Written by Savannah Jackson; ed. assistance by Nancer Ballard.
“Everyone who belongs to the First Nations, Inuit, and Metis communities has been affected by the residential school experience …”
– Where Are The Children website
Complicated stories rarely fit neatly into the theoretical stages of Mauren Murdock or Victoria Schmidt’s Heroine’s Journey cycles, as we’ve seen in stories such as Willa Cather’s Coming, Aphrodite! and Barbara Leckie’s Kicking the Stone. The real life stories of people who struggle toward wholeness–and toward being recognized as an essential, respected part of the larger world’s narrative–are even more complex. In this post, we want to recognize and examine the struggles of the indigenous peoples of Canada.
Beginning officially in 1831 and extending to as recently as 1996, indigenous children were forcibly removed from their homes and communities, and placed in residential schools. The residential school system was ostensibly designed to help native youth assimilate into the settler Canadian society, but the schools functioned more as work-houses. In these schools, the children were constantly reminded that they would never belong in their own communities, nor in the settler communities. Virtually all of the children endured years of emotional, physical, and/or sexual abuse. An estimated 35-60% of the children did not survive the experience. The residential school “history” is a story that stretches into the present day. Today, native communities continue to struggle with survivor’s trauma, substance abuse, and interpersonal issues.
This post will view the experiences of the First Nations, Inuit, and Metis’ children and communities through the lens of a heroine’s journey framework. Can doing so can help us to empathize with those impacted by the Canadian residential school system and to become allies in the joint effort toward recovery and reparation?
Using Maureen Murdock’s heroine journey arc, the indigenous children’s involuntary removal from their communities can be interpreted as a separation from the born-into culture (which Murdock terms “the feminine”). Similar to the so-called feminine approach to child-rearing, the traditional indigenous educational approach emphasizes guiding and nurturing children when teaching them holistic life skills, while also recognizing and respecting the integrity of the child.
Murdock’s separation from the feminine often involves a heroine’s voluntary decision to reject a limited identity that has been thrust upon them by society. However, the forcible separation of indigenous children from their identities better resembles Victoria Schmidt’s betrayal. This stage launches the heroine’s pursuit for wholeness. The indigenous communities experienced a profound betrayal when their children were taken from them. Although some indigenous community leaders had wanted to learn more of Western culture, and to consider how some integration might be beneficial, they never intended to reject the native identity, community, or way of life.
The non-indigenous narrative may have claimed that the residential school system would allow the children to identify with the dominant culture (eg. the masculine) and assimilate (eg. gather allies). However, this was not the reality. The children were discouraged from befriending each other and were punished for speaking their native languages. The “teachers” consistently humiliated the children and physically punished them for anything the teachers deemed to be mistakes or misbehavior. Few staff or faculty provided any comfort or support. Instead, they inflicted, or turned a blind eye to the emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of the children by those in positions of authority.
On the rare occasions that children saw their parents, many children did not know how to communicate their experiences, which were so foreign to their native lifestyles. Some children reported feeling ashamed and did not want to explain what had been done to them, or they felt too distant from those in their native communities, which seemed to be a separate reality. Those who did seek help were ignored by law enforcement. Many children entered the residential school system between when they were four and seven years old and were forced to remain within the system for eight or more years. Their roads and trials seemed to stretch on forever.
“The residential schools thing is the biggest factor that has shaken the Indian people down to their roots and it’s the thing that has changed our total look on history.”
– Basil Ambers, survivor
Indigenous children may have imagined that they would experience a boon of success when they survived, finally exited the residential school system, and could return to their communities. The community may also have imagined its children would be able to heal and reintegrate when they returned. Both the children and their communities suffered and continue to suffer from the trauma of the forced removal, separation, and abuse.
The community leaders were able to take control of and abolish the residential schools, but the trauma remains. This ongoing impact can be likened to Murdock’s feelings of spiritual aridity. In many cases, the children subjected to mistreatment within the residential schools grew up to have children who were also taken from them, as were their children’s children. Unsurprisingly, many survivors and their families are troubled by alcohol and substance abuse, depression, anger, doubts regarding their ability to control their own lives, an inability to fully connect with either native or settler identities, and/or a lack of experience creating and functioning within loving, supporting relationships.
The children and their communities have been irreparably damaged in that they cannot reestablish the life and identity they would have had without the residential school system. The strategies that were forced upon them to help them contribute to mainstream Canada have not had the desired benefit. Neither their traditional (so-called feminine) nor Western (so-called masculine) living strategies work for them and this situation can be seen as parallel to the initiation and descent to the goddess stage.
Survivors have tried (and continue to try) to reclaim their indigenous identities, practices, and cultures. This is akin to Murdock’s yearning to reconnect with the ancestral (goddess). Their ability to reclaim their cultural identity is complicated by the fact that multiple generations have had their identities stripped from them.
Reconnecting with their indigenous identity and then reconstructing their relationship with a non-indigenous society is an even more complicated, reciprocal, nonlinear process. It necessarily contains provisional solutions that may later be changed or replaced, and effort on behalf of both non-indigenous and indigenous individuals and communities. Healing and the pursuit of wholeness involve both a yearning to connect to one’s own origins and the need to heal the original/dominant cultural identity (eg. the mother/daughter) split. Indigenous community members can provide some of the necessary support, but the burdens of healing cannot rest solely on those hurt by the experience and legacy of trauma. To expect indigenous communities to provide for all of their own healing for tragedies foisted upon them by the dominant society is to continue the marginalization of indigenous people. Wholeness is a process that involves all of us.
In our next post, we will focus on the present-day relationships between and among indigenous peoples, the Canadian government, and non-indigenous people. We will consider what the heroine’s journey framework might teach us about strategies for healing and pursuing wholeness.
“Everyone who belongs to the First Nations, Inuit and Metis communities has been affected by the residential school experience. Only through understanding the issues can we undertake this healing journey together.”
– Where Are The Children website
For more information on the history of the residential school system, and the indigenous experience and perspective, you can visit wherearethechildren.ca/en