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Norman Retasket on how in the wake of unmarked grave discoveries, he found meaning in making drums – and his own story of surviving the Kamloops Indian Residential School

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“There’s so much memories coming back. It takes, like, very little to trigger a person. You have all these triggers and you don’t know you have them until they’re sprung, you know.”
A small red dress, representing the children lost, hangs on a cross by the former site of the Kamloops Indian Residential School in June, 2021.
The top three floors on the east side of the building were the boys dormitory.

It had been 60 years since Norman Retasket left Kamloops Indian Residential School as a teenager. Sixty years of struggling to move on from the past. But one day in late May, 2021, something changed for Mr. Retasket, just as it seemed to change for the rest of Canada.

He grabbed his hand drum and drove to the site of the former residential school from his home near Cache Creek, B.C., about an hour away, absorbing the news that the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation had found 215 probable unmarked graves in an orchard area on the site.

Mr. Retasket had never shared the full story of his time at the institution. Never the specifics. But in the months after learning about what the community now calls Le Estcwicwéy̓, or the Missing, he felt it was time.

Mr. Retasket and one of his hand drums at the powwow arbour in Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation in June 2021.
“When you carry that knowledge for such a long time and nobody listens to you, it’s like your – it’s really hard to describe because you’re not important. And it hit the media all over the world. And now if I tell my story, somebody’s going to listen. So that’s where my journey began.”
Mr. Retasket and other survivors watch truckers and motorcycle clubs drive past the former residential school in 2021 to honour the missing children.

For years, Mr. Retasket, 78, has been well known in the B.C. Interior as a maker of hand drums with unique, vibrant designs. In the aftermath of the Kamloops discovery, Mr. Retasket decided to dye some of his drums orange – the colour used for the Every Child Matters movement to honour residential-school survivors – and added the number 215.

In the year that followed, the demand for his hand drums grew so intense that he had to turn down orders.

As he made drum after drum at his home, more possible unmarked graves were found at former residential schools in other provinces. He felt the weight of each discovery – and sensed a shift in the meaning behind his drums.

Mr. Retasket cuts white pine for a drum in one of his workshops.
He carefully sands the drum ring, so the hide will slide on easily.
Mr. Retasket has a number of workshops, including simple tents, spread over his property.
The dogs, Bella and Oscar, act as alarms for bears in the area.
“It’s for a different reason. It’s for my well-being, as well as the person that receives my drum. There’s my heart, soul and spirit go into what I do. It’s not just an object any more.”
At the 2022 Le Estcwicwe̓y̓ memorial in Kamloops, Mr. Retasket warms up Nancy Gaspard’s orange drum to tighten the hide and get a better sound.
Taken to Kamloops

In September 1952, Mr. Retasket was seven years old, about to turn 8. His large family lived on a small farm in Bonaparte First Nation, near Kamloops. His father was St’at’imc and his mother was Secwepemc.

Being the smallest of four children in a family that didn’t have much money meant the hand-me-downs from his siblings were usually rags by the time he wore them. But Mr. Retasket didn’t mind. It mattered more to him that his family was so close knit. He spent all of his time on the farm or in the bush surrounding their property, anyway.

One cool yet sunny day, he recalls, he was playing in the fields while his dad was cutting hay and his mom was in the garden. A truck with 15 kids in the back rolled up the dirt road alongside.

He says he didn’t know until years later that his older siblings had left for Kamloops the day before with a neighbour, and that his parents had been threatened with jail if they didn’t allow Mr. Retasket and his younger brother, Gary, to also be taken.

One of only two family photographs Mr. Retasket has, taken when he was about 4 with two of his brothers; from left, Steve, Mr. Retasket, Gary.
“They seen me running across the field, so they grabbed me and threw me in the back of the truck. And then away we went. I had a feeling of abandonment because my mom and dad walked back into the house. The message to me was; my mom and dad let them take me or kidnap me. And that rides with you for years.”
All four siblings; from left Steve, Gary, Mr. Retasket and his sister, Marge. This was about a year before Mr. Retasket was taken to school, by which time Gary had grown taller than him.

When he arrived at the Kamloops Indian Residential School, Mr. Retasket was astonished to see a huge red brick building with rows and rows of windows. His home in Bonaparte had been a log cabin with a dirt floor, and he had never seen a brick building or so many large panes of glass before.

Mr. Retasket’s clothes were taken from him, including his favourite jacket made out of a horse blanket by his mother. His hair was cut and he was given an identifying number: 16. He remembers feeling scared but also enthralled by the size and newness of everything.

“And I couldn’t communicate because I didn’t even know what language I spoke. I really didn’t know what language I spoke. And every time I opened my mouth in the school, I was beaten. I didn’t even know my own name.”

Mr. Retasket says he suffered abuses by staff and other students while at the school. He was small for his age, not very strong, and he didn’t want to fight. Instead, he learned to cry quickly, because the abuse would normally end once the tears came. But as the abuse continued during his time there, he stopped crying all together.

“I made a promise to myself that I will never give them the satisfaction of crying for them again. You can beat me all day until you collapse from exhaustion, but you’re not going to make me cry.”
The former residential school building circa 1930. Handout/The Canadian Press

For years he suspected school friends were buried in the apple orchard down the hill. Mr. Retasket says it’s common knowledge for everyone who attended that graves were there.

A boy in his dorm, who slept two beds over from him, disappeared one day. Mr. Retasket still doesn’t know what happened to him, but wonders whether he was sent to Coqualeetza – a hospital in Sardis, B.C., and a former residential school that was used to isolate Indigenous peoples with tuberculosis. Later on, Mr. Retasket’s younger brother, Gary, found a classmate hanging in the basement of the workshop.

“We didn’t know nothing. You don’t ask questions – I mean, you know, unless you want to get thumped on the head with something. But they dealt with it so fast and we were back outside playing again. What did they do with him? We don’t know.”

Mr. Retasket found ways to cope through the years. He taught himself how to carve – sneaking through a crack on the side of the building that housed the gymnasium. He hid under the floorboards and carved wood using the sunlight that beamed through to see. He joined the soccer and running teams. He made art. Finally, at age 17, he left.

Looking out the windows of a former administration office toward the former boys dormitory area in 2022.
Moving on

In the decades between leaving Kamloops and returning with his hand drum in 2021, Mr. Retasket struggled to be a good father. And while he worked regularly, he never stayed at one job for long, often because he’d get bored and move on.

“After a while they became like nightmares, you know, all the things that happened in those buildings. They took my heart and my soul and my spirit and I lived my whole life an empty shell of a human being. And I had my kids and they’re affected and they suffer today because I didn’t know how to be a parent. How do you raise kids when you didn't have parents?”
There were debates for years about whether to demolish the school. Instead, Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc uses the building and kept it standing as a sign to future generations.

Over a period of 10 years he lived unhoused and travelled on trains in the U.S. and Canada. He abused alcohol as he struggled with the effects of the trauma he endured at the residential school.

But he also worked as an immigration officer on the border. He got a job at a sawmill, where he eventually became a manager. And he sold his art – carvings and paintings. By age 52, Mr. Retasket had stopped drinking and started to counsel people with addictions. He also reconnected with his estranged children.

Mr. Retasket warms an orange drum on his van’s heater to improve its sound.
“I just know it affected every day of my life. And it will probably for the rest of my life, it will never go away. Because somewhere along the line you blame yourself. And the biggest growth is, it wasn’t my fault.”
Mr. Retasket pauses to reflect during a commemoration hosted by Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation for survivors and L’Estcwicwey in May, 2022.
Crafting drums

Making a traditional hand drum, Mr. Retasket says, is usually a spiritual practice. Hunting the animal and preparing the hide. Gathering wood to shape into the drum ring.

Mr. Retasket, however, started crafting drums on a whim. When his son learned how to make rawhide sometime before 2009, Mr. Retasket decided to apply his carving skills to a new craft. It took him almost three years to make his first 17 hand drums.

Mr. Retasket’s basement, where he hangs his drums from the ceiling to dry, is crammed with crafting materials.
“I’m the least traditional person you ever met. I mean really. There’s nothing about my drums that’s traditional. I learned how to make them myself.”

But he hated the drums. He thought they were ugly and smelled horrible, so he hung them up in a shed and left them. About two years later, one of his daughters, visiting from Washington, found the drums and insisted he try to sell them. His granddaughter posted photos of them on social media, and shortly after someone bought all 17. That success set Mr. Retasket on a path to perfect his hand drums.

When Mr. Retasket starts from scratch, it takes about two weeks to one month to make a single drum. After sourcing the hide he has to prepare it and soak it to keep it from drying out.
To maximize the use of the hide, Mr. Retasket said he has his own system for cutting it into circles and then strips for the lacing, used to secure the hide to the drum ring.
After the white pine is cut and glued together, the drum ring is 37 centimetres in diameter. The ring is then bevelled and sanded to ensure the hide doesn’t catch.
To craft a high-quality drum with excellent sound, he uses his experience as a hunter to source the best hides, and his experience as a mill worker to source the best white pine.
“Had I been traditional, my drums wouldn’t be coloured because an elder would have told me, ‘you don’t colour drums,’ and I wouldn’t have. But because I had to find my own way through life, hidden away in the lowest, darkest places, learning how to make the drum, speculating on even what it should sound like, and because I wasn’t limited by an elder or a mentor or any protocol, I was free to journey any way I want.”
Mr. Retasket enjoys hearing people’s different ideas of what they see in the designs on his drums.
At this point, he thinks he’s made nearly 9,000 drums.
If he’s working quickly he can tie the hide lacing on the back of a drum in about five or seven minutes.

He upgraded his tools and expanded his workshop, transforming a log cabin his father built. He searched the continent for the best sources of elk hides and white pine, which is used to form the drum rings. The quality of his drums improved as he used better materials and gained experience. He started to experiment with tie-dye colouring of the hides. Soon, demand grew, and he was being asked to teach drum-making workshops as far away as Manitoba.

Mr. Retasket teaches a drum-making workshop in Penticton, B.C. in May 2022 at Seeking our Snaq’silx, with the Okanagan Nation.
Shanny Bearshirt learns how to tie the lacing on the back of her hand drum.
Mr. Retasket drives his van full of materials all over B.C. to teach workshops or deliver drum orders. While he says it’s getting harder as he gets older, he plans to keep making drums as long as possible.
“I don’t know how to play drums, so... [beats the hand drum] I only know how to make ’em.”

As Le Estcwicwéy̓ became a national moment, Mr. Retasket sold some of his orange-coloured drums at reduced rates and even gave some away. A news story about them made his drums even more popular, and he found himself spending day and night working to meet orders.

Making drums is difficult work. Cutting, sanding and glueing the wood for the drum ring. Cutting, dying, stretching and tying the hide for the drum skin and lacing. Mr. Retasket says he hardly sits down when the sun is shining. He is either at his kitchen table cutting hide and tying drums, or in his log cabin workshop cutting and sanding large planks of pine. Sometimes his daughter Trina helps to meet large orders, or he calls in assistance from other family and friends.

When an order is too large, Mr. Retasket’s daughter Trina Terry often helps him meet the demand.
“Before I didn’t take any satisfaction out of what I was producing. I was doing it to generate an income to meet my family needs. It changed with the 215, now my purpose was different.”
Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc hosts a commemoration for survivors and L’Estcwicwey in May 2022 . Some of Mr. Retasket’s drums are gifted to elders and survivors, including Diane Sandy.

In the late winter of 2021, Mr. Retasket was taking part in a video drum workshop when one of the attendees asked about his experience as a residential school survivor.

Without really thinking, surrounded by webcams and computers, he began talking about the sexual abuse he had suffered. It was the first time he’d spoken about it in a public forum, and he says he felt a chill when he realized his story was being broadcast to people in other countries. He hadn’t yet told his children the whole truth.

“So I jumped in my car in the middle of the night and I drove home and they were all sleeping. I woke them up in the morning and I told them about it. You know, you lose your innocence and you’re nothing anymore. And you live that nothing like until 215 woke the world up and I woke up at the same time. Wow. How can I even be grateful that they found them? But I am.”

As the country marks the second National Day for Truth and Reconciliation on Sept. 30, Mr. Retasket continues to make drums and teach workshops, driving all over B.C. in his van crammed full of drum rings. He speaks to classrooms on video calls to share his story as a survivor to young students.

Ahead of a commemoration of the survivors and Le Estcwicwéy̓ in May 2022, Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation ordered 100 drums and 100 rattles from Mr. Retasket. They were gifted to elders and spectators at the memorial as part of a traditional “giveaway ceremony.” Mr. Retasket was there, with family members and former classmates. He spoke briefly, thanking everyone for the honour to make the drums.

Mr. Retasket watches Rita Lulua (centre) dance during a drum circle, holding one of his drums.
“To have people listen, it’s never happened before. Because to them, if I told the same story three years ago, it’s fiction. The story hasn’t changed. The listener has changed.”
At the L’Estcwicwey memorial, Mr. Retasket sits with some of his family members, holding his moose-hide drum. To the left is his grandson Adrian Retasket in the black hat. Behind him is niece Cathy Jameson and her daughter Kwectamn Pierre.


  • Photography and Video by Melissa Tait.
  • The opening audio clip is a Tk’emlups unity song recorded at the Le Estway memorial.
  • Editing by Domini Clark
  • Development and design by Jeremy Agius
  • With reports from Tanya Talaga

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