Photos: Stick Ceremony and Elkhorn Residential School (closed, 1949)
Yesterday was a historic day for Canada. After six years of careful listening and recording of the stories of survivors of Canada’s Indian Residential Schools (the last of which closed in 1996) the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its summary report in Ottawa.
Through regional events with live streaming of the Ottawa event, this day was honoured throughout Canada; a day many hope and pray will be a turning point toward better relationship between Canada’s Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.
The live streamed Ottawa event was important and informative. So were the opening prayers and greetings. So was the walk through downtown by about 600 Indigenous and non-Indigenous Winnipeggers. So was the shared feast and the pipe ceremony at Thunderbird House. But for me, a grandmother, it was the ritualized actions of the Grandmothers that were most transformative. I was so moved, I didn’t think of taking a picture. Thankfully, my friend, Kyle Penner, sent me one which I edited into the post a day after publishing .
The Grandmother’s event happened after the live streaming of the Commission’s report. Elder Velma Orvis invited us into a large basement room for a stick ceremony called RE-MEMBERING TOGETHER. She, two other Grandmothers, and a young woman seated on a chair, occupied the center of the circle. The Grandmothers tied and erected three peeled poplar saplings to create the beginning of a teepee frame. Ten more such poles were distributed to group participants. (There are thirteen moons to the Indigenous year.)
As Velma read from a document which highlighted parts of our shared history that oppress indigenous women the two other Grandmothers placed black cloths over the young woman’s head, one for each item that was named. The weight of those symbolic black cloths weighed down on all of us.
The ten recipients of the sticks were then invited to share. Among the respondents were survivors of abuse in the residential school system. One grandmother shared with her 10 year old granddaughter at her side for support. There was also one of my people, a Mennonite, who walked in solidarity with his Indigenous neighbours. One middle aged Indigenous woman choked out a sentence and sat down. Another, rather radiant Grandmother shared about the importance of holistic re-education and relationships. Later, on the walk, she would tell me about the Creator’s healing touch in her journey toward forgiveness.
With each shared story a black cloth was lifted from the young woman’s head. With the lifting of the last cloth the young woman shared her experiences of sitting under those dark cloths. Under their cover she had remembered her grandmother, a survivor of the residential schools, whose programs are now being correctly described as cultural genocide. But experiencing the increasing dark and heat under the accumulating cloths had also reminded her of being in a sweat lodge. At this point she got up, and left the room rather quickly, perhaps to have a good cry.
We dispersed with our thoughts and emotions as well, just to reassemble outside and walk the 3.7 kilometres to Thunderbird House where feasting and ceremonies continued. It was clearly an important spiritual event for the Indigenous participants, and I appreciated the Grand Chief’s call to making new beginnings at all levels of society.
As I walked from the event to catch a bus back home, the woman respondent who had choked out a one sentence response during the stick ceremony came alongside me. She shared how emotional the ceremonies in Thunderbird House had been for her. We chatted about the event and about our mothers. I shared how I was now connecting my learning about our history with the residential schools with my love for my grandchildren. We shared comments about the freeing power of forgiveness.
At this point she trusted me with the story she couldn’t share during the ceremony, of becoming a mother, and having her five children ripped from her home by Child and Family Services. She left me with this comment, “How can I forgive when CFS robbed me of my motherhood?”
How indeed? May the Creator’s healing touch also find her, and help her find joy in her Grandmotherhood. And may the Creator help me faithfully share the story with which she trusted me.