*This is based on the stories of five Residential School survivors. This short story is meant as an informative and respectful reflection of their lives and contains sensitive material regarding the experiences of those Residential School survivors.
I love my home; the fields with various colours and flowers, the animals that roam free, the scent of the long traveling breeze that passes by. I run to pick a few purple flowers for my mom – she always tells me stories about them and how they get their vibrant pigment. My dad loves to joke around and makes me laugh even when I feel down. My parents named me after my Nokomis (grandmother), Waaseyaa, meaning ‘the first light from the rising sun’. I don’t know what it means, but it’s very pretty. I walk to the front porch to where my parents are seated; they are working on making a new blanket for when winter arrives. I show my mom the flowers and she smiles softly, receiving the small bouquet I made. I go and sit with her while she tells me the story of how the earth came to be.
“Why did the animals have to show such greed?”. My mother looks to my father and answers gently.
“My dear Waaseyaa, it’s because it was their nature. Long ago, most animals didn’t know how to hunt. Instead, they took from others. Always wanting more—”. She is cut off by the sound of an arriving vehicle.
She hides me behind her back, keeping me out of sight. I turn my head to my dad, and he looks to my mother with the sense of worry in his eyes. My mom turns to me and pulls me quickly inside. What is going on? My mother tells me to hide in the closet and to not make any noise until she comes back to get me. I wait alone in the dark closet, where only a shred of light seeps through a small hole in the door. I look through the hole in the door to see two old men in long black coats talking to my parents. Both of the men have white skin, different from what I have seen before. Why do I have dark skin and they don’t? I’m scared now. The taller man pushes past my mom and starts searching around my house while the other attempts to calm my dad down. I step away from the door and try to quiet my loud beating heart.
The closet seems to get smaller and smaller as time passes by. Finally, I am calm, unworried. I don’t hear the strange men anymore, so I stand up and look through the hole once more. I see a tall, white man walking towards the closet. Fear suddenly takes hold. The door swings open and the tall man grabs me and pulls me outside. My parents, crying as I exit. What is going on? Why is this man hurting me? I hope my parents are not hurt. With each step, I am moving further away from my home. The tall man stops with me in his grasp in front of a yellow car. The small white man talks to the man holding me in words that I do not understand. The conversation seems to be directed at me. I tug on the man’s coat and say,“Am I going to visit someone?”. They both don’t answer, but the small white man bends down to my level and tells me something with the look of annoyance on his face. The white men push me into the yellow car and slam the door. The car smells of tobacco, and the seats look as if they were made twenty years ago. The engine starts, I look outside to my small house on the field only to see a faint image of my parents as the car drives away.
The ride in the yellow car was long, and I eventually fell asleep. I woke to the sound of doors closing. Where am I? I glance at what is beyond the window. There stands a huge, dull building that is surrounded by a garden of wilting plants. The environment is sterile and well-groomed. The tall man opens the door and drags me out. I look around, only to face three people: one man, and two women, with white skin, all dressed in black and white clothing. The man stops me in front of them. I notice two silver sticks that are crossed, hanging around their necks. Why do they wear a knife? One of the women gently takes my hand and leads me down a path towards a door with the same knife the men were wearing, hanging atop the frame.
The woman takes me inside where we meet up with another similar woman. The hallway is very tidy. There are many pictures of a woman with the sun at the top of her head and a man with the exact same sun. The two women take me inside a room where there are shiny metal poles hanging from the wall. One of the women with red lips looks at me contently and continues to speak to the woman with the old skin. The old skinned woman starts to remove my clothes while the woman with red lips takes them and throws them into a bucket. They begin to wash me with the cold water that comes out of the metal pole on the wall. I feel so exposed. The only person who has ever washed me was my mom. After I am cleaned, they cut my long hair. Each strand, falling to the floor beneath me. Before I knew it, my once long braided hair was short, just above my shoulders. My hair was my identity, my culture, now they have taken that from me. I could tell what they were doing was coming to an end because they put a pungent paste in my hair. It stung my eyes, but it was wrapped in a towel so I wouldn’t touch it.
The woman with red lips leads me down a long hallway that begin to lose a clean effect. We enter a room with many consecutive metal beds that fill the whole space. We stop in front of a bed with a pair of black and white clothes and shiny shoes placed in a neat manner. The woman says things to me, suspecting that I can understand. The words just sound like gibberish to me, but I get the overall message. This bed is mine, and the raiment is mine. I put the raiment on and the woman takes me to a room filled with kids like me, sitting at tables. “Welcome to MacIntosh Indian Residential School.” I can’t comprehend what she said, so I go to sit in the empty seat and the kids stare at me as if I were a new toy. The room is dull with stacks of books and writings that mean nothing to me. I turn to a girl sitting beside me and ask, “Where am I?”.
“At a white person school.” whispered the girl. “Don’t speak our language. You will get in trouble.” Why would I get in trouble? Am I supposed to be quiet right now? I sit in the chair watching the white man at the front who is using strange hand gestures while speaking.
“What is your name—”. I am cut off by the sound of a stick slapped across my desk. I look up and the man is yelling at me. He says words to the girl in an unknown tongue. She answers and turns to me.
“I A-M 1-0-2 or R-U-T-H”. The girl helps me say a word that sounds like “roo-th”, I think it is her name. I sit back down and continue to listen to the man.
Is this place a school? It seems to have smart people. When “English class” is over, a bunch of kids and I head down to “eat dinner”. I sit in the only empty spot. It is labelled ‘114’.
All the kids are sitting quietly, waiting for their food. The old skinned woman shouts from across the room, scaring me and the rest of the kids. A group of white men and women come around the tables with bowls of brown chunky mush. I grab the spoon in front of me and dip it into the strange mixture. A girl across from me whispers to me.
“Hey, don’t eat yet. Wait.” I look at her trying to figure out what she said. “Wait.” she whispered again, but this time I understood. I sit waiting and watching until it is OK to eat.
A bell is rung, and all the kids take their spoons and start to eat their “dinner”. I copy them. I dip my spoon into the mush and put it into my mouth. I have a hard time to keep the food down. The look of disgust on my face gets the attention of the same girl across from me. She looks at me and shakes her head. Are they forcing us to eat this? Maybe tomorrow will be better. I swallow the food in my mouth and eat in silence.
The sound of laughing breaks the silence. I look over to see two white men and one white woman hovering over a little girl. I turn my body around on my chair and stand on my knees to see what is going on. The little girl threw up on her food.
“Eat it!”, more laughing is followed. The little girl picks up her spoon and scoops up some of the mush as well as her own vomit. “Put it in your mouth”. She looks up to the white people and shakes her head. One of the men smack her hand, causing the spoon to fall knocking her bowl over. The whole room is startled by the sound and all the attention is focused on them. The white woman involved, grabs the little girl by her hand and the two men follow. Their faces expose a sinister expression as they leave the room. I turn back to face my food, looking at the bland colours and patterns in it. I hope she’s going to be OK.
I realize now that my name at this place is 114. The kids in the school use numbers and white people names to identify themselves. The white women and men are Nuns and Priests, they are the servers of a powerful man named God. God is said to have created everything, that Indians are an abomination, and they need to be converted into “white standards”. I do not know what that means, but I learned it in a place called ‘Church’. I am learning a lot of things now. I know a bit of English now. I feel smart, which is pleasing; however, I am not happy here. I miss my home, my family. It is not the same here. Even though I am surrounded by my people, I am not at ease. We all aren’t.
I walk with a group of kids to bible class. The room has rows of single desks facing the front of the room. Written on the chalkboard in bold letters is a quote from Psalm 116:66; “Teach me knowledge and good judgement, for I trust your commands.” I, and all the kids, take our seats. Father John starts off our lessons with the Lord’s prayer; “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” I still don’t know what it means, but I’m sure i’ll figure it out soon. Father John has us read passages out loud from the bible. My english is not great, but I learned enough to be able to get through the day.
After class I go outside with a bunch of the kids to play. I walk up to ask a group of girls if they want to be friends. They start to yell at me.
“Why are you listening to our conversation?”, a girl with pretty big eyes says to me. “Why do you keep standing there? Go!” I keep standing there, unable to translate her fast spoken English.
“I’m sorry, I can’t understand you well. Can you please speak slower?”. The girl stares at me as if she is scared of what I had said.
“You… don’t… speak… your… NATIVE LANGUAGE. You… will… be… in… danger.”, she speaks to me with big gestures, hoping I understand her. I do. She looks at her friends and they lunge for me. The girls start pushing me around. I am knocked to the ground and I hit my head on the pavement causing me to be unable to move. The girls run away. One girl stays and bends down to me.
“I’m sorry”, she says. She gets up and seeks for help. My eyes start to become heavy, and they begin to close. The Nun with red lips — Sister Martha — is standing over me, and the world becomes black.
I’m lying in the infirmary bed, it is quiet in here, and dark. My head hurts from when the kids pushed me over. The night scares me with the feeling of emptiness and uncertainty. The only light that is shining is the dim flicker of the candle beside the bed. I stare at the candle, watching the flame dance from any sort of disturbance in the air. It is amusing, reminding me of home. Almost putting me to sleep, the calm flame is interrupted by a man in a black robe. I wake instantly. He walks towards me, slowly. He turns me over and pulls down my skirt. I start to scream, but he uses his access hand to cover my face. The feeling of his old skin on mine makes me sick. I start to cry, silently. The hot tears running down my face. I start to think of home. The joy of being with my family. The field with the animals roaming free. The scent of sweet grass burning during rituals. The thought of home takes me away, to a peaceful place where nothing goes wrong and life is good.
It is gone. The feeling of him. I am left laying in the infirmary, scarred, broken. He has taken my purity from me and I will never get it back.
The next few days are a haze. Everything I do and see is like a dream that I can’t awaken from. Sister Martha has been very nice to me while I have been settling back into my own bed. I won’t tell anyone what happened to me because they won’t believe me. I could also, possibly, get into a lot trouble.
A few years have passed. Learning is getting easier; however, the school is becoming worse. The more I learn English, the more I understand how messed up the world is. It is the beginning of winter, over-laying the autumn orange and red colours transforming it into a winter wonderland. I wake to the sound of a bell. I throw my pillow overtop my head and wait for my friend Ruth to come and wake me up before the rush of girls go down for breakfast.
“Time to wake up W. Everyone is getting ready… Get up now or else we won’t have warm porridge”, Ruth says while pulling the covers off of me. I get up and put my uniform on and race my friend downstairs. We are stopped by Father John. He takes out his belt and tells us to stand by the wall. We put our hands together and recite a prayer. After, Ruth and I stretch out our hands as Father John takes his belt and strikes our palms 10 times. It is a punishment we receive normally because the majority of the time we are getting into mischief. We ended up not getting to breakfast first, and got the cold, goopy leftovers.
We get to go outside for the remainder of the day. This is a gift from ‘God’, as they told us, because we were praying more. Which I think I completely mad. Ruth and I head outside and see the boys playing hockey on the frozen lake.
“Ruth! I love hockey, let’s go play.”, I say excitingly.
“We are not allowed to play with the boys. We are not even allowed to talk to them. We are separated for a reason”, Ruth says to me with sympathy. Why does this school keep getting worse and worse?
“But, there is this boy I have been keeping an eye on since I arrived. His name is Ben. I know we will never meet each other, but I like to have someone to think about at night. Anyways.” I look at Ruth, contently. I have been friends with Ruth for seven years and we haven’t even spoken about our feelings. She is full of love, how did I miss it?
Ruth and I head inside because our toes feel like they are going to fall off. Students are not allowed to wander the halls without permission, so we sit inside a closet to wait until the rest of the kids flood the halls.
Ruth never shows fear, but I can tell she always feels it. That’s the thing, fear is something you can’t show here. It makes you stand out, and trust me, that is the last thing you would want.
I understand now. What the white people want to do to us, they told me. They want to turn us into them: White, Christian, the lovers of God. I will never be susceptible to them. I need to leave. NOW.
It is about nine o’clock in the morning. I grab my warm coat and start to exit the building. The rest of the students are playing outside, so I won’t be noticed. The intense bite of the winter distresses me with the feeling of anxiety. Will I survive? Will I get caught? I push the thoughts out of my head and continue forward. The snow leaves footprints, but luckily there will be more snowfall tonight. Well, at least that’s what Sister Martha told me. I carefully climb over the white picket fence that is surrounding the premises. I look back to the school, the dreadful institution that took me away from my family. Without hesitation, I start to head off.
I have been walking for hours. I don’t know where I’m going, but there must be something out there. It’s starting to get dark now, and colder. I need to find a place to rest for the night. I find an area under a bunch of trees near a rock. There seems to be enough shelter to make it past the storm. I sit down and start to look around for materials to start a fire or else I won’t survive the cold winter night. I use what little memory I have of what my parents taught me and use rocks and twigs to start a fire.
It took a while, but I finally get the fire started. It is warm, soothing even. I lay down on a dry spot on the ground and begin to fall asleep. I watch the fire dance as the passing cold winter storm discombobulates the flame. I am instantly woken by the memory of when I was a child, when that awful man took my virtue. I stay up for a while, thinking of home. The thought of a better life eventually puts me to sleep.
I wake up. The fire is out and there is more snow than before. The weather is like ice. The chilled breeze nips at my lightly covered toes and fingers. I’m hungry now. The feeling of famine reverberates within me. I need to find food quickly. Unless I crave death? No. I have to get back to my family, or at least get away from that horrid school. I get up and fashion a blade from carving a sharp point into a branch and wait quietly.
It is taking too long for an animal to pass by. I get up and leave my campsite in search for civilization. I’m freezing. The deadly Ontario winter leaves my body frozen and unstable; this cumulates with the immense hunger to leave me weak. I walk, slowly and heavily, for hours I just walk. There is no person in sight. No food either. I finally find a place to rest. It is not as sheltered as the other, but it is better than nothing. I lay lifeless beside the fire I had just made, looking up to the sky to see grey and white. The view of little snowflakes drifting down from the sky is serene. I pray. Oh great spirit whose voice I hear in the winds, and whose breath gives life to everyone, hear me. I come to you as one of your many children; I’m weak… I am small… I need your wisdom and your strength. Let me walk in beauty, and make my eyes ever behold the red and purple sunsets. Make my hands respect the things you have made, and my ears sharp so I may hear your voice. Make me wise, so that I may understand what you have taught my people and the lessons you have hidden in each leaf and each rock. I ask for wisdom and strength, not to be superior to my brothers, but to be able to fight my greatest enemy, myself. Make me ever ready to come before you with clean hands and a straight eye, so as life fades away as a fading sunset, my spirit may come to you without shame.
I hear people shouting. I get up, almost unable to hold my own body weight. Into the distance, I see five people. White men. They have found me! I cannot go back to that place. I break out into a sprint. They follow. I am like an animal being hunted, prodded.
The snow is heavy underneath my fast moving legs. They are getting closer. My small body is too weak to continue running. The wet snow is soaking through my black school shoes, causing them to gradually fall apart. I hear the men shouting behind me… “Stop right now you little wench!”, “You’re dead!”
A loud crack reverberated throughout the trees, scaring the hiding deer. A gunshot. The heat from the bullet floods my leg. I’ve been shot down. No more running. I’ve lost. Crimson liquid spews out of my body, making me increasingly weak. My feverish body melts the icy crystallized accumulation, soaking my itchy school remnants. The men crowd around yelling many words of english at me, confusing my ojibway brain. I begin to lose consciousness when I feel cold hands lifting me up and propping me up on a shoulder, taking me back to hell.
I am back at the school. Roughly, I am escorted to a shack beside the school. It is grungy — dusty to be exact. We walk down a flight of stairs that leads to a closet. The man pushes me inside and slams the door.
“No! Please! Don’t leave me in here!”, I scream. I bang on the door, hard. Eventually, I quiet down and sit in the dark closet.
“You will stay in here until God decides you have been relieved of your sins.” I hear him leave. I am alone now, in the dark, no food or water. I lie down and close my eyes. Beads of tears fall down my face. Why am I thrown into a dark room instead of being punished differently? I dig into my pocket and pull out a rock that I used to create fire. Vigorously, I bang the rock on the ground, smashing it into many sharp pieces. Gently, I pick up a piece of the rock and glide it firmly across my wrist. The direct slit masks my suffering, singling out a feeling in my crowded mind. I do this a few times until my arm is wet with blood. I am no good. No one cares about me. Maybe my parents forgot about me. Why must I keep relishing in the past while I am living in the present? I become ill. The lack of food and water is finally showing. I close my eyes for a bit, hoping God will forgive me. Even if there isn’t a God.
I am out. Sister Martha found me lying half dead in a pile of my own blood. She had taken me to the infirmary and helped me recover. It is still winter. Even though I am injured, I can still see the glistening snowflakes fall outside through the window. My friend Ruth comes to visit me sometimes, but she never stays too long because she could get into trouble if she is seen talking to me. I am still afraid of the infirmary even though that priest was fired years ago. It gives me a feeling of relief, yet I still feel fear. It is something I will carry with me until I am passed.
Winter is over and spring has arrived. Everyone is joyous and excited to see the colour green; however, I just want to disappear. It hurts to be here. It makes my heart ache to stay. I used to live in the past, but now, I live nor in the present or future. I have no idea what the future looks like. I can’t even stand each second of the present. Hell, I barely even remember my past. Look at what this school has done. I don’t even know who I am anymore. It is too much. I get up from my bed and I take what I could find. I tie a few bed sheets together to make a long rope. Everyone has gone down to eat the disgusting dinner, so I have a few minutes before anyone notices I am gone. I take the long rope made out of sheets to the stairwell. The stairwell is old, there are parts on the walls where the paint has started peeling off. I hate this place. This repulsive school who tells us to be white and submissive. I’m not myself here. I am not Waaseyaa anymore. I am no longer the first light from the rising sun. I’m a person I hate, a person who I do not know. I tightly secure the handmade rope to the railing, checking to see if it will hold. I carefully step over the rail and tie the rope around my neck. It tickles, but I ignore it. I take a deep breath and look outwards. I think back to my home, where the fields are filled with various colours and flowers. The animals who roam free. The scent of the long travelling breeze that passes by, and my parents who stand there, smiling, waving.