A number of the oppressive acts against First Nations committed by the settlers and the Canadian state we learned about in Alberta were also perpetrated in British Columbia. The same pattern of the spread of diseases, the appropriation of land, the extraction of resources, the destruction of culture through missionary zeal, the prohibition of ceremonies and the removal of children to residential schools were also part of the stories we were told here. Just as the bundles were targeted by missionaries in Alberta, in B.C. it was the totem poles which were taken to be the most visible expression of local beliefs and ceremonies. These were either burnt or bought, at times under dubious circumstances, finding their way to museum collections across the world.
In time few master carvers and artists, with skills that had been passed down from generation to generation for thousands of years, remained. For several generations no poles or masks were carved in many of these communities. It was not until after the Second World War and the period of gradual removal of the oppressive laws against First Nations peoples that a group of artists started to re-learn the art, piecing fragments together from surviving artists and learning from the old pieces that were scattered across collections throughout the world. Pioneers such as Bill Reid, Freda Diesing her student Dempsey Bob and others, provoked a resurgence in northwest coast art. Whereas today a number of professional and world renowned artists from this region ensure the place of this art form in the public imagination and in the international art market, the Freda Diesing school is the only one in the country that provides training for a new generation of artists.
As Dempsey and other instructors we talked to put it, it is hard to be an artists and develop these skills by yourself. The school provides an environment where this development is nourished and supported by a community of other artists, instructors and fellow students.Read More
This is a difficult blog entry to write as neither of us has had the experience of this kind of schooling and the forms of cultural oppression it brings, but also because it is always challenging to faithfully give an account of experiences and stories one is told. However, given that so many people spoke about residential schools to us not only here in Alberta with the Blackfoot but throughout our journey across Canada we felt that we had to write about this. Residential schooling is an underground current, and for most a poisoning one, that has permeated the formative experiences of many First Nations peoples not only in Canada but in many other settler societies where the government had a policy of assimilation.
As we heard from a number of people we talked to, residential schools perpetrated a still present trauma in First Nations communities as children were forcibly removed from their families and schooled into the ways of thinking, believing, of being and relating of the White settlers. The schools where run by different Christian denominations and the Blackfoot language was forbidden. During the same period the government prohibited the Blackfoot from practicing their ceremonies, dances and from leaving the reserve without permission.
The first residential schools were opened in the 1840s with the last one closing its doors in 1996. At school, children had to cut their hair, speak only in English and learn a history which was not their own. At the same time they were made to feel that the ways of their grandparents were inferior to those of the settlers. They were also required to pray and learn the teachings of the bible. The government and the church have only recently offered a public apology for these policies and associated abuses and we were surprised to find ‘truth and reconciliation’ commissions for residential schools when we arrived in Canada. Also through our stay a number of stories in the press addressed grievances against former teachers of some of these schools who were accused of abusing the children.
We heard many stories of the adverse effects of the loss of family, culture, community and of a way of life with its complex mesh of social, ecological, spiritual and economic practices for those who attended residential schools. The loss of orientation in the world which the destruction of this mesh was attributed to the hardship encountered in First Nations communities; alcoholism, violence and abuse, suicide, loss of confidence and so on. A key part of this, as we heard, revolved around a crisis of identity, of having one’s culture destroyed and delegitimised, of being in a limbo state of not really knowing who you are.
At the same time we also learnt of how much effort is being placed on healing and cultural rejuvenation amongst First Nations communities around the impact of these policies on individuals, families and communities. What has occurred since the 1960s is a reawakening of First Nations spirituality, ceremonies and societies, of art and education. Alongside this cultural re-invigoration a stronger assertion surrounding land and treaty disputes with the Canadian government has also been seen (see our entry on the Nisga’a from Northern British Columbia).
Red Crow Community College is part of this wave of cultural reawakening as First Nations groups seek to gain more control over their own education. Kainai Studies, as far as we understand, is the first and most successful initiative at a post-secondary school level which is reconnecting with the Blackfoot way of being, knowing and doing which was deliberately destroyed through residential schooling. That Red Crow college is housed in what used to be St. Mary’s residential school makes their victory all the more palpable.Read More