Middle child, residential-school truant, homemaker, proud Cree. Born April 25, 1915, on Peguis First Nation reserve in Manitoba, died May 8, 2012, in Selkirk, Man., of natural causes, aged 97.
Ruth Shead was born in 1915 in a cabin her dad had built out of logs harvested from the land he cleared on the then-new Peguis Reserve.
The St. Peter’s Band of Indians had to rebuild there after being displaced from its former home community near Selkirk, Man., when the reserve there was surrendered in 1907.
Ruth was the middle child of nine children of Nathaniel and Jean Asham. She and her brother Tom and sister Dorothy were among the first students to attend the Elkhorn Indian Residential School in 1924.
Ruth maintained she had been on school holidays ever since her dad “rescued” his three children from Elkhorn in 1927.
For the next 85 years, she never spoke of whatever may have happened there.
There were some things “better forgotten than remembered,” she said. “You can believe what bad things you hear are all true.”
In 1938, Ruth married Harry Shead. They had three boys before Harry joined the Canadian Navy.
In 1947, they built and lived in a small cottage while a new house was being built, and four more children came along. Ruth met every challenge of her growing brood of children. Her skills as a homemaker would rival Martha Stewart’s. She was a consummate baker, cook, gardener and caregiver. Her family thrived on her “one-kilometre diet” of produce from her garden and neighbouring farms.
Mom enjoyed travel, and maintained that she’d “travelled by dogsled, oxen, horses, buggies, wagons, canoes, big boats, cars, trains, airplanes and … walked many miles in moccasins, hip boots, gum rubber boots, side button boots, flats and heels.”
Mom and Dad went to Montreal for Expo 67, where they met the Queen and Prince Philip. When we were very young, we referred to ourselves as the “royal family.”
Mom would tell us to be proud of our Cree ancestry, for she was the daughter of a chief (Grandpa Nathaniel Asham was Chief of Peguis for nine years during the 1940s), and thus she was an Indian princess and we too were princes and princesses.
Of course, we knew this to be a family inside joke.
When Dad died in 1990, Mom wrote her children not to worry about her because she would be fine. And she was, for the next 18 years, until her health deteriorated to the point where she needed special care.
Mom may have overstayed her school holidays by 85 years, but she was wise beyond any academic measure – including all the many diplomas and degrees earned by her children and grandchildren.
She was determined, patient and forgiving. Above all, she was a humble and gentle soul with an endearing sense of humour and a wonderful smile.