The following morning, I awoke and my stomach felt as empty as my heart would feel in a matter of days. My mother began braiding my beautiful, long, dark brown hair. I loved the feeling of her gentle hands caressing my hair. That would be the last real memory of my mother…Lisez l’histoire de Ashley Kagige
Wikwemikong Unceeded Indian Reserve
My name is Ashley Kagige and I am an Ojibway woman from Wikwemikong Unceeded Indian Reserve. I followed the Catholic Religion my whole life. As a child, I attended mass, a Catholic School, and read the bible. I also kept a book with Native American Myths close to me. I would often spend hours reading stories on how life came to be the way it is. These stories fascinated me. Recently I began to learn more about my culture. Today, I still attend a Catholic school, attend mass occasionally, and practice smudging and praying with the four medicines. I have found a way to balance my beliefs.
For my piece, I chose to write about the major effects Residential School has had on the survivors and the following generations. Decades after the atrocity known as Residential School, many people suffered from a loss of identity. In these schools, children were forced to learn new life lessons, a new culture, and untimately a new life. Even after these schools were abolished, many of these people were denied a chance to relive the lives they once lived. They were forced to become accustomed with a new life. I intentionally allowed the narrator and main character of my story to remain anonymous. Throughout the story, her name is never told, and I intended for it to be this way.
My mind still painfully returns to those days that changed my life forever. That one particular day, prior to my new future, stains my memory even today, fifty years later. This is my story. I remember laying on the ground, allowing the sun’s light and warmth to gently touch my body. It was only a few moments later that the sun hid so bitterly behind the dark clouds that were quickly surrounding and suffocating the people of Stony Point Reservation. What was our source of life hiding from? She was secretly signalling to us what was about to come…
The night before, our people had to starve because of the lack of game around us. The elders spoke the beautiful words of a language I would soon be forced to forget. They were speaking in Ojibway and discussing the possibility of our tribe moving to another location. I was only nine years old but I remember fearing our future. It definitely would not be easy for our huge tribe to relocate. It was also not easy starving and watching as some of the members of our tribe battled illnesses. Illness wasn’t the only thing we were going to be battling.
My mother cuddled me and my little brother and we both rested our tiny hands on our mother’s stomach. I knew that if we stayed there and continued living off of barely anything, our little brother or sister would not make it to this world. Its soul would gently rise back to the spirit world. Despite the struggles my tribe was having, I hoped that our future would be brighter and that my tiny family of four could soon become five. I fell asleep near the fire, who would carry my prayers to the Creator.
The following morning, I awoke and my stomach felt as empty as my heart would feel in a matter of days. My mother began braiding my beautiful, long, dark brown hair. I loved the feeling of her gentle hands caressing my hair. That would be the last real memory of my mother…
The children of our tribe curiously watched as men being drawn by wagons with horses entered. I remember staring at the men, completely oblivious to what was occurring. My mother told me to take Wiingashk, run towards the woods and wait. Wait? Until when? Why do I need to run? I paused and thought. Those few seconds wasted could have taken me further into the woods. I finally grabbed a hold of Wiingashk’s hand and we ran. Those few seconds, those few seconds. We weren’t quick enough as a man on a horse gripped my thick braid and dragged me to the ground. We were harshly seated into an already packed wagon. I could see my father comforting my mother in the distance.
We travelled for a long time. I had no idea where we were going, who we were with, and when we would be back home. The sun was setting beneath the dark plateau. Once again, she was hiding. I breathed heavily, tasting fear on the tip of my tongue. These men were speaking another language. I could not understand them, but wished I could so I would have an idea of where we were going. All these thoughts were rushing through my head. I fell asleep…
My dreams of my family were abruptly broken by the chubby man with the thick beard. We had reached our destination. It was a huge, square, concrete building. I had no belongings…except for my little brother who was far more afraid than I was. The man who woke me grabbed my arm and pulled me toward the building. I grabbed Wiingashk and they forcefully tore me away from him. At that moment, I realized I was going to be alone. My body erupted like a volcano and the tears violently escaped my body. I screamed to Wiingashk in Ojibway, “I will always be with you!” The man slapped my face. At that exact moment, I felt more frightened than I ever was on this journey. Tears ran slowly down my cheek as I was pulled the opposite direction of my little brother.
I was walked to a dorm along with eleven young girls from my tribe. When we arrived there, the dorm was packed. They continued walking us to a back room where there stood a woman dressed in black, holding a knife. Immediately frightened by the knife, I felt the sudden urge to run the other direction but instead, I swiftly turned to see who was behind me, and chose to stay calm. The chubby man said something in his language to a tall, bald man and they laughed. The tall, bald man grabbed my tiny body and forced it into the seat. I was panicking. The woman dressed in black came closer, closer, closer… She grabbed my hair which was neatly braided and chopped the braid right off. At the time, I could not understand why she did that.
Afterwards, the woman began changing me. She sent me into the full dorm of little girls. I did not want to talk to anyone. I went to the corner and silently let my tears escape again. I thought of my beautiful mother and my strong father. I thought of little Wiingashk. I thought of how my time in this square concrete building would be. Would I survive?
Days felt like weeks, weeks felt like months. But time did go by. I had no chance of escape. I witnessed some of the children’s attempts to escape. Within minutes, they would be retrieved, dragged back into the building and beat. We were here for a reason which I did not know. Those few children whom attempted escape would eventually return to their dorms with fractured ribs and bruises all over their bodies. They were examples of what will happen if we did not obey them. My survival here would depend on my behaviour.
After four months in this school, I was able to speak some of the language the two men spoke when I was brought here. The girls whom I shared my dorm with would teach me whenever they had time. I had to watch as some of the other girls who were here longer would be beaten when they spoke Ojibway. It seemed as though no matter how quiet they were, they would always be heard. I was expected to understand their language fluently within time.
I couldn’t sleep most nights because of the constant thoughts of my family. I had no way of contacting them. I would hear the other girls talk about their families and cry tears of sorrow and pain. They made me miss my family even more. I would spend a lot of nights gazing out of the huge window in our dorm. Some nights, I would see a beautiful, bald eagle soaring around the concrete building. I felt comfort, believing she was watching us. She was a gift of hope, sent to us from the Creator. I would think about my newborn sibling and how lonely he must be. I knew I was. I rarely saw Wiingashk who was known to these people as Alexander.
I learned from the other girls experiences. Beatings happened regularly. Attitude and bad behaviour was not tolerated. I tried my hardest to speak English in front of the nuns and priests because I did not want to be beaten. The old women and men were really scary but thinking of my family made me feel strong.
Fear hit when the sun went down. Some nights, I would hear footsteps creeping up the steps of the dark building. Shameful, sneaky, dirty footsteps. The girls who were still awake would rush into other girls’ beds and hide frantically underneath the blankets. I would hear whispers and laughs concealing the shameful moans and crying of the little girls who shared the dorms. At that age, I was clueless as to what was going on during those cold nights. It was a bitter place where secrets were forced to be kept.
Our days here were routine. We would wake up early in the morning and change in our dorms. We would go to our classes, which weren’t really classes. We would learn the correct ways of living and the correct language. We would be punished if we tried to speak our language or practise our culture. It was a horrible place. But despite the beatings and the abuse, we were to be thankful. We were to be thankful for them saving us. Thankful because without their help and culture lessons, we’d all perish. We weren’t anything but savages. Constant bitter brainwash.
I missed my family and my freedom. During the day it wasn’t so bad. There would be a few beatings but those physical wounds healed with time. It was the emotional and mental wounds that ran deep. When we would awake in the morning, some children just weren’t the same. It was as if they were without their spirit to guide them. Everything we learned at our homes was ordered to be forgotten. Lessons about life and the way things came to be were replaced by lessons of their way. Our way no longer mattered. Falling asleep was, for me, home free. I’d enter dream land and feel complete happiness. Then, I would awake and return to this nightmare.
Then came that day. The chubby man grabbed me and the other children from Stony Point Reservation. We were permitted to stay with our families for five days. We were all packed into the back of the wagon that carried us here. I patted my brother’s head as we both tried to contain our smiles from our faces. We hadn’t seen our mother and father for months.
As we arrived, parents gathered around the wagon to meet their new children. We hopped out of the wagon with our pants, blouses, and short hair cuts. Some of the parents awkwardly stared at their children. The children also stared at their parents with the same look. My mother hugged me and Wiingashk as tears poured from all of our eyes. My father came walking towards us and held us all. I was more curious about the baby. I spoke in the language and asked my mother. She looked at my father and I already knew the answer by seeing her cold face. Our little brother did not make it. She told us how struggling it was not having us there. She loved us. My heart pounded wildly like the drums which played the music of my soul. I could not return to this life and that was more heartbreaking.
It was awkward for me and Alexander. We spoke as if we were expecting to be beaten afterwards. This wasn’t something to be proud of. We were supposed to disown our language and our culture. We were taught that it was dirty and shameful. I wish I could have expressed my emotions to my mother. She wouldn’t understand. For all she knew, this was life. This was life. This life…I should be ashamed to live.
The days went by far too quickly. It wasn’t the same so Alexander and I didn’t bother dancing at night when the elders sang. We didn’t bother listening to the stories. When we returned back to school, this visit would have to be forgotten anyways, so why bother. We were just like the townspeople. We were no longer children of this tribe, or the future generation.
At the time, none of us knew this world. None of us attempted to run. I often go back to that day when mother told me to grab Wiingashk and run. My mother died a year after we left Stony Point Reservation. When I received that terrible news, I allowed one, single tear drop to fall. It pierced my white blouse which symbolized my new identity. I should have run faster. I should have outrun that dirty man on the horse. I could have made it deep into the woods and then returned back with my mother and father. We would sit around the fire and listen to the stories of our life. We would laugh, sing, and live.
When we returned, I became more close to the life I was sent to live. Many memories from my life – prior to being taken by that man at the age of nine – were a blur. I was in school until grade six. I was no longer able to learn in the school after that grade, so I began working in the civilized town. My adoptive parents watched me carefully and I continued to believe and live this life. I would have dreams of my mother and my father
…small clips of the life I used to live. Not enough to completely remember. I simply remember the events surrounding that day when I was captured.
I adapted to my new life. The residential schools affected most of the children and afterwards, many, if not all, suffered with a loss of identity. Some returned to their homes in the reserves and tried to relive what once was. There was no point. They were forcefully made different and there was nothing they could do to change that. Perhaps if we all outran those men on their horses, life would be different. Perhaps… we would no longer be the dust that remains of a stolen identity.