Identity loss became a little clearer this past Easter Sunday when my brother and his wife dropped in from up north for dinner. Our daughter and son were there as well, and we had a lot of laughter and fun as we always do whenever we get together. However, an unexpected lesson in our history was passed on to our son and daughter by my brother and his partner that evening.
Somehow we got into a discussion about how their experiences of going to Residential School had affected them. It was very emotional, but it was a necessary story to pass on to our children.
My brother talked about how, when he was six years old, he got onto the train with our mother, and then she got off the train without him. He had initially sat on the train with mom in one vestibule of the rail car, and a little later he was moved to another vestibule. After a bit he went back to look for mom in the original part of the car, and he could not find her anywhere. He said he screamed and cried, not knowing where his mom was or what was happening to him. He had no idea why he was on a train or where he was going. He was six years old and his mother was gone, and all he had left were the two paper shopping bags that she had given to him to take on his unknown journey. A journey that took him from Aiyansh on the Nass River all the way to just north of the city of Edmonton, Alberta, where the school was located.
It was an emotional moment for all of us hearing this, my brother is in his seventies and this was the first time he had spoken to us about his experiences as a little boy.
I cannot imagine our mother’s feelings, when she had to get off the train and see her little boy leave her. Much later our younger sister told me that our mother stayed in her room and wept for a week every time her children were sent away to Residential School.
Our first language was Nisga’a and that was all my brother spoke when he got on the train to go to Residential School. He said that the first thing they did to him when he arrived was wash him with lye soap and cut his hair off. They also checked for lice. He said that there were 120 boys in the school and 120 girls as well, and they weren’t allowed to mix or even talk to one another.
He and wife talked about how they were stripped of their identity as Nisga’a children in a methodical way. There was a lot of repetition on how they had to do things and speak in the school. They said that even learning to dance was forced upon them, and they had to unlearn our traditional ways of fun, or what would be fun for any child.
Both my brother and his wife talked about how hard it was to go home to their villages in the summers because every part of their lives was controlled and planned for them in Residential School. They felt confused about how to live their lives with their families, and as Nisga’a people. The identity destruction was working, and they could not relate to their Nisga’a Traditional ways that they learned as little children. The children were losing who they were as Nisga’as, and even how to relate to their own parents.
His wife said that when she was in grade nine, she was given the choice of whether to return to Residential School or stay at home and go to the local school they had built. She said she chose Residential School because by this time it was easier – she knew what was expected, while she didn’t know what to expect at a local school, or from her family. In a very sad way, the loss of language, traditions, and relationship to parents was the beginning of a new identity for Indigenous peoples.
My brother telling us about how he lost his identity as a Nisga’a was a release for him. He spoke emotionally for the first time to us as a family, so that we could hear first-hand about what was taken away.
Has he forgiven the school and the church for his loss of our Nisga’a ways? Yes, partially, but in his heart there was still much heaviness as he told my children his story.
When we sat down to eat Easter dinner, my brother did the blessing of the food in our Nisga’a language, which he is taking lessons to relearn. It was the first time we ever remembered him speaking Nisga’a. He prayed, not to the Creator as we expected, but to God through Jesus Christ. This from a man who lost his identity through Residential School and the churches, and yet he is still a believer and a follower of Christ.
This is without a doubt an Easter story of forgiveness and new life. And did I mention that one of his sons grew up to be an ordained priest in the Diocese of Caledonia?