Keegway kaweetamatin. I’ll tell you something: Children learn from stories. The dead are honoured by telling their stories. I meditate on the gods with their stories. Stories tell joy. Stories help me to remember. In memory and story-telling is my present and future.
Today I want to remember two important literary works about residential schools that were written and published decades before this summer of 2021, when the country acknowledged unmarked graves with fresh mourning and memorials of rows of small shoes and orange shirts. These literary works are the tradition in which contemporary Indigenous writers are working, to tell the stories, to offer to share the burden of memory.
Memory is a living, changing, inclusive creature that informs the present – and can connect all communities.
In 1988, Basil Johnston published Indian School Days, a moving memoir of his life in the Northern Ontario Garnier Residential School. Ten years later, in 1998, Tomson Highway published his great novel, Kiss of the Fur Queen, in which two boys fly away to a residential school from their loving home in Eemanapiteepitat.
Decades ago, Johnston and Highway wove their first languages, Anishinaabemowin and Cree, into their storytelling in English. They rebelled against being silenced. They described what extinguishing a mother tongue, beginning with its children, feels like in a living community. French existentialist Albert Camus wrote in The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt: “In every act of rebellion, the rebel simultaneously experiences a feeling of revulsion at the infringement of his rights and a complete and spontaneous loyalty to certain aspects of himself.” In Johnston’s and Highway’s writing is the writers’ complete and spontaneous loyalty to who they are. These writers demonstrated the importance of their languages to the act of storytelling and to telling the truth. These writers, and others, have been speaking out about residential schools for decades. The elders have been telling these stories even longer.
But is has taken time for the non-Indigenous community to hear, to listen.
How is it that 30 years ago Basil Johnston wrote Indian School Days and the book has been largely forgotten? Basil was my teacher at that time, taught me Ojibway language and stories, joked with me as never a teacher has joked before or since. He showed me in a fresh way how storytelling can “teach and delight.” He shared with me a history I did not know.
Basil Johnston was No. 43 at St. Peter Clavers (later Garnier) school from 1939-44 and 1947-50. Indian School Days describes his eight years at the school and the unfolding of each day: rise at 6:15, mass at 6:45, breakfast at 7:30, work at 8, classes at 9, dinner at noon, sports and games at 12:30, class at 1:15, collation at 4:15, work at 4:30, study at 5, supper at 6, sports and games at 6:30, and 7:30-10:00 study and bed. There were regular fights and beatings, and the punishment of toilet-cleaning for speaking “Indian.” There was skating and hockey all winter and for boys who could not go home in the summer, life outdoors in a camp on Aird Island where they hunted squirrels and birds and fished.
Johnston offsets the harshness of the boys’ lives in the residential school with deft personality sketches and their funny acts of resistance. He shows how the students’ jokes and pranks made bearable their hunger and physical suffering and psychological abandonment in that institutional life. Basil left the school after six years. In the scene in which he is sent home, the other boys whisper, “When you get home tell everybody what it’s like here. Tell the other boys never to come here.”
Back at home, the teenager tried to support himself, hunting raccoons and squirrels and taking odd jobs. He decided there was little future for him on the reserve and when a full academic high school program became available at his former school, Basil decided to return, to be part of its first class, where he flourished and became valedictorian.
Naming is essential in this memoir. Boys’ surnames and the places they came from are carefully preserved throughout the story, and there is a full appendix of names, nicknames, homes and what happened to the boys who attended the school. These lists were created by Basil from memory because no records were available.
Language is essential in this storytelling too. Basil, who was punished for speaking Ojibway, is recruited by a priest to go with him to a student runaway’s household to interpret from Ojibway to English. The mission ends when they are driven off with a shotgun. Basil returns to school and is forbidden again to speak his language.
The memoir ends with the words of fellow student Dominic McComber, “We toughed it out, didn’t we? They couldn’t break us down, could they?”
What they toughed out, along with hunger and harsh discipline, was sexual abuse.
Basil gave an interview years later in which he told what he left out of Indian School Days. When he did this, Basil, the beloved teacher, taught us another lesson. He demonstrated how people feel things differently in different moments of their lives. He modelled that people are capable of expressing long held shames and secrets, but that they cannot tell everything at all times. He generously offered what long years of living had taught him: no single experience can determine who a person is. Wisdom is change. Wisdom is seeing wider. I honour the marvel of all of Basil Johnston’s storytelling and his work teaching language.
People often temporarily lose experiences that are too difficult to remember. But these experiences do not disappear. Twenty-nine years after Johnston published Indian School Days, he detailed the continual sexual violence and harassment at his school, torment that he could not bring himself to write about years before. He had not even told his wife and family. I will not repeat here the details of the abuses throughout those eight years. They are on the record.
But I will repeat that, to know the living tradition, people must remember and explore together a shifting understanding of the lives of those who went before. Artists in every culture feel the unspoken, and they listen. They leap into thin air and dive deep to bring back the mud. They see what is in front of them and give expression to it.
How is it that 20 years ago Tomson Highway published his magnificent novel Kiss of the Fur Queen, and reviewers said it was beautiful but no one cried out? He describes language forbidden, sexual abuse, beatings, and later, two brothers’ choices to live in art.
Tomson Highway opens Kiss of the Fur Queen with the loving family and warm community of Gabriel and Jeremiah Okimasis. After the boys fly away, the Fur Queen and Weesageechak from their home jostle against other traditions and stories, those of Winken, Blinken and Nod and “bloody Jesus” on the cross. The music of a child’s northern accordion flows into Beethoven in C minor. The movements of sledding and fishing flow into dance. Tomson Highway’s genius is in his gathering and transformation of languages and mythologies and music into fresh stories. Visions of white-furred foxes and crucifixion, of death and rebirth and the unending agony of the world mix with jokes and laughter and word play in Latin and Cree and English. The child Gabriel is perplexed by English prayers. He thinks he hears bits of Cree in Catholic prayer: “Hello merry, mutter of cod, play for ussinees, now anat tee ower of woer beth, aw, men.” Gabrielle recites the nonsensical syllables and wonders how the Cree word for pebbles, “ussinees,” fits in. English tastes “like metal” in the boys’ mouths, but still they joke, and pursue more education.
This beautiful novel ends with a familiar literary trope – the drama of Catholicism’s last rites. James Joyce’s Stephen Daedalus suffered guilt in Ulysses when he would not pray at his mother’s death bed. The playwright Molière was refused last rites because of his blasphemous and brilliant play, Tartuffe. Tomson Highway both works in the tradition and reinvents it, as all great artists do. In the final scenes, Gabriel is dying of AIDS. Highway’s version of the last rites describes the dancer dying in the din of his mother’s cries for the priest and the screams of the hospital smoke alarm set off by burning sweetgrass, while the Fur Queen waits in the candlelight. In Highway’s novel, Cree rites and Catholic rites and technological invention jostle with each other. I weep and laugh at the same time as I mourn this beautiful character and experience the antic confusion of dying.
Catharsis, not cure.
Artists show us how to hear, if we can bear to listen. Highway says, “That’s the role of art. It is a necessary part of life. It keeps our brains and our hearts alive with joy and beauty … imagine a planet with no trees … we wouldn’t even have air to breathe …”
In Kiss of the Fur Queen, a little boy, Jeremiah, watches a priest abuse his brother Gabriel in the darkness. His throat is dry and he is not sure what he is witnessing. “Had this really happened before? Or had it not? But some chamber deep inside his mind slammed permanently shut. It had happened to nobody. He had not seen what he was seeing.”
Only later will he be able to remember.
Writers have been describing residential schools for decades. So have the elders. But, we have not seen what we were seeing. To know the stories is to remember. To read contemporary works such as Richard Wagamese’s Indian Horse, Michelle Good’s Five Little Indians, Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian, Darrel McLeod’s Mamaskatch and Peyakow in the tradition of Basil Johnston and Tomson Highway is to live the depth of great storytelling. To read Katherena Vermette’s The Break and The Strangers, Tanya Tagaq’s Split Tooth, and Billy Ray Belcourt’s A History of My Brief Body is to understand both tradition’s deep roots and the splendour of its transforming beauty. To read all these works within a world literary tradition will be the truest act of all.
I want to see what I am seeing. With Indian School Days and Kiss of The Fur Queen, I do not have to imagine a planet with no trees. I have air to breathe. These writers have offered me a way to see truth, to experience pain, to hear laughter, to feel joy, and, in the storytelling, to remember.
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