Positive stories involving Indigenous people have been in the news recently, and at the same time the work of Reconciliation has moved to the sidelines for many non-Indigenous people.
In January of 2023, protection of the Incomappleux Valley southeast of Revelstoke was announced, an area the size of 150 Stanley Parks. The Taku RiverTlingit is working to protect and conserve the Taku River waterway in Northern BC. If you are interested in Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas (IPCA’s) then check out the website to find out more.
There have been many stories of the Repatriation of cultural properties back to the communities that treasured, used and created them. In February of 2023, the Nuxalk Nation saw the return of a totem pole taken from their territory and held at the Royal BC Museum since 1913. The pole will remain at the local school for a year and will then be returned to its original village site. The Royal Ontario Museum recently returned personal items of Chief Poundmaker to his family. The Haudenosaunee Confederacy recently retrieved sacred objects held in a Geneva Museum for over 200 years. And we should all celebrate the return of the Ni'isjoohl memorial pole to the Nisga’a people announced at the end of December 2022.
These are all opportunities for celebration. But we continue to hear reports regarding the children who did not return home from Canada’s Residential Schools with little response from the non-Indigenous community. The latest report, as I write this, is from the Tsechaht people who have confirmed that 67 children who attended the Alberni Indian Residential School died over the 80 years it was open. They also reported findings of a possible 17 unmarked graves after surveying a small portion of the land under review. This became a two-day news item in the media.
There is a real danger that the frequency of these reports numbs us, and we lose our ability to absorb and respond to this heart wrenching reality. In May 2021, the Tk'emlúps te Secwe̓pemc people made the first announcement of a possible 215 unmarked graves on the grounds of the former Kamloops Residential School. For non-Indigenous people it was an unbelievable shock. For many Indigenous people it was the announcement of what many knew for years. In the press and everyday conversation, they became known as “the 215.” And then the community decided the conversation needed to change.
Residential schools were fortresses of cultural annihilation. Not only were children not allowed to speak their languages or participate in cultural practices, they were denied their names, their personal names. In a news report Chief Wilton Littlechild, the man who gifted Pope Francis a Headdress, shared this experience:
“My name was number 65 for all those years…Just a number, yeah. ‘Sixty-five, pick that up stupid,’ or ‘65, why’d you do that, idiot.’”
The Tk'emlúps te Secwe̓pemc people changed the conversation with their word Le Estcwicwéy̓ meaning “The Missing Ones.” Missing from their families, their communities. Missing the opportunity to be children and to become what they could be if they were able to grow and learn in their own communities.
The government and churches have apologized for the physical, mental and sexual abuse that took place in Residential Schools. An apology is a start. A settlement agreement has been reached resulting in the creation of a not-for-profit trust that will fund projects for Indigenous education, culture and language. Another step towards the future and recognizing the value of Indigenous cultural practices, education and culture.
There are many more steps to go on this journey. One of those steps is to recognize and absorb the fact that these institutions had nothing to do with assimilation, they were focussed on cultural annihilation. And that drive went all the way to denying the children and their families the need and the dignity of mourning rituals. Where does that leave us?
At the conclusion of theTsechaht presentation Chief Counsellor Waaniis Ken Watts asked all the visitors, media and community members who are not Survivors to stand up.
With the Residential School Survivors sitting he said words similar to these.
We stand with you. We thank you for surviving the residential schools.
He said many more words, but they are not mine to share, they were for the Survivors to hear…
His words for us are “Please stand up.” Stand up as someone who hears and supports the work of Residential School Survivors. Read about what individual communities are proposing and see if there are ways you can stand and be counted as a supporter and ally.
Indigenous Culture Workshop at St. Thomas, Vancouver - September 24, 2022.
Photos Brian Hsieh