Recollected Memories: Forgotten – The Métis Residential School Experience
By Sylvia J. Dreaver (Dueck)**
This blog is available in audio format:Through a maze of florescent-lit corridors of the Red River Community College campus, we arrive at our destination of the warm and inviting Aboriginal Support Centre.
For a few days, this room is home to The Legacy of Hope Foundation exhibition, Forgotten: The Métis Residential School Experience. Aimed at creating hope and healing, the Legacy of Hope Foundation, a national indigenous charitable organization, whose main goal is to “educate, to raise awareness and understanding of the legacy of residential schools, including the effects and intergenerational impacts on First Nations, Métis and Inuit.”
This particular exhibit first debuted in November 2015 at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) and combines a multitude of mediums such as text, art, poetry, archival images, and artifacts.
Presented as a large triptych, spanning half the length of the Aboriginal Support Centre’s main room and standing approximately 10 feet high, visitors are met with three enlarged archival photographs that provide a narrative backdrop to the other text and objects on display. The photograph on the first panel is of a group of children standing in uniform rows on the steps of a school dressed in white.Read more...
The image has been manipulated so that the faces of the children are blurred or altogether disappeared from sight. What are presumably communion dresses worn by the children give them even more of a ghostly presence. Three wooden steps extend from this panel, and on the steps lies a lonely doll and baby shoe that conveys the feeling of a child once there but since vanished.
Above the panel is a copy of the poem They Taught Her by Gregory Scofield, a Métis poet, playwright, teacher, and the curator of this exhibit. The words of this poem create a deeper dimension to the pain experienced by these children. Part of the text reads,
“…praying, bruised on the knees, was the right of way, that God, and old whiteman, only heard Hail Mary’s, Our Fathers. They taught her.”
To think of the confusion felt by some of these Métis children, knowing that they shared part of their heritage with the priests and nuns. Many of which were only seen as an enforcer, disciplinarian, abuser. How the shame would become ever so more ingrained in their burgeoning Métis identity.
As a whole, the first panel delves straight down to the core of their traumatization with the residential school experience. It lays evidence to the intent to “take the Indian out of the child.”
The photograph featured in the second panel is of a Métis family, standing in a field, dressed in depression era clothing—dingy overalls and prairie dresses. The objects that complete this panel include part of a vest with embroidery that is akin to Métis style, along with a violin bow and part of a broken china plate that speak of the challenges to preserve the culture of the people. The plate in particular, can be read as representing the struggle many Métis experienced in trying to reconcile their mixed Indigenous and European identity as they are excluded or “forgotten” in ways by both communities. This representation also echoes a stanza from Scofield’s poem in the first panel,
“…that Breeds, were only halfway redeemed and praying extra hard would open Heaven’s gate.”
The third and final panel shows another school scene with more unidentifiable children, as well as a faceless teacher sitting in front of a blackboard with a bible verse from the book of Luke,
“But Jesus called the children to him and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” Luke 18:16
The exhibits accompanying text explains that this verse replaces the verse that appears in the original photograph, “Thou shall not tell lies.” Such details that have been altered or adapted present a strong narrative of the “love” of a very mean and unforgiving God, rather that one who loves and forgives all.
As both a museum guide and a student of art history, I found this exhibit to be emotional, thought provoking, and aesthetically beautiful. The warm and inviting space of Red River College’s Aboriginal Support Centre provided an incredible sense of safety where one could potentially feel supported due to any unexpected emotional responses to the exhibit. Surrounded by the smell of sacred medicines and various art mediums depicting some of the seven sacred teachings, the space felt like two strong arms holding you close like an inviting hug. Personally, I don’t believe I could of connected as well if I had seen this exhibit at the CMHR, being that it is a vast and very public space.
Growing up as an adopted Indigenous child in a very white community, I also related to issues around wondering who we are, searching for something or someone to connect to, something that will tell you about yourself. Much like the Métis, I grew up with two dual identities, if you will, brown on the outside, but very white on the “inside,” which relates to the last panel of the exhibit where there is a half eaten apple that protrudes from the panel. “Apple” has been a term used to describe people like me, who have been so distanced from their culture. For myself, it was misstated on my adoption papers that my biological mother was Métis, but what did that even mean? And what did it make me?
In witnessing Forgotten, I am left to think of my own journey to understand the culture that was taken away from me, and the road that I currently walk to find reconciliation with my past. I have looked at many photographs similar to ones that are featured in this exhibit before, and it is only now that I look at them with different eyes. No longer are they other people’s painful memories, for now, these faces belong to that of my own blood—my family, three generations that I have learned have attended residential school. My mother and my aunt both attended the Gordon’s School in Punnichy, Saskatchewan, also known as the last residential school to close (1996). No longer are they other people’s ancestors, but my own. Such an experience literally up until now forgotten, is now vividly remembered in my blood. My experience is one of intergenerational trauma.
Exhibits like Forgotten help me to understand this, to heal through this, to reconcile all that in the part of me that was raised white, and the part of me that is still so young and brown. I am too, of that world, represented in this exhibit, of a complex identity that I have wrestled with for over 40 years.
In its powerful juxtapositions and reclamations, this exhibit reminds me that I am here to be strong. Strong for the future generations of my people, to fight for our voices, to never to be silenced, erased, or forgotten, again.
**Sylvia J. Dreaver (Dueck) is Nēhiyawak and from the Mistawasis First Nation in Northern Saskatchewan. She is a Bachelor of Arts Honours student working towards an Art History degree at the University of Winnipeg. She is passionate about Indigenous Art and is committed to the advancement of curatorial research and art gallery practice when related to Indigenous art collections and associated history. She currently works as an Aboriginal Program Guide at the Canadian Museum For Human Rights, working on a specialized Indigenous tour. Her areas of interest lie in gallery education, museology and Canadian cultural policy, Indigenous art and curatorial practices/perspectives within cultural institutions. Sylvia’s future interests are to complete a MA in Art History with a focus on Indigenous Curatorial Practices.