“…Kill the Indian in the child…I want to get rid of the Indian problem… Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question…” — Duncan Campbell Scott, Deputy Superintendent General of Indian Affairs
When my son Zeegwon was about to turn four, the impact of the residential school hit me like a ton of bricks. At that time our bedtime ritual was firmly in place: we’d cuddle on the couch and watch an episode of the cartoon, “Little Bear”, then we’d make our way up stairs to brush his teeth, crawl into bed, and read or tell a story together. Finally, I’d turn out the lights and sing to him softly while he nursed. I would watch him fall asleep, feeling nourished and safe.
One night, after one of those quiet sleepy moments of mothering and loving, I contemplated Zeegwon being ripped away from me and institutionalized, his hair cut short, and my very little, innocent and helpless boy being subjected to unfathomable abuse. The trigger was Zeegwon’s impending fourth birthday, the age at which Indian agents and church officials sought to remove Native children from their homes.
The shock of the contemplation made my blood run cold and I began to hold Zeegwon a little tighter and a little longer each night at bedtime. On some nights I’d be overcome with deep sadness and I would quietly cry thinking of how children like my Zee Zee and their mothers must have felt being separated. The last several generations of Native children and their families in Canada were denied the natural and fundamental relationship with each other that my son and I enjoyed. I didn’t want to picture Zeegwon in residential school, but it happened, and my heart sank every night for the Native children and their families who suffered as a result.
Zeegwon will turn seven years old soon and while I recognize that he falls asleep knowing he is loved, safe, and secure, much of his birthright to the cultural knowledge and traditional land of his ancestry has been severed by racist Canadian legislation. Our familial knowledge of Anishinabemowin (the Ojibway language) is broken and there is an overwhelming amount of work to be done to recover these knowledges within our communities, let alone deal and heal from the socio-economic impacts of their near decimation.
We have so much to teach our children which requires that we re-learn it ourselves alongside them. Going to bed and telling stories carries a lot weight. What stories are we telling our children? In what language are we telling them? And in turn, what stories will our children tell? Once a week I pull out our Anishinabemowin books and Zee and I practice words and concepts that are just as foreign to me as they are to him. This is not the way to learn a language! I know because I have taken immersion programs in both French and Spanish and of course, in English. I wish it was easier, because I feel there is so much responsibility in the stories we tell and every moment is an opportunity to learn – the question is what are we able to teach?
My heart tells me to start with love. Share the stories we do know, our family stories of what happened to us and how we had the resiliency to survive generations of racist attack against our people. Share the sad stories, but be sure to share the beautiful ones too. Find teachers and caring people in your life and offer them tobacco, ask them to share their knowledge with you and your children. Support and participate in Native controlled education and language programs, and make an effort to get back to the land. If you feel the need to hold your children close to you, do it! Hold on to those quiet moments just before sleep, whisper and plant dreams of love and renewal for our children.