Askuwheteau’s story before being forced to attend
Our Lady of Peace Indian Residential School.
Canada is celebrating 150 years since it’s confederation in 1867. However, as a member of Canada’s First Nations I feel no desire to celebrate.
During Canada’s colonization in the mid-1800’s the British colonialists felt a need to come up with ways to deal with the “Indian Problem.” Charles Merivale, the British Secretary of State for the Colonies, established a number of policies on the subject, two of which were isolation and assimilation.
The government officials felt they had to civilize us by converting us … i.e. killing the Indian in us. It was thought their best chance for success was to force us learn English, and to adopt Christianity and European culture. Following Merivale’s policies, they developed a policy called "aggressive assimilation."
Since children were easier to mould than adults, the concept of church-run, government-funded, residential schools was thought to be the best way to isolate us from our “heathen culture” and civilize us. The idea being we would ideally become assimilated into their “acceptable culture” and pass our new lifestyle on to our children. Native traditions would diminish and be completely abolished in a few generations. Hence the “Indian problem” would be solved.
Attendance was mandatory and agents were employed by the government to ensure all native children attended the schools. Over the 120 years or so that they operated, about 150,000 native children aged five to 16 were forcibly taken from their families and, as it turned out, subjected to horrific psychological, physical, spiritual, and too often sexual abuse, leaving a legacy of dysfunction that has been passed down to the second and third generations.
I’m going to apologize before I start, especially in this first chapter, because these are, for the most part, fifty plus year old memories, and knowing me, I’m going to give them to you more or less in the order that they pop into my head, and that may or may not have anything to do with the actual sequence of events.
It still seems like it was yesterday, not a lifetime ago that I was thinking my body was telling me it was time to get up. Then again maybe not. Okay, never mind my body telling me, that was my dad’s voice telling me, so yep, I guess it’s time. And why do I need to get up? Oh yeah, we’re going hunting, yes!
I loved watching Dad hunt, and I learned so much by watching his every move. How he could move through the bush without making a sound always amazed me. I hoped one day I would be able to do that, but it seemed I always found a branch or something to step on that would make a loud crack. He was good at teaching me things verbally too, and I did learn a few things from those explanations. One of the first things I learned, at quite an early age actually, was that if you see a deer you don’t jump up and down, shout and wave at your dad, and point at it.
But today I would be the hunter and he was going to watch. I tried to picture Dad’s every move as he made his way through the bush and I tried to be stealthy, I really did. But the only deer we saw seemed to know I was coming before I got anywhere near close enough to bother raising my bow. In fact I think, after watching me do my stealth thing for about twenty minutes, he actually laughed before trotting off into the distance. Dad didn’t say a word, but he did give me that look. You know the one. The one that questioned whether or not we had any matching genes.
So, yeah okay, it was a good thing Grandpa had gone fishing because we would be eating fish tonight, yes we would. And yeah, it might be several days before Dad took me hunting again. You see he rather liked venison and even though, or maybe especially because we ate it quite often, he was in no way shape or form fond of fish.
I went to bed when my body said it was time that night. That’s what we did by the way. We hadn’t been taught white man’s time yet. You know the, “Oh it’s 10:00 o’clock, bed time for you son.” We didn’t need some ridiculous imaginary schedule to tell us what to do and when. All we needed to do was pay attention to what our mind and body was telling us. You know, if you’re hungry, eat. If you’re tired, sleep. If you need food, hunt, or yeah, okay, fish. And that was the way it was. We hunted, fished, or gathered when we needed food or wood, or whatever. So I worked when it needed doing, and I played with my friends when we had free time, something we had lots of by the way.
So, as per usual, I woke up the next day when my body said it was time. I obviously wasn’t going hunting. Nope, today I was going to hang out with Grandpa. And Grandpa’s idea of a good time today? We would be hauling wood, yay!
He had two horses and had built a big skid thing we’d pile high with wood. The first thing I did as soon as I finished eating was run off to find Tuk and Jas. I mean a guy can’t be expected to find and pile all that wood alone, now can he? Or after all that fun piling the wood on the sled, haul it back to the village? And when that was done, as if we hadn’t had enough fun, Grandpa showed us how to cut it, stack it, and make kindling for fires, right before he wandered off to have a rest. And keep in mind we didn’t have chain saws or log splitters. We actually had to work at it. Let’s just say that evening my body told me it was time to sleep even though the sun was still shining.
Tomorrow, if my body told me it was time to wake up, we’d be helping Grandpa work on a new canoe he’d been working on for several days. Our main means of travel was mostly by canoe by the way. I loved canoeing. Now canoes are lashed with the thin stringy roots from spruce trees. By that I mean sewing together strips of birch bark. These roots are called watap and guess what today’s job would be. Yep, collecting watap. Grandpa told us it would be best if we found a tree that's standing off by itself so the roots were easy to get at. The roots could be three feet or even thirteen or fourteen feet long. We would have to sandwich the root between two logs or something and pull the root through to scrape off the bark and any tiny little roots. Then we had to split them in half. Lengthwise by the way. And then we had to tie them into individual coils so they didn't get tangled up. Yep, that made for a fun day.
Grandpa was a good teacher and a very active guy, so don’t get me wrong. We always worked hard, but he was always talking and joking with me and my friends and we did actually have fun. He taught us, all sorts of things, like how to tell what kind of trees are what, and what the different kind of things you can use from them, like the gum or bark, or yeah, watap. And he taught us how to do fun things like how to canoe or horseback ride. We were riding horses by the time we were four years old, and of course, riding bareback. I used to hang onto the horse’s mane real tight so I wouldn’t fall off. He taught us how to take care of the horses too. That wasn’t as much fun.
So yep, after collecting watap all day, my body sent me to bed quite early once again. But tomorrow would be ours to do whatever our little minds might think of to do. We decided on our favourite game out of the water, the Hoop and Spear game. That is until Tuk reminded us that we’d have to make a new hoop. You see the dogs thought we made the hoops for them to fight over and chew up, and ours was chewed up.
It was hard work bending that stupid branch into a circle and trying to tie the ends with rawhide without getting smacked in the face. Course then the hard part started. Using bits of rawhide and stretching the lacing across the hoop to divide it into two halves and then into quarters. And then small hoops woven onto them to divide up the hoop into different sections and shapes like squares, rectangles, triangles, and the dead-centre circle of course. Then finding or carving the perfect stick or spear. After two days of hard regular work, the thought of building a new hoop didn’t last long.
Maybe we could stalk prey like we were the greatest hunters on earth. Then again, maybe not. Speaking of which, I think some of the deer learned a lot about spotting and avoiding real hunters thanks to us. We could go fishing … or not. We could go swimming, that was always good. We could go hang out with the guys in the next village. I mean if we didn’t have enough dumb ideas of things to do, they often came up with new ones we hadn’t thought of.
Nope, it was decided we didn’t need their help this time. We decided to wander through the bush and try to climb to the top of the tallest scariest tree we could find. Like why not? And it was a totally good idea and totally fun. That is until we learned that most of those really high branches were never meant to hold our weight. That we figured out when Jas suddenly found himself about sixty feet up, hanging on a branch by the skin of his pants so to speak. After being airborne for about fifteen feet I might add. It was immediately decided dads to the rescue. After running back to the village, getting our dads to run back to poor old Jas, an hour of planning, and two of climbing and rope manipulation Jas was safely on the ground. After that, partly thanks to the advice of our dads, he decided tree climbing wasn’t his thing.
So swimming and playing in the river we thought might be the best idea for tomorrow. As it turned out however, after yesterday’s excitement, and soon after the sun rose, Mom and Grandma decided to take us berry picking, for blueberries. I think we ate more berries than we took home. It was like one in the container and one in the mouth. Then one in the container and two in the mouth, one then three, one then four, and so on. I think we might have had blue poo for a week. Mind you we didn’t actually check. Well I didn’t, I don’t know about Tuk or Jas.
Mom and grandma grew lots of our vegetables. They would always be gathering traditional medicines or harvesting edible plants, such as wild rice. We would go with them sometimes, and we’d pick all the medicines that we needed including things like wild ginger. Pine sap was good too. Mom using pine sap if we had any cut or burn. She would put it on our wounds and they would heal real fast. Mom also used to dig up roots from the ground. I can’t remember what they were but I loved chewing on those roots, and they didn’t just taste good, they were medicine for our bodies too. Then there was the bark from one of the trees. I can’t remember the name of it anymore either. That helped with diarrhea. That was a good one.
Speaking of medicines, one of the best medicines, so to speak, was my dream catcher. I think it was my favourite possession. My grandma made it to protect me from bad dreams. She told me that the night air is filled with dreams both good and bad. My dream catcher, which I hung over my bed, would catch the dreams as they flowed by. The good dreams knew how to pass through the dream catcher, slipping through the outer holes and slide down the soft feathers. The bad dreams not knowing the way got tangled up in the dream catcher and died with the first light of dawn the next day. I loved it.
Anyway, gathering seemed to be on our next day’s schedule of excitement, but after some persistent whining, it was decided we could go swimming instead, although it was made very clear they meant swimming not climbing. The best part of the day was when Grandpa came down to the river and decided racing the big old fishing canoes would be fun. We spent nearly the whole day racing up and down the river. And since we were having too much fun to think about eating, by the end of the day my body was pretty clear it wanted food. And once again it told me to go to bed early, yes it did.
Oh yeah, and I also remember if we heated the pine sap and mixed it with some coals from the fire all ground up to fine powder, it made a great glue. We used it to make fishhooks, fix holes in the soles of our moccasins, put feathers on our arrows, and fix all kinds of stuff. Oh yeah, and I remember Jas got into a bit of trouble the day he decided to glue the soles of Tuk’s moccasins together when a bunch of us were swimming. He knows how to make moccasins now.
And speaking of moccasins, most of our clothes were made by my mom or grandma, with Dad’s help sometimes. They were made of the hides of whatever Dad or Grandpa got hunting, usually deer or beaver, and when done they were always soft and velvety-smooth.
I didn’t help much but I watched. When Mom or Grandma wanted smooth soft leather for something like moccasins or regular clothes, then they would scrape the hair and flesh from the hide using an antler or wood scraper. Sometimes they soaked the hide in water and wood ash before scraping, or sometimes they’d weigh it down with rocks and put it in the river to let the water do most of the work. A fleshed hide was sometimes just dried. It was real strong and could be used to make things like snowshoes, containers and ropes.
Then they tanned the hide by rubbing it with a paste made of the animal's brain cooked in a little bit of water. That was kinda gross. Once the paste was rinsed out, they stretched and worked it until it got soft. If waterproof leather was needed the tanned hide was smoked over an open fire. Dad would build a smouldering fire with green or rotten wood in a shallow pit. Mom or Grandma would drape the hide over sticks and hang over the smoking fire until it turned the shade of brown they wanted. I must admit that we did have some white boy’s clothes, as Dad did occasionally go to a couple of towns outside of our village, but we certainly didn’t need them. The jeans were kind of ok, but our traditional clothes were the best.
Speaking of swimming, and laying back in the shallow water soaking up the sun, unless you can run like the wind, never stand upstream and pee into the river. Not to mention it’s really hard to breathe when you’re running and laughing at the same time. Oh, and just so you know, I can run faster than any of my friends. And speaking of running, in the winter we’d build snow caves. It was always fun to wait until three or four guys were in the cave and then jump on it. And yep once again, run for your life. In the winter, we’d also slide down the steepest hills on an old skin, or go snowshoeing, or have a snowball fight.
And back to the Hoop and Spear game, we did finally make a new hoop. Once we did we’d stand back 20 feet and take turns rolling the hoop as the other guys would throw their spear at it as it rolled by. Dead centre circle was 20 cones, triangle was 10, square was 5, and if you missed the hoop completely you had to give back 5 cones. A good hoop and spear game could last for hours. My best score was 75 cones cause that’s how many it took to win. My worst: -5. Yep, there were days when I missed the hoop more than once. But it was only about 2 feet across, so a guy could easily miss it from 20 feet away. At least that’s my excuse and I’m going to stick with it.
We did let a couple of the girls play with us once, but when they won three of four games, not to say that it was at all humiliating, we told them to go away and make their own hoop.
Oh, and speaking of the girls playing with us, when we went swimming in the river, none of us considered the need for a swimming suit. I mean why would you wear clothes to go swimming, they’d just get wet. That meant, of course, it was impossible not to notice that the girls were missing something. And since I quite enjoyed playing with mine, I often felt sorry for them. I mean what did they do on those nights when they weren’t quite ready to fall asleep yet?
Now, not to change the subject, but I need to mention we were all excited that our annual Pow Wow would be coming up in a week. Everyone in our village and the villages close by would be here. If you didn’t know, Pow Wows are celebrations of music, dance, spectacular costumes, crafts, and of course, food. Pow Wows were and are important ways to visit family and friends you don’t get to see regularly. They’re also a great time to meet and visit with neighbours from nearby villages. Lots of times it’s the only time we see them. Well except for us kids cause we had enough free time to wander back and forth from village to village to see our neighbouring friends.
And it’s a time to celebrate who we are as a people and as a nation. My grandpa and my dad had a big drum, and with others, they would drum and sing at the ceremonies while everyone, dressed in their finest ceremonial regalia danced. Men usually did Traditional or Fancy. My friends and I were Fancy of course, since it’s fast paced, colourful, and highly energetic. When dancing we each kinda did our own thing or interpretation of the dance. To be a Fancy dancer a guy has to be extremely fit and coordinated. And you gotta have fast reflexes, good timing, and fancy footwork and spins don’t hurt.
The best part though was definitely my regalia. Mine was made up of two multi-coloured and feathered bustles which were coordinated with coloured moccasins, cuffs, headbands and aprons. Mine was all handmade and every article had special meaning. Something I had to thank my mom, my grandma’s, and my great grandma’s for. It felt good too to know that I was wearing something my great grandpa had worn when he danced.
Sadly when he danced it had to be in secret because it was illegal in Canada from about 1880 until 1951. Under the Indian Act, and yeah we had our own friggin’ act, the Potlatch Law in 1880 made our dancing a criminal offence:
“Every Indian or other person who engages in or assists in celebrating the Indian festival known as the ‘Potlach’ or in the Indian dance known as the ‘Tamanawas’ … shall be liable to imprisonment … and any Indian or other person who encourages … an Indian or Indians to get up such a festival or dance, or to celebrate the same, … is guilty of a like offence …”
However, it was now 1953, so for us it was a go and had been since I was ten. A Pow Wow for me was and is a wonderful event full of colour and sound, laughter and shouts of joy. It is a true celebration of friendship. Those were and still are some of the best times. Not to mention the tons of awesome food we had to choose from. My body never tells me it’s hungry on Pow Wow days.
Another ceremony that I really liked, but on a completely different level, was the smudging ceremony. We were to enter the ceremonies with good intent. The elders would burn different medicine plants to make a smudge or smoke. As the smoke rose, our prayers rose with it to the spirit world, and negative energy, feelings, and emotions would be lifted away. It would heal our mind, body and spirit, and balance our energies. We would brush or wash the smoke over our eyes, ears, mouth, hands, heart and body. Some people chose to brush it over their backs too, to ‘lighten their troubles.’
We cleansed our eyes so that they will see the truth around us, the beauty of our Mother Earth, the gifts received from our Creator, and the love shared with us through our families, friends and communities.
We cleansed our mouth so that all we said will be truthful and said in a way that would be positive. We would only say good things, and say words of praise and thanksgiving to our Creator.
We cleansed our ears, so that our ears will hear the spiritual truths, be open to the request for assistance from others, to hear only the good things and to let the bad things 'bounce off'.
We cleansed our hearts so that our hearts will know the truth, be good and pure, and be open to show compassion, gentleness and caring for others.
We cleansed our feet so that our feet will seek to walk the true path, lead us closer to our families, friends, community, walk closer to our loved ones, help us flee our enemies, and lead us closer to our Creator.
And then there was the pipe ceremony. The pipe ceremony is a sacred ritual for connecting physical and spiritual worlds. The pipe is a link between the earth and the sky. Grandpa told me the pipe is our prayers in physical form. Smoke becomes our words because it goes out, touches everything, and becomes a part of all there is. The fire in the pipe is the same fire in the sun, which gives life to all that we need. Prayers were made to the West thinking about the life giving rains. Next, the north, the source of endurance, strength, and truthfulness, which are qualities needed to walk down a good path in life. Then, the east, where the sun rises, and the sun brings us knowledge. Without knowledge, we become ignorant and cause harm to ourselves and others. Then south, where the sun is most of the day and brings us bounty and growth. Next is the earth spirit as the pipe is touched to the ground. Then since we depend on the sun's life giving energy, the pipe is then held up towards the sun. Last, the pipe is held straight up to the Creator, the source of all life.
Now keep in mind at this point that since the 1850’s those running the government of the white man felt a need to fix us. They considered us to be uncivilized savages and decided that to be civilized we needed to learn their ways and believe in their version of god. I think maybe it should have been the other way around, because unlike them, we felt a spiritual connection to the earth, the Creator, and to each other. We were not afraid of the Creator nor did we feel threatened by him either. We didn't fear the one who had given us life would condemn us to an eternity in a fiery hell to scare us into doing as we were told … and not necessarily what was right and just, but what we were told.
But not to get too carried away with that particular point, life in my village, in the middle of so called nowhere, when you were a kid was awesome. And even for us kids, there was nothing uncivilized or savage about it. We were spiritual and lived as one with nature. We took and we gave back. Our parents and grandparents taught us how to be good people, independent people, and maybe most importantly, they taught us how to survive. Of course, as for me, my friends helped me with that a bit as you know, like teaching me how to run faster than anybody else, or not to climb to the highest branches of a tree.
Then on, I think it was the 19th of August 1954 according to the white man’s calendar, a bunch of us were playing Hoop and Spear when we saw these two guys and this weird looking guy wearing a really silly hat, who I learned later was an RCMP. They talked to a group of our parents for a while and then they told us we were going to go for a walk. I wasn’t too sure about this going for a walk thing right from the start, because our parents looked really upset when they were talking to these guys.
When we got close to the river, I decided we had gone far enough and needed to go back, the RCMP guy grabbed my arm so tight it hurt. One more of the RCMP guys and another guy ran off this big boat, the kind like I’d never seen before, and forced my friends onto the boat. I fought with the guy who had hold of me, trying to get away, but he was too big and too strong, and the next thing I knew I was on the boat too, with most of the kids in the village. Tuk and Jas looked absolutely terrified. We didn’t know what was happening to us, but we knew it couldn’t be good.
We also didn’t understand why our parents didn’t try to help us. It seemed like they wouldn’t or couldn’t do anything. We learned later that if they’d tried to stop them taking us they would have gone to jail, and we would have been taken anyway. Of course we wouldn’t have known what jail was at the time. We had no need for anything like a jail. We would have suspected it was a very bad place though, if our parents let them take us away.
Once we were all sitting on the boat, we were told that we were going to school to learn how to be better people. I had no idea what that meant. Better people I had to wonder? What was wrong with the way we were now?
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