The Story About Blessing the Fish and The Meanest Looking Indian In Town. by Bryant Ross
In the late spring of 1988 Norval Morrisseau was living in the old A-frame house about 200 feet behind Coghlan Art Studio and Gallery in Aldergrove, British Columbia. At this time he was still fighting his demons.
I have met no other man that could drink like Norval. Once he started he did not stop until he was unconscious. Until then it was mass destruction. After four or five days of this his house would be completely up side down. Paint and paintings strewn all over the floor, garbage in every corner and all his possessions thrown around the room, it was frightening.
And it was disturbing. Here was the man that had spent the last month working diligently on his paintings while telling me the spiritual stories that went with them, now totally out of it, almost foaming at the mouth. I had known Morrisseau for about 6 months at this time and I was only starting to understand how his creative process worked. In the years that followed I would see the same chain of events over and over again. He would paint furiously for a time until his creativity was satisfied and he became bored. Then, with no new ideas to work from, he would look for that same satisfied feeling in a bottle. This would work for a while, but always it would end with him getting too drunk and his world falling apart around him. This was then followed by the hangover phase when Norval would become re-inspired. It was at this point that he would dream and find his inspiration for the next batch of paintings. He said that he could find more inspiration in a crack in the cement floor when he had a hangover than in a painting by an old master when he was sober.
He had been drinking for 4 or 5 days in the a-frame when I went to visit him. I had avoided him for the previous couple of days because he had been beyond reason, but I figured it was time to see if Norval was human again. To my surprise, in contrast to the mess it was 2 days before the house was in fairly good order. Norval asked me if I had anything to drink because he had a headache. He said that he wanted to stop drinking but that he needed a drink to get rid of the ringing in his head. We made a pot of Tea instead.
After a cup of Tea Norval says, I cant sit around this house right now. I have no paintings to paint and if I sit here I will keep drinking.
I could tell that he was ready to stop his drinking binge so I made the offer, Do you want to go for a drive somewhere. I didnt realize that my innocent offer would take me on a Morrisseau adventure of re-inspiration.
Could we stop at the liquor store, I just want to get rid of this damn headache, he says.
We will see I replied, trying to distract him from this train of thought. Where do you want to go?
I dont know, I just want to get out for awhile. Its a beautiful day but I feel like shit. Lets go down by the river,
The Fraser River is a large river that flows through the Fraser Valley forming the south-west corner of the British Columbia mainland. Our studio is close by and we often go there to watch the water flow by. It sounded like a good idea to me so we loaded up the van with some of the things that Norval wanted with him and headed down to the river by Fort Langley.
Sitting on the shore of this mighty river, Norval told me a short story.
Money is a river that flows by the back door to your house, Sometimes it floods and over flows the banks and sometimes it dries up to a trickle. When it floods some people wade right in and drown and when it dries up some people drink all that is left, leaving nothing. If you just reach into the river to take what you need and not get caught up you will always have enough.
Norval told me this story many times, in various forms, over the years. When he wanted you to learn a story he would tell it to you over and over to make you remember it. This first time telling with the mighty Fraser flowing by in front of us was inspirational to me. I felt like he had accepted me and was assigning me a role to play.
Soon a group of people walking, passed us by and interrupted our moment of connection.
What do you want to do now, I asked him.
My head still hurts, he replied. Lets go on a journey. Lets go to Savory Island. Its up the coast by Powell River. I have a doctor friend there. Maybe we can find him.
It was a beautiful sunny day and a boat ride sounded like just the thing to get Norvals mind off drinking. So we were off to Horse Shoe Bay to catch the ferry to the Sunshine Coast with Norval asking all the way if we could stop at the liquor store for something to get rid of his headache. I put him off by telling him we did not have time if we were going to catch the ferry.
The boat ride north along the coast to Gibsons Landing on the Sunshine Coast is a beautiful voyage. It takes about 45 minutes as you leave the city behind and travel through the islands of the Georgia Strait. The west coast of British Columbia has a mystical quality unlike any other place I have been. Giant trees come right down to the sandy beaches edge and towering mountains look down on you from the East. When you arrive at Gibsons Landing at the south end of the Sunshine coast, it is like entering another world.
On the ferry we had sat quietly on the outside deck smoking cigarettes. Norval did not have much to say as he knew there was no possibility of getting any booze on the ferry. But as soon as we were back in the van and off the ferry he was asking for a drink. I told him that maybe he shouldnt drink any more. He had gone awhile without drinking and his hangover would go away faster if he didnt drink anything else.
So we continued north along the highway towards Sechelt. As we were driving Norval asked me to stop at a store so that he could get some smokes. When we stopped I asked him if he wanted me to go in for him.
No, I want to stretch my legs. he says as he gets out of the van. After about five minutes he came out of the store and walked to the front of the van so that he was starring at me through the windshield. He pulled a bottle of Listerine mouth wash out of a bag from the store and proceeded to chug-a-lug it in front of me. Before I could get out of the van and grab it from him he had drunk about half of the large bottle.
Okay, I said, We will stop at a liquor store. If you are going to drink then we better get something that wont poison you.
A short time latter we stopped at the liquor store in Sechelt where Norval spent twenty minutes choosing a small bottle of the best whiskey in the store, Wisers 20 year old. When we were back in the van Norval had a small delicate drink from the bottle and told me that it was very good. That he could go from chug-a-lugging Listerine to sipping the finest whiskey in less than an hour told much of the duality of Norvals persona.
We continued north along the Sunshine Coast, past Pender Harbour towards Powell River with Norval sipping on his bottle and telling me stories of ancient serpents that lived in the water and had formed the islands off the coast. When we made it to Powell River he said, There is an Indian reserve here down by the beach. Lets go there.
The Sliammon Indian Reserve is about 12 kilometres north of Powell River. The Coast Salish people that live there are primarily fisherman. We turned off the highway and made our way through the reserve and down to the beach. There were 3 older native men standing just above the tide line mending fishing nets that were draped over large saw horses on the beach. As the sun was beginning to go down behind them, their silhouettes made a truly beautiful image. I parked the van a short distance down the beach.
I got out of the van and sat on a beached log to have a cigarette. I could hear Norval moving around in the back of the van and when he finally emerged he was in full regalia. He wore a black and red northwest coast button blanket over his back and shoulders and pinned together at the front under his neck. Under the blanket in front he had a Cree embroidered apron with jingles that made a loud swooshing sound with every step that he took. On his head he wore his Shamans Bear Claw Headdress and in his hand he held a frond of Eagle feathers.
The beach in front of us was empty of people except for the net menders that were slightly to the north of us. Norval strode right down the beach to the waters edge and out into the ocean. The beach was quite shallow where we were so Norval was able to walk some distance out into the water. He stopped about 100 yards out, where the water was up to his thighs and began chanting. He was a long way out there and I could only faintly hear what he was singing but I could see that he was beginning to dance to his own song.
After about five minutes I noticed one of the old fisherman was walking down the beach towards me. As he grew closer I could see the character in his face that spoke of time spent on the ocean. He was the perfect image of a Northwest Coast native fisherman.
As he approached me he said, Who is that guy out in the water?
Thats Norval Morrisseau, a great Ojibwa shaman, I told him.
Whats he doing out there?
`He is blessing your fishing grounds.`` I said.
The old fisherman, that seemed to fit the part so well, looked out at Norval and said, `We dont believe in that shit around here.
As the old fisherman walked back to his nets I could not help wondering how he had lost sight of his native traditional views of the world. His generation had been subjected to residential schools, Christianity, racism and lack of economic opportunity. But in this idealic setting, on this beach with the sun going down behind Morrisseau you would think that that old fisherman would be able to reach back into the past and grasp some of those traditional beliefs and at lest try to understand what Norval was up to.
By this time Norval had been dancing in the water for fifteen minutes and I was starting to be concerned for his safety. Suddenly I noticed that there were other people on the beach. Young people, from toddlers to teenagers were coming to our section of the beach. Within five more minutes there was a few dozen young people grouped around me watching Norval out in the water.
They were a mixed group of youths dressed mostly in what has become the traditional attire of the northwest coast, plaid macanaw shirts and blue jeans. But there was one group of about a half dozen that wore black leather jackets, boots and various piercing in their lips and ears. They were obviously the town toughs, The kind of people that you would not want to turn your back to in a crowded room.
No one had said a word to me until the meanest looking Indian in the group came up to me and said, Who is that guy out in the water?
Thats Norval Morrisseau, a great Ojibwa shaman, I told him.
Whats he doing out there?
`He is blessing your fishing grounds.`` I said.
Expecting to be rebuffed by this young man in a studded leather jacket, I was surprised when his only comment was, Really, as he turned and walked back to his group.
By this time Norval was making his way out of the water and walking back up the beach towards our van. The meanest looking Indian walked down towards the waters edge to meet him and as they met the young man took Norvals hand and bent over and kissed it. They talked for a few minutes in private before the young man lead Norval to the group of youths that had gathered around the van. The young man introduced Norval to the other children and said that Norval Morrisseau was here to bless their fishing village. Norval sat in the side door of the van, water dripping off his button blanket and jeans and talked to these young people for about an hour. As children will be, they asked many questions, which Norval answered patently. He explained that he was a Grand Shaman of the Ojibwa people and how he had learned this from his Grandfather. He told them that his art had let him retell those traditional stories to others and in so doing it kept his peoples beliefs alive.
Norval also asked the children questions about their lives. Some of the children were silly, but some were very serious. I could see that Norval was gaining strength from this conversation. He appeared to be stone cold sober from the combination of his dancing in the cold ocean water and his talk with these young people.
It was growing quite dark as night came on and finally the meanest looking Indian says, you must come to my house to meet my mother and have some dinner.
I could tell that Norval was becoming very tired, so I made some excuses for him and we left with Norval wrapped in a dry blanket in the back of the van. He was soon asleep so I headed south back towards Gibsons where we slept in the line up for the first ferry the next morning.
That morning, after we were settled on the deck of the ferry with a coffee in one hand and a smoke in the other, Norval told me that he had dreamt in his sleep the night before. He said the dreams had chased away his headache and he felt good this morning. His small bottle of whiskey was still half full, but he did not touch it. He had defeated his demons one more time and was ready to go home.
When we got home Norval went right to work painting. Within short order he had 30 canvases that he painted simultaneously. They were spread out all over the studio floor and he would move from one to another with a jar of paint adding bits and pieces to each canvas in turn. One canvas he would do the background in a color then on the next one have would add just a little of the same color, and on to the next until he ran out of paint. Then he would mix a new color and begin the process again. In a couple of days he had them finished.
I have often thought about those old fishermen that did not seem to have any time for someone like Norval and the young native people that we meet on that beach and how Norval had changed their lives.
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