A respected Spiritual Advisor; was invited to speak to a group of people attending a healing conference. Present were Aboriginal people who have been in care, were adopted, in residential school, incarcerated and family members. The name of the conference was entitled, ‘We are told to just get over it.’
The helpers had just smudged the room and a prayer was said. With the aroma of Sacred Medicine floating in the air, she began to speak, ‘like thousands of children, when I was a little child of 8, back in 1969, I was sent to church-run residential school.
Today I work with residential school and Child Welfare System survivors and I have learned that it has been estimated that Roman Catholic Church operated three-fifths, the Anglican Church one-quarter and the United and Presbyterian Churches the remainder of residential schools. I have learned that nearly over half of the children in care today are Aboriginal. I have learned that there were upward of 150,000 children in residential school over the years.
Today, I would like to share a bit of my personal experience, followed by some insights I have noticed over the years; for example, with the last federal government residential school only closing in 1996, and given that it was only 19 years ago, the impacts of those institutions are still alive today. The residential school I attended was catholic and it closed in 1983, my experience began there in 1974. Like the vast majority of survivors, I suffered abuse; however, something else took place there that I would like to address today.
I will begin by describing the people who staffed our school; there was a priest, several nuns, teachers, supervisors, cooks, and a woman who worked in an office and sometimes a handy man. The subject that I am about to explore today is, while there was staff in the school; they couldn’t be everywhere so often there were senior boys and girls who were in charge of overseeing us; they were sometimes referred to as head boy or girl and at other times; prefects. I myself, always think of them as prefects.
It took me a long time to let go of the hatred I came to feel towards them. You see they were the closest connection I had to parents and I lived in terror of them, as did others. I will be on a healing journey for the rest of my life because of the nun who beat me daily, and the priest that molested me; and, I admit that I have given up trying to understand how adults can be so incredibly viscous to children. I have made much progress on coming to terms with the prefects at school and I think it has taken me longer because we were from similar background and unquestionably they were the same race as me; and I believe it is that fact that confused the most me. Let me begin by describing some things I witnessed with regard to prefects. I was in the school for about a year at the time, when this tall, skinny boy came into the school.
Oh my goodness, right away one of the nuns made him her target. She picked on him from the get go. In the first week that he was there, she beat him so bad that he already had welts on him that would leave scars on him for the rest of his life. Given that nun, good or bad, was our role model, she demonstrated to some, how to treat this boy. For the rest of his young life, the boy was a target.
The thing is that it was like all the prefects made it their lives work to torture that poor boy. With all the abuse he endured, his little spirit broke and within a few years he got sick and after 3 years in that school, he died. In another case, there was a really pretty girl that came into the school. I always think of her as smiling because at first that is all she did. From the start, I could see the priest’s eyes following her; and knowing what he was capable of, I had a bad feeling for her. At the same time, one of the prefects took an instant dislike to her so much so that her life became a nightmare. The prefect began to spread all kinds of rumours about this poor girl.
She said that she knew people from the girl’s community and that she heard that the girl had slept around. People believed the prefect; the little girl was only 11 years old. Every time the girl walked by the prefect, she was slapped, and told she was a whore, she was always told to go wash because she smelled. Soon other older girls began to pick on the little girl and she was called names, continuously punched, kicked, tripped, and spit on. I ran into her a few years back at a pow wow where I was handing out information packages on healing workshops that I was going to run in that community.
She talked with me for about 15 minutes and I can only describe as one of the angriest people I have ever met. She had a laundry list of every person’s dirty deeds in her community and was incredibly cruel in her descriptions. In one instance, she described a girl who in her eyes was a complete whore, that girl was her granddaughter and was 10 years old.
What I later learned was that she was particularly abusive to one of her daughters; and like her mother; the daughter is now working to break the spirit of her own young daughter. The exact same 10 year old that the grandmother told me about. That is 3 generations impacted by the prefect’s jealousy of the woman when she was a young pretty girl.
I can tell you countless stories of the abuse that I witnessed at the hands of the prefects upon children and this was on top of the physical and sexual abuse that we endured by our adult caregivers.
A few weeks ago, a group of us who are in our mid 50s and early 60s who work with survivors, gathered in a talking circle to talk about how our lives evolved because of our experiences in residential school. During the circle, we gave one another permission to share a general overview of the outcomes of our experiences, so
I am going to concentrate a bit on the outcome of having the prefects in our lives. What a few people shared was what that for a time they came to despise their own people because of their experiences with the prefects in school. Others in the circle, attended residential schools in when there were Aboriginal workers and were abused by them. They said they couldn’t understand how their own people could do this.
They shared that it took them most of their lives to let go of the negative associations of their people and become comfortable in their own skin. While others, like the woman I described; found themselves repeating the prefect’s patterns of abuse in their own families. They admitted to picking on whom they perceived as weak, or tried with all their might, to break the spirit of the stronger ones in their families. My own experience as an adult; horrified me because it occurred while I attending a Sundance.
The head woman, although strict, was well respected her because she was teaching us the ways of our Ancestors. One year this very kind and slightly shy young woman came to dance. Well, didn’t that head woman begin to pick on her. It was incredibly disturbing to witness. A few women who were at first quite friendly with the young woman began to treat her similarly to the head woman. They even accused her of trying to get the attention and come onto the men dancers. No one but the head woman witnessed the alleged inappropriate behaviour. The majority of us prayed and prayed that the head women and the others that began to follow her would stop.
Sadly, a few days in, the young woman gave up. I felt incredibly disheartened by the events taking place and it felt strangely familiar to something I had witnessed before and just as the dawn broke on the 3rd day, I realized I recognized that our head dancer was repeating patterns she learned in residential school. During our morning sweat, they young woman joined us to tell us she had only come to thank us and that she was already packed to go south to join another ceremony. We sang and prayed and rejoiced because we knew she was committed to her journey and nothing could stop her.
After speaking to many prefect’s I understand that they underwent the same abuse and after surviving it long-term, they shut down and say they did what they did to make it stop and they live with that guilt. We need to understand that not every older child became a prefect and not every prefect abused his or her positions; however, it was nonetheless a sinister system.
My relatives, I have come to realize in many ways of the outcomes of residential schools and the child welfare system is lateral violence. It began when people like the priests and nuns pitted the older Aboriginal children against the younger ones.
When people in authority pit those they are in charge of; against one another, it is designed for one purpose and that is to divide and conquer and then the heinous of all, is it goal to destroy within. I spoke about prefects because their role describes some of what went on in residential school with regard to lateral violence. However, we also see the same thing with people who were abused by the supervisors, the staff or the religious rulers.
We have heard reports of how some went home to continue the harmful cycles that began with their experience of being abused. We also have begun to see lateral violence occurring because of foster care/adoption systems. This is because they too experienced similar abuses and were supervised by older foster/adopted siblings who abused their power.
We see lateral violence in families. We see it when people in leadership abuse their power, or when people abuse their leaders. We see it in Aboriginal gangs and/or criminal behaviour. We see it in the band offices. We see lateral violence in our communities, whether they are rural or urban. We see it when one person declares that another isn’t spiritual enough, doesn’t have enough blood quantum and, sadly as I described earlier, we also see it in our ceremonies.
When I think of the intergenerational impact of lateral violence, it is like being in a vice grip, like oppression is one prong, and colonization is the other and we are in the middle being squeezed until our shape becomes unrecognizable. The shape I am describing is what our communities once were, before the vice grip of lateral violence.
Having said that, it is our collective healing that loosens the grip. It is knowledge, validation and acceptance that we, ourselves are continuing the harm that we experienced at residential school or during any other means of assimilation that our people endured. Toda, breaking the harmful cycles of lateral violence is every person’s sacred responsibility. When you give a person nothing to work with, guess what they have? Nothing to work with! It is the same with lateral violence; when you stop participating, it stops with you. You become a cycle breaker.
We can restore our communities, yes, not in the way that they were prior to European contact, but we can reshape them based on our Ancestral values. Our Ancestral values include the Seven Sacred Teachings of Love, Respect, Courage, Humility, Honesty, Wisdom, and Truth. Living our life according to these teachings can be part of life long healing journey. For some, it would seem overwhelming to break the harmful cycles of lateral violence by attempting to live by all teachings all day, every day.
When you live your life continually focused on the goal of honouring your healing journey, overtime, you will find these values becoming a natural part of every day life. However, for now, perhaps the first step is to begin by fully comprehend the reality of those who we are in relationship with. We are spiritual being having a physical experience with other spiritual beings. To completely eliminate lateral violence from your life, you need only ask yourself only 2 questions when you are thinking, going to say something about, or do something with other’s; and that is; ‘am I honouring their spirit?
And, am I honouring my spirit?’ If the answer is yes, proceed. If the answer is no, stop. These 2 questions will stop lateral violence in its tracks. While we have all heard, ‘just get over it’, by those who do not fully comprehend what happened to our people. I personally think it is due to people not being educated about the impacts of oppressive laws on our people, and I believe that as much as we can and as often as we can, we must educate.
However, what I do know is one thing we can get over; and that we need never contribute to any form of lateral violence, ever again. After all, it is our Sacred Responsibility as caretakers of the next seven generations to stop harmful cycles. The reality is that our peoples’ collective experience of colonization is now sadly a part of our history. Yes, a dark chapter in history, which includes residential school and the child welfare system; continues to contribute to the present lateral violence we see in our families and communities today.
However, as a people, we can shape our future by breaking the harmful cycles of lateral violence. Where does it begin? It all begins with you. It begins by honouring your spirit and the spirit of other’s. Kinana'skomitin my relatives, I am grateful for your kind attention. Blessings to you and your families.’
All my Relations,
Kihci Têpakohp Iskotêw Iskwêw
Kihci Têpakohp Iskotêw Iskwêw