Last night, I learned more about the unspeakable and unimaginable crime rendered against innocent children whose remains were found near the Kamloops Indian Residential School.
It’s 5:30 a.m. and I can’t sleep. My finger has come out of my emotional dam and tears flow with deep sadness. The discovery of the mass grave of innocent children has touched a raw nerve and exposed it to indescribable hurt and pain. I weep not only for myself, but for my parents, for my grandparents and for those who have been wrenched from their deep roots of security and safety. It is like an inferno burning into my soul. It is like an avalanche loosening my footing. It is like a tornado destroying my foundation. It is like a deluge drowning me. It is like a hurricane taking my breath away. It feels like that all those years and perhaps centuries of building a fortress to protect my very being is caught in an earthquake that is shattering all the pieces and leaving me exposed.
I’ve been going through the school of life doing what is needed to attain a bare passing grade. If I had better teachers who truly cared about my learning and development, I would have flourished better to become what I was meant to be. If I had less harsh judgment and discipline racked in fear of painful consequences, I would have blossomed into my potential creative being more fully. If I was encouraged and affirmed, I would have learned to have true confidence and self love. If I was guided in a seamless step-by-step process of growing, I would have been able to build on each skill and enhance it to master the next level fully. Instead, I was forced to skip grades and expected to somehow catch up without the foundation of skills upon which to grow and flourish. The self-fulfilling prophecy of having no academic expectation of me would not have happened.
Instead, I was made to learn with impatience and harshness. In turn, this formed my outer shell to reflect qualities that helped me survive and somehow adapt. I gave off an air of confidence, but deep inside I was shaking with uncertainty. I acted as if I was strong, when inside I felt weak and ashamed. I behaved as if I was competent, when inside I doubted myself. I gave an impression of being intact and together, when inside I was fragmented and torn.
In my formal schooling, I was forced to understand a foreign language, a different lifestyle and a confusing history in an alien society with underlying hostility and conflicting values. I pretended that I understood because that was the only way that I could reach the finish line. I knew that my teachers didn’t really believe in me and expected me to fail. In fact, I was assured by them that I could never master formal education and at best should learn menial skills that would help me to find menial work in order to live a menial life.
In the turbulent ocean of my existence, I felt like a cork afloat and subject to the changing tides, harsh weather conditions and swift currents. While swimming in this ocean, I felt depleted many times; but I had to keep going in order to reach the shore and make a better life for myself and my family.
Yet, in doing so, I carried those very survival responses into my various roles in life. My parenting feels like a mere passing grade where I was able to impart a web of teaching and learning with big holes and gaps held together with frayed edges and loose ends. My true emotions were stunted and warped and could never seem to be expressed in the way that I truly felt towards my children. How could I when my role models taught me through fierce judgment and coldness. Then, I remember how I witnessed horrible punishment as a lesson to learn and was told that if I showed any emotions, I would be punished and strapped in triple the amount I witnessed. I remember being told that having fun was a frivolous waste of time better spent scrubbing floors and ironing 300 shirts. The impatience that I experienced became normalized because I didn’t know any different. The fierce discipline inflicted became the model of how I should act towards my children. Without all my parts intact, how could I possibly be a parent who could emote better, judge less, feel more, and laugh often. I didn’t know any different when often I saw my grandmother and my father modelling those same behaviors to their children. It feels like we should create a parent anonymous organization where we can go to share our stories, receive support and guidance, build confidence and learn skills from each other
As a wife, I was entangled in veiled fear of failure. I lacked confidence but had a persona of being so together. I didn’t know how to communicate and many times spilled out cruelty that hurt my husband. My emotional instability played out in jealousy and fear of being abandoned. Testing my husband to determine if he would hurt me as others have led to his and my hurt and confusion. Over a long time, his enduring patience, unending support and consistent assurance finally seeped into my broken heart and soul to help me believe that true love is the medicine that I needed all along. I finally understood that love doesn’t have to be conditional on anything but authentic love itself. There doesn’t have to be any unrealistic expectations nor is a marriage built on perfection housed in a glass ready to shatter at any moment if I didn’t hold on to it I properly. I learned that building a relationship is much like constructing a solid home. It must have a strong reinforced foundation that can be repaired, maintained and upgraded as time goes on. I learned that I don’t need to hold on to those survival skills of being defensive or reactive to protect myself. I learned that I am safe, secure and loved for my true inner self and not for my outer self that gave off impressions of confidence and togetherness. My husband has been a patient teacher who has supported me to do my healing work. For this and for him, I am grateful eternally.
In my old age, I lament all the mistakes I made and wrongs that I committed. It seemed like I was navigating in darkness without a light to guide my way. Somehow, I intuitively knew the narrow pathways that would help me reach my destination as a daughter, sister, wife, mother, grandmother and now a great grandmother. In reflecting on this, I now understand why my father and grandmother were sometimes harsh, critical, unemotive and yet so determined, and resilient. They lived what they learned—that’s what children do and grow up to be. Through trial and error, I continue to change course, adapt, and gain insight into what natural and organic relationship building is like. Being a mother is the most important role and responsibility that I have been gifted with. I don’t have it right yet, but I will never give up and failure is not an option. Being a grandmother gives me an opportunity to practice how I can be as a mother—patient, caring, gentle, flexible, joyful, emotive, responsive, giving. By osmosis, this spills into my children who somehow know that their mother came from a fractured and hostile history and is working hard to get over this in order to become whole.
Along the haphazard way, my beacon of light has been my mother. While she attended residential school for two years, it didn’t create the deep wound and impenetrable scar that dad and I developed. She was removed and sent home to take care of her dying mother and in doing so, she learned many values and skills that formed a strong foundation upon which to build her family. She learned how to be patient, and in turn models this quality. She learned to work hard and demonstrated this to us. She never complained despite the hardships of poverty and loss. She was the rock to which we returned from our various journeys and experiences. She continues to show us the way. She is tired now at the age of 94 but is determined to stay a while longer. I asked her if she is ready to move into her next life to be reunited with her mother, husband and so many others who have gone before her. After a moment of quiet reflection, she said “no” because she still needs to spend time with her grandchildren. Perhaps, intuitively, she knows that we children still need her—especially now. I am close to finding all parts of myself and piecing them together now and she is the glue that I have needed to do this since she gave birth to me 77 years ago. Every day with mom is a gift and I am grateful because she blesses me with renewed hope and a great sense of inner peace and acceptance. She blesses me with the opportunity to give back a little of what she sacrificed for me all of these years. Each day I feel more grounded, more secure, more sure, more hopeful.
U’gami, Creator God, must have known that I needed reinforcement and support so gave me some incredible friends who have stood by me and silently witnessed the metamorphosis that I was going through. They didn’t judge or criticize me. They encouraged and affirmed me in a way that helped me to grow into myself. These dear friends are treasures who share strength and encouragement and for this I am blessed and thankful.
Along the life road fraught with many hazardous obstacles without a map, by some miracle, I have managed to pick myself up and continue on with the same determination that I imagine my ancestors had. I have an inherent optimism that motivates me each new day to be better than yesterday and to continue with my healing work. I may never be completely healed, but it is enough to continue to build the foundation upon which my descendants will grow, flourish and thrive.
I lament the deaths of 215 innocent children who paid the ultimate price for society’s attempts to change and mold us into something we were not meant to be. It is the ultimate price paid for trying to take the Indian out of us. It is the ultimate price to pay for trying to Christianize us. It is upon that unmarked graves of those little ones that we must make a commitment to never allow this to happen again. We must make a commitment to hold and protect our children from these crimes that marked our collective past. It is upon this heinous act of savagery that we must rebuild ourselves and find the inner core of resilience that is our inheritance. For their sake, we must stop numbing the pain. We must continue to do our healing work and renew ourselves. We must find ways and means to fill those gaps and stay on the course of life that provides the pathway to strength, hope and resilience for the next generations. We must hailhsistut—turn things around and make them right again. We are all worthy of being supported, loved, uplifted, carried, guided, and nurtured. We are all worthy of being reconnected to a sense of sacredness and eternal hope. For the sake of those children, we must keep going and keep rebuilding our strength and hope. In this way, we honour and preserve their integrity, dignity and worth. I pray that their souls are freed now and safe in a place that holds neither fear nor judgment and is filled with eternal light, calming peace and everlasting love.
Visit Hilistis’ Circle 3 Legacy Leader profile to learn more about her story.