They Call Me Chief goes beyond hockey

BILL LANKHOF, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:38 AM ET

Don Marks isn't out to change the world.

"I'd be happy if I could change just a small corner of the world," says Marks, in Toronto yesterday to promote his book: They Call Me Chief.

It is billed as a story about Indians in the NHL. But Marks unfolds scenes of Canadiana that are as much about the human condition as they are about our national addiction to hockey.

His tales of Bryan Trottier and Theoren Fleury and George Armstrong are humorous and at the same time unsettling. He unveils a Canadian society that sees itself as being all-inclusive and at the same time one that fails to live up to those beliefs. And, he does it all without getting preachy.

"As Canadians we love hockey and I'm telling these interesting stories but they lead to issues that we should be solving ... racism, poverty, treaty rights, self-government. The hook is the hockey but it's about so much more."

His hope, says Marks, is that people develop understanding and empathy for the First Nations.

"Nobody is looking for charity. But we don't want some 68-year-old woman, hiking up her dress and hauling through six feet of snow in minus-40 degree winter to go have a whiz because that's what it's like in some places ... there's no running water. That shouldn't exist in a country as wealthy as Canada."

A documentary film maker, Marks takes a heavy topic and creates a breezy book that has wind under its wings.

Like the story of Ron Delorme, a tough winger from Saskatchewan who played more than 500 NHL games.

"I was a bit of a clown," he told Marks, "after scoring I'd pretend to pull an arrow out of a quiver and shoot the goalie. One night I pretended to shoot Don Cherry and he got so mad he jumped on the bench and told me he was sending his guys after me."

Delorme wound up fighting Terry O'Reilly, John Wensink and Stan Jonathan. To this day Cherry considers Delorme the toughest Indian ever to put up his fists.

"Anyway, Delorme became chief scout with the Canucks. He's scouting the University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux," says Marks. "At the time Ralph Engelstad was going to pull his funding for the new arena because the local Sioux tribe objected to being used as mascots. Now the white farmers are afraid they're losing their arena. DeLorme doesn't know any of this but he stops at a local rest area. Three white guys say: 'It's you Indians fault we're losing our arena.'

"They started to beat him up. He's a tough guy but he gets in his car. He fled. They blocked I-29 with pickups and he ended up going up the interstate the wrong way with three farmers firing bullets at him."

So a life story takes Marks into a discussion about mascots and native culture.

"I can get beyond the Tomahawk Chop or Chief Nuc-A-Homa and ask things like does it infantilize their culture? Does it make them look primitive? But I get into it with a fun story."

Marks understands some believe native-rights groups are overly-sensitive.

"The term 'redskins' is as offensive as calling someone a 'nigger' would be to blacks. Do you know where the term, 'redskins' comes from?" says Marks. "They wanted to clear the land of Indians. You got $100 for every Indian you killed but to prove it you had to bring in his head. All the heads started to pile up so ... they said OK, bring in a piece of red skin attached to that scalp. That's where the word came from. For Washington to have a team that celebrates a genocide is absurd."

Marks grew up and still lives in Winnipeg. He never met his biological father and didn't get along with his mother. At 12, he ran away to join a rock 'n roll band and was taken in by a native Indian family.

He became if not an adopted Indian, a Canadian who identified with them; experienced their joys, recognized their frustrations and felt their alienation.

"You get politicized into their issues, you end up going to pow wows, to sweat lodges but you're still a Canadian so I'm also going to watch the Jets. That's how it all ties together. They're stories about natives but it's also a hockey story."

They Call Me Chief tells of Bryan Trottier, who everyone knows won seven Stanley Cups.

Not so many know he was a Metis Saskatchewan farmboy who developed his shot by shooting at a barn door guarded by his border collie, Rowdy.

Says Marks: "Rowdy died at the age of 14 without a tooth left in his head. But that's how (Trottier) learned hockey because other kids wouldn't play with a half-breed.

"Those stories are endearing but at the same time speak to a larger issue."

Issues such as discrimination, native self-government and culture.

"I'd like to build empathy, understanding and unity. You don't do that by lecturing, preaching or creating guilt feelings. You guide people gently to a higher understanding," says Marks, who continues his tour with stops today in Ottawa before returning for a reading Monday in his home town.

"I don't want anyone buying this book to preach the revolution."


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