The Cree Health Board launched a powerful book about the Cree experience in residential schools March 17 at the National Gallery of Canada, with a following event March 28 in Ouje-Bougoumou. The 316-page book is the first volume in an expected series of three or four.
E nâtamukw miyeyimuwin: Residential School Recovery Stories of the James Bay Cree, illustrated by Cree youth and edited by Ruth DyckFehderau, contains 19 accounts by Cree storytellers impacted by the system. The Cree title roughly translates as “going forward to a good place of peace.”
Each narrative is conveyed with fiction techniques in an engaging third-person short story format that resonate emotionally long after reading. This approach proved effective in DyckFehderau’s first collaborative project in Eeyou Istchee, The Sweet Bloods of Eeyou Istchee, an award-winning chronicle of diabetes in the region published in 2017.
That first project also determined that the Verdana font was closer to Cree syllabics, which Elders could more easily read. Sweet Bloods is being translated into inland and coastal Cree, French, and Ojibwe for classroom use. The new book’s stories, however, are intended to be informally shared in the respectful manner of talking circles.
With informal training in working with traumatized storytellers, DyckFehderau engaged Elders willing to tell their stories. In meetings ranging from 45 minutes to sessions spanning years, she listened until their stories were finished, then reviewed her written drafts with them until they were satisfied with the results.
“Sometimes I hang out with them for several days,” explained DyckFehderau. “Quite often they want me to come to their camps. That’s where they feel safe. They say that’s what I want to tell for now but don’t write anything yet – I’m going to think some more and come back in six months.”
Considering the sensitive nature of these stories, DyckFehderau took the extraordinary step of destroying all source material upon the completion of each draft. Storytellers would often request that details be changed to obscure identities and respect other people’s personal stories.
“I work to get that person’s way of talking to be as true as possible to who that person is,” DyckFehderau explained. “I try to create something they want. A couple of times at the end of telling a story, they said, ‘That feels good – I’ve never said that before to anybody.’”
Although long-suppressed experiences in residential school have increasingly surfaced in recent years, many of these stories contain details of shocking cruelty. Johnny Neeposh tells of being left for days in a closet without food or water. Then, after attempting to run away, having his toes forced under his feet in tiny shoes until they grew permanently towards his heels.
When home for the summer, his father admits that if Johnny doesn’t attend school – “the temple of disrespect” – the Indian agent will starve them and withhold ammunition. Every spring, families are found starved to death in their tents. Still, his parents teach him how to live on the land by himself so he can hide in the woods when the plane returns.
“These storytellers find ways to heal,” commented former Truth and Reconciliation commissioner Chief Willie Littlechild. “Through their stories, you learn about culture as treatment, about the power of forgiveness and love, and about peaceful co-existence in community as essential to healing.”
While the subject matter is difficult, the protagonists’ remarkable resilience overcomes the despair. DyckFehderau said these are the strongest, most courageous people she’s ever met.
“If somebody turned 18 in October, they wouldn’t be allowed to go home or back in the classroom,” said DyckFehderau. “At that point, they became free labour for the schools. Quite a few were trafficked south to be maids in Montreal, sometimes as sex labour. A number of them came back pregnant.”
The sad story of Juliet Rabbitskin is told by her two cousins and sister, the latter of whom was born after Juliet died and didn’t know of her existence until she was an adult. To counter the frequent darkness, each story is illustrated by a Cree youth and the developers conceived a child-friendly font for titles by having kids write out the alphabet.
Between the narratives, “Stories Along the Way” add humorous context. One tells about a pontoon plane pilot landing in Eastmain to enjoy time off, but he is then called back for a medical emergency. Finding the tide far out and his plane on dry land, he was helped by 20 Cree men who manoeuvred the plane to open water.
The recovery stories brim with hope, humour and determination. Opening with a description of the atrocious cooking and familiar hunger at the La Tuque school, George Shecapio’s story recounts a successful scheme to break into the kitchen’s supplies.
“We had such small portions at mealtimes,” Shecapio told the Nation. “I don’t know if anybody died of malnutrition, but people got sick. Sometimes the older girls would bake some bannock and everyone would rush to the kitchen to get our delicacy.”
As Shecapio was a good student and generally followed the rules, he wasn’t severely punished and even joined a small school group that visited Montreal’s Expo 67. However, he vividly recalls where the bush plane landed the day that he was taken at age six, convinced it would only be a day trip and that he’d be home by evening.
Later in life, Shecapio realized his mother had fallen into a deep depression that lasted until after Easter when anticipation spread about the children’s return. With his weight loss and her weathered skin, they could hardly recognize each other after 10 months of separation.
“Are you George, my son?” Shecapio recalled her asking in Cree. “I recognized her voice, and she hugged me. It was really something and all the trauma lifted off.”
by Patrick Quinn, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter