Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Ghosts That Haunt Me: A Reflection on Kamloops Indian Residential School

It’s the ghosts you notice first.

You first arrived here in the mid-nineties, attending a Land Claims research seminar sponsored by the Neskonlith Indian Band and hosted by the Tk’emlups Indian Band.  You weren’t expecting to be taking the seminar in a residential school.  You have mixed feelings about the reclamation of the residential school by the Band to become the seat of their government and home to their museum. 

The seminar was held in what was once the secondary dormitory.  This is a small mercy, as you couldn’t get past the front foyer of the main building before you could feel the unease creep up in the small of your back, running up your spine and causing you to shudder.  This causes your throat to constrict and you have the sense that there was a lot of pain here and you can feel this in a crazy physical reaction that makes you want to vomit and cry and curse all at the same time.

And just like that, you are back out into the sunshine, trying to figure out what the hell just happened.  You’re creeped out, looking at the metal fence outfront with the stylized KIRS with a tee-pee in the centre.

How can the Secwepemc people stand to have this building on their territory?

The Kamloops Indian Residential School building leaves you feeling sick, hurting and angry.  The building is an offensive reminder of a past that is not past, of a policy that still exists with a different name and of a hate that you fear will never go away.

And yet, the Secwepemc keep the building, use it, occupy it and maintain it.

This confounds you, but part of you suspects that it is used as both reclamation of the past, and a reminder that they would not be subdued.  A statement that this building, built to destroy this culture and people is now home to the culture and people.  The walls designed to extinguish are now used to ensure the survival and growth of the people.

You get it, but you wonder how the people handle the ghosts.  They tear at your soul and you were only in the foyer for a minute or two.

You shudder and close your eyes, remembering that this is the school where they sent your Grandfather. 

A few years pass and you are a teacher, straddling that gulf between the colonial world of the education system and your own heritage.  You are attending your first Summer Conference and Facilitator’s Institute for the BC Teachers’ Federation, newly enlisted as a workshop facilitator and tasked with the responsibility of teaching teachers about the history and culture of Aboriginal people, of how to work with our youth and the legacy of residential schools on our youth.

Seeking some escape from the hectic schedule of the conference, you go for a drive and, from the highway, you can see across the river the building.  That building.  Without even realizing it, you find yourself heading in that direction, eventually finding yourself in the deserted parking area.

Wandering around the building (there is no way you are going inside), you see that it is smaller than you remember it being.  You see the evidence of the Secwepemc reclamation: the pow wow grounds below the building, the museum in the secondary dormitory.   What strikes you is the silence.  You aren’t far from the highway and Kamloops thrives right across the river but there is silence here that is both unnerving and comforting.

As if the real world recognizes the sacredness of this place and is determined to let it rest in peace.

Your Grandfather never spoke about the school.  You know he learned to farm and to play the saxophone, but you also know that you never saw him play the saxophone.  You remember that your Mom told you about how she would hear him speaking to his mother in Halq'eméylem, but when she entered the room, they would switch to English.  Every time she entered the room.  You remember that she told you she asked him once to teach her the language but he said no.

He said he didn’t want her to get hurt.

The ghosts flow around you, causing that shuddery feeling.  Time to leave.

A few more years pass and you are back in Kamloops again.  This trip is a strange one for you.  The past couple of years have been both exciting and despairing, fraught with some amazing accomplishments and disastrous failures.  They have left you thinking about how decent a teacher you are and ready to walk away because you are incompetent.  You have wondered if you will ever work again and spoken before hundreds about the need to decolonise the education system.  You have told the story of your modern education and mourned the passing of too many relatives.  You have mingled with politicians and television stars and played the politics game to convince others that what you had to say was important.  You have worried that you were being sucked into a world you are very uncomfortable with.

You are struggling with the knowledge that all the advances made in Aboriginal Education, indeed, Aboriginal rights, seem to be following the consistent theme of one step forward, two steps back.  You are struggling with the knowledge that your battles in this arena have been as much with other Aboriginal people as with non-Native people.  You are currently watching the many advances in Aboriginal education in BC being slowly dismantled, often with the complicity of Aboriginal people, and you are wondering why.

You stand in front of the school, your rental car packed and waiting for you to go home.  You weren’t going to come here this time.  You didn’t want to.  This place was built on hate, whatever it has become now.  This was the place that, while it didn’t necessarily steal the language and culture completely from Grandpa, ensured that your Mom and family and you would never have access to it.  This was a place where children were tortured and killed, where children were starved and punished and told that they didn’t deserve to be.

You’ve never liked going to this place, and you don’t stop by every time you come through Kamloops.  You have to admire what the Secwepemc people of Tk’emlups have done with the place.  They have claimed it and made it their own, using the building that helped destroy generations to rebuild and save the new generations.  And you get it.  Hard decisions were made.  You do not have the language, but your Grandpa survived and persevered.  Your Mom and Dad did their part to instill a sense of honour and justice.  You come here to honour the ghosts and everything that has been lost.  You and your colleagues will continue to strive to transform the system, to make it a better place, but this building is a reminder of why that needs to be done.

You realize that one step forward, two steps back will likely continue for a little while, but you know that you and your colleagues will continue to push forward with that one step, forcing it to be the longer of the strides, to override the fall back you are still forced to endure.  You know that the longer stride will eventually negate the two steps back.  You know this because there are far more voices making noise and educating for change. 

The silence is still a little unnerving, up in front of the school, but the ghosts feel different today.
"Acknowledging the past is the only way to allow us to move forward with dignity."
... Nathalie Des Rosiers President, Law Commission of Canada, August 15, 2001

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Feeling Strangely Fine- In Kamloops for the BCTF Summer Conference

Hello from Kamloops!

I'm up in Kamloops, British Columbia, attending the BCTF Summer Conference.  Tomorrow the Aboriginal Education Advisory Committee will be meeting with the Local Contacts for Aboriginal Education (teachers from various locals around the province) for our annual meeting to both introduce and train new contacts and new committee members as well as take on some training or other work that we are interested in exploring and how it will benefit Aboriginal students and Aboriginal teachers as well as further the cause of Aboriginal education.

As it is listed as a "Discrete" Day, I think it means that I can't really talk about the agenda, but I am excited to get to see the new faces of new advocates, as well as some of the familiar ones.

I can say that Aboriginal Education in BC feels at risk.  Whether that is true or not, I cannot really say for sure, but that uneasy feeling is there.  I have commented on this in more depth in previous posts on both positive issues and negative ones.

I also wanted to say that this is my final full meeting as Chair of the Aboriginal Education Advisory Committee.  While I will be opening our September meeting, it is at that time that I will conduct the election of the Chair whom will carry the Committee into the 2011-12 school year.  I am only serving notice here on that, so if you are expecting a deep, thoughful reflection on my accomplishments and my failures, you are out of luck. 

I will do that later, when my term is complete ;)

I will still be on the Committee, of course. I did want to say that it has been an honour and a privilege to work with an extraordinary group of teachers, all of them dedicated to improving the world of Aboriginal children.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Multiple Possibilities- Ultimate Spider-man is a teachable moment and an exciting development

Marvel Comics has an imprint called Ultimate Marvel, an alternate universe that is different from the mainstream Marvel Comics universe.  Within this universe, the Marvel characters exist in a grittier, more dangerous, slightly darker world.  Within this universe, Marvel decided to kill off the character of Peter Parker, or Spider-man.  They then chose to have a new character take up the mantel of Spider-man: Miles Morales, a half-Black, half-Latino youth.

To be clear, in the mainstream universe, Parker is still alive in the mainstream comic.
It has been interesting to watch the reaction online, on Twitter and in comments sections of blogs and articles.  There has been a lot of racist reaction to the decision to give Miles the mantel of Ultimate Spider-man.  The Crazy Sexy Geeks podcast reported that even Glenn Beck (an American right-wing commentator) commented on the change, tracing it to a conspiracy perpetrated by US First Lady Michelle Obama. 
I am very pleased to hear this podcast oppose the comments being made by the many anonymous people.  There are many articles and blogs online that are starting to address the backlash as well.  I think that it would be a good idea to check them out and see some of the comments being made and how they are being addressed back by other members of the online community.
Comic books are a very important aspect of the popular culture, very much ingrained into our public consciousness.  I don’t read comics very often, but I know many of the histories of characters because it is so THERE.  I have used comics, cartoons, movies, whatever I can get my hands on to teach my students.  All of our hopes and fears and all the themes of the human experience are reflected in popular culture (sometimes you have to look for it, yes, but it is there).  The ownership of this aspect of culture is very deeply ingrained in everyone.  The negative commentary on this recent choice is sad, but also a teachable moment.  The negative commentary needs to be addressed by our teachers and administrators because, when we don’t address issues of racism, we are saying to our students that this is the way the world is, get used to it. 

The comic books have created multiple universes where multiple possibilities exist.  Our students deserve the same opportunity to see multiple possibilities.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

There Was Also Hope- A note on my teacher inquiry project

No names in here yet, I forgot to ask if I could name the other teachers in here.

During my Grad program, my Indigenous cohort had the opportunity to read the novel, "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian" by Sherman Alexie, which chronicled a year in the life of Junior, a bright young man living on the Rez and his experiences in a non-Native school off-reserve.  We were part of a project carried out by our Grad Advisor, who also had a non-Aboriginal cohort read the novel.  The story also followed the challenges and realities of his life at home.  The home life was fraught with all sorts of imagery familiar to the Indigenous individual: poverty, alcoholism, intra-tribal discontent, jealousy, death and abuse.  In the debriefing afterward, we were informed of the feelings and thoughts of the anonymous other cohort.  There was a lot of sadness, a lot of anger and outrage at the lives of the Native peoples on their Rez.  They found the novel thoroughly depressing, to generalize.

It was, markedly different from what the Indigenous cohort experienced in our reading.  All of that emotion was present, but there was also a decidedly different outcome in understanding.  We laughed.  A lot.  We saw the crises of the poverty but also the crises of being a teenage boy.  We also saw something that the others did not see.  We saw survivors, not just surviving but trying to find ways to thrive.  We saw love, despite the alcoholism and the depression, there was a family that tried and failed, and while they couldn't help self-medicating, never gave up trying.

More importantly, we saw hope.  Amidst the challenges, Junior and his family persevered, understanding that he would often be struggling in isolation, but he was okay with that because he could rely on his family to have his back.  He could go to them and be rejuvenated by their very presence.

On Monday, March 14th, 2011, I got together with a group of teachers of Aboriginal ancestry and held our first session on a PQT inquiry into health & wellness issues affecting, specifically, Aboriginal teachers, and its affect on Aboriginal students.  Aboriginal teachers face many challenges, often in isolation from one another, something that was shared, in depth from the stories of our little group; a lot of us were just surviving as teachers, not thriving.  Something else became apparent as the day moved forward.  There was a lot of laughter.

Laughter is healing.  Laughter is what has helped Aboriginal people survive since before time immemorial.  The old saying is to laugh to keep from crying?  In many circles, this is true.  Goodness knows, there have been a lot of times where these were the choices that were available. 

There was also hope.  In sharing our stories, we remembered we were not alone.  In getting together, there was a sense of rejuvenation that relit that fire dimmed by the isolation of our professions.  This is something that we have observed in our other meetings with other Aboriginal teachers.  This first meeting was intense, yes, but the support from the others was immeasurable.  In the alien system that is the western, colonialised education system, the opportunity to share our stories and reconnect with the sense of community that is the heart of many Native cultures.  That sense of belonging allowed strangers in our circle to feel safe and feel like we have known each other for a very long time (We aren't all strangers, mind you).

As a group, we have met on two more occasions and in these sessions, there was markedly less laughter as our individual circumstances had changed, or our direction had altered.  There was still laughter and hope, but there was a definite feeling of more pain.  The support of having other Aboriginal teachers was, and is, invaluable.  I think that this spurred our discussion and the business of the inquiry.  We have decided to focus on the positive defining our research question towards how we can support Indigenous teachers in their health and wellness in order to keep from burning out.

We are meeting again later this summer and prepping to continue into the new school year.  It should be interesting.