When We Play Our Drums, They Sing!
Richard Van Camp
Cover photograph by Tessa Macintosh
McKellar & Martin Publishing Group, Ltd.
You’d think that in all those years when my mom and dad and all of their brothers and sisters were in residential schools, you’d think their parents would come and get them. How could you let go of your kids?”
“We trusted,” he said. “We were told education was going to make their lives easier.”
“Did you have kids?” I asked.
“No,” he said, “but I knew a lot of people who did.”
“So why didn’t you do anything? Why didn’t you try and rescue them?”
“I left,” Snowbird said. “I was a young man then and I went to Ts’oo kwee — Dreaming Mountain — to learn. I left for a year. When I came back, the villages and camps were quiet. Too quiet. I thought that the world had ended while I was away.” I looked at him. He was thinking of something. Or remembering.
He leaned forward and looked my way, “There were no kids.”
I turned cold with the way he said it.
“There were no nieces and no nephews. No sons. No daughters. No dads being dads. No moms being moms. Grandparents didn’t know what to do with themselves. Nobody did. But I remember the crying. The nights were filled with it. And then the days. Enemies sat crying together. All of the children were gone.”
I closed my eyes. I almost heard it: a deep sorrow that sliced the earth in half.
“The world was crying with us. Even the dogs. Oh, we all cried together. I remember that. The birds, well… it rained for months. The coldest winters. That’s when the drinking started. That’s when we became half a people. I promise you we all tried in our own ways to save our families, our future. But it was the law: you could not see your children until they came home for the summer.”
I felt my blood boil, “Why aren’t they teaching this in my school and every school in the world? I didn’t even know this.”
He nodded, “Bring me to your school. I’ll tell them.”
“You will?” I thought about Friday. I would go home, get tobacco with my mom and ask her to come back with me to thank Snowbird for Dad’s drum and also ask him to present with me and, hopefully, my mom on Friday.
He nodded again, “Promise. It’s time we talk and it’s time to heal.”
Richard Van Camp is a proud member of the Tłı̨chǫ Dene from Fort Smith, Northwest Territories. He is the author of two children’s picture books with the Cree artist George Little – child: A Man Called Raven and What’s the Most Beautiful Thing You Know About Horses? Richard is also the author of four board books for babies and young children: Welcome Song for Baby: A Lullaby for Newborns; Nighty Night: A Bedtime Song for Babies, Little You (now translated into Cree, Dene and South Slavey), and We Sang You Home. Richard’s collections of short fiction include Angel Wing Splash Pattern, The Moon of Letting Go and Other Stories, Godless But Loyal to Heaven, and Night Moves. His award-winning novel The Lesser Blessed is a feature film with First Generation Films, and his latest novel, Whistle, is about mental health and asking for forgiveness. Richard’s first graphic novel, Three Feathers, with artist Krystal Mateus, explores restorative justice while his second, The Blue Raven, with artist Steve Sanderson, deals with mental health. His Eisner-Award-Nominated graphic novel with artist Scott Henderson, A Blanket of Butterflies, is about peacemaking and its hero is a grandmother. His most-recent graphic novel, Spirit, with artist Emily Brown, is about suicide prevention. Richard has two comic books published by the Healthy Aboriginal Network: Kiss Me Deadly, with artist Chris Auchter, and Path of the Warrior, with artist Steve Sanderson. You can visit Richard on Facebook, Twitter, or on his website: www.richardvancamp.com
Lucy & Lola
Monique Gray Smith
Illustrations by Julie Flett McKellar & Martin Publishing Group, Ltd.
As they walked into City Hall, Lucy whispered to Lola, “Are you nervous? Like me?”
Lola nodded, “My heart is racing.”
“Me, too. If we feel like this, I can only imagine how Mom and Kohkum feel.”
The girls paused and waited for Kohkum and their mom to catch up to them. They entered as three generations. Each impacted in their own way by the legacy of Indian Residential Schools.
Lucy, Lola, Kohkum, and the girls’ mom, Mary, each took their time looking at the panels that made up The Witness Blanket. Some panels were divided into sections and had pieces from schools. One had a door handle, one a light fixture, and many had photographs of children.
The girls continued on while their mom and Kohkum stopped in front of a piece of the blanket. Mom reached up and ran her hand over a photograph. It was a picture of three girls. Each looked to be about eleven-years-old. The two women stood staring at the photo.
In a whisper, Mom said, “That’s about how old I was my last year in school. I was just a little girl. There. Was. So. Much. Hurt.”
Kohkum put her arm around her daughter and kissed her temple. Mary turned in for a hug. After a few moments, Mary stepped back, wiped the tears from her cheeks, took a deep breath, and looked at Kohkum, “Thank you for loving me.”
“Oh, my girl,” Kohkum took her daughter’s face in her hands, “loving you and my grandbabies, well you are the best part of my life.” She hugged her daughter again. This time when they pulled apart, it was Mary who said, “We’d better find the girls.”
Kohkum scanned the room. “They’re over there,” she motioned with her head.
As they approached the girls, their mom noticed the girls were holding hands. She looked to see what they were staring at on the blanket. It was a small square — about a foot-by-foot — that displayed two sets of children’s moccasins. Girls’ moccasins.
Mom stepped forward and placed an arm around the shoulders of each girl. Her girls.
After a while, Lucy pointed to the moccasins located in the upper-right of the panel, “Those moccasins are like the ones I had a couple years ago.” She looked up at her mom,
“Does that mean I could have gone to Residential School?”
“No, my girl.” Mom leaned down and kissed Lucy’s forehead. “The last school closed in 1996.”
Lola did the math in her head, “But that’s only seven years before we were born.”
Mom’s response was a whisper, “I know, Lola. I know.”
Later, as she watched Kohkum, Lucy, and Lola drive away and head back to Gabriola, Mary reflected on how being with her girls and her mom was just what she needed. Their love was the medicine that fuelled her, and The Witness Blanket was exactly what Mary needed to push through the last couple weeks of studying and preparing to write her bar exam.
Lucy, Lola, and Kohkum drove the entire first hour of the trip back to Gabriola in silence. Lola began to speak after they’d stopped in Duncan for a snack. Now they were back on the road.
“Why didn’t anyone do anything about those schools? Somebody had to have known what was happening there. Somebody must’ve tried to do something.” Lola couldn’t imagine people knew what was happening to the children and did nothing.
“Yes, there were people who attempted to raise awareness of what was happening and make change. But remember, these schools were a result of government policy.”
Kohkum went on to tell the girls about Doctor Peter Bryce, and how in the early 1900s he was hired by Indian Affairs in Ottawa to visit schools and report on the health conditions. She shared that Dr. Bryce wasn’t prepared for what he found, and when he provided his report back to government, it was never made public.
Kohkum added, “That was 1907. Doctor Bryce continued to do what he could to raise awareness, but as you girls know, the schools continued for almost 90 more years.”
Lola wanted to know more. She wanted to understand how, in a country like Canada, something like Residential schools could go on for over 150 years. She was mad, and she wanted answers.
“I’m going to go to the library tomorrow to learn more about Residential Schools and Dr. Bryce,” Lola said. She turned to her sister, “Want to come with me?”
“I have some books at home, too. If you girls want, we can read them together.” Kohkum shared.
The girls nodded.
Change was happening.
Reconciliation was happening.
Monique Gray Smith is a mixed-heritage woman of Cree, Lakota, and Scottish descent and is the proud mom of twins. She is an award-winning author, international speaker, and sought-after consultant. Monique’s first published novel, Tilly: A Story of Hope and Resilience, won the 2014 Burt Award for First Nation, Métis, and Inuit Literature. Her other titles include My Heart Fills with Happiness, winner of the 2017 Christie Harris BC Book Award for Children’s Literature, Speaking our Truth: A Journey of Reconciliation, and You Hold Me Up. Monique is well known for her storytelling, spirit of generosity, and focus on resilience. The Journey Forward, A Novella on Reconciliation: Lucy & Lola is Monique’s first title with McKellar & Martin Publishing Group.