I knew nothing about Tom Wilson when I first encountered him at the Abilene, a live music club in Rochester, New York, a couple of years ago. I did not know that he had played in the Juno Award-winning Blackie and the Rodeo Kings. But he appeared at the Abilene under the name LeE HARVeY OsMOND, which was good enough for me. I have often gone to see a band based on its name alone.
Between songs Wilson spoke about his album “Mohawk” and the open secrets he had uncovered about his past. Those stories are fleshed out in more detail in Wilson’s autobiography, Beautiful Scars: Steeltown Secrets, Mohawk Skywalkers, and the Road Home, published in 2017 by Doubleday Canada. I’ve only recently come around to reading it, and I am glad I did.
Wilson’s book contains the sorts of stories one might expect in a rock ‘n’ roll autobiography. He tells us of how he was first turned on by music, formed his first band, and found meaning in performing songs of his own. There are also in these pages stories of drugs, dissipation, and addiction. But there is also here a family story, a moving and at times beautifully written tale of identity, rediscovery, redemption and grace.
He was raised by George and Bunny Wilson in Hamilton, Ontario. He did not look like his parents and they were much older than the parents of his peers. He was adopted, taken in. His biological mother, Janie Lazare, was from a Catholic Mohawk family from Kahnawake. She accompanied a high steel worker from the reserve to New York City, unaware that he was already a married man. She return home pregnant, and made her way in the world as best she could in Toronto and Hamilton. It turned out hat the man she accompanied to the City was not Wilson’s father. Wilson learned later that his real father was a Mohawk named Louis Beauvais. None of that helped Janie. She tried to find an adoptive family for the child but ended up handing him off to Bunny and George, who Wilson says did the best they could. Janie stayed present in his life. “She was always around,” Wilson writes. Janie was Bunny’s sidekick. “She always stood a few feet behind Bunny. Bunny would say her piece and then Janie might respond with a laugh or a head shake or sometimes a few words, words that were often lost in the crowd of conversation buzzing around us.” Janie’s voice, Wilson remembers, was seldom heard, and “there’s plenty of heartbreak in a voice that rarely gets heard.”
It took Wilson decades to sort out the secrets, to understand the connections between the people who had entered his life and crossed his path. Toward the end of the book he writes:
My name is Thomas George Lazare.
I came from a family of Mohawk chiefs. Peacemakers and peacekeepers, fighters and man-eaters. Lacrosse magicians, tobacco salesmen, gangsters, shamans, shit-disturbers and survivors. But instead of growing up around these heroes and zeros, I grew up on the East Mountain in Hamilton….I am a living breathing lie. An embarrassment. A married man’s mistake and a young girl’s only chance to hop a fence out of town and escape to freedom. I was hidden from the world and from myself, my name was changed because it sounded too Indian and my clothes were fitted to look like the other kids.
I’ve been Thomas Cunningham Wilson ever since. An Irish-French kid. Not Indian–No Way. No Indian blood in me. None. Zero.
Later, after meeting his father, he reflected on the process of finding his way back to Kahnawake, now the son of a Mohawk mother. Louis Beauvais, he writes, hinted at their meeting that “I was taken from him. I was supposed to be his.” They talked and they reflected. The past came more clearly into focus. Wilson thought about his family. Beauvais had waited fifty-six years for this homecoming, Wilson said. He was an old man now. So was Wilson. “But I’m here. I’m scared and scarred but I’ve survived. I’m alive and lucky as hell.”
Indigenous identity can be a tricky thing. My students wrestle with the subject when we discuss it in class. Those of us who study the field of history are aware of Pretendians and Poseurs and Wannabes, but also the efforts of government officials to define Native peoples out of existence, of powerful stereotypes and expectations that attempt to limit and define what is authentically “Indian.” Mohawk identity can be especially complicated, with an Indigenous nation that straddles the international boundary between Canada and the United States, that has confronted the efforts of the United States, Canada, New York State, and the provinces of Quebec and Ontario to define who Mohawks are and what they ought to be, while trying at the same time to appropriate their lands, reeducate their children, neuter their sovereignty, and extinguish their culture. Wilson’s biography, of an artist hardly known in the United States, paints a rich and revealing portrait of these many tangled ties. I look forward to using Wilson’s work in class.