It was a beautiful calm day as me and my son Nathan headed out on the lake, we were in a fishing tournament on Lake of the Woods. Our first tournament together. After 50 years of being on the lake and guiding for 30 years I am a careful boater. I stressed to him that weather was going to be a factor in how we did, that there may be some fishing spots we may not get to fish if the waves came up. He didn’t seem to care. Cool kid. Just being together that day was enough for both of us.
We got to a fishing hole and right away Nathan caught a big Northern Pike. He fought with it for what seemed like 20 minutes and finally he landed it. He was so proud. I took pictures. It must have weighed close to 10 pounds. After I took the photo, he said “miigwetch” to the Northern and calmly let it go back in the water. As he was washing his hands I told him he did a good job and that I was proud of him to let it go. He said, “let him go make babies” we laughed. And that was the last time I went fishing with my son.
Tatibanhanaqwet Edward Nathan White, Bizhew Dodem, Bezhig Midewin, was 23 years old, a non – drinker, and never did drugs, in fact he hated them and would discourage his friends from doing them. He was a Midewin person. Me and the people initiated him the previous year in our lodge. Right away he wanted to learn the Midewin songs, When the water drum was first brought to where he was sitting, he motioned for me to go help him sing, I started a song for him and as I heard his voice get louder and louder I stepped away, back to my chair. After he was done he came and gave me tobbacco and said to me, “I closed my eyes while I was singing and thought you were still there, but when I was done you were sitting back here” I laughed and told him he didn’t need my help and I gave him a teaching about singing. I said to him ‘when you sing, it is between you, the song, the drum and creator.’
When we travelled to the ceremonies in my truck he would push his cell phone recorder to my face and ask me to sing Midewin songs, which I gladly did. That was how he learned. At one ceremony I asked him to sing 8 songs without stopping. After he was done, sweat pouring out of his forehead and tired from singing, he had the greatest look of accomplishment in him. The people were so proud of what he had just did, They all got up to shake his hand to acknowledge him. He was a great singer with a beautiful voice.
I visited my cousin Andy White head drum keeper of the Whitefish Bay Singers, which I am one of the original members, and he agreed that the following summer Nathan would join them as they toured the pow wow circuit. When I told Nathan what Andy had said, Nathan was thrilled.
Back in his home community of Onigaming, Nathan helped many of his friends. He counseled them about their drinking and drug addictions. Nathan volunteered at almost every community event including being the arena director at their annual traditional pow wow. He was a good role model.
Nathan worked in housing in his community, and he saved his money to buy himself a car. January 2012 he had saved enough money to get himself a nice second hand Chevy Impala, a sporty looking sleek black car. It was the greatest moment in his life. He kept slapping his hands together and saying” YES!” all the way home. Everyone was happy for him. He would drive his mom to the store and drive his little nieces and nephews around the Rez.
Nathan helped me to build my home, a 2 story house with a 2 car garage, we hauled gravel by wheel barrow for the driveway and he brushed the entire area with an axe. I still remember our coffee breaks and lunch breaks, he would get me to talk about his grandfather and grandmother and what life was like in their time. I told him many stories. Generally how survival was the main thing, and how difficult life was in that time period.
I went without hydro or running water for almost ten years at my place, because it cost money to bring in lines and a well. But I believe now those were the best times. No computer, TV or a cell phone. If anyone was looking for me they would simply just drive in to see me.
And it was during those times that Nathan and I grew really close as father and son. I had no funding from my band to build my house, we just scoured the garbage dumps for building material or friends would offer a used window or chimney.
In February 2012, I went away for the week end, I asked him to take care of my house while I was away. I was to have arrived home on the Monday night but I came upon a snow storm and had to stop at a motel, Nathan texted me about 9:30 that night and I texted him that I was going to stay at a motel for the night, his last text to me that night was, “I love you dad”. I did not think twice why he would text like that as I always told my kids I love them and they always tell me that.
I arrived home. My house is a long way from the road. Police had blocked off the the driveway. They told me not to go in. I pushed past them, I would have beaten them up if I had to. Nobody could stop me. I ran down the driveway. I saw Nathan’s car. Then I saw a body covered in the snow right close to where his car was parked. I approached cautiously, wiped the snow away from his face and right away recognized him, my son!!!
I remember calling my brother Tommy and the rest is like a dream, a nightmare. I don’t really remember what happened after that. Its all a blurr.
Of course his mother and my daughters and sons were all tortured as well. Nathan was the shining light in our family. WHY?! WHY?! WHY?! We just didn’t understand. WHY?!!! There were no warning signs, except a couple days before, his mother noticed he was very depressed and withdrawn. I told her I would speak to him when I got back. Not in a million years did anyone suspect he would do that. We had heard he was on Champix to quit smoking, but that he had gotten off of it a week or so before. It was so sudden, so unexpected, so shocking. But I suppose suicide always is.
I became so enraged during his funeral I just didn’t want to live anymore. I blamed Creator. I hated Creator. I felt betrayed by my spirit helpers. Why hadn’t they warned me? I blamed myself. Why didn’t I stay home that weekend? I blamed his girlfriend. Why didn’t she stay with him that weekend? I blamed everyone. I blamed anyone who knew him. I lashed out with words at people who loved him. The anger you feel doesn’t make sense. You don’t have reason or logic. You only have rage.
The People Who Helped
I thought I knew death. I thought I knew what grieving was because I have lost many people in my life including parents, siblings, nieces, nephews and life long friends. But let me tell you, there is nothing in this world, no grief at all, that can compare to the grief of losing a child. It is unlike any other grief and it never goes away.
One thing I appreciate about Anishinaabe people is as a community we come together at times like these. I feel sorry for families who lose children and have no one to help them.
My sisters organized people from the community who had lost children to come and speak to us. Every night of the wake and funeral, members of the community came and shared what they had been through. Shared their coping strategies and their feelings. It was through these teachings that I learned I am not alone, that my feelings of anger were normal. They spoke about being mad at Creator, about turning away from traditions and religion. They also said telling a person to ‘stay strong’ is maddening. They told us it was okay to cry. They told us ‘you don’t ever get over it, you learn to live with it.’
All this time I knew they had lost children. But I never understood their grief until I lost my boy. Listening to the stories of the people closest to me really helped me. I’ve had to go into therapy and that has since helped me. I spend time with my grandkids, and my kids and that also helps me. And I’ve started a new project recording Elders in Treaty 3 to try to preserve the songs for future generations. That is helping.
Today is the one-year anniversary of my son’s passing. I understand that this pain will never leave me. I am still angry. But I’m learning to live with it. Part of me looks forward to that day very much when I will get to see my boy again. And in the mean time try to do some good for kids, myself, my community and for the future before its my turn to leave this earth.
It seems like tragedy in never ending in our communities.
I moved out east after we lost our boy. Because he took his life at my house, I couldn’t live there anymore. I live off-reserve in an northeastern Ontario town. There are hardly any Anishinaabe that live here and its strange after living my whole life on the rez.
One thing I notice is there aren’t never ending funerals and tragedies here like on the rez. Is it like this in other non-native towns? I wonder how the neighbors around me would cope if the young people in this town were taking their lives every few months like they are in Treaty 3 communities? I wonder why my home community seems to be in a constant state of struggle, grief, and tragedies?
I don’t know any statistics about this. All I know is my life, and what I’ve seen. In my community my cousin also lost her son to suicide. My brother committed suicide. My nephew committed suicide. A few weeks ago two young people in neighboring communities took their lives. Looking back, at least a dozen or more of my day school buddies also committed suicide.
Why is this happening? If its not suicide, its diabetes or addictions. I am from Naotkamegwanning and Nathan and my girls and their mom live in Onigaming. In these two communities alone, its like every month or so we hear about someone passing away. Is it just me, or does that not seem like an unusual amount?
Anishinaabe are in a constant state of grief and recovery. We watch as our loved ones lose their limbs from diabetes before it eventually claims their life. We watch as the effects of residential schools eat away at people and their children and grandchildren in dysfunction and addiction. We watch as yet another young person takes their life. And then we cope. Constantly cope.
I know I will never “recover” from the loss of my son. Day by day, it doesn’t get easier. The nights continue to be especially hard. But I cope. I live for my children. And I record Elders. Its all I can do.
I write this today in memory of my son “Tatibonhanaqwet”. Edward Nathan White. I love you my son.
Follow on Twitter: @alowhite1
Alo White (Mide Kiwenzie/Bizhew Dodem /Nanaan Mide) is respected for the knowledge he carries of Anishinaabe language culture, songs & spiritual ceremonies from his community of Naotkamegwanning First Nation (Treaty 3) in Northwestern Ontario. He is currently working on a series of recordings under his label Alo White Recording Studios, recording Elders from the Treaty 3 area under the project titled “Preserving Anishinaabe Music.”4