My moosum made me feel special. It was as if he saw something in me, and without words he let me know that he believed in this vision. So I was not surprised when, one cold winter’s day, he put me in a sled, took me down to the frozen slough, and produced a pair of bobskates. Before we left the cabin, he had dressed me with five pairs of socks under my moccasins. Now, at the lake, he strapped the double blades onto my feet, picked me up, and set me down on the ice. When I fell, he gently raised me and set me on my feet once more. He did that again and again and again.
I would later discover there was a little French community in Debden, not far from the reserve, that had an outdoor rink where some of the men played hockey. From time to time, Grandpa would make the trip into town to watch the games. And I guess, for some reason, as he looked at the players, he thought of me.
Day after winter day, Moosum and I would head down to the lake in the early afternoon. Sometimes Frank would come with us, but there was only one pair of skates, and they were too small for Frank’s feet. Frank would slide around the ice as I shuffled forwards on my blades, but he soon became bored of this and left Grandpa and me to our new afternoon routine.
As soon as we got to the slough, Grandpa would shovel off the snow and tie my blades on. Once I had started to skate, he’d cut a hole in the ice. He’d settle himself on an overturned bucket and drop a fishing line into the water, while I skated around and around and around. Sometimes, if it was really cold, he’d go to the shore after an hour or so and build a little fire so I could warm myself before heading back onto the ice.
One afternoon, just before we headed home for the day, Grandpa disappeared into a stand of willows on the shore of the slough. He came out with a long willow branch. That evening, sitting in the dim light of the oil lamp, he began to whittle, stripping the bark and smoothing the surface. Then he bent one end and placed the branch on the stove to dry. The next afternoon, when we got to the slough, he handed me my new hockey stick and showed me how to push a frozen cow patty across the ice with it. I didn’t know it at the time, but Grandpa had just turned me into a hockey player. I played with the stick and “puck” for hours, until it was time for Grandpa and me to return to the cabin and our chores before the sun dropped from the sky.
This was my world. A nēhiyaw world. A nēhiyaw life.
It was not easy. Underlying everything we did were the rules and regulations laid out by the Indian Act, enforced by our local Indian agent. He was the one who issued our treaty cards and the passes so my father could leave the reserve to work and to trade. He was the one who doled out the coupons we had to use to get our ration of sugar or tea from the reservation store. He was the one who determined who would receive farm equipment or building supplies. This white man was the one who made all the rules on our reserve. As Indians, we didn’t have the rights of Canadian citizens. We couldn’t even own property or vote. And we were poor, that’s the truth. But I didn’t know that.
What I knew was that home was full of song, dance, and tradition. It was full of wonder and mystery. It was full of family, love, and community.
And then one day, in 1941, when I was just seven, all of that was taken away. To be honest, I don’t remember a lot about the beginning of that last day of my childhood. I don’t know what Frank and I were doing, only that we were outside. My father was home, chopping wood out back. I remember that, at least. And it was fall. Perhaps we were helping dig potatoes out of the ground before the first hard frosts touched them. I don’t know. The twins must have been in the cabin. Maybe three-year-old Peter was with them. It felt like a normal day, the kind you have over and over until they all blend together, stretching to the edges of memory.
Everything is a bit cloudy until the moment a huge canvas-covered grain truck appears in front of our little cabin. Three men get out of the cab. One I recognize—the reserve’s Indian agent. Another is wearing a uniform. An RCMP officer. And the third is a pale white man with a hard face. He is wearing a long black robe that billows slightly behind him as he walks. He’s talking to my mother, and my father is coming around to the front of the cabin, but I can’t make out what anyone is saying. All I can hear is the sharp, jagged sound of crying. Crying children. It’s coming from under the canvas of the truck.
And then someone is lifting the canvas flaps at the back of the vehicle. And one of the men is grabbing Frank and lifting him into the truck. My moosum is pulling me in behind his back, is standing in front of me with his arms spread. I’m peeking around him, and I see one of the men coming towards us. My grandpa tries to push him away, but he’s swept aside and falls to the ground. My strong, protective moosum, the man who is mighty enough to lift the front end of a workhorse clear off the ground, is shoved aside as if he is nothing. And then I’m being hoisted into the crush of crying, trembling children. I can see my moosum struggling to get up. He is making desperate sounds, sounds I have never heard before. My mother is hanging on to my father, her shoulders heaving. My big, strong father looks helpless.
The last thing I see before the engine starts and the flaps are dropped in front of me is my moosum, lying on the ground, shaking and crying.
And then we are gone.
I don’t know how long we were travelling. There were about thirty of us crushed into the eight-by-five-foot back of the truck. Frank and I had no idea where we were heading. We were given nothing to eat or drink. We sat on the wooden floor, terrified, crying, as hour after hour passed. Kids were forced to relieve themselves where they sat. The truck reeked. I leaned against Frank, numb with fear.
Eventually the truck stopped, and the robed man gestured for us to get out. We were at a wide, fast-moving river, and there was a long, flat boat waiting at the shore. To our amazement, the truck drove onto the boat, and then we were forced to follow it. The ferry moved slowly across the water and we gulped in the fresh air. Once we arrived at the other bank, we had to climb back inside the dark, stinking bed of the truck. We began to bump along the dirt road once more.
A few hours after that, the robed man appeared at the back of the truck again. When we got off this time, oh, man. In front of us was a huge grey-brick building. It rose into the air, windows on top of windows on top of windows. Four storeys high. I had never seen anything like it. It was terrifying.
And then we were being hustled into the building. Frank and I were separated. We were marched into a room where nuns set about cutting off our beautiful braids with huge pairs of scissors and shaving off the rest of our hair with clippers. Then we were forced to take our clothes off and shuffle into a windowless brick-walled room. There, coal oil, the stuff we used in our lamps at home, was poured over our bare heads. The foul-smelling liquid dripped into my ears, stung my eyes, burned down my back.
Hot steam began to billow out from a pipe near the ceiling of the small room. Water, soap, scrub brushes. After all those hours in the filthy truck, I guess some of the kids needed a good bath. But this wasn’t a bath. It felt like those nuns and priests were trying to scrub the colour right off our skin. As if they didn’t care that my mother made sure we were washed every day, our hair clean and brushed, carefully braided, neatly tied at the ends.
Excerpted from Call Me Indian: From the Trauma of Residential School to Becoming the NHL’s First Treaty Indigenous Player by Fred Sasakamoose. Copyright © 2021 Fred Sasakamoose. Published by Penguin Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.