PERSONAL
03/11/2020 16:25 EDT

I Believed Indigenous Men Didn’t Cry Until The Day My Dad Broke Down

The Indigenous male was a rock. Until he wasn’t.

I was playing in the grass as a child one summer when I was stung by a bee. I clutched at my leg and began to cry, the pain new and extraordinary. My father, a colossus in the world of my backyard, was above me in seconds.

“Hey,” he said to me sternly. “We don’t do that.”

For a while, I didn’t know anyone in life bigger than my father. He was a boulder at six feet tall and 350 pounds; a former bodybuilder and jiu-jitsu blackbelt, with a big, wiry moustache and a thundering motorcycle that could be heard a county away. He made beer for a living, smoked like a furnace and ran his own woodshop. He was an Indian, as stiff and leathery as they come, borne from a rocky childhood out of “Wiki” — or the Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory, on Manitoulin Island. His gut was monstrous, his laugh loud like an engine. I took what he said as gospel.

Boys don’t cry. This was markedly more applicable to Native men.

By the time I was 13, however, our relationship had deteriorated. The big Indian who I once saw as contemplative and impressive was now hectoring and despotic. He was a yeller and a punisher, and I was an agitator. We battled over shirked chores, attitude problems, minor disagreements. He would intimidate and bait me, and I would openly defy him, challenge his rules and scorn him without reprieve.

Seething inside me was a true hatred, and behind his hard eyes I could see the same.

During one particularly vicious fight, we had been yelling in the living room for 15 minutes. The old Indian’s long, black hair was streaked with silver, but his face was as lively and furious as ever. His eyes were frenzied with rage. He was bellowing, and I was bellowing back. Suddenly, he stopped, and his eyes drew to a picture of us, hanging on the wall. In the picture I was a baby, and we were together.

We were happy.

Courtesy Keith Corbiere
My father and I in happier times.

“Do you know who that is?” he asked, pointing to my smile. 

His face crumpled.

Before I could process what was happening, the enormous man began to cry. Crying uncontrollably. He quickly ran into the bathroom and locked the door, unable to let me see him. I stood in that spot for some time, unsure of what to do, listening to the violent sobs on the other side of the door. I will never forget the sound.

Boys don’t cry. I knew from my male friends that this was nothing new; boys just weren’t supposed to do that. This was markedly more applicable to Native men.

I had grown up as the son of an Indigenous dancer and crafter, in the rural county of New Tecumseth, Ont. Even as a child steeped in my Indigenous culture, to this day the most instinctive image of an Indian I had was that of Iron Eyes Cody — ironically, an Italian pseudo-Indian without a drop of Native blood — silently crying his single tear.

Burly men with Iron Eyes’ stoic mask crashed on rawhide drums in the pow-wow drum circles of my youth. My uncle, who often came to visit when I was a child, was a begrimed mechanic of few words who personified the image of the muted Native. He serves as a firefighter in Wiki today.

I witnessed these men do countless things, but crying was never one of them.

Bettmann via Getty Images
Iron Eyes Cody, whose depictions of Native Americans were often muted, was my model of a stoic Indian.

These tough men were led by my indomitable and rugged father. Behind him stood my grandfathers, and behind them my forebears. They looked upon me from my history books, stern and saddled on horses. I read about them fighting wars, without a hint of fear to corrupt their stony faces. I saw them in popular media, speaking in slow, deliberate tones, and delivering sage advice.

The Indigenous male was a rock. Until he wasn’t.

As my father sobbed, I broke down and began to cry myself. I leaned my head against the bathroom door, attempting to assuage his grief through my own. I said that it would be OK. I no longer felt angry; I simply felt overwhelmed, completely overtaken by a heavy and blanketing misery that seemed to drain me of everything I had.

The walls of emotional regression, built between us year after year of behaving “as men do,” began to crumble. He opened the bathroom door. He took me in a powerful hug, and for a long time we stayed like that, crying.

I never could have fathomed the effortlessly positive and rewarding relationship I share with my father today.

I am 25 now. Over a decade has passed, and I can gladly say that my father is now my friend. We hug. We cry. We talk about our feelings, and we are honest with each other. Every year I’ll go home for Christmas, and we’ll sit, have a beer, and remember how lost we were. My father will pull me in for a hug, and we’ll both admit how glad we are to know each other.

With the lowering of the walls came a new understanding, a concord that would have been nigh impossible if we had chosen to blindly follow the flawed maxim: boys don’t cry.

As a teenager in New Tecumseth, I never could have fathomed the effortlessly positive and rewarding relationship I share with my father today. I would have been too distracted by that superficial principle that kept us apart for so long, and by that base disconnect that curbed not only our access to our emotions, but our capacity to communicate at all.

I am excited to be a father one day. I am excited to teach my son the value of his emotions, and to instil in him a love for expressing himself. Moreover, I am excited to introduce him to his grandpa, who I know will teach him the same.

Today, I am proud to be someone who lets himself cry; and I am proud to be the son of a man who lets himself do the same. Today, I am a man.

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