O’Mihko Pîwâyesis’ (‘Cardinal Bird’)

O’Mihko Pîwâyesis’ (‘Cardinal Bird’) Olive Anderson. Encaustic on Board, 48” x 48”, 2009

Born 1938

September 1945
Saddle Lake (Cree) First Nation, Alberta
My fingers glide along smooth black and white porcupine quills sewn to Grandmother’s long hide dress. They look just like three big eagle feathers! Grandmother feels my touch and smiles down at me. Wrinkles curve from her eyes to her mouth – her whole face smiles! I smile too, because today Grandmother gave me a corn husk doll. It has porcupine quills sewn to its husk dress and corn silk tassels for hair!

Grandmother tightens the straps of the cradleboard on her back that my baby brother is bundled into. He giggles and flaps his arms like a crow. We walk along the old road to a path that leads into the forest. Grandmother says she needs to pick some herbs and flowers to make medicine. She’s teaching me the flowers’ names and where to find them. And in between, she sings me stories. Her voice sounds like music and wind woven together.

I skip to the edge of the ditch by the road, where the sweet clover is thickest. I pick the yellow and white flowers and hand them to my brother. He laughs and throws them on my head. I jump away, shake my head, and then look up. Where the road meets the sky, I see a small cloud of dust rising. “Nohkô (Grandmother),” I say and point. We stop and watch as the dust cloud grows. Soon I can see a black car moving quickly along the road toward us. The top of the car is black and shiny, like a beetle’s shell.

Suddenly, Grandmother grabs my hand and runs. I try to keep up. “Kweyaho! (hurry up!)” she says. My brother cries. I think Grandmother is trying to get to the forest path before the car comes. But the car is too fast. It slides on the gravel in front of us. Grandmother starts to talk very fast. I don’t know what she is saying. She and the two white men in the car are speaking English.

One of the men gets out of the car. He has a very white shirt with buttons up the front. Grandmother is upset and holds me tight. The man grabs my arm and pulls me towards the car. I cry and scream. “Nohkô! Nohkô!” Grandmother and the man pull at me and argue until the white man yells the word ‘prison’. Grandmother lets go and looks down at her moccasins. Her smiling wrinkles are gone and tears fall from her eyes. Soon I am inside the rolling black car. I look out the back window at my Grandmother and brother. They stand in the middle of the road, crying. I watch them get smaller and smaller until they disappear in the dust…

September, 1990
Blue Quill’s First Nations College, St. Paul, Alberta
I stand in front of the building the black car brought me to forty-five years before. Back then it was called the Blue Quill’s Indian Residential School. I remember thinking how BIG the three-story red brick building was. Even today, at the age of fifty-two, I still feel it’s immensity. There are some new, smaller buildings on the campus, but the old residential school building looks just like it did when I was seven.

In 1971, Native people won the right to govern this school themselves – a first in Canada. It is no longer filled with Oblate Fathers, Grey Nuns and sad Native children who were torn from their families. Now it is filled with eager university and college students, professors and teachers – all working to nurture a sense of pride in Indigenous heritage and to reclaim traditional knowledge and practices that the previous faculty and federal government had worked so hard to extinguish.

Years and years of counseling and personal effort have helped me find the courage to come back here today. I enter the building through the centre doors. I can’t help but feel I have just been swallowed. Numerous staff members and students greet me at the top of the stairs in the main foyer. They introduce themselves and I thank them for allowing me to walk the halls of this building that has haunted me. “How am I ever going to be able to see ALL the rooms in one day?” I wonder aloud. Staff and students laugh at my nervous joke.

Colourful posters hang on the walls, showing Native people dressed for business and various professions. The teachers and administrators are just as well dressed. And I’m sure some of them are former students of the residential school, like myself. They ask if it would be okay if some of them accompany me on my journey, as they are all interested in the school’s past, as well as their Native history. They promise to leave the questions until I have finished. “Yes, and thank you!” I whisper. I’m feeling emotional. The walls press in all around me. But I am determined.

I look around the foyer. I decide I’ll just describe what I see and feel as I re-explore the building. So much has changed, and yet so much is the same. It’s this sameness that pulls away the veil of the present and leaves me with the past. Voices and memories echo from the walls…

A nun snatches away my corn husk doll and barks rules and instructions in the English I cannot yet understand. I feel so alien in this building, so vulnerable, lonely and sad. The nun calls me a ‘pagan’, a ‘dummy’, a ‘savage’. “We’ll kill the Indian in you!” she says.

I walk down the large hallway… and there is a Grey Nun in her habit. Thick leather strap in hand, patrolling the corridor. Her shoe heels strike hard on the tile floor as she passes under the buzzing lights above. At the end of the corridor, I enter the cafeteria. I feel the hunger that we girls and boys ages six to fifteen endure. There are almost two hundred of us, crowded on benches. I must pray, giving thanks to a God I’ve never heard of for the “bounty of food we are about to receive, Amen”. Yet what we receive is never enough. Before breakfast we have to milk nearly fifty head of cattle, and feed all the farm animals. Yet never do we eat any eggs, cream or chickens.

Next, I go down to the basement and enter the laundry room. We soak and scrub all the laundry by hand, then hang it throughout the room. My fingers ache from the ice-cold water and scrubbing. “You’re lucky to have running water!” scoffs a nun. I leave the room and walk along the dark hall. I pass the furnace room, hesitate, and then enter. This is where girls and boys are sexually assaulted by the clerics. But I am one of the lucky ones. My cousin, Susan, isn’t. She is older than me and more developed. Years from now she drinks herself to death by the side of a road. I need my tissues now, and I am vaguely aware of others crying.

I go back upstairs and enter a classroom. This is where I get my half a day per week of education. Trying to learn English from a nun or priest from Quebec, who can barely speak the language themselves, is hard. Their lack of training makes it worse. And it’s next to impossible when you are tired and hungry. But I try. I sit next to a window that faces the front of the school. If I am lucky, I might hear Native people talking as they ride their horses along the road. I might risk a peak at them too. If they are speaking Cree, I can – in my mind – go home and be with my family. I hunger for that more than food, but I will have to wait until the summer. At school, we are never allowed to speak our Native language. Not even in the schoolyard or out in the fields.

I drift from room to room and then make my way up to the top floor and enter the girls’ dormitory. Eighty metal-framed beds are precisely spaced in rows. If there aren’t enough beds, we double up. I must never wet the bed and never get up in the night. I hear a little girl cry out. Her name is Mary. She is new to the school and has nightmares. She stands by her bed and is crying and confused. Sister Elise hears her and discovers she has wet her bed for the second time this week. Four girls are told to get up. I am one of them. Mary is told to lie face down on a table. The three girls and I are instructed to grab one of her limbs and hold it still “No matter what, or you’ll get the same!” We don’t want to, but we do. All the other girls in the dormitory are watching. Sister Elise hits Mary with the strap so many times, and so hard, I see spots of blood seep through Mary’s nightgown. I can’t breath. Mary cries quietly. When we are back in our beds, I cry. I am so ashamed. I can only blow a kiss to Mary to say I am sorry.

Now I enter the infirmary, which is always full. You are only allowed to stay here if you can’t sit up in class. Several children gasp and cough up blood. Again, I am one of the lucky ones. I step to the window that faces the back of the school. I see the flat fields of potatoes that we spend our long days planting, tending and digging up. It’s hard work, but at least I am able to touch Mother Earth. The school doesn’t get enough money from the government, so it is up to us to farm for food. Beyond the fields, just past the spruce trees, are the unmarked graves of many children. I wonder if the school tells a family when a child dies, or will the family find out in June when their child doesn’t return home for the summer? I have a long cry.

I go back downstairs and enter the chapel. I listen to the Latin the priest recites and wonder what he is saying. The painting of Jesus on the wall behind him looks so serene and kind. We are told to bow our heads and pray. I don’t. I just wonder why that painting’s serenity and kindness isn’t shared here.

My journey is over. I exit the school and walk to a garden bed where small sun flowers reach for the sky. I kneel down and pull a trowel from my bag and dig a hole in the soft earth. Reaching into my bag again, I slide out some tobacco leaves. I pray silently to Mother Earth, thanking her for my survival and for giving me the strength to face my fears and overcome. I thank her for transforming this school into a place of healing and recovery not only for myself, but also for all First Nations communities. I also want to help give back what was taken from my People. I lay the tobacco in the hole and cover it with Mother Earth, and pray for direction. I turn to the kind people who have shared in my journey. I tell them, “In my lifetime, I want to play a part to make education a constructive and fruitful experience for all of our People. And I will put my best foot forward to do this.”

November 1991
Amiskwaciy Academy, Edmonton, Alberta
Fifteen-year old Eva slumps into the chair across from my desk. She missed school last week, and today she’s present, angry, and a little drunk. Her teacher sent her to my office. It’ll take a while for her to calm down, so I pour us both some tea. After about twenty minutes of angry silence and two cups of tea, she shares her troubles. Her mother has gone on a drinking binge to who knows where, and she’s stuck at home looking after her crazy brother. She wants to quit school. She rants and raves until she’s done, and then I ask her if it’s okay if I tell her my life story. “Whatever,” she grunts.

I tell her where I’m from and how I spent six years at the Blue Quills Indian Residential School. I share what that was like and I describe how I later spent years drunk and hating the world. I admit alcohol did dull the pain some, but it didn’t take it away. I don’t sugar coat anything. Eva leans forward in her seat and stares down at my desk, taking it all in. “I always think I’ve put this away, but I still cry.” I wipe my nose with a tissue and go on to tell her how seventeen years ago, I finally wanted to change my life. With only a seventh grade residential school education, I was able to get a job as a cook at Poundmaker Lodge Native Treatment Centre. I got help there and then slowly worked my way to being a counselor, and eventually the director. “I went back to school and am still working on some university courses now for a degree I hope to get before I’m sixty.” I admit that working as a counselor for the Edmonton School Board is not only my way of giving back to my People, but it’s also for my own healing.

I let Eva know that close to a hundred thousand Native children attended the residential schools – the effects of which will be felt in our communities for generations to come, but healing is a process and it takes time. “I think you’re starting your own healing journey now,” I tell her. I also tell her that her brother has fetal alcohol syndrome, which isn’t his fault but it doesn’t make it any easier. “Have you talked to any elders in your community?” She shakes her head. “Might help,” I suggest. “It takes strength to stand alone. It takes courage to lean on another.”

I make some calls to help with locating and assisting Eva’s mother. And I give Eva my number and tell her to call me any time. I also give her some numbers and names of other resources she can use to help her on her journey. She finally looks up. I see hope flicker in her eyes. “I gotta go,” she says. “I’ve got a biology test last period.” I hold her up for a moment by trying to tell a biology joke. My terrible delivery is what makes us laugh. “You gotta work on your jokes, sister.” I agree wholeheartedly.

I ask Eva what her Native name is. “Asini-iskiw (Rock Woman),” she says.

“Powerful,” I tell her. I share my name, and a few other Cree words.

“You know what, Mihko Pîwâyesis? I think you should be an elder.”

I say, “It would be an honour. Maybe one day.”

Story written by Tori Jones
copywrite 2010 Tori Jones