Ramshackle houses are clustered haphazardly together, and smoke has layered itself lazily in the late afternoon sun. I have been riding in the car with my silent father for many bumpy miles, and I’m tired, sweaty, and dusty.
The grandmother waits, deep crevices carved into her mahogany cheeks, long, mesmerizing braids hanging down over her bosom.
She peers into my face, and I look down at my black shoes. She feels my cardigan.
“Kina ekota, Apisisi Wask(ya)? Are you there, Small Cloud?” she asks.
I struggle to understand, for the words are foreign to me now. I am here, somewhere, but not as she desires or remembers.
“I am Miriam.”
Grandmother is puzzled by my words. She touches my short hair and comments to the other women who have gathered. They all look the same to me, with their long braids and moccasins. I know I’ve received love and warmth from their fires, sharing moose meat at one hearth or another, but I do not remember their faces anymore. My memories run together like muddied waters.
The grandmother touches my shoulder.
“Come. We will eat. We have made a feast for you.”
I don’t know what she is saying, but I follow her to the fires. She speaks the devil’s language, the evil words I’ve been forbidden to speak and have not uttered since I left my family.
Moose-nose soup simmers in a pot hanging over a fire, and strips of floury bannock brown on sticks over another. My mouth waters as I remember, then I am confused. Food fit for savages. Filth. Offal. I swallow foul bile and sour fear.
The young children point to my woolen skirt and heavy shoes. I stare hard at them, envying them their laughing eyes, unknowing eyes, eyes that close at night to dream dreams of trees and fish and bears. If I close my eyes, I see the dark hole, the place of punishment where I spend hours alone in the blackness, until imagined horrors merge with unspeakable reality.
Who is evil?
Or the black-robed nun who ties a rope to my waist and hangs me out the window? I clutch the sill frantically, but Sister Marie Therese pecks angrily at a smear, and I swab dizzily with my rag. I scrub window after window in the frigid cold, my skirt whipping about my hips, until every pane glistens. With the other girls, I scour wooden stairs with a tiny brush until my knees are raw and my fingers bleed.
We comfort one another secretly, haltingly using the words of our new language, our former life fading, taken, just as our old shoes and clothing had been seized and burnt. Our offensive braids had been severed, our wicked names exchanged for something holy.
“Welcome home, Apisisi Wask(ya).” The Elder nods and smiles.
The drums. The drums! My heart pounds wildly, a primitive response to the ancient sound. The evil spirits will come now. Is it a lie? My feet begin to dance, but I still them. Rage swells within me like thunder, but I bid it to quietness, like a stream over smooth pebbles. The whirling braids and stomping feet of the dancers blur and fade. I will not look. I will not listen.
I am Miriam.
I tuck my hands inside my sleeves so I can’t see my dark skin, my shame, my curse. I use the white soap, but I am still brown. I pray to the white god, but he does not wash me clean. I have been given a Christian name, but I am still dirty.
And, always, the dark hole, where darkness, evil, and robes are interwoven, and no one hears my soundless screams.
“Kina ekota, Apisisi Wask(ya)?,” the grandmother asks me again. “Are you there?”
I look intently into her eyes, into their depths, and I see myself reflected, a small, broken brown girl with cropped black hair.
Apisisi Wask(ya), Small Cloud, floats away, like her name, drifting above me, higher, higher, until I am nothing but a tiny speck far below, like dirt, asiskiy(a), dark brown dirt.
The cloud becomes mist, a vapour, a mere wisp, and is blown away by the breeze.
Small Cloud is gone.
Residential schools opened in the late 1800’s to deal with the “Indian question” and begin the assimiliation of “savages” into Euro-Canadian culture. At least 150 000 First Nations children were torn from their homes over the next century. On June 11, 2008, PM Stephen Harper apologized to Canada’s First Nations people for the wrongs committed.
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