Ceremony helps survivors recover from hellish history

We drove slowly to accommodate the many vehicles, pedestrians, children and dogs sharing the road into the Lower Post reserve. Along the way we were struck by the appearance of the village; yards once cluttered with old vehicles were now tidy.

LOWER POST, B.C.

We drove slowly to accommodate the many vehicles, pedestrians, children and dogs sharing the road into the Lower Post reserve. Along the way we were struck by the appearance of the village; yards once cluttered with old vehicles were now tidy.

The venue was a large, cleared field. Enormous circus-like tents stood in the centre. To one side, big upright logs had been assembled into an impressive circular structure, partially roofed, with the centre left open for the fire.

We were among about 800 people at Gathering Around the Fire, a commemoration of Lower Post’s residential school survivors.

Ceremonies, workshops, activities and speakers filled the calendar from August 10 to 13. Therapists were on hand – for many present, this was their first visit back to the place where their sufferings informed their adult lives, and it was not an easy time.

Lower Post’s residential school was considered one of the most abusive in the system and the community in which it was built still suffers the effects of that abuse. The Kaska, Tlingit and Tahltan called for this ceremony to wrap up the truth and reconciliation process.

As one elder put it, “Our songs, our prayers, and our ceremonies are our medicine.”

On Saturday we joined participants in the big red-and-white main-event tent for “truth telling.” The air smelled of sweetgrass and the mood was sombre. We were offered the opportunity to smudge, cleansing ourselves with smoke, before the people seated in the circle began to tell their stories.

The stories were harsh and full of pain. It was hard to hear about adults treating children in their care with some of the cruelties described by these former students.

There was sexual abuse of both boys and girls, and hard manual labour, or as one participant described it, “slavery,” working outdoors in the cold on many occasions.

Beatings were not uncommon, and humiliations as well. One person described a needle being put through his tongue when he spoke the only language he knew. So regimented were the lives of these students that some, coming to Lower Post for the first time since they left, were surprised to see the river behind what was the site of the school.

While most of us cannot remember many names of kids we went to school with, these survivors could often recall the name of every student, and in one case even the numbers they had been assigned.

“Our families were gone,” one woman said. “We only had each other, and we bonded strongly.”

Many of the listeners wept, while some left the tent for a break from the intensity of the sharing.

Throughout the day, people could go into tents for counselling or healing circles. There were children’s tents, arts and crafts, and every night, stick gambling and musicians jamming.

On Monday, the final day, the mood was quiet and peaceful. The dancing went on into the night, after another day of ceremony and prayer.

As Sgt. Cam Lockwood of the Watson Lake RCMP detachment helped stack folding chairs, he reflected on the Mounties’ legacy in the community.

“We’ve had 14 members on site at various times,” he said. “I would say it has been a healing experience for us. The history of RCMP and native people has a lot of negativity and it has been good to be here to work with them. We weren’t here to police; we made coffee and moved things and did whatever we were asked to do.” 

Some members had participated in healing circles, he said.

The drums declared it was time to gather. The Kaska drummers started, as the Tlingit and Tahltan drummers warmed their drums over the fire. When they were all drumming, the dancers entered the circle, many in full regalia. There were children of all ages dancing with them, steps timed to the drum.

Shawn Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, thanked the survivors for their resilience and for sharing their experiences. He asked men to “step up” and help women who are working to rebuild their culture and their lives. Girls need to be respected and kept safe, he said.

He also spoke about what it was like to live in a community where people hurt one another and where families were not what they needed to be. He talked about the interconnectedness of people everywhere and of the importance of learning to work together, globally.

It was a good speech, an acknowledging speech and a good note to end on, leaving a community with regained pride, and peace.

Forsberg is a Watson Lake freelance writer.