Askuwheteau’s time in Our Lady of Peace Indian Residential School
and how he managed to find love, even under the most loveless circumstances.
After a long boat ride and an airplane ride, which was really scary, we found ourselves walking up the path to Our Lady of Peace Indian Residential School. We quickly found out that was a misnomer. The ladies or nuns, as we learned they were called, were not ladies of peace. They were nothing like our mothers and grandmothers. They were mean, cruel women who seemed to be full of nothing but anger and hate. Now don’t get me wrong, not all nuns are like that I don’t think, but these were, and they were the best kind for killing the Indian in a child.
The moment I set foot in that horrible place, I ceased to be Askuwheteau and became Daniel, number 98. First off, my braided hair was cut. My hair hadn’t been cut since the day I was born. It was part of who I was and having it cut was devastating. It was my strength, my wisdom, my connection to my ancestors, the earth and the Creator. Seeing it laying there on the floor, it was all I could do to keep from bursting into tears. What the hell were these people doing to me? Why were they doing this to me? How was taking away a major part of my identity making me a better person?
My traditional clothes were also a big part of my identity, which of course they took away from me too. I was dressed in what they called a school uniform and was forced to wear these horrible hard shoes that hurt my feet. Why?
Then after all that, I had to be registered as a student. After some long impossible to understand process, I was apparently told to write down my name and number. First off, I didn’t know how to speak, let alone write English, second I had no idea that my name was no longer Askuwheteau, and for some reason had been changed to Daniel. Not only that, but number? What number? I was now a number? Apparently I was, number 98.
At any rate, I pissed off the old nun who had been glaring at me from the moment I walked into the place. Apparently I was being disrespectful and disobedient. The fact that I was feeling confused as hell, and had no idea what they were telling me to do, or what was going on, wasn’t part of the equation.
I will never forget every detail of the next ten minutes. She got up and took something off a shelf behind her and came towards me. As she walked closer, I made out what it was. It was a whip!
“Stand up,” she ordered.
After she grabbed me and yanked my arm, I stood up, shaking, and feeling terrified. She tore off my shirt and wound up. The whip made contact. Not just once. Not just twice. But the blows kept coming. Ribs, back, stomach, back again. All I could think of was, why is this happening to me … why? I had never been disciplined physically in my entire life, and this put me right over the edge. I was totally overwhelmed and I basically shut down.
And that was the first hour of day one.
From what I can remember, the day didn’t get much better, but I spent most of it following them around in a trance. That night, lying on my cot in the dorm, it caught up with me. I burst into tears and began sobbing uncontrollably. After a few minutes, a hand reached out and touched my arm. It belonged to my nearest roommate. His name was Matunaagd, but at that time, he was George, number 87. He whispered comforting words of encouragement. He told me that no matter how bad it got or I felt, he’d be here every night if I needed him. He basically saved my life that night, because all I wanted to do was die, and I didn’t care how.
The dorm was a disgusting room with about thirty beds in it that were, at the most, two feet apart, and that was a huge cultural shock. I mean, I was used to a 14ft diameter wigwam, which housed just the members of my family, not thirty guys, or more, that I didn’t even know. What made matters worse was that neither Tuk or Jas weren’t there. They were in some other dorm I guessed. I was however thankful that my bed was at the end of a row and in the corner, so I had only one person breathing in my face at night, and that one person was Matunaagd.
After that first night, Matunaagd, well Mat for short, and I got to know each other the only way we could, after lights out, in our dorm. We quickly became close friends. We were a shoulder to cry on, and often a life support for each other. In fact, over the years, he saved my life more than once, and I saved his more than once. Plus, although very inconspicuously, we not only supported each other but we worked hard at being rebels. Every word we spoke was in our native Dënesųłiné. If we couldn’t speak it out loud in the daytime, we could sure as hell whisper it quietly in the middle of night. Of course the only time we could even acknowledge the other existed was at night, in our cots, in the dark.
We spent countless hours whispering about home and family. They hadn’t found him until he was twelve. Not surprisingly I guess, we discovered that our home villages weren’t that far apart. We had probably met back home at one or more of the ceremonies or Pow Wow’s, because more than once we had been at the same place at the same time. We figured that because we were both surrounded by friends, we really hadn’t paid that much attention to each other.
Not surprisingly, the second day there wasn’t much better than the first, and so it continued. I may not have understood English yet, but I learned quickly that I was now a number and most important to my immediate survival was knowing that number was 98. We had to go to something they called a cafeteria for food by our number, or go all in a row up the stairs to the classroom in the order of our numbers. Number or no number, I quickly learned who to stand in front of and who to stand behind. Even my clothes and shoes were marked with my number. I regularly heard, “Hey, 98. Where’s 98? 98, come here.” And that was the way it was. I was 98. Not that it happened often, but kids would get disciplined for forgetting their number, or not moving fast enough when it was called. Sometimes we’d get yelled at, sometimes a whipping, and always extra chores.
I have to say the food was terrible too. They fed us cow half the time. That’s something that I wasn’t used to. I was used to eating wild meat, deer, moose, or wapiti, and of course lots of fish. The only meal that I used to look forward to was on Sunday mornings when we would get corn flakes.
And of course there was the classroom, where we spent most of our time. It was a big room with rows of desks and a big black board at the front. Obviously I wasn’t used to going to school, sitting in rows and being talked to all day, and it was very strange to me. At home we learned mostly by observing. We observed our parents or grandparents. We watched them hunting, building a wigwam, sewing clothes, at ceremonies, and just living. We were not used to learning in this weird way.
There were A, B, C’s all along the top of the black board. There were pictures of what I was told was the world, a map of that world, and a picture of some guy they called the pope on one wall. On the other wall it said if you're good you'll go to heaven, but if you commit sins, whatever they were, then you’ll burn in hell with some guy named Lucifer forever and ever. There was also a statue of someone they called the Virgin Mary. For the longest time I thought she was their god because they seemed to bow and pray to her a lot.
At school we were expected to know all about some big war, the queen of England, the pope, and all kinds of other things that had nothing to do with our day to day lives. We were expected to know all about fishing in the ocean in eastern Canada and logging or forestry in British Columbia. We didn’t know anything about these places, where they actually were, or what an ocean was, and didn’t really care.
We were punished by our teachers when we couldn’t add in arithmetic or we didn’t know anything about Social Studies, or even science. I’m still not sure what Social Studies actually is. I have almost no memories of contented times that first year, or any other year for that matter, and those that I do have always involved Mat.
Since I was forbidden to speak Dënesųłiné, and even though I’d barely even heard English before, just the bits from my dad which I barely remembered, I soon learned it, or enough to get by, just to survive. In the early days when a nun caught me whispering about a picture in the classroom in Dënesųłiné, she told me to open my hand and took a stick and hit me with all her strength. She then growled in a most sinister way, “Don’t ever let me hear you speak that language in this classroom again.” A daily smack with a stick or a daily whipping tends to make a guy try his best.
I was also not allowed to practise any of my native traditions. If I did so in any way, no matter how incidental or minor, and got caught, I would experience a severe punishment, usually a serious whipping, again, shirt off and this time with bare bottom too. I can’t tell you the number of times I couldn’t sit properly for days at a time. Of course, if I couldn’t sit still, I got punished for that too.
It didn’t take long to figure out that they didn’t want to just teach me English, or useless crap that had nothing to do with living your life, but they wanted to teach me to be ashamed of who I was, including my native language and traditions, and they wanted to erase who I was. I was told over and over again that Dënesųłiné was a dead language, a forbidden language, and that my old way of life was primitive and forbidden. They went out of their way to make me feel inferior to them, but at the same time, superior to my people at home who were still living the ‘heathen’ life.
Thankfully, being taken at thirteen, I was already well aware of who I was and I decided early on that there was no way I was going to give that up for any reason, regular beatings or not. For those four years I basically experienced only two emotions, fear and anger, mostly anger. If becoming a better person meant becoming like them, it wasn’t going to happen. And Mat was right there with me.
Plus, in spite of the way they treated us, they kept telling us their creator loved us. Well he had a real strange way of showing it. We were regularly told that our punishments were because we were heathens and we needed to change our ways to be saved. I always wondered what we were being saved from and I often wondered what they’d do to us if he didn’t love us. Regardless of what they tried to tell me, from home, I knew the love of the real Creator, and this was definitely not it. I wasn’t sure who they were worshipping but it wasn’t him.
Also those of us who had brothers or sisters at school rarely got to spend any time with them. We didn’t get to see much of our friends from home either, unless we were the same age. All activities were segregated as much as possible by age and definitely by gender. Most of my friends, who had been abducted that same day, including Tuk and Jas who were two years younger than me, were taken away from me and placed with their age group. The good thing for them was they were in the same dorm and if they were careful and quiet they could talk to and support each other.
I’ll never forget the day, in our maybe third week, that my friend, Tuk, saw me, called my name, ran over, and hugged me. We both got a serious whipping. First for speaking Dënesųłiné, second for showing affection, and third for associating with someone from outside our assigned group. The only time we saw each other was when we were outside playing soccer or some other white man’s game. And thankfully those game times were a weekly occurrence and went a long way to helping me keep my sanity. A guy could almost feel relaxed and normal. Of course contact of any kind was forbidden unless you were body checking an opposing player, and any semblance of a traditional game was strictly forbidden.
However you looked at it, I was now away from my parents, my friends, my culture and never saw any examples of normal family life or community life. Any semblance of family life or even close friendship was frowned upon. And contact between boys and girls, forget it. In the cafeteria or when moving from place to place, you would be beaten for even talking to a girl, and god forbid you should touch one or show any kind of affection. Most who went to Our Lady of Peace had no chance of developing social skills, particularly boy-girl social skills.
As for parenting skills, again, forget it. For at least ten months of the year, twelve for some of us, we had these nuns, or priests who didn’t know anything about parenting, parenting us. The only thing they seemed to know how to do was discipline us. How to give us severe punishments for little things that we wouldn’t have even been reprimanded for when we were at home. Needless to say, with all their names, numbers, rules, punishments, and whippings, we were psychologically abused daily, and they were developing a recipe for social and cultural disaster.
And as if the horrible things they were doing to change us weren’t enough, most of us were also sexually abused. I can’t begin to tell you what it was like every night at bedtime, hoping Father John didn’t call your name.
I remember one of the boys, Roger, number 76, had his name called several times in the weeks after I got there. I’ll never forget the day they brought us all into the gym and made us look at him hanging from the climbing rope … and they just left him there all day long. To this day, other than to further destroy our spirit, I will never grasp the reasoning behind that.
I’ll also never forget the look on Mat’s face the night Father John called his name, or how hard he squeezed my hand as he got up to follow the Father. Or the tears and consequent whispers of comfort that followed. Or how I inconspicuously held his hand all night. And he did the same for me the day my name was called.
Father John didn’t last long after I got there though. About a week after calling my name, he called Matthew or 99’s name. Matthew was also older and he was new. There was a lot of excitement that night, what with the medical guys and police. When questioned, several of us made it very clear as to why Matthew might have chosen to beat the crap out of Father John, break his nose, or kick him where no guy wants to be kicked.
On the plus side, instead of simply being transferred to another school to rape a whole new batch of kids, which was the norm, Father John was arrested and taken away by the police. We were told by one of the police officers that he would be charged with multiple counts of rape and child molestation. I probably don’t need to tell you about the warnings and threats that followed. Many of the guys that talked to the police were so scared they changed their stories. Five of us played along, but when the police came a second time to verify our stories, we not only verified them but told them about how we had been threatened and told to change our stories or else.
Because we had told the police officers everything, and they believed us, the school came under some pretty intense scrutiny. One police officer in particular made sure the school administration knew that they’d be checking on our health and welfare regularly, and there had better not be any issues. After that, we saw some significant improvements in the way we were treated. Also on the plus side, we never saw Father John again. Sadly though, we never saw Matthew again either. He ran for the hills and never came back.
Father Joseph, who took over from Father John, was a good guy. Not only did he very seldom punish us, and never like Father John did, but at bedtime he did a quick check to make sure we were all there, and that was it for the night. He left us alone. For Mat and I, it was great. We could chat for hours without the fear of being punished or hearing our, or anyone else’s name called.
I guess since I’m talking about pluses, I know I said I only experienced two emotions, anger and fear, however the closer Mat and I got, the more I began to realize there was more to our friendship than friendship. At least on my side. I guess I was beginning to fall in love with him. At the time I didn’t think of it as “in love.” I didn’t really know what “in love” was, but I just knew there was a deep connection that stirred something deep inside of me. And as odd as it may seem, even though the “love” I felt for him was different and more intense than any love I felt for my parents, grandparents, or anyone else, I never once considered the fact that we were both guys.
And of course the moment I’ll never forget is the moment that Mat showed me it was mutual. He did something totally unheard of in terms of school rules. After we’d been chatting for a half hour or so, he sat up on his cot for a few minutes and then moved across to sit on the edge of my cot. He didn’t say a word, just brushed my hair back a bit and smiled. I will never forget feeling the warmth of his body as he slid under the blanket with me. As he wrapped me in his arms it almost felt like my heart would explode. I may not have known what “in love” was, but I sure as hell knew what it felt like.
We were still cuddled up together when the bell rang for our morning chores before breakfast. I got a smack on the butt and a big grin from Jeffery as he walked by us as we were getting dressed. Of course we didn’t cuddle for the night very often as, even though Father Joseph was a good guy, our survival gene was alive and well.
When we turned seventeen, we knew graduation wouldn’t be too far off. As for graduation, it didn’t mean we’d passed all our courses, or even taken any for that matter. It just meant we were seventeen and they wanted us the hell out of there so they could indoctrinate a new batch of kids.
Most of the guys we saw ‘graduate’ were terrified. It was like, “Where am I going to go?” “What am I going to do?” And once out of school, most found it somewhere between hard and impossible to function in any setting outside the school, be it at home with their people, in a town or city, or anywhere. After being subjected to all those years of isolation, and indoctrination, there was no way of coping with the real world. They were not white men but they were no longer true natives either. They had lost their spirituality, their beliefs, their traditional ways, and were caught somewhere in the middle of nowhere. I shouldn’t need to tell you, but entire generations were lost because most didn’t know who they were anymore, and alcohol and drugs often became the only escape from a reality they couldn’t deal with.
As for me, I’d like to say I survived because I was older, well-grounded, and stubborn. Well maybe, but we all know stubborn can only take you so far if you’re alone. Thankfully, I wasn’t alone. I had Mat … and he was stubborn too.
Thanks to Colin for editing, prepping, and posting this story for me.
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