#4 It was Indian Residential School, a National Tragedy

I sit quietly making prayers while I wait. For years, my husband had waited for a chance to tell his story. Finally, the Canadian government was taking responsibility for the abuse that happened in the Indian Residential Schools. A process was created whereby students who were abused in the schools had the right to sue the government for the part it played in their suffering.

Today is Wanbdi’s hearing and I am here to support him. As a therapeutic counsellor, I work with former residential school students. I am the person they tell, often for the first time, what they faced while at the schools. I feel like I have heard it all many times over. Still, it is unfathomable to me how anyone could have done all these terrible things to our children.

But today is different. Today, the person who is sharing what he went through is someone who is infinitely precious to me, my best friend, my world. It makes me sick to think of anyone harming him and yet I know they did. I look up at the closed door where the hearing is taking place, expecting him to open it at any moment. In my hand rests a paper, the beginning of his story. He talked and I listened; then I wrote it down. This is what he said.

“One day when I was playing outside my dad drove up to me on the tractor and said, ‘Hop on!’

I rode with him up the hill to the school where he dropped me off. When I saw that there were boys playing football, I got excited and ran over to play with them. In my Dakota language I shouted out, ‘Pass it to me!’ and all the boys stopped and looked at me. One told me, ‘You can’t use your language here. You must speak English.’

I felt embarrassed. I didn’t know any English words.  I kept silent for a long time after that.

Wanbdi Wakita attended Birtle Indian Residential School

Indian Residential School was that kind of experience for me, and for many others. It tried to silence me and rid me of my Dakota ways.  For eight years, I lived in the oppressive environment of Residential School. They forbid me to speak my language, practice my way of life, spirituality, my culture. They shamed me, humiliated me and kept me away from my mother and family who I dearly loved. Worst of all, they abused me in all ways.

In residential school it hurt me to see the smallest children hungry all the time, so when I could, I stole food. I saw the bigger children taking food from the smallest ones who could not defend themselves. I didn’t like that so each day when I milked the cows, I saved some milk in a container to share with them.

Once a week, when I took the bags of laundry downstairs, I would sneak into the kitchen and grab loaves of bread, a tub of butter, peanut butter and jam. With the food hidden in the laundry bag, I would head to the dorm to hide it, my heart pounding all the way. That night, once it was dark, we feasted on the stolen goods. It was wonderful. In the morning, before the supervisors came into the dorm, someone would sweep up all the crumbs and hide the evidence.

The first time I ran away, I was ten years old. One night my cousin was crying, lonely. When I asked him if he wanted to run away he said, “yes”. We made plans to go the next morning. Before anyone was awake, we dressed, crept silently down the stairs and raced out the front door. It was scary but exciting at the same time. We were going home. The moment our feet hit the dirt we ran as fast as we could down the hill towards the road. After the school was out of sight, we slowed down. Just then, it started to rain. I was getting pretty soaked by the time the farmer stopped to give us a ride. He took us all the way to Highway 1 junction.

With the town of Oak Lake in the distance, and only a short ride from home, my heart sank when I saw the principal’s station wagon come over the hill. I was a deer caught in the headlights, exposed and too afraid to run. When he told me to get into the car, I obeyed. I watched out the window with a sick feeling in my stomach as with each mile we drove back to the school and away from the comfort of my mother and our home.

That night, while the whole school watched, they took our pants down and strapped us until I was bleeding and completely humiliated. It took me five years to get the courage to run away again.  This time I simply walked out of the front door, down to the bus station and was home in a few hours. It was the best feeling in the world to see my mom smile that day and eat some of her delicious food.

I re-fold the paper and slip it into my purse. Just then the door opens and I jump to my feet. I look up at him, our eyes meet and he takes a step towards me.

“Masoni, I told them everything. All of it. I didn’t leave anything out.”

“That’s good. You did good.” I say.

Then I put my arms around him and we both cry. His body shakes as he lets all those hurtful memories wash away. Then he releases me and stands up straight.

“You know the lawyer said they rate each case from 1 to 5 depending on how awful the abuse was. Mine was at the top.”

His words pierce my heart as I think about what he has just told me. I want to shout out in anger.

“How dare you harm this man! How dare you harm this boy!”

But I don’t. I say nothing. My anger is years too late to help him.

“Masoni, I’m finished now.” He says in a shaky voice. “After all these years, it’s finally over. I’m not going to think about it anymore.”

I grab his hand and hold it tightly. Then we turn, walk down the steps, out the building and into a new chapter of our lives.

It was Indian Residential School. It was a national tragedy.

Join us next week for Blog post # 5 I’m Not Going Back