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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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