you”.
“You don’t understand-” J.R tried again to explain himself. From behind him another young officer came out of the shadows trying to be quiet and tackle J.R without him knowing. An impossible feat I knew, no one could sneak up on J.R, he had intense hearing and in that same moment he turned around to face the officer and then J.R raised his knife in the air. The knife glinted in the streetlight but only for a moment. J.R stepped out of the way of the policeman who ended up falling face first onto the pavement. Thunder exploded from the left of J.R and the knife fell to the ground. My heart stopped beating and my breath caught in my throat. My eyes would not let me turn away from what was now going on.
J.R fell to his knees with his glazed eyes open wide in shock. He clutched his chest where a red stain grew bigger and bigger eventually turning black.
“Nnnnnoooooooo!!!………” a scream of grief came from behind a parked car on the street. It was Candace, one of J.R’s younger sisters; she kept screaming as she ran towards her brother. “That’s my brother, that’s my brother, you shot my brother!” I noticed that her clothes were torn before two officers stepped in front of her and held her back. She clawed at them, screaming for them to let her go. “Junior! Junior! Junior!”
Blood was now starting to come out of J.R’s mouth and he started coughing. I stood up out of my hiding place. He looked in my direction, looked me in the eyes before falling onto the blood stained pavement face up.
It was my turn to make a move. I ran as fast as I could towards my fallen friend. I could see steam rising from his mouth as his chest sporadically rose up and down in an effort to keep breathing.
All I could hear in my head was the echo of that fatal gunshot. I reached J.R’s side in time for him to turn and see me. His voice was weak as he continued to cough. “Tell my family that I love them” he said. “I’m not strong enough…I’m going…with Ryan”.
Emotion got the best of me and I sobbed openly. “J.R, Ryan got stabbed. That is what I came to tell you”.
“He’s right beside you bro…he’s waiting for me”. My blood froze as J.R said this. The right side of my body tingled immensely proof of what J.R had just said. “Take care of Candace…she’ll need it.” Those were the last words I ever heard him say.
On either side of me two men wearing dark blue uniforms with red stripes running down both sides picked me up and handcuffed me. They had me laying face down on the ground, I turned my head towards my friend just in time to see him close his eyes and watch as a white shadow seemed to escape from the top of his head.
“Aaaaaaaaaahhhhhh!!!” the scream escaped my throat. I screamed until there was no more breath in me. Even in handcuffs, I thrashed around on the ground kicking at what I could, trying to escape from what held my hands behind my back. The only urge that I had was to be with J.R and hold him close to me. I continued to convulse and spit out obscenities, cursing those who took the lives of my best friends. I did this until a solid black boot struck the side of my head and I passed out. Before I gave into the blackness I silently prayed that wherever this darkness led to that when it ended this night would have all been a dream. I surrendered to the darkness and it engulfed me along with the sound of Candace’s screams sounding in my ears.
My life was never the same from that day on. Everything became unreal so that I only existed rather than experience anything. Without those boys in my life, who was I? Everything that was once important to me no longer held any value. I became uncaring and withdrawn from everything and everyone. I sunk deeper and deeper into despair and eventually cursed my friends for leading the lives that they did. I did what I could to take the pain away and to me that was alright because the hurt was so excruciating when I was sober. It truly was rock bottom.
Upstairs my newborn daughter began to cry. Which brings me back to the present and the picture that I held in my hands. I raced upstairs to comfort her until she fell back asleep. Watching her sleep made me realize something deep; how can I continue to mourn over the people that I have lost when there are others who have come into my life that need that same love from me?
It was then that I returned to the mess I had created. I picked up all the pictures and put them back in the box and then carried the box to the storage closet down the hall. I returned to the living room and picked up the picture of the four young, happy and smiling boys. I put the picture on the mantle next to all the other pictures of people that I loved.
“Goodnight Bros” I whispered as I shut off all the lights and headed back upstairs to bed.
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