Askuwheteau and Matunaagd, after “graduation” from Our Lady of Peace and even though their lives would never be the same,
were truly two of the lucky ones.
When the day of ‘graduation’ came for Mat and I, thankfully we knew exactly where we were going. We were going home, together. Thanks to our rebellious nature, if you want to call it that, we both, more or less, still knew who we were and where we came from. Unfortunately we had missed out on years of traditional life and learning and we weren’t even close to being who we should have been. And of course our braided hair was gone, but it would grow back, well in a few years.
As you know, for me, well actually both of us, since it had taken the powers that be almost a hundred years to find us, home was about as in the middle of nowhere as you could get. For Mat it was Thebathi 196 near Fitzgerald, Alberta, on the Slave River. His parents and his big brother were still living the traditional life, well with some adjustments. For me it was Smith’s Landing. And when I said home together, I pretty much meant it. Fitzgerald and Smith’s Landing were only a few km apart.
For my parents, much had changed though, and now for me it would be Fort Smith, NWT, also on the Slave River. Smith’s Landing wasn’t Smith’s Landing anymore for my parents. Without me or my friends there … and all the kids they’d watched grow up and had come to love, it became too much. I was their only child. The child they were bringing up to have great abilities to hunt, to speak, to know his surroundings and walk as one with the land. They were going to bring me up exactly the same way as we have always been brought up, the traditional way. But they were missing out on that, and couldn’t deal with it, especially Mom. Nothing was the same, and she felt her life no longer had meaning. Her depression became so intense that she would sit for hours, even days, and do nothing but stare at nothing. Of course this just added to Dad’s issues trying to cope. He had spent some time off the reserve when he was younger and in his rebellious stage, if you want to call it that, and was somewhat familiar with Fort Smith.
Eventually with a lot of persuasion, he finally convinced Mom to move into Fort Smith. It was a quiet peaceful little town where, with little effort, they could fit in. He hoped that the new surroundings and having to make the adjustment from her traditional life in Smith’s Landing to town life in Fort Smith might help her. It took some time, but he was right, and it proved to be a life saver.
To our benefit, Fitzgerald and Fort Smith were only 24 km apart and the only road within about 200 km of us at the time was the road from Fitzgerald to Fort Smith, so yes, even though my home had changed, Mat and I were still together.
After our release, we flew into Fort Smith. On our arrival, both my folks and Mat’s folks were there to meet us, plus grandparents, some aunts and uncles and cousins, and of course Mat’s big brother. They were getting their boys back, and we were getting our families back. It was possibly the most amazingly emotional time of our lives. Mat’s folks were wonderful people and I loved them the second I met them. His older brother was a pretty awesome guy too. Apparently an expert hunter and I was told their family would never go hungry with him around.
We ended up at my folks for a celebratory dinner to remember. I didn’t count, but I think there were about twenty five people. We had venison, moose, and all the traditional foods you could think of … and no cow. We did have a huge, slightly non-traditional, welcome home chocolate cake though.
Our stay could once again have been temporary. You see, the Government of Canada was sending residential school “graduates” to southern centres to take mechanics and heavy equipment courses, but Dad had a job with Neapetung Contracting, building homes and doing other carpentry work. Within a week he had me working right alongside him, and within two weeks, Mat had moved to Fort Smith and was working right alongside him too.
That their little house only had two bedrooms was a bonus. That meant that Mat and I had to share a room. Mom asked me a number of times if that was okay. I answered a number of times that it was fine with me. Of course it was, but I neglected to say why.
We made a point of visiting my grandparents and Mat’s often, and of course his folks. We also made it to every ceremony we could over the next couple of years. My grandma and grandpa loved every minute of it too. Not only would our whole family be together, but Mat’s family was instantly part of our family, and they never missed chance for a get together.
And speaking of my neglecting to say why to my mom, it was during a visit to Mat’s folks on one hot summer day, after we had been skinny dipping in the river, that his mom wandered down and as she looked at us lying on the river bank, stated more than asked, “You two are very much in love aren’t you?”
After desperately trying to cover up, and a bit of stammering and stuttering, we both shyly answered, “Yes.”
She just smiled and responded with, “Good. You both deserve the best.”
Not that it mattered at this point, but it seems we’d learned modesty these past years, and after we finally covered at least our fronts with our shirts, she plunked down beside us and we chatted for about an hour about the river, the beautiful weather, his dad, his brother, being in love, how she had seen our love for each other in our eyes, and whether or not we wanted bannock with dinner. She did ask us if we found the pine needles a bit prickly on our bare bottoms, and with a laugh, we both replied that, yes we did.
When we got back to their place, she just smiled at his dad and brother who were sitting out front. They immediately got up and shook our hands and that was it. Now they didn’t just suspect we were a couple, they knew we were. In fact his dad joked that he was glad he wouldn’t have to take the time to build bunk beds for when we stayed over. Just so you know, they had replaced their wigwam with a little log cabin a couple of years ago.
Now I know parents are always full of surprises. His mom surprised the hell out of poor naked us at the river. His dad and brother surprised us too. However, another surprise was waiting for us at home. During his stay up to this point, Mat slept on a foam pad on the floor beside my bed. Well not really, but that was the assumption. When we got home Sunday evening and walked into our room, my single bed and Mat’s pad were gone. Instead, we were looking at what appeared to be a rather nice comfy double bed.
Suddenly we heard Dad’s voice say, “We thought a double would be more comfortable for the two of you than that narrow little single of yours.”
Then Mom’s voice announced, “Grandma and I made the blanket. Do you like it?”
Okay was there some kind of parental conspiracy going on here I wondered. One set of parents knowing and accepting us was one thing, but both sets of parents on the same weekend? This couldn’t be a coincidence. Could it? Well maybe it was and maybe it wasn’t. I’m not sure but as we were talking about our weekend with Mat’s folks, my mom explained, “You can’t hide love, boys. It’s in the eyes and the eyes never lie.”
Since it was 1960, and yes we had become aware that we would be labelled as homosexual, and since such relationships were far from being accepted, we made sure no one but our families knew. Well except Jeffery. Oh, and when my grandma presented us with perfectly matching deerskin vests, it seemed my grandparents had been looking into our eyes at some point too.
We quite liked staying with my folks while we were working for our first year or so back home. Mainly because it was a good way to save money … and the food was pretty good too. Of course still being in our teens, even if it was our last year, we weren’t sure what we wanted to do. We did know that being carpenters was not at the top of either of our lists of lifelong careers, and although we didn’t want to admit it, the traditional life we’d been taken away from some six years ago now no longer seemed feasible. I guess in spite of ourselves and our rebellious natures we had been changed.
Speaking of which, it was about this time that Tuk and Jas “graduated.” Their parents had been informed they’d be flying home the day before they arrived. Of course they’d made a point of letting my mom and dad know so we could all be there to meet them. I hadn’t seen them for going on two years and had no idea what to expect. Mat and I had suffered four years in that hideous prison. They had suffered six, which is how long it had been since their parents had seen them. Can you imagine?
When the plane landed and as they walked towards us across the tarmac, they both burst into tears. They went straight to their moms first. Tuk hugged his mom and dad long and hard before he turned his attention to me. I don’t think I’ve ever been hugged so tight in my life and my tears started flowing too. Tuk and I were still tight when two more arms surrounded me as Jas joined us. I released an arm from Tuk and wrapped it around Jas. I think we stood there wrapped in each other’s arms for at least five minutes. And this time we didn’t get a whipping for showing affection.
Their parents just looked on with tears flowing. For us it had been two years and they were both at least six inches taller than they had been last time we’d seen them, but for their parents, their boys had transformed from eleven year olds into seventeen year olds in a flash. How do you deal with that?
Once the emotions began to settle, we were on the way to our place. Mom had laid out a feast to remember once again. We had two small holiday trailers that were set up in our backyard. The hope being that spending a few days together in a safe place would give them a chance to reunite and reignite their family closeness and love, and give the boys a chance to settle, if only a little bit.
Given time we could only hope they would adjust to the sudden change from isolation and powerlessness at school to dealing with a reality they hadn’t experienced for six years. For more than ninety percent of the kids “graduating” from residential school, there was no program or expertise waiting to help them adjust, and the younger they were when taken, the worse it was. How does a person who had had their identity stripped from them come from total isolation into the real world and survive? They usually didn’t.
One huge bonus was that neither had lost their native Dënesųłiné. Not unlike Mat and I, they had a stubborn gene and had used it every chance they got, in the dark, in the dorm. The other good thing they had going for them now they were out is that Mat and I had been in Our Lady of Peace and knew exactly what they’d gone through and we were here with them and for them. Our boss gave us as much time as we needed off work so we could spend time with them. We would have time to talk, be a shoulder to cry on, hopefully be a voice of reason, and most certainly be an ear to listen. We would be spending a few days in town which was foreign to them anyway, and then return to Smith’s Landing with them.
The first thing we noticed when we got off the boat at Smith’s Landing were four dogs walking slowly towards us. They didn’t look very friendly and my first thought was, ‘can we outrun four dogs’. When they were about ten feet away, they stopped. The lead dog just stared at us and tilted his head. Then very slowly he approached us. When he got close enough he began to sniff Jas, and when Jas carefully reached down, he sniffed his hand. Then he went totally berserk. He barked, he whined, he jumped up, he spun around. If he’d wagged it any harder, his tail would have probably snapped off. Then he licked Jas all over, his hand, his arms, his face. It was Hoochoo, Jas’s dog. After all this time, and in spite of how much Jas had changed, he knew it was him. As Jas kneeled down and hugged him, the tears flowed once more. I don’t think there’s any doubt that that was a major step in Jas’s healing. Hoochoo is short for hoop chewer by the way.
Over the next couple of weeks we managed to relive many of our adventures, Hoochoo and his buds by our side every step of the way. And we talked, oh we talked. We even found Jas’s tree, and it was still the tallest one around. As we wandered the nation and recalled every memory we could come up with, we could see them become more and more relaxed and less and less stressed. It seemed that being able to relive those memories just might be a vital part of helping them adjust, of helping them to reunite with who they were. And not one word of English was spoken. And when we decided to go for a swim, Tuk insisted that I stay downstream from them. I wonder why.
After a month it was time for Mat and I to head home. Surprisingly, or maybe not, Tuk and Jas seemed to be readjusting to traditional life fairly well. In fact yesterday Tuk’s grandpa had insisted they go hunting with him. Let’s just say two very excited and proud boys returned triumphant, and there would be venison for all that night.
Now back to Mat and I. Our graduation certificates from Our Lady of Peace were worthless for getting into any university or college. If we wanted to go anywhere other than government run vocational schools we would have to upgrade. Well, Fort Smith did have a high school, so we made an appointment with the principal to see if there was any hope for us and there was. With credit for previous courses such as they were, and some very hard work we could have our diplomas, real diplomas, within a year.
Of course we weren’t the only ones who had changed over the last few years either. Our parents weren’t at all disappointed that we didn’t want to return to the traditional life. I know Grandpa would have preferred to have seen us hunting and fishing alongside him, but he felt he had taught me well, and any decision I made would have been well thought out, and would have been in my best interest for a good wholesome life.
In a month we would be sitting in a classroom once again. It felt a bit creepy even though we knew we wouldn’t be getting glared at by some vicious frustrated nun who seemed to hate her life and everything and everyone around her. Since school is generally boring, let’s just say we did our time and ten months later had an actual high school diploma. Now we could apply to a college or university. The sad thing about that though was we’d have to leave Fort Smith. I know that kids grow up and move on, but don’t forget we had spent four of what should have been our best years in residential school and were only now enjoying being with our families, something we had seriously missed out on. When September rolled around, if we got into the University of Alberta in Edmonton, we would be 1000 km away from home.
Why Edmonton? Well our boss’s brother lived in Edmonton and had a very successful company building log homes, expensive log homes. He was very opposed to the residential schools and given the chance to help two native boys who had survived mostly intact, and who wanted go to university really appealed to him. He had a small suite in his basement and it was ours free of charge, meals included. His two boys had moved out into their own places in the last year. He said his wife still cooked for four and she’d love to have us join them for meals. Quite obviously, that sounded just fine to us.
Well finally, in August of 1962, we were accepted into the U of A, and in a month we would be leaving home once again. This time by choice. I would be going into nursing with a focus on psychiatry and Mat would be going into education majoring in fine arts with a languages minor.
Our folks saw us off at the airport. There were lots tears and hugs, but they were sort of happy tears and hugs, and a couple or three hours later and we were unpacking our stuff in our new suite. We got there a few days before classes started to give ourselves a chance to look around and figure out how to find the right buildings and classrooms on campus. One of the things we did appreciate was that we’d be living close to campus, so no long bus rides and fewer chances to get lost.
That first night I can’t tell you how much I appreciated and loved the beautiful person cuddled up to me in bed. I knew he was the main reason why I had survived residential school, why I was still sane, and why I was here living the dream. Weirdly, it was almost like he was reading my mind because, even though I was sure he was asleep as those thoughts floated through my mind, I felt him give me an extra squeeze as he pressed his chin into my shoulder.
One thing that hit us when we did start our classes was that we seemed to be the only native boys on campus. That, I guess, shouldn’t have been surprising considering what the residential schools were doing to basically every native kid in Canada. Preparing us for college or the real world wasn’t on their agenda. Isolating us and making us hate who we were was. Aside from that thought though, we had a great day. Unfortunately we only saw each other for an hour at the Hot Café for lunch. We did make up for that after we got home though.
Now I know this is going to sound insane, but about a month after starting classes, I got a tap on the shoulder as I was walking into Hot Café for lunch. I assumed it was Mat, but when I turned around I was looking into the grinning face of Jeffery. Well Wynono actually, or Wyn.
After a quick hug, I exclaimed, “Oh my god. I didn’t expect to see you here.”
“Like I expected to see you?” he responded before asking, “Where’s Matunaagd?”
“Waiting to have lunch with me,” I replied with a grin, before adding, “Come, join us.”
Well that turned out to be probably the most exciting and fun lunch we’d ever have on campus. It seems Wyn was in his third year of electrical engineering. He’d done his high school upgrading as soon as he got home and started university soon after. Of course Our Lady of Peace came up. His explanation for his survival was simple, well maybe not all that simple. He said all he did was tune them out. They could do and say whatever they wanted. He made sure he seemed like a good boy who did as he was told, but otherwise ignored everything else. His main saving grace was that he had lived in a small town in Montana until his dad died when he was fourteen. His mom moved them home to northern Alberta to be with her family. So like us, as he said, he knew who he was before they abducted him, so fuck them.
Oh and as we were chatting a very cute guy named Shen joined us, but not before giving Wyn a kiss on the cheek. We were apparently not only not the only native boys on campus, but not the only gay boys either. We now had a couple of friends to hang out with, and maybe party with occasionally. We were university students after all.
Unfortunately this was pre-gay bars and night clubs. Needless to say, gay bars and night clubs or not, we enjoyed each other’s company and had a lot of fun nights out. We did find a couple of places where no one cared who’s hand we were holding or who we kissed, which was very cool.
And in case you’re wondering where Shen got a name like Shen, his great great grandparents came from China back in the early railway building days, sometime around 1850 he said, and he was named after his grandfather.
Anyway, to make a long story short, three and a half years later in June of 1965, our families flew down for our convocation ceremonies. And even though they had graduated two years before us, Wyn and Shen were with us. After the ceremonies, we went to the best restaurant we could find and enjoyed a wonderful evening of food, drink, and laughs. Then a couple of days exploring the city with our parents and we were on our way home for the summer.
Of course home for the summer meant visiting Smith’s Landing. Obviously we had visited when on holidays over the last four years. Besides Grandpa and Grandma, Tuk and Jas were on the top of our list. And yes, much had changed. Granted some of these changes had started more than four years ago but they seemed more evident now. Wigwams had for the most part been replaced with houses and grandpa now had a chain saw.
One of the biggest changes involved Jas. You see Jas was now a daddy. Yep, he’d met Adoette on a visit to our nearest neighbouring village. Apparently it was love at first sight. Not that I’m an expert, but she was one of the sweetest girls I’ve ever met. Most importantly, she made Jas happier than I’d seen him since our younger days. And I don’t know if you believe in fate or not, but her name means large tree. Yes it does.
And as for Tuk. Well he was still a lonely boy waiting for miss right. However he was uncle Tuk and that brought a big smile to his face every time he heard it. The other thing with Tuk was that, apparently with all his free time, he had begun to write a book about the history of Smith’s Landing. He had memories and stories from every grandpa and grandma for miles around. Other than spending time with his new little nephew, nothing excited him more than having someone read his stuff and then spend an hour or more talking about it with him.
When we weren’t visiting them, at Mat’s, skinny dipping in the river and keeping a lookout for his mom, or just sitting around laughing with my grandpa and grandma or with Mat’s, we spent much of our time looking for jobs. Obviously they had to be in the same town or city. There was no way we were going to be separated at this point in our lives … for any reason.
Then on the 15th of August I got a positive response from the HH Williams Memorial Hospital in Hay River. It wasn’t that far from home and there was now actually a highway between here and there. Then two days later Mat got an offer from Chief Sunrise Education Centre at K’atl’odehche reserve only 20 kilometres from Hay River, within easy driving distance, and yes there was a road. We accepted both and we were set to go.
Of course me working as a psychiatric nurse in a hospital and Mat teaching in a native school brought us into contact with residential school survivors and their families. In my case especially, they were more often the ones who hadn’t survived very well or ones whose parents hadn’t. Far too many had alcohol or drug related issues, or worse suicide issues. It became obvious that the residential schools and their influence on us would be with us for a long, long while yet.
So many were hurting inside and didn’t know how to express their feelings or confusion. Many had tried talking to psychologists over the years but no one took it seriously. No one knew what they were talking about. It became clear to me that no one in the professional field knew what it was like to be in a residential school situation and to have dealt with physical, psychological, sexual, and spiritual abuse of that magnitude. It became very clear that there was a great gap between what was needed and what was actually taking place. A gap that I, with the help of my colleagues, would hopefully be able to address. Mat also spent as much of his time talking to and counselling parents as he did teaching and counselling his kids.
We spent a lot of our free time thinking and talking about the hurt we were seeing and the need to at least try to help our brothers and sisters, and not just locally, but it would be a great starting point. I remember the first time I spoke about Residential Schools at a community meeting. After my presentation, I fielded questions from everyone. Some couldn’t believe that this had actually happened, but many did understand and knew exactly what I was talking about.
We got together weekly and worked together on many different issues. It was great to listen to people talking about their experiences openly. Being able to say this is what happened to me, or this is how it affected me was, to say the least, mind opening for many. To be able to admit that there is something very wrong in our lives that’s making us the way we are, and we need to find a way to get past it.
We talked about the need to heal, the need to move forward and the benefits of not keeping things bottled up inside. There are many components to moving forward in the process of healing. We were discovering too, that often it takes the whole community to do that. Plus we began to realize that reclaiming the past and what we have lost is not going to be easy.
But, albeit slowly, we are coming along. We were pleased to see an honest investigation of residential schools moving ahead, and the making of that knowledge public. It initially started with Phil Fontaine, then-leader of the Association of Manitoba Chiefs, calling for the churches involved to acknowledge the physical, emotional, and sexual abuse endured by students at the residential schools.
It’s interesting to note that most churches implicated in the abuse officially apologized in the 1990’s. The one that didn’t was the Catholic Church, even though it oversaw three-quarters of Canadian residential schools. This year, on May 29th, 2017, our present prime minister visited the Vatican. In harmony with the reconciliation movement we’re seeing today, one of the things on his agenda was to ask Pope Francis for an official apology from the Catholic Church. We still haven’t received one. Think about that for a minute.
The government convened a Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, and worked with the churches which ran the residential schools, to design a plan to compensate the former students. Finally in 2007 they formalized a compensation package for those of us who were forced to attend residential schools. Yes it was nice, almost like a 66th birthday present for Mat and I, but it in no way ‘compensated’ for what we had gone through. There are some things money can’t compensate for. Even though we had been taught well by our parents and grandparents … even though we were older and relatively grounded in who we were when we were taken … even though we were as rebellious as we could be … even though we had had each other for love and support, we had changed. As I said before, we were no longer who we were or who we should have been.
And not being naïve, I think the real purpose of our acceptance of the payment was to release the government and churches from all further liability relating to the residential school experience … except in cases of sexual abuse and serious incidents of physical abuse.
The government also funded a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to examine the legacy of the residential schools. The goals included documenting and publicising the extent and impact of residential school experiences. It wasn’t long before the commission was holding events in several Canadian cities to publicly address the experiences of First Nations, Metis, and Inuit children in residential schools across the country.
Mat and I are spending most of our time travelling all over Alberta, the NWT, and Nunavut to town meetings and First Nations assemblies to give our stories and to speak to various groups. And guess who’s joined us and is giving his story. Yep, Tuk. He did finally meet miss right in 1969, but sadly lost her to cancer in 2004.
With his input we’re trying to set new perspectives on the current realities for many of us, to develop an understanding of the role that reconciliation can play in our wellbeing, and to help develop individual, community-based, and community-driven action plans. And as time moves on, we’re seeing more and more of a push from within to give all of us the desire … no, the need … to show others who we really are as First Nations people and why we deserve to be proud.
All this gives us the hope that healthy communication will result in renewed relationships between First Nations peoples and all Canadians. So hopefully, in time, there will be acknowledgment, forgiveness, growth, partnership, and yes reconciliation.
As most of you probably know, I am not in fact a member of our First Nations community. But my sister is. When her mother was unable to care for her, she was put up for adoption. Being the mid 60’s, the Canadian government at the time, for whatever lame reason, felt First Nations families were not stable, civilized, or whatever enough to adopt children … not even children of their own family members. My parents had three boys and my mom desperately wanted a girl, and being white and of course obviously stable, I guess, they were fine to adopt a First Nations child, so they did.
With all that is going on with reconciliation today, she and I have become quite involved in the movement. As I began to become familiar with all that has happened thanks to the residential school system, the thought of writing a story like Kill the Indian – Save the Child came to mind. After much discussion with my sister, and much research, we decided that I should. I just hope I did my First Nations brother’s and sister’s justice with this story.
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