October 20, 2017.
Thirty-seven years and a few months ago, I was three years old and she was a newborn. I remember my parents carrying her into the house for the first time.
Seven years ago, she ended her own life. Today’s the anniversary.
Yesterday, Dallas Yellowfly of 3 Crows Productions presented “Qwalena: The Wild Woman Who Steals Children”, a modern retelling of an Indigenous story that appears in many west-coast Nations. They did an *amazing* job – the Wild Woman begins life as a girl with a deformity, teased to the point of hatred so deep that she escapes to the forest and learns to hide and steals anyone who comes for her.
After the scary story was over, Dallas told another one. About his dad.
His dad was abused by a priest in a residential school from the age of six. Tried to run away – didn’t work, they found him and brought him back. He buried his pain until it turned to hate. He learned to deal with problems with his fists. When he was sent “home” at 14, he had no real connection with his family and a lot of reasons to be angry at the world.
When Dallas was six months old, he was accidentally hit by his father, who was trying to hit his wife, who was trying to protect Dallas. That was the last day Dallas had his father; his mother took the baby and left for good.
He told us he was here to let everyone know that, “You don’t need a father. If you have one, don’t take them for granted.” How he is proud of where he comes from, but he’s not proud of who his father had become. How his mother walking out had saved him from receiving the full weight of the intergenerational trauma that the Residential Schools had inflicted on his father and his people.
Dallas and his production team do an *AMAZING* job and cut to the heart of the trauma that our country, our people, our government did to our Indigenous brothers and sisters. A few times he seemed incredulous that he was telling this story at all, again.
When Dallas was nearly done telling his story, I realized that my torso was locked tight, tense. My hands, limbs were normal but the core of me was frozen.
When Dallas ended the presentation, students started getting up, and I managed to stop crying about twenty minutes later in the privacy of my classroom.
Thirty years ago, I had a little sister. She was visibly different than the rest of our family, but we had grown up knowing that we are all family, the same. Youngest in the family for quite a while, a few years younger than me with a brother in-between. We played together, went to the same small-town school, and other than the occasional nickname of “my little Indian princess” from our loving, safe dad (not to be taken for granted), there was no real attempt to identify her as Cree.
(It’s weird that I feel nervous about posting her name here. I’ve been nervous about sharing her story at all, even though it’s now a part of my story. Maybe I’m just afraid of Google searches, old ex-boyfriends, the past.)
Over a decade ago, I found out that she had been violently, sexually abused by a boyfriend. I heard about it long after the fact; the man in question was no longer in the picture. Mixed thoughts of revenge, sadness, anger, helplessness, failure to protect my little sister fought within me, none of them ever really winning, just fighting over and over inside me with nothing left to say or do on the outside.
I asked her once if it was true, as I had heard it second-hand from someone in the family. She went really quiet, said yes. I don’t remember what I said; maybe a quiet, “I’m sorry,” maybe nothing. I didn’t know how to support her in that moment; I think I apologetically mumbled something about why I’d asked. I believed her, wanted to support her, and didn’t know how, didn’t ask.
It’s October 21 now. I can’t write this all down at once.
Seven years ago today, I was trying to get through a few more days of teaching before catching a flight to Manitoba for my sister’s funeral.
A week or so after that, I was speaking with an RCMP officer who had been trying to get a hold of me regarding my sister’s death. She needed to interview me before I flew back home; I had no idea why until I was in the back of her vehicle. The officer told me that my sister had mentioned me in text messages she sent to friends in the hour before she died. Those messages had claimed that I’d told her to kill herself, that I’d been texting her messages telling her to take her life.
The RCMP officer asked me why she would do this. I told her everything I knew; about her having been abused, about her reasons to be angry, about our strained relationship. That her family loved her and the world had been hard anyway. That I really just didn’t know.
Later, I heard that she told my parents I’d said that she deserved to be raped.
I still don’t understand. Did she really believe that? Did my silence or general not-knowing-what-to-do leave too much room for accusing voices in her head to fill in the blanks? She had been angry with me about a family argument the year before she died, but I’d had no clue about this.
My sister hated me when she took her own life.
Over the last few years I’ve learned about the Sixties Scoop. I now know that it’s very likely that my sister was taken from her original family without their consent, or under coercion. That there were thousands of Indigenous children taken from their families to be fostered or adopted into wealthier, whiter families. Indigenous people were considered to be savages and therefore unfit parents. When the residential schools began closing, efforts to separate children from their families turned to the child welfare system. The poverty Indigenous people were kept in, particularly on the reserves, was often used as a reason to take children into custody. The parents had no say and no recourse.
October 22, 2017
A few (four? five?) years ago, my wife and I were visiting Bowen Island and ended up in a long conversation with the owner of an Indigenous art gallery. Somehow, we got to talking about family, and why honoring Indigeneity is so important to me, and I explained about my sister who was now gone. The owner (an Indigenous man whose name and nation I unfortunately forget) suggested that maybe, despite everything, maybe she really was saved from something worse. That growing up on some of the reserves out there could’ve been horrible.
I listened, but didn’t really hear. I didn’t really understand until I heard Dallas share his story, his father’s story, how grateful he was to not have been raised by the man his father had become. Not taught those same ways of solving problems.
Something clicked. That it really was possible that my sister having been taken and put into our family may have been the lesser of two evils, that it could have been worse. That the damage done by residential schools was that bad.
But I’ll never actually know what she was removed from, whether there was real cause or just racist assumptions.
All I know is, we could have done so much better.
After the performance, after I recovered, one of my students stayed nearby to show me pictures of her cats, talk about her life, make sure I was doing okay. She let me know she’d be away from school a few days coming up because of leadership conferences, and an honoring ceremony, and after the honoring ceremony she might get a chance to make her own drum for the first time. She already knew this was important to who she is; she had songs she’d been given permissions to sing. She knew her role in singing them was as a spiritual healer. Did I know she’d been honored with an elder’s blanket once? Oh and she’d be giving the drum to her mother, who’s been looking forward to receiving a drum in the family for years, but who knew it was something you wait for, not something you purchase or make happen. And I’m listening and I’m so proud and those tears are coming back and dammit why now and I know exactly why and it’s not fair that she never had any of this. No Aboriginal support staff in her schools. No honoring ceremony to say, “You are a Cree woman and you are STRONG and your community is proud of who you are.”
My family loved her and honored her the best we knew how; but what did we know? We were white people living in a white world. We had God and we had morals and some financial stability. We had some truth to share, but we also had the same misconceptions as everyone around us, the same uncertainty about Indigenous spirituality that most Christians had. We had the same mistaken beliefs about the Indian Act, about reserves, about how the system worked. We had a goal of making sure she was treated the same, one of us – but we never knew to uphold and honor how she was different, how she *wasn’t* the same, and how that difference could be something to be proud of, part of her identity as a strong Indigenous woman.
Today I do my best to listen. I’m sure I still screw up; I still have another sister, who this story wasn’t about, who is also adopted and has Cree heritage, and we don’t always get along. Age gaps and my anxiety disorder and distance and I’m still a smug guy who thinks he’s got things so figured out, and I mess things up. But she’s an amazing woman and I’m proud of her.
I’m not writing this to find a moral, to convince you of anything. I’m not sure who I’m doing this for. I still don’t feel I have the right to tell the story of my sister who’s passed on; she died without trusting me. But hearing Dallas tell the story of his father made me realize that sometimes we have to tell a bit of someone else’s story so as to shine a light into the dark places of our own.