Volume 17 Number 6
The Truth at any Cost
01 December 2004
Phyllis Cameron-Johnson tells Paul Williams how paying a train fare, meeting Navajo visitors to her school and a canoeing accident shaped her life.
PHYLLIS CAMERON-JOHNSON’S children’s book, Return of the Indian Spirit, richly illustrated by her late husband Bill, is infused with her love of the Native American people. She can trace this passion, and the faith and values which have guided her life, to her childhood in Illinois, USA, before World War II.
The seed bed, she says, was the life her parents lived and what they expected from their children. One pillar of that life was the scrupulous honesty that characterized her father.
Although her father never talked about his financial worries in front of the children, they were conscious that there was not much money to go round. ‘One day, six months after my 12th birthday, he took me by train to visit my grandmother. I was used to paying the half-price fare and was aghast to hear the amount the station master was asking for my full-fare ticket. I tugged at my Dad’s coat. “I don’t look like 12 yet,” I whispered. “They’ll never know.” “But you are 12,” he said decisively and laid down the full amount. I still remember the humiliation I felt, the hot burning colour rushing to my face.
‘My father hadn’t raised his voice. There was no lecture about honesty. He didn’t even look at me reproachfully. But I have never felt inclined to cheat in financial matters since.’
One day, she recalls, she was playing baseball with friends, when her parents drove up and called her over. ‘It took me a full five minutes before I sauntered up to their car. To my dismay they said, “We were going to take you to look for that bicycle you wanted, but if you can’t be bothered to come when you are called, we are not sure you are ready for that bike.” They then drove off. I didn’t cry often, but I rushed home sobbing. Years I had longed for that bike! That night, however, my parents presented me with a beautiful red second-hand bike. They had chosen it for me.
‘I have since wondered how my parents found the unity to take such a tough stand, given that they only had five minutes to decide. We children could never play one off against the other. To me that is the kind of love that is meant when we talk about “family values”.’
Another inspiration in her early life came from a more unusual quarter. Every year members of the Navajo Native American tribe came into her school, on the invitation of its ‘farsighted’ superintendent, to share their way of life with the children.
‘They would set up their crafts (weaving, silver and leather work) in our gym for a week and we were allowed to be quietly among them. We were all profoundly affected by the holy man who would create a sand painting on the floor each day before our eyes. He would chant a prayer for healing and harmony as he worked. Story books about the Indian people were made available to us. They underlined values like telling the truth at any cost; going any distance to pay a debt or keep a promise; never letting anger rob the spirit of your vision. A preparation for life! How could I know that 25 years later, I would find myself teaching Native American children?’
In her early 20s Cameron-Johnson worked as a camp counsellor and canoeing instructor in a girls’ summer camp in northern Vermont. ‘One day at the end of lunch, four wet and bedraggled girls came into the dining room, explaining that they were late because their canoe had tipped over in the middle of the lake. They had nearly given up hope of rescue when someone had seen them and rowed out and saved them.
‘I was sick with guilt as I had been on duty that morning. I went to the camp leader and told her that I had forgotten to count that all the canoes were returned. She looked at me and without a moment’s hesitation said, “Now I know who I can really trust down on the canoe dock.” You can believe me that those canoes were counted over and over after that. But it taught me so much about forgiveness and how to get the best out of people. To be forgiven is to know the love of God.’
As soon as World War II was over, she sailed to Europe in a ‘recycled’ troopship with a rather vague aim of ‘wanting to help’. She ended up picking fruit on a Dutch island whose dykes had been bombed. The following year she hitch-hiked with two Dutch friends to the Moral Re-Armament international conference centre at Caux in Switzerland, which was just starting its work of post-war reconciliation.
There she found people who believed that if you wanted to make the world a better place, you had to start in your own life. She found herself turning back to the values and faith of her childhood, with a new belief that God could use her to make a difference.
By 1952 she was teaching at the village school on Mackinac Island in northern Michigan. Well over half of the children were Native American. As the weeks went on, she became increasingly aware of what her white race and culture had done to keep their culture down. ‘I asked myself, how could I help these children to live in today’s world with today’s realities and at the same time to be proud of who they are? It became clear to me that a major part of my job was to help them identify themselves with the greatness of their own race.’
Now living in London, she has kept up her association with the North American Indian people over the years. Her late husband Bill joined her in this—not only in travelling to many Indian reserves, but also in creating Return of the Indian Spirit. The dedication, to the Native American children of North America, reads in part, ‘Their heritage of enduring values has often given me the courage I needed to tackle difficult decisions in my life with confidence.’