The following is an excerpt from Chief Del Riley’s book the Last President. Click here to order the paperback or a digital download.
My mother once predicted that someday I would become great. I was not quite there yet. The year was 1955. I started to live with my dad, but was kicked out within the year. The issue was intergenerational trauma. Both of my parents were residential school survivors, and at least one of them took a violent approach to solving problems. I got kicked out so I left and never came back. I saw my father again years later and got to know him then.
But while I lived with him, he taught me to go suckering tobacco and I was hired for piecework. We’d get 15 bucks an acre. When I got better at suckering, I could almost do an acre by myself. We had to be fast, but the pay was damn good. I paid my dad room and board when I worked and I contributed to the household in many other ways.
I was now 15 years old and going to high school in London, Ontario at Beal Secondary. I was living with my Aunt Pearl on the Oneida Reserve adjacent to my home reserve of Chippewa of the Thames after getting kicked out from my dad’s place. Back then, at 15 years old you were considered a man, and it was thought that you should be able to fend for yourself.
I started working in the tobacco fields with my cousins Crow Riley, Bryce Riley, and Sherwin Riley that summer. I could work every aspect of a tobacco operation including priming, harnessing the sleigh horse, and suckering. I will never forget the freedom we enjoyed. The whole world was open those of us who survived the slavery and racial imprisonment of residential school. We had all of these freedoms that were denied to us at the Mush Hole. I just took it all in. I remember feeling the unchaining and the unshackling of my mind. Inside the Mush Hole we were institutionalized. We always had rigid timelines to follow inside the Mush Hole; outside, we were free. It was a total feeling of exhilaration – the feeling of freedom was majestic. It’s hard to describe coming out of hell. I can just remember being extremely happy. If anything, I remember feeling alive for the first time in my life.
Every step I took was a freedom step filled with satisfaction. For so long, freedom was denied to me. I knew that deep down in my soul I was just beginning to feel what happiness was. I liked it. After being institutionalized for eight years and living in a survival mode, freedom was shocking to my whole outlook on life. I didn’t have to eat from a dumpster, I didn’t have to hide food anymore, I didn’t have to worry about random beatings or visits in the night. I could work and buy my own food. Eat anything I wanted. I didn’t have to eat maggots and worms in my oatmeal for breakfast. I didn’t have to watch kids get beaten and tortured by Rev. Zimmerman and the Redhead. I didn’t have to be raped anymore.
I had finally found peace. I didn’t have to wake up with every sound because I was terrified at the Mush Hole. One of the first major adjustments in my life was learning how to sleep properly. At the Mush Hole, sleeping was so strict, we had to sleep at their time, we had to work the farm or go to school. It was a good feeling to be free of the rigidity of being on a certain timeline. Having freedom meant I could sleep in on the weekends if I wanted. Or have a nap when I wanted. Freedom meant I could eat anytime.
I accumulated some savings in the bank account that I opened when I began working in tobacco fields. Me and Crow Riley worked in the Delhi, Tillsonburg area of Southern Ontario. We were hired almost instantly. I’d say we were the best workers. We worked fast. I had the horse row, I’d take care of the horse and feed him. It was my job to harness the horse and get him ready to pull the “boats.” Over the course of working in tobacco fields, my savings exceeded a few hundred dollars.
I was living with my Aunt Pearl at the time. She canned and sold fresh food and berries. She sold everything that matured during southern Ontario’s growing season. In the fall, Aunt Pearl would make a huge barrel of sauerkraut. Myself and a few other of my cousins would chop cabbage for a solid week. Being as young cousins would be, and how kids would playfully act, we would throw cabbage stocks at each other, and mess around. It’s easy to remember all of this, especially since having fun in my life was relatively new. My Auntie had a very good recipe for sauerkraut, and she also had very loyal customers purchasing from her all winter long.
Fishing was something that allowed me to reconnect with my dad and family. In the early spring, the “fish run” was a community based harvest. Fishing camps would be built by the dozens along the riverbanks of the Thames river. Community members had erected fishing shacks with wood stoves inside. My dad’s fishing camp was in between two camps operated by his brothers. Fishing at the river was a community event. Everybody from the reserve would literally be at the river fishing. If someone needed flour or oil to fry up some fish along the river bank, they’d just have to go to the next camp and ask. Everyone was frying fish at the camps along the river. It wasn’t just harvesting, it truly was a celebration.
My cousins and I would walk down to the river a mile from Aunt Pearl’s and go fishing. The Thames River had plentiful amounts of fish as we caught salmon, trout, bass, and pickerel. My uncle Sam once told me “The river used to be so full of fish one could practically walk on them!” The Thames river was clear and we could see the bottom of the river in those days. In the summer, we would swim in the river. The river current was strong, so you had to be careful when swimming. We’d filet the fish and sell it to locals either on the reserve or just off the reserve to people driving to the store. Selling fish was just one way of making extra money. We were always hustling.
My cousin Ray had a scale we used, it was one or two pounds heavier than indicated on the scale. It was a hanging scale we could carry around, it would read heavier than normal. We’d sell ten pounds of fish using our scale, but really sell our customers eight pounds of fish. We were desperate to make money for food and clothes and some savings. Some loyal customers were onto our scheme, so they’d bring their own scales and re-weigh the fish. Of course we’d accept and move on to the next one. One thing about fish on a reserve, it is like gold: we didn’t have any trouble selling our fish.
Aside from hustling, I spotted a car for sale on the reserve. The car was a 1947 Dodge Sedan Fluid Drive four door. It was a big luxury car, and in my eyes that big black luxury car was perfect. At the ripe old age of 14 years old, I thought it was a big step up in life, if I could ever own it. The ’47 Dodge was a big car, a land yacht full of luxury.
I would walk by the car on that old man’s front lawn everyday. It was just a few houses down from where I was living at Aunt Pearl’s. I would look inside the car, imagine myself driving in downtown London, Ontario or driving to the United States where everyone said they were headed after doing time at the Mush Hole. I’d be able to go wherever I wanted, when I wanted. I’d look at myself and fix my hair in the car’s side mirrors, and look at my reflection in the door window. To me, that car meant total freedom. It was something that I really wanted, something I wanted to buy and something I alone would own. At 14, you can never dream too big, but just looking at that car, it took me places without even owning it. I knew right there I was going to buy it.
Bob, the old man, walked out of his house and said to me: “Are you going to buy it, or just look at it, like you have been every day? 60 dollars and it’s yours!” “Forty-five dollars!” I countered back. “Deal!” he said.
Bob finished up the paperwork and I was now the new owner of a 1947, Dodge Sedan Fluid Drive. Bob was a nice old man, he wore a cowboy hat and if you saw him outside, he would wave at you and tell you stories of just about anything and everything. Dreams of driving around with my hair slicked back with Brylcream were now a reality. The car was equipped with an AM radio, and in Canada, back in the late 50’s, country music was huge with Elvis just emerging.
I had told my Aunt Pearl I was going to buy the car and she said, “Why do you need a big car like that, you just focus on school and doing your chores.” I’d always tell her, “I just need the car Aunty.” When I pulled up my 47′ Dodge back home at Aunt Pearl’s, Aunt Pearl came outside and said “Why are you so late? So you have a car, get inside and finish jarring the beets.” I knew Aunt Pearl was mad at me for buying the car from the tone of her voice. We didn’t need the car as Aunt Pearl already owned a car. Having two cars in the driveway plus hydro at Aunt Pearl’s, I sensed she was worried what everyone would think about her since most people did not own a car, let alone have hydro service.
The car had tires with a separate rubber tubing on the inside. On one of my first days of learning to drive my car I had to learn how to change a tire. Driving was not that difficult – I had driven tractor working tobacco farms with Crow. But a car was a lot of responsibility, it was a lot more than I had imagined looking into the window of that car before I bought it. Every road was dirt, all had potholes, and nothing was paved around the reserve. If it rained, you were better off travelling by foot or by horse. A car was impractical for day to day living on the reserve.
After the second week of owning my car, I decided to pack up and take a trip to Niagara Falls, Ontario. It would be my first time to the falls, and also my first road trip. Niagara Falls was about two to three hours drive from the reserve. My Aunt Pearl didn’t say much about me leaving, she just saw me packing up my car and knew I was headed to Niagara Falls. I packed a weekend bag, and drove to Niagara Falls with my friends and my older brother Ernie. At 14 years old, I guess I was a bit ambitious as to my aspirations for travel, and somewhat brave. Today, a 14 year old kid taking a drive with his friends for the weekend to Niagara Falls is unheard of. 1958 was a different day and age. If police saw you driving on the road in 1958, they would think you belonged on the road since cars were not very common.
When we arrived at Niagara Falls, the first thing we did was go bowling. Back in the 1950’s, all of the girls hung out at the bowling alley, so we toured the town after checking into our motel room. Overall, we were just boys having fun and having an adventure. Driving home from Niagara Falls, our tire blew and I lost control of the car and we went into the ditch. Tires were not very reliable back then, and a blown tire put a lot of people in the ditch. My adventures were cut short and my 47′ Dodge sustained some damage to the front fender.
I admit, I was a bit heartbroken that my car had been damaged, but I managed to have it towed. Within a few days, after I knocked out a few dents, I managed to re-sell the car for 25 dollars. The car was still roadworthy, the damage was quite minor, but my Aunty was right. In the short term, I didn’t need a car.
The next year, in 1959, I was hanging out with some friends in an area known as “Town Line.” It was on the border of the reserve. I had been with some friends on Town Line, and the car we were in had died on us. We just sat in the car and waited until one of the guys got back with his uncle to help start up the car. The RCMP pulled up to observe the helpless car and discovered that it was full of First Nations teenagers. We hadn’t done anything wrong. I wasn’t drinking or breaking any laws when I heard an officer point to me in the back of the car.
“Come here boy!” one of the officers said to me.
“What’s your name, and show me your ID!”
“You were drinking tonight, I can tell, I know a drunk Indian when I see one!”
“I don’t drink sir, I’m on the wrestling team.”
“So you’re a drunk Indian who thinks he’s tough? Get out of that car, boy!”
“I don’t drink, I just go to school, sir.”
“Well you’re going to jail tonight, and if I say you’re drunk, you’re drunk is the way the courts see it.”
The RCMP found some empty beer bottles in the ditch nearby that had been laying for weeks or even months. They charged me and the others with “Illegal possession of alcohol.” This was a very common way law enforcement needlessly and unfairly got Indian people embroiled in the criminal justice system. If convicted, I would receive a criminal record under the Indian Act. I was given a court date, and at 15 years old, I wasn’t going to hire or pay for a lawyer, so I represented myself. Court was new to me. I had never seen a courtroom before, nor did I understand the processes of law and procedures.
Prior to my trial date, I had read the Indian Act and the charges against me, and I was somewhat prepared. When I arrived at court, I went before the judge, and the judge began to ask me a series of questions:
“Do you have a lawyer?”
“Are you representing yourself?”
“Do you understand the charges against you?”
“OK, we will proceed.”
I sat down and the Crown began to present its case against me. The officer said he “discovered alcohol on my breath,” with “empty beer bottles nearby the car.” I waited as the charges were read out, the evidence presented against me, and the judge looked to me and said:
“Does the defence have anything to say? First off, do you go to school?”
“Yes, I go to high school, and I am on the wrestling team.”
I was nervous at this point. I looked at the judge, and I began reading a piece of paper I had written on:
“Illegal possession of alcohol only applies on-reserve under the Indian Act. Can the RCMP prove I was on an Indian Reserve? The Indian Act only applies to on-reserve, I know where the markers are for the reserve, and I was outside of those markers.”
The judge instantaneously looked at the Crown and said, “You did not prove that the defendant was on a reserve, this case is dismissed.”
I am thankful I was not convicted on those bogus charges. I was a good kid and in no way did I deserve to be sitting in court for the actions of others months or weeks earlier. The police were being unfair and deceitful. Maybe the judge had got a quick read from me and saw I was a good kid and was happy to throw out the case.
Racism was so prevalent back then. The officers had found empty beer bottles in the ditch nearby where the car had died and charged me and others with a crime. If we had known the bottles were in the ditch, we would have picked them up and cashed them in ourselves. Beer bottles fetched two cents a bottle when you returned them.
For the next few years after the court case I knew the RCMP had it out for me on my reserve. My friends and I felt targeted. I had made the RCMP officers look like fools in court for not getting a criminal conviction of “Illegal possession of alcohol” against me. Compared to what was happening in Indian Residential Schools across Canada in the late 1950’s, and to me, and others like me, something as minor as fabricating evidence to obtain a criminal conviction wasn’t all that bad.
What the RCMP did was not even close to what the Church did to me, and that was to steal my childhood, abuse me, torture me, and force a foreign middle eastern religion like Christianity on me. They were just bullies and thugs paid by the government to disrupt, intimidate, and in some cases fabricate evidence to ensure a conviction. At least jail fed people, unlike the Indian Residential Schools. If you looked at the cops the wrong way, the cops would find a reason to start an altercation with you.
If you saw an RCMP officer you would want to go the opposite direction because of the bullying. They would treat you with disdain and condescension; you always felt degraded. They were outright racist and would do anything to arrest an Indian. They were an extension of the dreaded Indian Agent who controlled our lives using the Indian Act. Little has changed today. Indigenous people make up 35 percent of the Federal prison population today while we are less than 5 percent of the population.
Whenever the RCMP would question us around the reserve, we would try not to say too much. If you said too much, you might get charged or bullied. It was a fine line of trying not to say the wrong things, and not saying too much to agitate them. I am sure they got off on the power trip – they were running us like scared cattle.
It wasn’t long until trouble again caught up to me. I wasn’t a bad kid, I had straight A’s in school, I had won multiple high-school wrestling championships and I worked hard on my body. I was in top shape, and had just wrestled a competitor to a draw who went on to the Pan-Am Games. His name was Pete McKenzie. He would come and work out with us, he had great technique, but I was strong. I’m sure Pete never had to wake up as a child to work the fields, and work hard or get whipped with a strap for slow production or get raped at night. We were two different types of tough. I still think about that match with Pete: we went to a draw, but I had missed some opportunities to win early on in the match.
I was out with some friends on the reserve, and I don’t know what it was about my life thus far, but trouble just seemed to find me even when I just minded my own business. I stayed out of trouble with the law, avoided the law as much as possible. I knew that it was not a fair fight and that so many of our people were rotting in jail for next to nothing. One night, my friends had planned to get together at the river and have a fire.
My girlfriend and I did not drink, so we brought snacks and Coca-Cola. We were set for the night. Besides, I wasn’t worried about the cops as much as I was about her parents. If I ever brought my girlfriend home drunk – her dad would literally kill me. Others were drinking, but not everyone drank in the early 1960’s. Alcohol was not a big thing on my reserve, as much as the idea of freedom. Most of us at the river had gone to the Mush Hole as kids. We were the ones who had survived hell. Friends were friends, I had a girlfriend, and the ones who were not hooked up, well, they surely had a good chance to find a partner at that fire. And then RCMP found our fire that night. “Damn, here we go again!” I told my girlfriend.
“Just go to the car, everything will be fine, we didn’t do anything wrong” she said.
“Ok, we should just leave the car and run, you know these guys are trouble, they are just looking to throw kids in jail, or the Mush Hole,” she said.
“Don’t worry about that! Let’s get to the car and leave, the same way we arrived!” I replied.
As the police sirens went off, a deadly and obnoxious sound, I grabbed my girlfriend by the hand and led her to my car a blue 1950 Pontiac. The RCMP obviously knew that was my car. I used my car to work in tobacco farming, or to sell fish. My car was a lifeline for me, helping me get back and forth to school.
I had just started to learn how to golf. I was appreciating life while being a straight A student. I was making plans to go to University. Life was looking up. I felt that maybe I could just bury the past, bury the memory of the Mush Hole and all of its horrors. I was enjoying freedom. But these RCMP officers had it out for me, or really anybody on my reserve. They would drive around the reserve looking to charge people every day. Imagine if they did that to white kids in the city. The beer bottles could be full of week-old ditch water, but that would be enough evidence to convict an Indian in Canada’s criminal justice system.
The RCMP pulled up behind my car and singled me out as I led my girlfriend to the car. They decided to let everyone else go. This time, with empty bottles on the banks of the Thames river, the officers could make the charges stick if they proved alcohol was “on-reserve.”
“Hey boy, what you doing, now we got you, you’re going to jail now!”
“What did I do wrong, and why are you taking me to jail? Standing on reserve lands?”
“You drunk savage, look at you, you don’t even know how to shut up.”
“I have to take my girlfriend home, and neither of us drink.”
“You’re an agitator, look here, I found some empty bottles, that’s enough for you to go to jail tonight, boy!”
“I don’t drink, I told you.”
“Well, that’s not the way the courts will see it this time around!”
The RCMP arrested me and told me that I was going to be charged with “illegal possession of alcohol.” They put me in the back of the police car and took me to the police station. I remember the two mile ride from the river banks to the RCMP station. I was really upset. I was mad. Racism was thrown in my face and there was nothing I could do about it but get laughed at by the cops while they jailed me. In no way did I deserve to be in a cage for sitting at a campfire with my girlfriend and my friends. My girlfriend called them “Indian hunters, because they hunt Indians all day.” One way or another they were determined to institutionalize us.
The squad car came to halt as we pulled up to the RCMP station. I’d admit, I was in a pickle. I was supposed to be graduating from high-school in a few weeks, but instead of looking forward to attending Western University in London, Ontario, I was looking at a criminal record and facing jail time from more fabricated evidence against me. Did white kids have to worry about these things instead of just being kids with big dreams?
The doors of the police station had a double swinging door. As the lead officer went ahead of me, I observed that if I timed shutting the door on the lead officer, maybe I could shake off the officer behind me and bolt towards the train tracks. So that’s what I did. I envisioned the getaway as the three of us approached the front door. The lead officer went ahead of me, opened the front door, didn’t even look back at me as he entered the building. That’s when I slammed the front door of the police station on the lead officer. The front door only had entry by key, one of the officers was locked inside of the building, likely fiddling around with his keys to let himself out.
The officer behind me grabbed the back of my shirt as I shook him off and sprinted left towards the front of the building and around to the back of the property. The back of the police station had a four and half foot fence that I vaulted over as I ran towards the railroad tracks. The officers had to stop and climb the fence. I was going to take them for a run. I was in great shape, I had just won three regional championships in wrestling. I didn’t drink, smoke, or have any bad habits. I liked my Coca-Cola ice cold, and my workouts hard.
I took off at full speed, and in a short time I had gained a big lead on them in the dark of the night. The fence line was in sight of the building’s lights. The train tracks were about 40 meters to the right. My plan was to double back towards the train tracks after following the empty field to the left. I made a big circle and found my way to the train tracks after sneaking through the bush.
After a mile of running on the railroad tracks, the cops used a police car spotlight to shine its lights down the tracks. Eventually they spotted me and decided to pursue me. At this point, my plan was to go to a friend’s house and hide out. I walked up the side of an embankment along the tracks and decided to hide. After a few minutes, the police caught up to the general area that I was hiding in. The cops had flashlights searching everywhere. They were quite loud, and they were laughing amongst each other.
“Run, savage run!” I heard them yell.
The cops passed by me two times as I watched them from the embankment next to the tracks. This is when it began to dawn on me that I had no future in Canada. We were being run like scared cattle. We were being charged and thrown in jail for no good reason. The police were destroying our dreams and any chance we had of bettering ourselves. Employers told me, “We don’t hire Indians!”
If I was going to have kids someday, I didn’t want them imprisoned as I was at the Mush Hole. My kids wouldn’t have a future in Canada. I knew what racism was. Racism hurt, it was calculated, and it was built into the system. I had two sisters, a brother, and lots of friends living in Detroit, Michigan, USA. They would all call me and say, “Come over to Detroit, lots of work, to hell with Canada.” When I was in the Mush Hole, all everyone talked about was going to the United States. Maybe everyone was right. All that would happen to me in Canada is that I’d get thrown in jail for being “Indian.” It was the revolving door into the world of jail and no future based on just being Indian. What happens next time if I get pulled over and an officer finds an empty beer bottle in the ditch? Will I have to go to jail every time a white police officer finds an empty beer bottle?
“I cannot live like this,” I said to myself on that embankment. My dream of going to University in Canada was quickly vanishing. When the cops went back to their squad car and left the pursuit, that’s when I decided to go to my friend’s house and hide out. I hid out for a few weeks until I finished school, and then decided I’d go to Detroit, Michigan, USA to pursue the “American Dream.”
My plan was to leave for the United States the day after I graduated high school.
The week before I graduated and left for the United States, the RCMP station in our community was “blown up,” according to news media. Speculation was that the action was perpetrated by an “element that resented authority.” This RCMP station had everything on the locals – our arrest records, our information, on-going investigations and files on all of the people from my reserve.
The Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) decided to question me and a number of other people about the RCMP station blowing up. The cops picked me up and took me into the police station by squad car to question me. The officer had been prepared to take a statement from me. I said to the officer, “Where do I sign? At the bottom of the paper? That’s the reason I’m here, right? Pass it over, I’ll sign it, you can fill it in like everyone else.”
“No,” said the officer. He was blinking quite rapidly, almost like he was stunned by my response.
“Am I being charged with anything?”
“No” replied the officer.
“Well, I’m leaving.”
I got up and walked out of the OPP station and hitchhiked home. The police were being absurd and desperate. I could only imagine how many people were wronged by the police on a daily basis. Surely, the police did not think that the blowing up of their police station was carried out by a high school kid with top marks.
The gossip on the reserve was consistent with what my girlfriend told me: “The RCMP scooped up someone’s children and placed them into Indian residential school hundreds of miles away. The school won’t give the kids back, now those people have no family. One of the children died at the school, the school did not send the body home, and the family found out weeks later that the child had died, I guess that’s why the police station was destroyed.”
Whatever the reason the RCMP station was destroyed on my reserve, it was justified. Everyone was blamed for the crime, including me. The police rounded up and interrogated just about anyone they could get their hands on. Nonetheless, the investigation died out pretty fast, and I proudly graduated high school with honours.
Soon after this, I broke the news to my girlfriend that I was going to break up with her and pursue the American Dream. She pleaded with me to stay and go to university as I had planned. “Stay Delbert, go to school, finish University, you don’t need to go to the States. Stay here, finish University, and make a family.” She couldn’t change my mind. I decided to leave and go to the United States.
I wasn’t convinced that University and a Canadian education would help me in any way. The cops always hassled First Nations people and I just could not go any further living in Canada. I was at my limit. Time for me to move on, enjoy something that was being denied to me and my people in Canada, a job and freedom!