May 17th, 2024

Residential school survivors share experience at Galt session

By Tim Kalinowski on October 16, 2021.

Herald photo by Tim Kalinowski - Community members listen to a online presentation by residential school survivors Rebecca Many Grey Horses and Elder Marlene Heavy Shields Friday at the Galt Museum and Archives.


The Galt Museum and Archives hosted an information session about the devastating impacts of residential schools on Friday.
Residential school survivors Rebecca Many Grey Horses and Elder Marlene Heavy Shields spoke about their personal experiences at local residential schools on the Blood Tribe, and some of the legacy of colonial “cultural genocide” associated with residential schools in general.
Many Grey Horses said before reconciliation and healing can begin there are certain “hard truths” that must be spoken and understood.
The first thing that must be spoken and understood, she said, is the residential schools were a form of cultural genocide intentionally enacted against Indigenous people under the guise of “civilizing” them.
“In 1907 there was a chief medical officer by the name of Peter Bryce, and he visited 35 Indigenous schools in Canada,” said Many Grey Horses. “And found that 25 per cent of those children had died, and even at one of the schools 69 per cent of those students had died. He noted in his report ‘the schools were poorly constructed and had bad ventilation. Tuberculosis or TB spread like wildfire.’ And there was other issues with electrical, faulty heating and inadequate nutrition. Although some of the students died of Tuberculosis others simply vanished. Their parents never learned what happened to them. Or Canadian authorities said they ran away.
“On a number of occasions survivors witnessed death firsthand. Some students were beaten so brutally that they died due to their injuries, and some survivors testified to seeing babies born to young female students who had been raped by priests deliberately killed.”
Many Grey Horses said the next hard truth that must be understood is this is not just ancient history.
“Despite horrific stories like these, the schools continued being operated for more than 100 years, and the last one closed in 1996,” she said.
Even though in her time spent in residential schools was in a later era where some improvements had been made to the physical conditions she and her fellow survivors experienced, Many Grey Horses said the schools’ colonizing purpose never changed.
“When I went home on those weekends, my language was still Blackfoot,” she said. “My parents were still speaking Blackfoot. So we could still hear the language, but because of the brainwashing that was happening to us we didn’t want to speak in Blackfoot. Because we would return back to the school and be told we shouldn’t be speaking Blackfoot because it was Pagan. So we would go home and speak English to our parents. It was crazy.
“They robbed me of my language,” she stated.
Many Grey Horses said her “saving grace” was her father, who helped bring her back to her roots and her language in the years following her residential school brainwashing.
“For me, my saving grace was my father, who didn’t go to residential schools as his father hid him,” she said. “So he didn’t go to residential schools along with his siblings and he was hidden away from the Indian agents. He continued to learn and he continued to be part of the ceremonies, and he continued to teach us.”
For Elder Marlene Heavy Shields her experiences of residential schools were much harsher. She endured sexual abuse at the hands of a female supervisor, she tried to run away many times, and she tried to commit suicide before “escaping” at age 16 when she was finally eligible to graduate.
These traumas were compounded by the fact she had no real home to go home to on weekends, as her mother died when she was very young and her father was often absent.
“My mother was dying of a heart problem; so it was her way of saving me (taking me to residential school). It took a long time to understand that. She brought me there at seven-years-old, and I heard long after she had passed away. I was mad at her for putting me in there, and then never seeing her again.”
After Heavy Shields finally left residential school, she moved in with her brother Ralph and his family, but none of them spoke Blackfoot in the home.
Her grandfather, who only spoke Blackfoot, came over to visit one day, and it was a moment that changed her path toward a better one, said Heavy Shields.
In her broken Blackfoot, she attempted to speak with him, and conveyed her concern she might have lost her Blackfoot forever. Her grandfather immediately corrected her, saying in simple Blackfoot so she could understand:
“When you listen to people that speak good Blackfoot, and when you go to pray at ceremonies, you listen to people that pray. You were born with your language. You are going to get it back.'”
“And, by golly, I did,” said Heavy Shields.
Heavy Shields acknowledged the trauma and abuse she and many other residential school survivors suffered remains inside them to this day.
“We have so much healing that needs to be done because there is no healing from this residential school mentality,” she said. “It’s inside you. There is a demon that you fight. Today, we just have to do the best we can to move forward.”

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